MICHAEL H. PRICE: The canine Frankenstein from 1934
The kinship between science and fantasy runs deep into antiquity – deeper, yet, than the well-aged but comparatively modern notion of science fiction. The filmmaker Ray Harryhausen, in his foreword to my revised edition of the late George E. Turner’s Spawn of Skull Island: The Making of King Kong (2002), invokes the spirit of the alchemist Paraceleus (1494 –1541) in describing the imaginative zeal necessary to bring (seemingly) to life the impossible creatures of cinema.
Paraceleus, of course, believed that the power of imagination also was necessary to the development of real-world scientific breakthroughs. His speculations about the creation of life in a laboratory setting prefigured nothing so much as that most influential novel of science fiction, Mary W. Shelley’s 19th-century morality play Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus. (Prometheus, of course, had beaten both Ms. Shelley and Paraceleus to the punch, if only in the realm of ancient mythology.)
History and science have long since validated Frankenstein as a plausible argument. Real science absorbs the most extravagant science-fictional influences, wonders, “Why not?” – and then proceeds to maneuver fiction into plausible fact. Hence the experimentation that has long since led to the transplanting of limbs and organs in workable, life-saving terms, if not to the creation of Life Its Ownself. The relationship will continue apace as long as Big Science holds humankind in a thrall of mingled hope and unease.
One of the odder collisions between science-fantasy and credentialed research took place during the spring of 1934, in a University of California research laboratory at Berkeley. Here, Dr. Robert E. Cornish announced that his team had restored life to a dog, Lazarus by name, that had been put to death by clinical means. Cornish bolstered his claim – a purported breakthrough that seems to have led no further – with motion-picture footage. The resulting publicity attracted such attention that the college’s administration booted Cornish off the campus. A June-of-1934 report in Time magazine describes a saddening follow-through:
With undying hope in his voice, hollow-eyed young Dr. Robert Cornish last week repeated, over and over, the name of the dog he had killed almost two months ago with ether and nitrogen, revived with chemical and mechanical resuscitants … Lazarus gave no sign that he heard.
But the bony white mongrel was no longer crawling on his mat. He was walking, slowly, with stiff, dragging hind legs and vacant eyes. He ate regularly but without enthusiasm. Dr. Cornish realized that part of the dog’s brain was still dead, might remain so for months or years of apathetic existence.
Last week, too, Lazarus was no longer in the shabby little laboratory on the University of California campus where he had tasted four minutes of death. He was in the Cornish home in Berkeley, where Dr. Cornish had taken him when the university provost asked [Cornish] to vacate…
Cornish carried on, via a follow-through described in a credulous 1935 report from Modern Mechanix & Inventions magazine:
…Cornish … recently repeated the success of his original experiment with even more encouraging results.
Lazarus IV, subject of the first successful experiment, has learned to crawl, bark, sit up on its haunches and consume nearly a pound of meat a day. The dog is blind and cannot stand alone, but results encouraged Dr. Cornish to launch a new series of experiments.
Recently Lazarus V was put to death with an overdose of ether. Half an hour after its breathing had stopped and five minutes after its heart was stilled, the animal was revived by means of chemicals and artificial respiration. Dr. Cornish, enthusiastic, has been reported as saying that Lazarus V returned nearer normalcy in four days than the other Lazarus in 13 days.
The descriptions call to mind nothing so much as a 1991 film by Larry Fessenden, No Telling, a low-key but nonetheless harrowing indictment of such clinical obsessions.
True or false? No one can say, beyond Cornish’s obviously self-interested account and the published suggestions of a stubborn persistence amidst a dreary aftermath. California’s prison system later denied Cornish access to Death Row cadavers, and the biochemist appears to have abandoned the effort. Rumors of further such developments circulated over the long term, inspiring such fantastically conceived movies as 1936’s The Walking Dead, 1946’s Decoy, and 1956’s The Indestructible Man – all involving executed convicts. The Walking Dead features a laboratory set modeled after Cornish’s equipment; Cornish also served as a consultant on 1939’s The Man They Could Not Hang, which imagines an artificial-heart mechanism.
But before 1934 had run its course, Dr. Cornish had worked a direct influence upon the motion-picture industry. His declaration of success inspired a well-connected filmmaker named Eugen Frenke to develop a movie that would involve Cornish and his laboratory footage.
The resulting film, Life Returns, is a poorly made but nonetheless fascinating relic of a short-lived cause celébre. This one does not conform to the model of a science-fictional or horrific film, as such, but its cast includes two players essential to those genres: Valerie Hobson moved along to Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Onslow Stevens would at length play a very Frankenstein-like research physician in 1945’s House of Dracula.
In Life Returns, Cornish himself, Stevens, and Lois Wilson portray scientists seeking to conquer death. “I will have the formula that will start the blood circulating again, and with it breath, and with it life!” declares Dr. John Kendrick (Stevens). He accepts a corporate-research assignment – only to be rejected as a crackpot. Just when it seems matters cannot grow worse, Kendrick must deal with the death of his wife (Hobson).
The film might have turned more sensational if Stevens’ character had sought to resurrect his wife. But no. The story detours into a social-problem subplot involving Kendrick’s rebellious son (Georgie Breakston). The boy’s pet dog runs afoul of an animal-control officer (Stanley Fields) and is gassed. This is the melodramatic set-up for the insertion of Dr. Cornish’s laboratory film, placing the supposedly documentary footage at the service of fiction. The results lead to as happy an ending as circumstances can permit.
There was no happy ending, though, for Life Returns, which had been bankrolled at a modest $40,000 by big-time Universal Pictures but then pronounced “not suitable for the regular Universal program” by production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. following ill-received preview showings. Eugen Frenke, as director and co-writer, threatened legal action against Universal and acquired the distribution rights. Life Returns finally came into release in 1938.
Seldom has such a corporate fuss been made over so slight a picture. Today, the matter would be settled cheaply and efficiently with a direct-to-video release.
Its obvious flaws aside, Life Returns has met all along with unfair criticisms. The thriller buffs complain about a lack of shock value and megalomania – as though the cinema hadn’t enough of those qualities in innumerable other pictures. The science-fiction enthusiasts find the speculative element to be little more than a gimmick. Those who would like to believe in the validity of Robert Cornish’s experiments are appalled to find the scientist selling out, at an early stage of his work, to movie-studio exploitation.
And so go the prevailing complaints, all directed at a picture whose greater shortcoming is plain old blandness. You could look it up: The best available DVD edition comes from the Alpha Video label.
The truer value of Life Returns lies in its inadvertent suggestion that all those fictional mad doctors, from Mary Shelley’s celebrated novel to Hollywood’s B-movie sector, might have something on the ball, after all. In later years, a series of Columbia Pictures productions starring Boris Karloff would prove predictive of such breakthroughs as cryogenics and an artificial-heart mechanism – stories for another day.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.