Mad doctor seeks curvy 1950s strippers and models!

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) is one of my favorite movies. And with the zeal (or is it semi-derangement?) of the diehard fan of a truly wacky “cult” film, let me say that I cannot understand if it isn’t one of your faves, too!!

Honestly, what more does a movie need than all this?

A daring young surgeon, Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers), gets into a car accident with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). She is decapitated, and he keeps her head alive in his lab. While his assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniel) engages in bitter philosophical dialogues with the talkative head, Dr. Bill trolls strip clubs, beauty pageants, and bikini photo shoots looking for a body onto which to transplant Jan’s head. He finds the perfect one in Doris (Adele Lamont), a photo model with a scarred face. But the monster in Bill’s laboratory, a result of botched experiments (played by Eddie Carmel, aka photographer Diane Arbus’s famous “Jewish Giant”), is telepathically commanded by Jan to bring an end to Dr. Bill’s unholy plans…

In its own way, a pioneering chick flick...

In its own way, a deep "relationship" movie...

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much for the uninitiated…

The movie was shot in 1959 but not released until 1962. One of the things I like best about Brain is how it takes me on a horny time-traveling journey into the seedy ambiance of mid-twentieth century sleaze life…

The strip club Dr. Bill visits on his quest to find the perfect body for Jan’s head was the Moulin Rouge at 47 W. 52nd Street in New York. At least, we see him at the entrance, looking at a large publicity shot of stripper June Harlow…she’s not in the movie, but her huge cut-out image was in the front of the club.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to the more famous Jean of movie fame.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to Jean Harlow of movie fame.

In the street photo above, the Moulin Rouge entrance is hidden by the sign for Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club. The image was captured by press lensman William P. Gottlieb in 1948 when “The Street” (as it was colloquially known) was a combination of music and jiggle joints. Club Samoa (its sign is just right of the center) was one of the best-known peeler venues. The Street started getting overhauled in the 50s thanks to encroaching real estate interests, and Club Samoa looked like this by 1958, close to the time that Brain was filmed across the road:

Sharon Knight, the name on the marquee, was a well-known headliner of the time, a protege of superstar Lili St. Cyr, who herself danced many times at the Samoa…

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

Here’s the interior of the Club Samoa…

If you wanted to light a lady’s cigarette, you could use this…

I don’t know if the scene where Dr. Bill watches a stripper was shot in the actual Moulin Rouge—I wasn’t able to find a photo of that interior—but wherever it was shot, the sequence wonderfully caught the seediness of that bygone world…

Later, this stripper flirts with Dr. Bill, but their scene is interrupted by another dancer with designs on the conniving medico—and this leads to a catfight!

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

One thing that really irked me when Turner Classics showed this movie last week on March 16th was that their print was one of the more heavily edited of the various extant versions, and newcomers to Brain never got to see Dr. Bill trade quips with the stripper and then duck out when the gals began fighting over him!

The other thing that irritated me is that the discussion between Robert Osborne and director John Landis didn’t scratch the surface of what makes the movie a fascinating treat…

To me, any film that can inspire such a wide range of interesting writing, as Brain does, needs no justification for its designation as a classic!

Adele Lamont (1931-2003) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Another good pose. Adele Lamont (1931-2005) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Whatever type of film criticism you enjoy, Brain has inspired it, whether you like your commentary hilarious as at Atomic Monsters, or thoughtful as at Classic Horror, or ironic and analytical as at Postmodern Joan. And by the way, I borrowed the great screen captures from a neat blog called Captured Monsters.

The bizarre bickering between Dr. Bill and Jan’s head is almost like a satire on the heavy-breathing melodramas of the 1950s, where men and women confronted their problems in passionate dialogue. In its own way, Brain is a “relationship movie”!

Jan was played by Virginia Leith, a 20th Century Fox contract player who, in 1955, appeared in the superb glossy thriller A Kiss Before Dying, wherein she was cruelly manipulated by a handsome but creepy Robert Wagner in a fashion no less outrageous than what her character endures in Brain under Dr. Bill Cortner. (Hey! Trivia alert! Wagner’s evil character in A Kiss Before Dying has the same initials as Dr. Bill Cortner! Coincidence, or homage?)

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

One of the fascinating side issues of Brain is the question of how Leith went from working in 1955 on a major suspense film based on a best-selling novel (A Kiss Before Dying) alongside stars like Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, George Macready, and the fast-rising Joanne Woodward…

…to the low-budget fringe item Brain.

You must understand, I am not putting her down for it; she’s very effective in Brain, and does not condescend to the material. I’m just saying that the pairing of A Kiss Before Dying and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die serves as a commentary on the astonishing ups and downs of the actor’s life.

Kurt, on the left, was played by voice actor Leslie Daniel, who I believe also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1961's Son of Samson!

Kurt, on the left, was played by dubbing actor Leslie Daniel, whom I suspect on the basis of his distinctive voice also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1960's Son of Samson!

Artists of any kind are lucky to be immortalized for their work, for any work that lasts and fascinates into the coming years. Leith, as well as Herb Evers (later known as Jason Evers) and Leslie Daniel, and also Adele Lamont and Eddie Carmel, all shine into posterity thanks to their work on this strange manifestation of the cinema consciousness circa 1959!

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx."

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970."

