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Just about the cleverest technical tricks of the 1930s this side of King Kong were developed for Universal's first instalment of The Invisible Man, a movie that used to start playground fights as kids argued whether it was a horror movie, or an early science fiction film.
It's obviously Sci-Fi, but Universal did its best to promote it as a continuation of its big-boxoffice monster cycle. Transgressing scientist Griffin is promoted as a prime mad doctor, and his rather useful-looking experiments are treated like the usual heresy.
Universal ended up making about seven features where invisible people walked among us and the Universal The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection gives us five of them in a spiffy two disc collection, high in quality and low in price. Seven years after the original, Uni resurrected the idea for two more semi-sequels, one spin-off and an oddball remake from an unusual perspective.
This quality classic is said to have had some extra script-doctoring done by Philip Wylie (When Worlds Collide) and none other than Preston Sturges. It was a pet project of top Universal director James Whale, and, at least in certain scenes, shares an eccentric sense of humor with his previous The Old Dark House. Una O'Connor is hilarious for once, wailing and pulling faces at the antics of her invisible tenant. The invisible man encourages the levity, laughing as he disrobes (revealing nothing beneath his bandages) and skipping down the road in only a pair of pants while singing "here we go gathering nuts in May."
The Invisible Man was the American debut of the celebrated Claude Rains, who for the entire film has to make do with his remarkably versatile voice. According to David J. Skal, only hearing Rains' plummy voice disguised the fact that he was new to pictures and tended to overact. It wasn't much later that he learned to tone himself down for the silver screen, and the rest is historical highlights like Casablanca and King's Row. Rains indeed wears bandages (and a cool pair of wrap-around shades) throughout the film, and even though he's not very tall, still cuts a frightening figure.
The movie's basic appeal is divided between the humor and special effects that in 1933 were spellbinding. John P. Fulton devised ways of masking away Griffin's body by dressing him in black velvet and shooting against black velvet; and then matting the result against backgrounds for the appropriate see-through effect. Many shots need help in the form of frame-by frame blooping with black ink. That accounts for a shimmering effect that of course looks amateurish in these post-CGI days of perfect mattes, even during complex motion. Depression-era crowds didn't mind the fact that the backside of wrapped bandages couldn't always be seen, and other such details.1
The only really famous goof is the fact that Griffin, while running naked in the snow, leaves shoeprints, not footprints. Oops.
Skal and Rudy Behlmer also inform us that H.G. Wells' original literary Griffin spouted a radical political philosophy that included a reign of terror. The screenwriters drop the anarchist associations and make Griffin a pure madman, driven nuts by the same serum that renders his tissues transparent. At the same time, they give him a love interest (Gloria Stuart of The Old Dark House and, 65 years later, Titanic) with a sweet scientist father (Henry Travers, "Clarence" of It's a Wonderful Life as a positive contrast with the malevolent Griffin.
Griffin almost immediately makes the same mistake almost every invisible man has since - he publicizes his condition. The only advantage for an undetectable person is that nobody knows he's there, and as soon as the word gets around, the coppers and bobbies can contrive fairly intelligent traps. Griffin has to stay in hiding for at least a hour after eating anything (yucch) and has to stay naked to go anywhere, a distinct disadvantage in the English winter. So he never really had much of a chance as soon as he alienated (and eventually murdered) his confederate, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan).
After an hour of adventures that range from lighthearted to sadistic, Griffin's end in the snow is fairly downbeat. His predicament still provokes interest and speculation, thanks to James Whale's witty script and clever direction.
Universal's DVD of The Invisible Man occupies a disc of its own, with the extras associated with an earlier release. The main attraction is another docu written by David J. Skal and hosted by Rudy Behlmer. It's well enough researched but like the piece on the Mummy collection, is on the lightweight side. It does have some nice testimony from Claude Rains' daughter. She confirms that this man with the velvet voice started out as an almost unintelligible cockney.
This first sequel came right at the beginning of the 1940 Uni horror revival, and like The Wolf Man was written by Curt Siodmak, the clever writer-director from Germany who invented big-scale films like F.P. 1 Antwortet Nicht (Floating Platform One Does Not Answer). The director was Joe May, once the most successful producer-director in Germany, and the man who used Fritz Lang's script but would not let him direct the silent versions of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
The Invisible Man Returns is an overly clever sequel that attempts an overhaul of the basic formula. Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) has been unjustly sentenced to hang, so he lets his buddy Doctor Frank Griffin (John Sutton) (a relative of the original Invisible Man) inject him with an invisibility formula. Radcliffe goes on a spree to force the real killer, Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) to fess up to the murder; his loyal fiancée Helen (Nan Grey) is another willing confederate.
The film rather artlessly moves through its paces, almost hiding its more intelligent touches, like a Scotland Yard inspector's (Cecil Kellaway) constant use of cigar smoke in hopes of finding the invisible escapee. Geoffrey evades an organized manhunt by disguising himself as one of the policemen pursuing him - they foolishly wear gas masks and full headgear.
