Watching 1939: The Man They Could Not Hang

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Release date:  Aug. 17, 1939

Cast:  Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox, Roger Pryor, Don Beddoe, Ann Doran, James Craig, Joe De Stefani, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Dick Curtis, John Tyrrell, Stanley Brown (uncredited)

Studio:  Columbia Pictures Corporation

Director:  Nick Grinde

Dr. Henryk Savaard (Karloff) is an esteemed scientist is working on an experiment to bring a dead man back to life by stimulating the heart and keeping blood pumping. When a medical student (Brown) volunteers, his hysterical girlfriend (Doran) calls the police that Dr. Savaard is committing murder. Since the police arrive mid-experiment, the student dies, and Dr. Savaard is arrested. In his trial, Savaard is found guilty and sentenced to death, but his assistant requests the body, carries out the experiment and Savaard lives to seek revenge on the court that found him guilty.

1939 Notes:
• Boris Karloff was in six films released in 1939.
• Lorna Gray was in 18 feature-length and short films released in 1939.
• Roger Pryor was only in two films in 1939.

Other trivia: 
Based on real-life figure Dr. Robert Cornish, who tried to revive patients from heart attack, drowning and electrocution by getting blood flowing. He experimented on dogs that he brought back to life, according to the book Boris Karloff: A Bio-bibliography by Beverley Bare Buehrer.
• The film was banned in Great Britain, according to “Censored Screams: The British Ban on Hollywood Horror in the Thirties” by Tom Johnson
• Re-released in 1947

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This week’s Watching 1939 film is interesting not so much because of the year 1939, but because of its look at medicine and science and how much has changed since that time.

Boris Karloff plays a respected scientist who wants to bring people back to life. He kills a student volunteer with gases that won’t harm the tissue and then works to revive him by getting the heart pumping and blood flowing through the veins.

Police are called and barge in, interrupting the experiment so that the young man stays dead. They call the scientist crazy and that any sort of experiment would never work.

During the trial, Roger Pryor’s character says: “He wants to butcher our young athletes so their hearts can be used to prolong the life of some doddering old man. Dr. Sakaard’s fine ideal would never be permitted in any civilized county.”

*Raises hand* Give it 40 years, Pryor, organ donation will be commonplace, but it isn’t “butchering.”

Most of the ideas Karloff’s character has that officials think are crazy are now safely and commonly practiced today: Resuscitating someone when their heart stops beating, open heart surgery, organ donation to help others. It almost makes it frustrating to watch his character be convicted because even though he is the crazy one, Karloff’s character is actually right!

Also, it’s interesting because while this is a B horror film, it also has a slightly deeper meaning. Part of the message is how science can provide good, but people either discredit it or corrupt its good.

“The Man They Could Not Hang” is entertaining and exciting, but interesting on a deeper level for it predicted what is to come in medicine.

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