Meanwhile, with Brain having given me a taste of the old days on 52nd Street, I’m ready for a time-travel journey back to the glory days in the 40s, when the late Sherry Britton (1918-2008) was the star at Leon and Eddie, 33 W. 52nd Street! I’m shown to my table…I settle into my chair…and order a beer. Lighting a Lucky Strike, I ask the waiter, “What time does Sherry go on?”

Yep, this is a show I wanna see!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

————————-

I got the William P. Gottlieb image of 52nd Street here, the matchbooks of Club Samoa here, the interior of Club Samoa here, the outdoor shot of Club Samoa here, and the nice color shot of Lili St. Cyr here.

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Phryne shows naked assets, wows jury…

Athens, 340 B.C.

Phryne, one of the most famous and beautiful of the hetaerae (high-class, highly educated courtesans, aka prostitutes), is on trial for her life–and your Horny Time Traveler has managed to sneak into the court to witness her judgment before a stern jury of city fathers. Her crime? Displaying her fantastic beauty in the nude at the religious festival at Eleusis that honors the sea god Poseidon. Her action was taken as an affront to the goddess Aphrodite.

Actually, Phyrne had posed for a famous statue of Aphrodite

Actually, Phyrne had famously posed for a famous statue of Aphrodite...

I can’t believe the shape she’s in. After all, Phryne was born in 390 B.C., and she’s packed decades of tough-minded living (and lucrative whoring) on that frame. I move forward for a closer look.

Phryne gave the philosopher Diogenes a freebie, because she admired his mind...

Phryne gave the philosopher Diogenes a freebie, just because she admired his mind...

Charged with the capital offense of profaning the ceremony at Eleusis, she’s defended by one of her lovers, the golden-tongued orator Hypereides. Despite the fact that she charged him one hundred times the going Athenian rate for nookie in that era (100 times 1 drachma), he’s unstinting in her defense. But it’s not going well, until suddenly Hypereides gets an inspiration. Whipping off Phyrne’s clothes, he displays her fabulous body to the graybeards.

Although she was stunning, it wasn't just her nudity that frazzled the oligarchs...

Although she was stunning, it wasn't just her nudity that frazzled the oligarchs...

I hope nobody notices me standing behind a pillar! I’m fidgeting so much–Phryne is so gorgeous I have to restrain the urge to give her a tip, like a topless dancer back in 2009. Well, she probably would only be puzzled by a piece of paper with the face of a president who won’t be born for almost two thousand years…

I guess you don't want to get on the bad side of a powerful courtesan!

I guess you don't want to get on the bad side of a powerful courtesan!

But my fantasies are getting ahead of me. Instead, I listen to Hypereides’ impassioned speech, punctuated by the audible anguish of Phryne. The orator is not only boggling the jury’s head with the sight of Phryne’s bod (and it’s rumored that her unseen private parts are even more beautiful than everything else), but they are starting to feel just a little bit afraid, I think–after all, someone who looks so good is obviously on very good terms with Aphrodite, and perhaps it would be a wee bit dangerous to condemn her to death. When she is finally exonerated, she tearfully thanks the oligarchs, working her way through the crowd, pressing their hands. I remember seeing a stripper work her way through an audience like that once.

A Roman copy of Praxitele's Aphrodite at Knidos. The original is now lost...

A Roman copy of Praxitele's Aphrodite at Knidos. The original is now lost...

After the trial, I realize I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to hook up with Phryne. It would be like trying to hook up with an A-lister in my own time. Hey, Phryne’s extremely wealthy, and she’s got plenty of customers–everybody from her lawyer Hypereides to the penniless Diogenes to the master artist Praxiteles. It was Prax who made that very famous statue of her as Aphrodite at Knidos that supposedly made the goddess quip, “When did that sculptor ever see me naked??” Maybe I just don’t know what I’d say to Phryne, or maybe I’m just not up to haggling for a discount if we don’t have much chemistry. If she doesn’t like someone, like the King of Lydia, she asks an outrageous price. I heard he had to levy a tax on his populace to make up all the dough he spent on Phryne! Because when he met her price, she gave him what he wanted. That’s her credo: “You pay, I’ll play.” That’s a pro.

Maybe my night with Phryne is better left to fantasy.

Meanwhile, I take a walk outside of town to cool off and whaddaya know? I run into this cute gal just sitting by a stream.

There's something about her eyes that tells me she could use a few laughs...

There's something about her eyes that tells me she could use a few laughs...

I don’t know ancient Hellenic (or modern Hellenic, for that matter), but it’s funny how you can communicate with a few gestures and funny faces. Is she human or a wood nymph? Hey, it doesn’t matter. What ‘s really nice is that she seems to agree with what the playwright Sophocles, who was stuck on a younger courtesan in his later years, once said:

“Hear me now praying, goddess, nurse of youths,

And grant that this my love may scorn young men,

And their most feeble fancies and embraces;

And rather cling to gray-headed old men,

Whose minds are vigorous, though their limbs be weak.”

I'll have to come back to ancient Greece for another blog post soon!

I'll have to come back to ancient Greece for another blog post soon!

Afterward I went back to my own time with a smile on my face, and it didn’t cost me a drachma!

—————–

The first painting of Phryne at Eleusis is by the Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902); Phryne in the Areopagus is by Jean-Leon Gerome; Phryne solo (and looking like she wants to kick my ass) is by Boulanger; and the nymph is by Siemiradzki.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 3:30 am  Comments (5)  
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