Granted, the elegant Jo Ann Sayers shared a strong professional association with one of the grand dames of cinema, Rosalind Russell. Sayers not only co-starred with Russell in the bright 1939 mystery Fast and Loose, but she also originated the title role in My Sister Eileen, a popular comedy that would bring Russell continued success in later years. Sayers, perhaps, showed her greatest sense of fortitude, though, in her final major screen role. As the determined Judith Blair, a skilled nurse and the favored companion of the investigative Dr. Mason, Sayers brings a sense of true spunk to the 1940 Boris Karloff thriller The Man With Nine Lives and proves that the women of those early horror programmers were often just as vital and adventurous as their male counterparts.
Following the determined Mason (Roger Pryor) to a deserted island, Sayers’ Blair is a magnificent trooper. Even after falling through loose flooring, she helps her curious companion pick away at a wall of ice and assists him in reviving the slumbering Leon Kravaal (Karloff), whose work has kept him (and several other unfortunates) secreted away in a coma for 10 years. Mason is thrilled when Kravaal awakens because, separately, the two have been trying to regulate the use of elongated deep freeze to cure patients of terminal disease. Soon Kravaal realizes that he has accidentally perfected his formula, but the antagonism of the three companions who have been trapped along with him proves to be disastrous. After a one of the men is shot, the unhinged Kravaal kidnaps everyone, determined to perfect his work on them.
Soon Blair is serving as cook, conscience and companion to all. As their numbers dwindle due to Kravaal’s psychosis, she even allows herself to be the mad doctor’s final guinea pig in order to spare Mason. With dignity and poise, Sayers enacts mother, heroine and dignified pin-up here – while the men are often regulated to simple emotions such as fear and anger. Sayers also foreshadows the popular final girl characters of the early 80s when Blair survives Kravaal’s tinkering and lives to work another day with Mason.
Naturally, Karloff, sporting a dusty beard, is magnetic here, portraying a handsome and soft spoken genius eternally teetering eternally on the brink of madness. Visually, cinematographer Benjamin Kline also captures the icy set design with a taut arctic sweep, offering up a nice alternative to the moors and shadowy corners of the day’s popular Frankenstein and Wolf Man pieces. But the most impressive piece of cinema elegance here may be Sayers’ lovely cheekbones and expressive eyes, making her take on Blair a force of celluloid nature in every sense of the word.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!