(8/10) In a nutshell: Lead actor Claude Rains does a tremendous job of not being seen in Universal’s classic 1933 horror sci-fi. The special effects are bind-boggling for their day. Una O’Connor screams and the rest of the cast are able, although their characterisations are written down on the back of a matchbook.
The Invisible Man. 1933, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by R.C. Sherriff. Uncredited writers: James Whale, Preston Sturges, John Weld, Philip Wylie. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Starring: Claude Rains, Una O’Connor, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.7
The early thirties were indeed a time of magic for Universal Studios. In just three years they were able to conjure up four of cinema’s most beloved, successful and influential monsters. After Dracula and Frankenstein (1931, review) came The Mummy (1932), and in 1933 it was time for The Invisble Man to – not – reveal himself. Seated in the director’s chair was once again Briton James Whale (Frankenstein), but this time the monster wasn’t played by either Bela Lugosi (Dracula), nor Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), but by the relatively unknown British actor Claude Rains – and once again Universal’s casting proved itself a stroke of genius.
As with the other successful Universal horror films, the film was based on a book. Dracula and Frankenstein, were, of course, conceived from the ink of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and although not a straight adaptation, The Mummy bore clear similarities to two stories by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle: The Ring of Toth (1890) and Lot No. 239 (1892). The Invisible Man, in turn, was based on sci-fi master H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man.
As compared to Dracula and Frankenstein, The Invisible Man actually follows the basic plot of its inspiration fairly well (perhaps because Wells was alive and demanded script approval). A mysterious stranger – scientist Griffin – covered from head to toe in clothing and bandages arrives at a lodging house in a small British village, demanding a room and absolute privacy to work on his experiments. As the nosy townsfolk soon discover his invisibility, he flees, and starts to wreak havoc in the countryside. Ultimately he reaches the house of an old friend, Kemp, whom he hopes to make his accomplice. It is revealed that as a side effect of his invisibility, he has become a power hungry madman, seeing himself as a superior being to the rest of humanity, and now plans a reign of terror. Apalled, Kemp secretly notifies the police – and after a showdown with the long arm of the law, Griffin is ultimately killed.
There are some rather big differences between book and film. There are many layers of philosophical and political discussions, as is usual with the socialst Wells, regarded as one of the fathers of the British welfare system. All of them would not fit into a film of 70 minutes, neither were they all suitable for the studio that made it. One that Wells thought was distorted by the film is one of moral – a discussion goin back to Plato and his book Republic, where he has his character Glaucon discuss the myth of The Ring of Gyges. The story tells of a man who finds a magical ring that makes him invisible, and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king and set himself on the throne. Glaucon argues that any man would have done the same – since in his mind morals were simply manifested as the fear of being punished for doing something immoral. A man without that fear (say, because of invisibility or infinate economic, military or political power) would ultimately choose to serve his own interests rather than the common good or any moral guidelines. (Plato disagreed, for the record.)
Wells thought this aspect was lost, since the filmmakers had the invisible man Griffin become crazy because of the drug he used, rather than because of the power he wielded. It is interesting that Robert Louis Stephenson had published his own take on the same question just a year prior to Wells in his classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In essence, this is also a story about escaping the fear of punishment by changing your appearence to be able to carry out your egotisic desires. And one can’t help but see J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic surrounding the ring of power (that incidentally makes the wearer invisible, but leads him to self-centered actions) as a further exploration of the theme.
The other big issue is money – or more precisely, criticism of liberal economic policies. In the book Griffin doesn’t kill anyone – he steals: clothes, food, jewellery, money. There is a whole chapter where Wells describes how money disappears from the banks, shops, institutions, even ordinary people. Villagers recount how money starts flying around, creeping away out of sight, in the shadows, as if carried by invisible hands, and nobody knows where it goes. It is hardly a coincidence that Wells uses the image of the invisible hand portraying money disappearing into the pockets of a greedy madman. It was the metaphor created by the economic liberalist Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations to describe the idea that an ”invisible hand” that would stabilize markets. Wells attacked the neoclassical interpretation of Smith’s term, leading to the notion that governmental interference with the market was unnecessary, since the ”invisible hand” would magically sort out all the problems. In the book, Wells added the tramp Warner, who is a devious immoral coward, and ends up with all the money Griffin stole – thus becoming rich by no actions of his own. In the end he also ends up with Griffin’s notebooks – in other terms, the means to continue the dishonest amassing of wealth through the ”invisble hand”. The filmmakers cut Warner from the story altogether. (There are many other aspects of the book that deal with money and capitalism, but that’s for another discussion.)
