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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Life Returns (1935)

Director: Eugen Frenke
Star: Dr Robert E Cornish
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Horror in the early thirties belonged to Universal. Already established in the silent era with Lon Chaney vehicles The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, amongst others, they hit the sound age running. In 1931 they released both Dracula and Frankenstein, making icons out of Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the process, then followed up with The Mummy, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and more. By 1935, they were the undisputed genre kings and to celebrate they released what may be the best and the worst pictures in their entire horror run, films that shared a theme and an actress but otherwise couldn't be more different. The best was James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, the worst Eugen Frenke's Life Returns, a partnership with the newly formed independent Scienart Pictures to spin a hokey yarn around the true story of a real Dr Frankenstein, Dr Robert E Cornish, who killed dogs and brought them back to life.

Cornish didn't live in a remote European castle with a hunchback servant named Igor, he was an American child prodigy who earned a degree from the University of California at eighteen and a doctorate at 22. In 1932 he became fascinated by the idea of restoring life to the recent dead, though I don't know if the previous year's Frankenstein had anything to do with his interest. If so, he ignored the possibility of villagers with torches and found acclaim for a series of experiments with terriers called Lazarus. He would kill the animals by asphyxiating them, leave them dead for short periods of time and then attempt to resuscitate them using a combination of intravenous stimulation, the kiss of life and a seesaw like device called a teeterboard to circulate the blood. Time magazine reported on him often in 1934 as he found success, but unfortunately survivors were brain dead and university officials dismissed him, displeased with the attention.

If they didn't like the attention attracted by his experiments, I'm sure they wouldn't have been appreciative of the attention this film received! While Cornish only briefly appears as himself, it's his name alone above the title and the film ends with footage from one of his experiments, albeit spun to fit the melodrama. Reaction was not good. It became one of only five classic horror films banned outright by the British censor, alongside the inevitable Freaks, Val Lewton's Bedlam, the 1932 version of The Island of Dr Moreau and a truly obscure French silent comedy, Dr Zanikoff's Experiences in Grafting. Denis Gifford, in his excellent 1973 book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, called it the most 'lost' horror film of them all: 'Never seen in England, even in today's relaxed climate; never reprinted for television; unpreserved by archives, unmentioned by historians, unregistered even for copyright; yet it was the only 'documentary' horror film.'

Nowadays, because Universal apparently deliberately let it vanish into the public domain like an unwanted child, it's easily available for viewing. Unwary travellers in Cinematic Hell aren't likely to find what they expect though, because it isn't really a horror film at all. If anything it's an Our Gang short, with every melodramatic heartstring plucked to the max, trussed up as an ego trip and stretched to B movie length. The documentary portion is surely transplanted from footage 'originally taken to retain a permanent scientific record of our experiment' but it's poorly transplanted and it only serves as a dubious finalé to an unsavoury children's story. Anybody expecting a horror movie is going to be sadly disappointed with the entire thing, including the work of a number of Universal contract players who mostly seem to be confused as to why anyone would deliberately make this film and why they have to be in it.

We begin with lunch, where three scientists talk about life being an endless playground. They're John Kendrick, Louise Stone and Robert Cornish, and they're certainly set for success: they put their studies ahead of big games and big dances, but given that they graduate alongside what looks like the entire state of California, they're surely up for some tough competition. Fortunately Kendrick sent out feelers a month before graduation and he surprises them with an invitation for the trio to work at Arnold Research Laboratories, who are, according to their motto, 'dedicated to the service of mankind.' Unfortunately his colleagues aren't interested, so their goal of working together after graduation is ended. 'Arnold Research is a commercial organisation,' says Cornish. 'They would never be in sympathy with what we want to accomplish.' They'd take all the credit as well. So Kendrick goes to Arnold, while Stone and Cornish disappear from the film for a while.

That's about it for science too, partly because reality raises its ugly head and wants Kendrick to make money and partly because somehow he found time to marry a socialite and father a son. Reality kicks in when A K Arnold, the 'philanthropist' who finances the labs, decides that he can't capitalise on Kendrick's research and wants him to start working on hair restoring brushes made from pig bristles. Resurrecting the dead is the realm of graverobbers from outer space, after all, and Ed Wood was only nine years old at the time. Kendrick is a pure scientist who simply doesn't understand what commercial gain has to do with science, so he quits and promptly goes insane, staying there for the majority of the film. His lovely wife Mary reinforces Arnold from a different angle: raising the dead may be Kendrick's great experiment but their son Danny is hers and she needs the money he makes from his two hour a day practice to keep that viable.

