Life Returns (1934)

Life Returns (1934)‘That’s great, I’m teaching these dogs to talk Spanish.’ 

Three college students experiment with bringing animals back from the dead. One of them goes to work for a commercial company, who agree to fund his studies. For some reason. When things don’t pan out, his life disintegrates into a downward spiral of obsession and poverty. His young son is taken away by the courts but goes on the run with his dog instead.

Strange oddity made by Universal Studios during their golden age of horror and subsequently buried. The project came about because of the real life research of Dr. Robert E Cornish. He was able to resuscitate dead dogs and performed the procedure on camera. However, the resurrections were always brief and the dogs had been put down for the purposes of the experiment in the first place! Not an issue back in the enlightened days of the early 1930s. Anyway, someone thought it would be a good idea to base a movie around the real-life footage.

The film opens with a trio of students working on these dubious experiments at college. There’s leading man Onslow Stevens (‘House of Dracula’ (1945)), cutie Lois Wilson and Dr. Robert E Cornish playing himself! Otherwise how would the ‘real-life’ footage fit in later on? On graduation, there’s a parting of the ways. Stevens prefers to go to work for a private company. From what we gather they produce hand cream, nail polish and the like, so it makes perfect sense they’d be interested in resurrecting dead animals. Stevens becomes increasingly obsessed with his work but has time to marry socialite Valerie Hobson and have a son. She was only a year away from becoming ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) but gets very limited screen time here (Elsa Lanchester was the bride of the Monster if you think about it, wasn’t she?)

Eventually, the company executives figure out that resurrected canines aren’t a commercial proposition and Stevens is out on his ear. He’s doubling as a medical doctor as a ‘real job’ (because obviously research scientists can do that!) but he is less than motivated to listen to the trivial problems of his patients and his practice goes pear-shaped. Hobson dies off-screen (for some reason) and the courts send his young son (George P Breakston) into state care. But Breakston is a feisty one so he runs off with his dog Scooter and goes to live with a bunch of street kids in a hut. When Scooter is gassed by the local dog-catcher, it’s time for Daddy to strut his stuff (or, more precisely, watch from the sidelines while Dr. Cornish struts his).

Life Returns (1934)

Dr Cornish’s second career as a dog-sitter was not a success…

This is dismal stuff; a bizarre hybrid of a mad scientist flick and a ‘boy and his dog’ movie. The story never convinces and is so rushed that it looks highly probable that the final film was edited down from a longer original cut. Stevens goes from dedicated scientist to wild-eyed loon in the blink of an eye (although, by the state of his hair, I guess years are supposed to have passed) and the late lurch into what seems to be a kids adventure film feels painfully forced.

The ‘real life’ experiment footage is not well integrated (it doesn’t even look like the same breed of dog) but its inclusion was enough to get the film banned in the U.K. for many years. Who was the film supposed to appeal to? It’s a mystery really. It’s certainly not a horror film, despite the sensational subject matter. You could argue that it’s a children’s movie, but that aspect only comes to the fore once we’re about halfway through and it’s hard to believe that many parents would have been happy to let their kids see a dead dog being brought back to life. It’s a puzzle. Rather brilliantly, the young Mr Breakston went on to bigger and better things. He directed late night cult favourite ‘The Manster’ (1959) a quarter of a century later.

‘Cornish is putting the finishing touches to his experiment!’ heroine Wilson exclaims at one point. ‘Cornish will revolutionise the world!’  He didn’t.

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