Returns actually allows a happy ending for its hero, who survives some gunshots just in time for his friend to concoct the necessary anti-invisible formula. Although Vincent Price's pleasant voice makes us feel we're in the company of an old friend, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of invention at work. The attitude of Universal can be seen in the credits; most of these sequels name an associate producer, probably an underpaid production manager given producer responsibilities to save money.
Almost concurrently, this spin-off comedy thriller took the invisible series in a different direction. A full-out farce, this has John Barrymore's dotty professor Gibbs trying hard to perfect an invisibility formula for his patron Richard Russell (John Howard), a playboy who thinks that the old man is a total crackpot. Having squandered his fortune, Russell is interested in seeing Gibbs' demonstration, but the old man's subject leaves as soon as the invisibility serum (this time aided by an entertaining apparatus resembling Frankenstein's Fluoroscope) takes effect.
The subject is dress model Kitty Carol, played by Virginia Bruce in one of the few vehicles to make use of her talent. She was busy acting for fifteen years but this appears to be her best role. Since she pops in and out of the transparent state several times, we get a good look at her, and her voice (and presumably her mime in the black body-stocking for the effects) are excellent.
They need to be, because the comedy is pretty thin. Kitty works for a miserable slave-driver named Growley (Charles Lane) and immediately uses her ten hours of invisibility to put the fear of god into him. Last we hear, Growley is a changed man treating his employees (including dark haired Maria Montez) much better. But Kitty and Dr. Gibbs chase Russell and his persnickedy butler George (Charlie Ruggles) to a mountain cabin for a second demo. Figuring heavily in the conclusion are the efforts of a gang run by Blackie Cole (Coal, get it?) (Oskar Homolka) to steal the invisibility device so that Cole can avoid being deported. Cole's cohorts include humorous henchman Edward Brophy and moonlighting Stooge Shemp Howard. Gibbs' assistant is none other than Margaret Hamilton.
With all that talent things can't help but be funny. Hamilton and the gangsters get their share of laughs, particularly when the stolen invisibility machine gives one of them a high-pitched voice implying castration. Some of the writing is reasonably good, but the playboy has to act extremely aloof for too many gags to work. The usually low-keyed Ruggles goes slapstick here and is soon tiring, in addition to being too heavily made-up.
But Barrymore is quite good, pitching his performance as if this lowly farce were as sophisticated as his Midnight from the year before. He even gets in a couple of self-aimed verbal jokes about drinking. It was one of his last movies; he died less than two years later at the age of 60.
An alluringly sleek Ms. Bruce is seen behind the titles in silhouette, and the movie makes side jokes about her invisible nudity during much of the film. Apparently the fact that she can't be seen made all the difference to those Krazy Kutups at the censor board; at one point Howard embraces her, or at least holds her forearms. Or, at least we think it's her forearms.
By restraining the invisibility idea to the professor's simple attempts to show off his work, The Invisible Woman isn't very adventurous as a Science Fiction film. But it is one of the more entertaining titles in this set.
With this show we skip ahead two years so that the invisible man can help with the war effort, as was Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and just about every other series hero. Invisible Agent follows a stock 'secret mission' plot in which Griffen heir Frank Raymond is parachuted into Nazi Germany to collect all the secret war plans of the enemy. Universal's all-purpose matinee hero Jon Hall takes the role without any particular distinction, except perhaps a voice that resembles that of Randolph Scott. He should sound really painful on his arrival in a German field, after stripping off his clothing on the way down. There are probably nude skydivers by now, but hitting whatever terrain or flora might greet one in the dark doesn't seem very smart.
An invisible man would appear to be the perfect guy to do a number on the Nazis, if he just kept quiet while going about his snooping. But Raymond almost immediately tangles himself up with an ordinary agent, seductress Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey). Both the top German spymaster Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke again) and his Japanese ally Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre) are already waiting for the arrival of an invisible operative, having unsuccessfully tried to wrest the secret from Raymond before the war.2
Raymond inexplicably does what Griffin did, throws away his advantage by advertising his presence in a bunch of cheap stunts, like pushing sniveling Nazi upstart Karl Heiser's (J. Edward Bromberg) meal into his lap. Luckily, the Nazi agents are too busy backstabbing each other - Lorre's sinister Ikito literally so - to attend to their affairs. Raymond and Sorenson do the usual stunt of stealing a German bomber and wiping out an aerodrome of enemy aircraft before fleeing back to England. Raymond accomplishes this even though the drug has a new side effect: Instead of making him crazy, it puts him to sleep at inopportune times! "It's me! The invisible ma... zzzzzzz zzzzz."