Onslow Stevens was riding high in 1935. He was tall and handsome and had a resonant, slightly clipped, speaking voice. After an uncredited screen debut in 1931 he quickly found regular work as a versatile leading man and this was the year that he would play Aramis alongside Paul Lukas and Moroni Olsen in RKO's big budget version of The Three Musketeers. Here, however, he only has a single scene of passion after leaving Arnold, a futile effort to impress a medical board with incomplete research by comparing himself to Galileo and Madame Curie. That's it for Kendrick and Stevens couldn't find a thing to do with the part after that. He stumbles around for the rest of the film as if in a daze, somewhat like Frankenstein's Monster on sedatives. While it might be appropriate for the part, the style he adopts of effectively ignoring everyone who talks to him as if he's watching television through an invisible portal to another dimension is hardly engaging.

Next thing we know, everything of potential interest evaporates. Kendrick hurtles down the spiral to the gutter, a long way down indeed during the Great Depression, though somehow he keeps his house even though he can't brush his hair or pull his tie together, he gives up his practice and even Dr Louise Stone calls him 'a walking dream'. When Louise offers him the way out he needs, he lets his wounded pride hammer the final nail into his own coffin and refuses to take it. To underline how far he falls, we immediately skip forward a decade so he can hand over the lead role in the film to his son Danny, played by fifteen year old George Breakston, who was the young Pip a year earlier in Great Expectations and would soon become Beezy in a string of Andy Hardy films, before becoming a producer/director in the late forties. At this point we're a third of the way into the story and that story gives up the ghost.

With Stevens now an emphatic nonentity, Breakston is tasked with carrying the picture. While he was a capable actor, he's given the unenviable challenge of playing the the most stereotypical hard luck kid in history. No cliché is too far for this story to grab hold of, no depth too low to sink to, no horse too dead to flog. In quick succession, Danny has to work the streets selling papers, while mentoring a younger boy with an even more broken voice than his, return home to find his mother dead on her birthday (and no, we don't even attempt to bring her back to life), be hauled off to court to be taken away from his lunatic father and finally sent to juvenile hall. Fortunately he has enough wits to just sneak out of the courtroom and hit the high road, with Scooter right behind him, hooked up to a little trailer. Unfortunately this just means we get another forty minutes to put up with him and trust me, it's a painfully long forty minutes.
Anyone who's ever seen an Our Gang short knows where this is going. Danny takes up with a gang of rough and tumble kids who are doing better in their clubhouse than most of the public were doing at the time, pinching groceries and getting by. Led by Mickey, in the form of Richard Quine, another child actor who graduated to be a director, going on to shoot Hotel, Bell Book and Candle and How to Murder Your Wife, they're the usual bunch of kids, defined as tough on the outside but soft on the inside. Unlike Our Gang though, they're all white boys, no black kids or girls apparently allowed. Naturally they set right to getting Danny's dad a job but that's a non-starter, just serving to give us another scene where Breakston can look put upon. 'Aww gee, dad, you ain't gonna turn me down, are you?' he emotes. 'I want a father. Why, everybody's got a father. Every kid I know has got one.' He ends with, 'Wouldn't you sorta like to have me around?'

It's painful to watch Danny in despair, not because he's a cleverly written parallel to his dad, but because they're both tiring to watch. Every shot is an attempt to rend our heartstrings and make us tear up for the poor little blighter with the weight of the world pressing down on his shoulders. His eyes plead in every shot. Yet it's so overdone that it's simply embarrassing to watch and we cringe at each inept attempt at our sympathy. Even Scooter is hauled into a cliché when Danny accidentally pushes him down the road towards the dogcatcher, thus prompting the gang to raid the pound and let all the prisoners loose. Scooter is the first dog released, but when the alarm is raised, Danny just runs back into the cage with him. Everything in this film is a disappointment. It's like the six writers watched Oliver! over and over again for a year until they understood how sympathy worked, then carefully ensured that none of it got into this movie.

