The Lady and the Monster (1944)

Joseph Kane claimed that longtime Republic Pictures director George Sherman left the studio because of this film:  he was afraid he would have to make another picture with Vera (Hruda) Ralston!

Vera was a Czech ice skating star who’d appeared in a few skating movies before this.  She didn’t have a word of English.  Instead, she had to learn all of her lines phonetically and had no idea what they meant.  Let’s just say she gives a very blank performance here.  But, fortunately, we don’t see much of her for large chunks of the film.

The Lady and the Monster transforms Curt Siodmak’s almost-classic SF novel, Donovan’s Brain, into yet another Gothic horror film of the Universal mold.  It seems strange for a book so emphatically placed in the modern world.

Instead of the novel’s small house and doctor’s office in the remote, Indian country of Arizona, we get an imposing mansion known as “The Castle” which looks like the downsized version of Citizen Kane‘s Xanadu, particularly in the films moody, shadow-ridden cinematography.  It’s still in Arizona, but a dark, sinister Arizona where the sandy winds blow constantly.

Erich von Stroheim is the standout here, playing the dangerously obsessed Professor Franz Mueller, who sees the dead body of a plane wreck victim as the perfect opportunity to do some illegal research.  Of course, as we’re in Gothic horror mode, he is also driven by his desire for the young woman in his care — who is in love with his assistant.  It seems to me that the Universal Horrors of the era just hinted at the sexual tensions under the surface, without ever acknowledging them this clearly.  But perhaps the more explicit approach may reflect the upheavals in American society caused by the War (although the film in no way admits that there’s a war going on).

The plot does seem to follow the original more closely than any other adaptation I’ve seen, even if it does feel the need to throw in something closer to the stock mad scientist than Siodmak’s novel portrays.  But when it’s an old pro like von Stroheim chewing the scenery, who’s going to complain?

While the film does slow down a bit in the middle, its greatest flaw is its rather odd spurts of narration, which contribute very little to the film and impose a morally correct ending.  I suspect the producers may have felt that the story wasn’t clear enough — and perhaps concerns about the production code prompted the narrator to tell us about one of the sympathetic characters going to jail at the film’s close.  And then there’s a totally gratuitous song and dance number which really doesn’t belong in here anywhere, but which gets shoved in anyway.  But that happened a lot in these old Hollywood films.

One sometimes forgets that Republic Pictures, besides making some very workmanlike serials, did produce quite a few other low budget films (including lots of cheap Westerns and one science fiction film, their first color production, Flight to Mars).  It still seems surprising to see that they turned out a Universal Horror copy — even if they did so at the point when the second horror cycle was creaking badly and slowing down.  It may just be a case of my not encountering any of those films yet.

Despite its flaws, this is an elegant effort.  I’ll admit I prefer it (narrowly) to either of the other versions of the story I’ve seen.

After all, neither of them had Erich von Stroheim.

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