Monday, January 5, 2004

”Sure, sure, sure…”

Day 4 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

Donovan’s Brain

Dr. Patrick Corey is conducting research into whether it’s possible for a brain to live outside the human body. His early experiment with a simian brain proves unsatisfactory, but Fate steps in to provide him with a human brain—belonging to wealthy stockbroker William H. Donovan, who’s been incapacitated by a private plane crash. Corey removes the organ from Donovan and places it in a jar; soon after, the scientist finds himself absorbing some of Donovan’s traits—like smoking cigars and writing left-handed. The brain grows powerful and takes over Corey completely, manipulating him into having his wife committed to an asylum (she had pleaded with him to put an end to his experiment) and finally—in a mad grab for extreme power—forces him to perform a brain transplant operation with his son as the unwilling subject.

A spine-tingling sci-fi/horror tale based on the 1943 novel by Curt Siodmak, “Donovan’s Brain” was the first Suspense production to be broadcast in two parts (May 11 and May 18, 1944). It was also the program’s first foray into science-fiction; one of producer-director William Spier’s inviolable rules concerning the show’s stories was that that they had to have a firm grounding in reality rather than a supernatural or fantasy bent. But rules were made to be broken—the success of the earlier “The Hitch-Hiker” and “Donovan’s Brain” paved the way in convincing Spier to consider doing one or two stories from that genre a season. (Another cardinal rule of Spier’s, that the killer always be brought to justice, was tossed aside in the production of “Sorry, Wrong Number.”) When Antony Ellis took over the producer-director chores in 1954, Suspense finally began to delve more and more into horror and science-fiction stories.

“Donovan’s Brain” marked Orson Welles’ swan song on Suspense, and the actor really delivers the goods in his last appearance. He plays the part of Corey in a soft-spoken, almost Ronald Colman-ish voice while switching to harsh, guttural tones in his dual role of the millionaire Donovan. The supporting cast includes such Suspense mainstays as Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Hans Conried, and Jerry Hausner; interestingly enough, McIntire (who plays Corey’s colleague) would inherit the role of Corey in the hour-long version (broadcast February 7, 1948) of the play when Suspense experimented with a sixty-minute format briefly in 1948.

“Donovan’s Brain” also made several forays to the silver screen; the best-known version being the 1953 film starring Lew Ayres and future First Lady Nancy Davis (Reagan); it had been previously filmed in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster, and its third go-round was a 1962 German production called The Brain (also known as Vengeance). The author of the novel, Curt Siodmak, was no stranger to the movies, having written the story and screenplays for several of Universal’s classic horror films, among them The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), and Son of Dracula (1943) (the latter being directed by his brother Robert, who helmed a series of memorable film noirs during his long, distinguished career).

I think “Donovan’s Brain” is most assuredly worthy of its Best of Suspense status; it’s a first-rate radio production that—for me, at least—is far more effective than the any of the three film treatments of the same story. (Admittedly, I’ve only seen the 1953 and 1962 versions, so unless the 1944 film—and considering its Republic Studios pedigree it’s more than a little unlikely—is some sort of Casablanca-like masterpiece I’ll stand by this statement.) Some thirty-seven years after entertaining radio audiences in 1944, “Donovan’s Brain” was still receiving critical plaudits and laurels: a long-playing record release of the broadcast on the Radiola label copped the 1981 Grammy for “Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording.”

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