Just in case you thought there were no more violins to play, the littlest kid in the gang breaks his leg clambering over the fence and the evil dogcatcher decides to gas Scooter to death, just to make a point. While you may not believe it, this is all cunning plot development to get Kendrick back into the film so he can let Danny down one more time before we can weave our weary way to the finalé. He can't help with something as complex as Petey's broken leg, because that sort of thing is beyond him, but he can help bring Scooter back from the grave, at least once he gets treated to another big speech from Danny and finally rejoins the land of the living himself. 'Isn't Scooter as good as a guinea pig or a rabbit?' his son pleads. 'I ran away from the cops so I could be with you. Well now I don't want to be with you and I'm going to the home and I'm going there for good and for keeps!' Give me a break! This is the best six writers could come up with?

It's difficult to imagine precisely what audience they thought this movie would have. For much of the film, the only moviegoers who might have bought into the story would have been eight year olds, but it would have scared the crap out of them. Just imagine being eight and watching a film where the fifteen year old hero, to you a grown up, is hammered incessantly with every trial and tribulation in the book, only for the happy ending to be Scooter being experimented on by men in white coats and resurrected from the dead. What sort of message does this impart? If you're Job long enough, you'll be visited by Jesus? It surely can't help that, even if you could buy into the inane set of plot conveniences that gets us thus far, the rest of the story is, by defintion, entirely detached. Just in case you've forgotten the point of the film, it's to show us real footage of one of Dr Cornish's resurrection experiments with terriers, not Scooter's breed, by the way.

What's most amazing about this finalé is that obsessed Dr Kendrick, now the story has finally allowed him to overcome his pride and fulfil his great experiment, is of course utterly unable to do anything of the sort. This is real footage of Cornish's work the year before, after all, and actor Onslow Stevens wasn't there, but you'd think a writing team of six could at least have conjured up another plot convenience to explain this, like having Kendrick trip over his feet on the way into the operating room and break his nose or something equally stupid. No, we're left with what to us is a truly bizarre alternation of footage. On one side there's Dr Cornish, who only showed up for one brief scene since he graduated at the outset of the picture, and his team of assistants who neither we or Kendrick have seen before, rescuscitating one of his Lazarus subjects. On the other, Kendrick and the now apparently useless Louise Stone provide a running commentary.

In real life Cornish left his various terriers dead for six minutes and when that didn't work well, he lowered his expectations to two. This sort of rapid rescuscitation is routine nowadays, albeit through CPR and defibrillation rather than some magic formula, because it takes advantage of circumstances where the heart has stopped but the brain hasn't died. Neither Cornish, in real life, or Kendrick, in his futile pitch to the medical board in this story, claimed Frankenstein level achievements like being able to resurrect corpses dead long enough to be buried. Yet that's what we see. Scooter is gassed to death, his corpse retrieved by Kendrick and transported to Cornish's hospital, where a team is assembled with the equipment needed (including Kendrick's mysterious formula) to confirm death and get to work on the experiment. Even ignoring the time needed to persuade the hospital management it must be nearer to six hours than six minutes.

And yet we have to have a happy ending. Scooter is brought back to life in a miracle of science to gibber like a monkey for a few moments before Danny can wander up and cuddle his living, breathing pooch. This is beyond a copout. This entire picture seems to have been made to point out how great Cornish was and how vitally important his work must be, yet even while showing real footage of his real experiments, Frenke and his writers couldn't resist the urge to leap into fantasyland to pretend that he achieved what he never claimed was remotely possible. How was this supposed to help his case? Nobody seems to either know or care. The only impression of Dr Cornish that I left the film with is that he was at least bright enough to realise he wasn't an actor, but he didn't leave the world of cinema entirely behind. Apparently Karloff's lab in The Walking Dead was based on Cornish's and he served as a consultant on The Man They Could Not Hang.

Most of those involved with Life Returns could happily watch it fade into quick obscurity, in part because the studio refused to release it. Carl Laemmle Jr, in charge of production, described it as 'not suitable for the regular Universal program'. Frenke threatened legal action and got a release in 1938 only through the studio apparently selling the film to Grand National Pictures. The actors could pretend it never happened and move onto better work, most notably Valerie Hobson, who was the mad scientist's wife in Universal's best and worst films of the year: Mrs Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein and Mrs Kendrick here. Cornish couldn't ignore it, given that he was the point, and so it serves as nothing more than a strange recognition of a brief cause célèbre. When the University of California discontinued his work, he petitioned state governors in vain to let him experiment on death row convicts. At least that would have made for a much better movie.

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