The dour Hardwicke tries to have fun with a humorless role, cracking a completely unexpected grin at one point that may have been an ad-lib too outrageous not to use. Bromberg is suitably weasely as the worst of the villains, backed by the usual blonde automatons playing soldiers. Lorre doesn't even attempt an accent, so his Ikito must have come from the Hungarian district of Tokyo. He looks very strange in his coke-bottle glasses, next to the Chinese Keye Luke playing a sadistic Japanese doctor. Lorre's demise after failing in his mission is via a rather creepy seppuku ritual. Too bad the real axis didn't self-destruct quite so easily as these individuals.
Invisible Agent has the most extreme examples of what seem to be botched special effects: On our monitors we can plainly see Jon Hall's features when he's supposed to be invisible. Savant can account for this. Remember all those popping garbage mattes that followed the space ships around in the earlier video copies of the Star Wars movies? They show up when telecine machines are used on bad printing and fading negatives losing their density. Chances are that the unwanted residual images weren't as visible on original prints of these films, because (a) the printing negatives were fatter, obscuring the images, and (b) they may have also been printed darker. As it is, we see not only pieces of the black-velvet-draped actor, but also support devices and black-velveted hands holding objects in some scenes. The obvious wires visible in many shots can keep them company.
On the other hand, the various invisible animals seen in these pictures are very amusing. There's a funny harness around an invisible guinea pig in The Invisible Man Returns, and the next film has John Carradine walking an invisible dog on a leash.
By at least one line of dialogue, two of the earlier sequels claimed a link to the original The Invisible Man movie, but this last of the 40s series uses the same name to start off in a new direction. It's Jon Hall again, but this time he plays Robert Griffin, a sociopath back from South Africa to claim what he feels is rightfully his from two treacherous confederates in an earlier diamond caper, Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard. They've lost all of their loot in failed business ventures, but Griffin, wanted by the law, wants their estate as compensation. He also makes an untenable demand for their daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers), even though he's only seen her in photographs.
Drugged, his evidence stolen, Griffin is thrown off the property, only to link up with local genius doctor Peter Drury (John Carradine). He, surprise surprise, is looking for a candidate for his new invisibility drug. He has a whole menagerie of cute invisible pets, including a vicious hound with a taste for Griffin.
After taking the serum, Griffin runs out on Drury's plans to astound the scientific world, just as the Invisible Woman had done two movies previously. He threatens his old partners and tries to murder Julie's beau, a reporter named Foster (Alan Curtis) who just happens to be covering the invisible spook story. Griffin's invisible state keeps coming back unless he gets a full blood transfusion. He does this by murdering harmless old Doc Drury, before Carradine can deliver more than a few lines of well-intoned mad scientist dialogue.
Griffin tries to make Foster his next blood donor, but fate and the intervention of the dangerous dog ruin his plans. Revenge is fairly well plotted but like the earlier sequels lacks sufficient oomph or novelty to really set it apart, especially after the watching-the-bandages-unwrap-by-themselves gag wears off. All the other films had some element - comedy, the novelty of the spy story, Vincent Price's voice - to distinguish themselves.
The set doesn't include the other Universal appearances of the invisible man, although the docu includes some nice clips from Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where the sound of Vincent Price's welcome voice provides an unforgettable comedy punch line. Invisible Men have never been off the screen for more than a few years at a time; besides a blah 70s TV show with David McCallum, the big contenders have been John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man and the CGI based The Hollow Man from several years back. Both features introduced more problems into the invisible formula than they solved. The Hollow Man was a Paul Verhoeven film that ruined its chance to avoid the usual invisible man pitfalls, and substituted a really nasty attitude. Its invisible villain is a sex criminal and murderer.
Universal's The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection presents all five of its features in very handsome encodings. The quality isn't to be complained about. The original from '33 shows its age but looks far better than TV prints, and the other films don't seem to have been out of their vault cans since they were new.
As with the other Legacy boxed sets, the packagaing is handsome, with that trick window on the outer sleeve that creates a little diorama effect. Menus are simple and the extras easy to find. In addition to some photographs, a trailer for Invisible Agent and the docu, there is a good commentary from Rudy Behlmer for the James Whale film. Behlmer is a solid film historian with a lot of original research behind his remarks and opinions, and he's an excellent choice for these vintage special editions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection rates:
Movie: Excellent (the original), and good (the sequels, more or less)
Supplements: docu, commentary, trailer, photographs Packaging: Plastic and card book-folder in card sleeve
Reviewed: January 10, 2004
1. Blooping was done by whoever
had a steady hand and decent eyes, and it ain't easy, especially when optical printers are sitting
idle while the ink dries. Savant did this chore a couple of times on Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
helping to make mattes to erase stars as the Mothership moves across the frame. Tracing a good line
on a piece of 65mm film was bad enough; I screwed up several times so stars appear to wink out too
early (not too late, I'm happy to say).
2. In an amusing subplot, government agents ask Raymond for his formula
to counteract enemy agents. Raymond refuses on moral grounds. The G-Men politely respect his wishes
and give up on pressing him to cooperate! Best laugh in the movie.