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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

LIFE RETURNS (1935)

“The next step…is in the hands of tomorrow.”

The Raven wasn’t the only Hollywood film that would trouble the censors in 1935. Another, far more infamous one was the undeniably controversial Life Returns, the first horror film to fairly be labelled a documentary of sorts as well – shoe-horning in an actual operation on-screen carried out by a real surgeon who restores life to a dead dog. The surgery itself is ultimately as life-affirming in tone as in actuality (mercifully so since as a dog-lover I approached this with great trepidation) but there was no way this would be an easy sell to a typical audience, and this real footage at the end earned the film an outright ban in Britain in all media for decades.

I first read about Life Returns as a boy in Denis Gifford’s marvellous A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, in which he inadvertently teased the pre-internet 1970’s reader: “Of all horror films, Life Returns is the most ‘lost’. 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”.

Obviously, to an impressionable mind, this total erasure of a film conjures up all kinds of imagined horrific forbidden possibilities, a curiosity that demands to be eventually satisfied. Thankfully, due to social media, the film is available in a good enough copy to finally see what all the fuss was about.
For the most part, as it needed to make money back from a cinema release, the ground-breaking medical footage that Life Returns ends with had to be padded out with dramatic scenes concocted to appear as a legitimate movie. Directed by Eugene Frenke from a script by five writers including Mary McCarthy and James P Hogan, these are competent enough but worthy of little interest as simply connective tissue between fiction and the real footage.

A prologue is at pains to point out the veracity of the stunning operation we will finally see (once the less stellar dramatics have been dispensed with) – a signed affidavit by the surgeon himself Dr Robert Cornish: “…This part of the picture was originally taken to retain a permanent scientific record of our experiment. Everything shown is absolutely real. The animal was unquestionably and actually dead, and was brought back to life…”

The fictional soap-opera begins by detailing the light-hearted pre-graduation college times of three doctors, one of whom goes on to work at the fictional Arnold Research Laboratories where he hopes to gain funding for his experiments into the resurrection of life. He is Dr John Kendrick (Onslow Stevens), who does the heavy (and heavy-hearted) lifting of the film for the most part. He finds his employer Mr Arnold, like many in the latter-day pharmaceutical industry, is in the business of seeking commercial reward not humanitarian breakthroughs, and when shunted over from his noble pursuit to Arnold’s “better facial creams, better nail polish, better dandruff cures”, the bristling is more from him than the product: “Best brushes on the market! Is that what you want?” he cries in self-loathing to his society beauty wife Valerie Hobson. She would make another tempestuous match as a scientist’s wife that same year playing Henry’s wife Elizabeth in Bride of Frankenstein.

Tragically, after Kendrick loses his job, he goes downhill - his wife dies and their son Danny (George P. Breakston) is made a ward of the state since his wrecked father can no longer support either of them. To make matters worse, Danny’s beloved dog Scooter is taken by the dog pound and gassed – unseen, I hasten to add. The focus of the narrative shifts somewhat as we see the young boy rally a little in being befriended by a Dead End Kids-style street gang.

Fortunately, this manipulative Chaplinesque melodrama eventually makes way for the real substance of the film. The actors become witnesses to the spliced-in genuine surgical wonderment contrived so as to appear carried out upon Scooter by Dr Cornish, and what a ghoulishly compelling scene it is. One of his crack team sucks oxygen from a tube then breathes it mouth-to-mouth into the unconscious pooch, whilst the rest labour over various paraphernalia including an injected ‘resuscitation fluid’, verbally assuring the viewer along the way of the dog’s gradual safe revival . Finally, Scooter’s racing pulse and nervous system is calmed with Nembutal and the slightly harrowing sight of him strapped on his back paws in the air and yelping softly is softened when he raises his head to lick Danny’s face - albeit possibly after-the-fact footage.

The extraordinary real achievement of Cornish and his team is then crowned with mournfully-toned and unnecessary closing remarks by the eclipsed fictional bystander Dr Kendrick: “This is the culmination of a dream. Dr Stone and I are merely contributions to his fulfilment”. (This puts me in mind of Robert Prosky’s hilariously indignant line in Broadcast News: “Who cares what you think?”)


Life Returns is a bold attempt to give 1930s cinemagoers something provocative and edifying to go with their easier entertainments. In a sense, it’s Frankenstein for real – or a reverse snuff movie if you will. However it’s impossible to imagine an audience chowing down on popcorn and soft drinks whilst spectating on a distressed reviving dog strapped to an operating table. ‘What were they thinking?’ might be a fair question to posit when this project was being greenlit. 

I admire Scienart Pictures for bringing the remarkable science to Joe Public. By watering down the science with fake back-story contrivance though, they risked obscuring and trivialising the work as well as showing poor taste in judgement. Life Returns was simply an unworthy, wrong-headed platform.

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