Monday, 8 August 2016


Originally, Boris Karloff was to follow up his role in The Invisible Ray with another film for the esteemed Michael Balcon’s Gaumont-British company back in England with whom he’d made The Ghoul. This was to be Dr Nikola, but the increasing sensitivity of the British censors meant that the script was considered too shocking for the public. Rather than be paid off, Karloff’s high-powered agent Myron Selznick, (David O’s brother), arranged a replacement movie which slotted in after The Walking Dead. This was to be The Man Who Changed His Mind, also known in America as The Man Who Lived Again.

The former title, for the British market, has a touch of whimsy about it, as does the film. It centres around a mad scientist Dr Laurience, self-proclaimed “greatest authority on the human brain” who perfects a way of extracting the “thought content” from the brain, to be stored and transferred into another subject like the modern downloading of computer data. Rather than descend into grim horror, the tone is at times almost playful yet never spoils the entertaining daftness of the material. Indeed, it’s a spoonful of sugar that helps the ludicrously hard-to swallow plot palatably go down. This was largely due to Karloff’s director, Robert Stevenson, whose light touch from here went on as you might guess to sprinkle Disney stardust over Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and two of the Herbie films. The script by John L. Balderston, Sidney Gilliat and L. Du Garde Peach wasn’t finished when Karloff reported to the studio, so he and his wife Dorothy amused themselves with the London theatre and socialising until Stevenson was ready for him in March of 1936.

 The part of Dr Laurience is bereft of any unsightly disfigurements for Karloff. He looks normal, albeit with a restless chain-smoking habit and the simmering arrogance of all misunderstood geniuses. He recruits surgeon Dr Clare Wyatt (Stevenson’s real-life wife Anna Lee) whose scalpel is presumably as precise as her grating received pronunciation of the period. She nearly comes as a pair when her over-protective boyfriend Dick (John Loder) insists on trying to stick to her at every chance. To offset the threat of cloying lovey-doveyness, there’s Donald Calthrop as the waspish Clayton, Laurience’s wheelchair-bound assistant. While he waits for hopeful treatment for an intra-cranial cyst, he serves as his boss’s King Lear fool, mischievously telling truth to power.

Wyatt is appalled when he demonstrates his breakthrough amidst twiddling dials and crackling strobes to swap the minds of two chimpanzees, one calm and the other unstable. (During filming, the poor chimps both proved a handful, being untrained and adding to a less than savoury shoot at the studio’s temporary Islington sound stages). Wyatt insists that he cannot play God so ruthlessly. “No, I can’t do that” Laurience agrees softly, looking furtively away with exactly the opposite intent.

Aside from the mercifully brief vivisection - remember, this is the director who will delight children of all ages with magical nannies and an anthropomorphised Volkswagen - Stevenson also lightens the load of any ethical arguments to do with the soul until the end. Instead, Laurence is shown being laughed out of a lecture theatre for the preposterousness of his claims. It’s just as well then that he has already made a somewhat Faustian bargain with newspaper magnate Lord Haslewood, Dick’s father, played by Shakespearian stage actor Frank Cellier. In return for research funding at the mogul’s self-aggrandising Haslewood Institute, Laurience allows himself to be touted like a celebrity columnist of the cerebellum.

Haslewood inadvertently becomes an even more involved benefactor than he would like when Laurience opts to give Clayton a new lease of life at his expense. Haslewood forces his employee’s hand to some degree by deciding to cut off Laurience’s funding and confiscate all his research under his devilish contract. Cellier is fun to watch in the set-pieces of body-swap comedy where he struggles to pass himself off as Haslewood at an editor’s meeting and with his son – almost trial runs for Stevenson of his later Disney comedy sequences. We even get a dash of naughtiness when ‘Haslewood’ realises his host’s relationship with his secretary Miss Briggs is a little more than professional. Hubert Bath’s music underlines the quirky, fanciful situations on hand.

Lest we spin too much candyfloss, events do take a darker turn when Clayton demands that Laurience ‘rehouse’ him again on discovering Haslewood has a long-standing heart condition. He overplays his hand, causing the scientist to strangle him as a formerly expedient annoyance in favour of Laurience’s next plan: exchanging his own mind with Dick so the young man goes to the chair for his murder and he goes free. However, ‘twixt cup and lip the cops step in and Laurience falls fatally from a window whilst escaping. There’s just time for a too-brief heroic appearance from the much-loved Cecil Parker to save Dick’s life by transferring him back into his own body. To remind us who the star of the picture is though, Karloff gets to deliver a sobering moral pay-off before he dies, telling Wyatt “You were right. The human mind is sacred”. He urges her to destroy his work - with just enough time to wryly note the irony that his potential life extension was only taken seriously by him dying first.

The Man Who Changed His Mind moves well and is handled knowingly enough for the mostly unbelievable shenanigans to be enjoyed. Karloff also had opportunities to reunite with family members he saw so little of back home, and the chance to strengthen his legacy of working hard in defence of actors’ conditions. Stephen Jacobs points out in Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster that before returning to America, he was able to meet with British Equity, their closest equivalent to America’s Screen Actors Guild at that time, and ‘was told Equity was definitely in favour of an agreement with the Guild’. This was a great boost to increasing professional support on both sides of the Atlantic, sweetened by Karloff’s keenness to promote Americans joining Equity when they worked in Britain.

A sadder epilogue is that under the tyranny of neutering censorship both in Hollywood and Britain, this was to be one of the last horror films for two years until the unexpected happy resurgence of Universal's second wave rose again into production in 1938...

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