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March 15, 2016

Donovan's Brain

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Felix Feist - 1953
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Will the recent death of Nancy Reagan, formerly known as the actress, Nancy Davis, born as Anne Frances Robbins, spur greater interest in the new blu-ray release of Donovan's Brain? Probably not. I admittedly have not found Nancy Davis, as she was known then, to have been attractive or memorable. I saw a film she was in, East Side, West Side, not too long ago, and can easily summon up an image of statuesque Beverly Michaels, who had a smaller part, while drawing blanks on Davis. Three films seen, and I am baffled that anyone thought Nancy Davis had any kind of star potential. Be that as it may, it is also one of film history's ironies that Lew Ayres, star of Donovan's Brain, made films with the first and second Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

On his commentary track, film historian Richard Harland Smith, is more convincing about the merits of Donovan's Brain as an influential genre film. Smith discusses Curt Siodmak's original novel, as well as comparisons with the two other filmed versions. A scientist played by Ayres, keeps alive the brain of a multi-millionaire, with the help of his wife, Davis, and alcoholic doctor buddy, Gene Evans. Ayres tries to communicate with the pulsing brain through mental telepathy, only to have the brain take over Ayres' body. As seems to be the case with stories about preserved brains, Donovan turns out to be one very nasty, and vindictive guy. While Ayres is trying to keep his scientific shenanigans secret, Donovan, through Ayres, makes sure that neither the government nor his children get hold of his millions.

If the story seems a bit cliched, keep in mind that some of those cliches began here. Where the film makes a clear break from cliche is in the casting of Ayres as the scientist. A bit remote in his interactions with others, Ayres' scientist neither looks nor acts like a "mad scientist", but more like a mild mannered academic whose whose curiosity gets the best of him. Ayres effectively indicates through his voice and mannerisms when Donovan takes over without overplaying the part of a megalomaniac.

I've only seen one other film by Felix Feist, The Man Behind the Gun, a reasonably entertaining Randolph Scott vehicle, also released in 1953. What I found significant was the way much of Donovan's Brain was filmed, with the two or three characters frequently filmed together. Part of this was sheer economics, the efficiency of filming and editing a group rather than separate set-up and shots for individual performances. For myself, the scenes within the laboratory are of the greatest visual interest, with Ayers, Davis and Evans filmed behind the glass container with the brain. Even when the actors are discussing the brain, the brain, being placed in front of the actors, dominates the shot. Even when the brain is not in the shot, the actors are filmed in such a way that lab equipment is always visible, often in the foreground.

The blu-ray comes with the always welcomed Joe Dante and his "Trailers from Hell" presentation of the Donovan's Brain trailer. Kino Lorber, to its credit, has kept the black and white cinematography suitably grainy.

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Posted by peter at March 15, 2016 01:37 PM