Saturday, December 30, 1972 (Noon): The Lady and the Monster (1944) / Bury Me Dead  (1947)

 

 

Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller’s residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he’s obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn’t above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances he’ll get an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller’s assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.



The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man’s brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man’s head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name “W. H. Donovan” over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory’s behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory’s body is being possessed by Donovan’s brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan’s will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan’s connection with the man?  And — what will Donovan’s brain do in order to keep Cory’s body under its control?

 

Comments: The first adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s 1942 bestseller Donovan’s Brain, The Lady and the Monster makes some curious changes to the source material, in an apparent attempt to make a more appealing screen adaptation. In the novel, Patrick Corey is a brilliant if somewhat arrogant surgeon who believes that he devised a method of keeping a human brain functioning after removal from the body. His wife, Janice, orbits him like a distant planet, loyal and uncomplaining — though as we discover at the end of the novel, she has actually been carefully watching out for his interests, ready to act on his behalf when he gets into trouble. Corey’s colleague, Dr. Schratt, possesses talent nearly equal to Corey’s own — though age, alcoholism and self-doubt have all ravaged his confidence.

Screenwriters Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner clearly didn’t trust that the relationships presented in the novel would actually work onscreen. They decided that as the protagonist, Patrick Corey couldn’t be an obsessed and ethically-challenged scientist. So Corey’s zeal for keeping a human brain alive at all costs is transferred to Dr. Mueller, who like Schratt is somewhat older than Corey.  Corey then becomes the junior scientist. Janice became Corey’s girlfriend instead of his wife, and Mueller’s jealousy — he wants Janice for himself, you see — helps to fuel his anger and resentment toward Corey.

As you might imagine, none of these “improvements” work very well.  As Mueller’s employee, Corey simply doesn’t carry the moral responsibility he does in the novel, and the romantic triangle, clearly meant to provide some sparks, simply doesn’t; Janice is clearly uninterested in Mueller and the old guy never makes a move on her anyway.

Richard Arlen was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during World War I, though he never saw action. The story of how he was “discovered” as a Hollywood actor is amusing enough: he was employed as a motorcycle messenger for a film lab in the 1920s. After crashing his bike into the Paramount gates and injuring his leg, the studio offered him a contract.

It all sounds like the invention of a Hollywood press office, but who knows? It might be true; after all, this was the silent era, and the right “look” was all that was really required of an actor. Arlen starred in the first Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Wings (1927). By the time he appeared in The Lady and the Monster, he was 45 — probably too old to play the scientist’s young assistant.  But small studios tended to be more forgiving when it came to casting, especially when they were able to acquire a name actor on the cheap.

This particular studio — Republic Pictures — was also forgiving of actors who were themselves forgiving of leading lady Vera Ralston, the figure-skater-turned-actress who happened to be married to Herbert Yates, the head of the studio. Ralston is unfairly maligned, I think (she isn’t Acquanetta-level bad) but it is amusing to watch her flustered expression every time Dr. Mueller yells for a gigli saw.

 

Bury Me Dead

Synopsis: A funeral is being held for heiress Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart), a woman killed in a stable fire on her family’s estate.  But almost as soon as this fact is established, we learn that Barbara isn’t dead at all.  She attends the funeral hiding behind a black veil, musing that her husband Rod Carlin (Mark Daniels) doesn’t seem very broken up about her death.  When the graveside service has concluded, Barbara approaches the family attorney, Michael Dunn (Hugh Beaumont) and reveals to him that she’s still alive.  She tells him that she believes someone started the fire in an attempt to kill her, but got the wrong person; the body recovered from the horse barn was burned beyond recognition and identified only by a diamond necklace that belonged to Barbara.

Barbara is particularly troubled by the question of who was actually killed in the fire, because she thinks it might be her younger sister Rusty (Cathy O’Donnell).  Rusty has a history of mental illness and often disappears for extended lengths of time. But she finds Rusty safe and sound, though still embittered that she was cut out of her father’s will because she was adopted. With Rusty eliminated as a possible victim, she goes to confront Rod, who claims to be delighted that Barbara is still alive — even though he has been carrying on with goodtime girl Helen Lawrence (Sonia Darren), who had previously told Rod that she’d like to be the next Mrs. Carling. 

Barbara had had a dalliance of her own with dim-witted palooka George (Greg McClure), who’d previously been seen around with Helen. Rusty still harbors a grudge against Barbara for stealing the big lug away from her, but it might be that Barbara was trying to save Rusty from a bad situation. 

Barbara finds there are plenty of people who might have wanted her dead. But not only does she not know who committed the murder, she still doesn’t know who the victim was….

Comments: Let’s give Bury Me Dead credit: it sets up the central mystery —  who murdered Barbara Carlin? — very quickly.  It has to get down to business right away, of course. This little programmer is only 68 minutes long.

But it doesn’t move so quickly that you don’t spot the plot holes. We’re told that Barbara had gone off by herself “to think things over” without telling anyone. When she hears about the fire, Barbara immediately concludes that someone tried to kill her and that she is perfectly positioned to investigate, as everyone already believes she is dead.

But Barbara isn’t all that well-positioned to get information; she is still a person, after all, not a ghost. Once she starts showing her face, she loses the element of surprise. Anyway, there’s really no reason for her to think that her death was attempted murder. No one else seems to think so.

Likewise, as soon as Barbara resurfaces, she seeks out family attorney Mike Dunn and the two of them go searching for Barbara’s stepsister Rusty. Barbara knows that a woman’s body was found in the ruins of the barn, and her first thought is that Rusty herself might well have been the victim.

But how could it be possible that no one saw Rusty between the time of the fire and Barbara’s funeral? Wouldn’t anyone have looked for her? We have to assume that someone tried to notify her of her own sister’s death. And if no one could find her, would no one suspect that perhaps Rusty, rather than Barbara, was in the barn, in spite of the necklace?

 

Barbara’s method of investigating also leaves something to be desired. In spite of her cool demeanor — showing up at her own funeral in a black veil and watching the proceedings — she doesn’t have much of a plan. Her strategy seems to be confronting people who believe her to be dead and looking for a guilty reaction. That squanders the premise and leaves us with the conclusion that the screenwriters started with an intriguing idea (Barbara goes to her own funeral, believing that her own murderer is among the mourners) and tried to reverse-engineer a movie out of it.

Bury Me Dead plays a bit like D.O.A., building from a novel “who murdered me?” premise, but this one doesn’t work nearly so well.

This one remains a fairly elusive title. The only discs I’ve been able to find are derived from muddy source material, probably well-worn 16mm prints used by TV stations back in the day. Even so, John Alton’s cinematography shines through the meager budget, and it would be nice to see a decent restoration of this title. But with so many films out there in need of digital restoration, it’s unlikely this one will make the cut.

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One comment

  1. I’ve seen THE LADY AND THE MONSTER and 1962’s THE BRAIN aka VENGEANCE (both were on Chiller Theater), but not the 1953 DONOVAN’S BRAIN. I prefer the 60s version directed by Freddie Francis, though neither really impressed me. Richard Arlen was less expressive as he grew older, the handsome leading man in 1932’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, more problematic here. BURY ME DEAD eludes me, but I always liked Cathy O’Donnell.

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