The third theme is one common to many of Wells’ books: the double edged sword of scientific progress. That science without checks and balances, all head and no heart, may well be destructive in the end, despite all the good intentions, thus echoing Mary Shelley’s thoughts about Enlightenment and the ”good human”. As with most of these films, the filmmakers dumb down this idea to the simple statement of ”he was dealing with things that man should leave alone”, a statement that the sceptic Wells hated. Wells never claimed that there was a limit to what science was ”supposed” to know, but he was adamant that the application of science must never be removed from ethics, rules and humanity.
In fact, this was one of the few film adaptations of his books that Wells liked. It greatly boosted the sales of his book in 1933 (which was before that out of print), which he gratefully thanked the film for – and in his autobiography he called it an ”excellent film”. The only really big criticism he had was the way Griffin was portrayed. He was disappointed that the filmmakers had turned him into a madman from the very beginning. In the book it is the invisibility that slowly takes its toll on his mental faculties, thus being more of a moral tale. The idea being, that under the right circumstances, Griffin could be anyone of us. Whale famously responded, that in the minds of a rational audience, only a madman would want to make himself invisible anyway.
But – of course all this philosophy wasn’t why the horror fans went to see the picture. They went to see it for the invisible man, and the terror he would bring. So that’s the heart of the film. It all begins with one of the greatest opening shots in movie history. In the middle of a nightly blizzard, the jovial cackling of a lodging house in the little rural British town of Iping is interrupted when the door is flung open, in comes a gust of wind and snow, and in the doorway stands a mysterious, looming figure with a long coat, a hat, dark glasses and bandages covering his face. The room goes quiet with wonder and fear as he approaches the counter and asks – no, demands that he get a room with a fire, a private sitting room and complete privacy. And his bags picked up from the station with urgency. The man, of course is Griffin, named Jack in the film (Wells never gave him a first name). The landlady is director James Whale’s favourite actress, the wacky Una O’Connor, speaking with a broad, rural Sussex accent, as the other actors as well. This is not just the filmmakers playing it up – Wells actually wrote the book that way.
But the stranger has an intellectual, urban intonation – and his voice – it is commanding, gravelly, and dark, almost as if it came from some pit of hell, but still has a preciseness, a refinement about it.
Up in his room the stranger paces back and forth – his hat and coat are removed, but all we see are little tests of hair sticking out from under the bandages. We move back to the landlady, Jenny Hall, she is called, bringing his supper. In the future, he says, they are to leave it by the door, and no-one shall enter. Mrs Hall agrees, but – the helping girls forgot the mustard. So it’s back up again, and for a fleeting moment we see that the lower part of the man’s bandages are removed so he can eat – but what do we see? We don’t really know, but there is no face. He instantly covers up his face with a napkin, and shouts for Hall to get out.
This creates commotion downstairs – bandages and all – an accident? A criminal? A lunatic? Rumours spread. Griffin keeps working with strange liquids in his ramshackle laboratory he’s built, pacing, muttering, cursing, throwing bottles. ”There must be a way back! A way back to visibility!” he shouts. Back from what? Invisibility? We do not know. Not until the curiosity of the nosy villagers become too much, and he confronts them: ”You’re all desperate to know, aren’t you?! Well, I’ll show you! Remember, you brought this upon yourselves”. And off go the bandages – and there is no head! The villagers flee in fright, and Una O’Connor screams like a stung pig, and then screams some more, and cackles and flails, and almost faints, and really, really plays up the dumb comedy.
The police is called in, and E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers is perhaps even a bigger buffoon that the rest of the townsfolk, doing a proper ”bush theatre” performance of the dumb bobby, with all its comical implications. This is set in stark contrast with the threats and tauntings – and the legendary manical laughter of Claude Rains – in one scene as he removes one piece of clothing after the other in full view of the camera – it must have seemed like magic in 1933. Finally only a white shirt remains. ”Put the cuffs on ’em!” someone shouts, whereby Jaffers utters the immortal line ”’Ow can I ‘andcuff a bloomin’ shirt?!” And with that, Griffin is gone, followed only by a trail of destruction. Prams get toppled, pints swept off the bar, a broom flies in the air and hits a bystander on the head, boxes tumble, a bicycle goes off on its own (on a pretty visible track), and even gets picked up by thin air, and thrown at a group of people.
Then we cut to the first addition of the film: Flora Cranley, Griffin’s girlfriend (Gloria Stewart), and Dr. Kemp, his colleague (William Harvey). She is worried about Griffin, and Herbert says he got reclusive, working in secret, on something dangerous, a project. And thus it arrives: the moment where Herbert asks if Flora might not just forget about Griffin, ”you know how I feel about you”, he says. Note that this is almost the exact same same line and setup as in Whale’s Frankenstein. Again we have a mad doctor, his girlfriend, and his friend who is also in love with the girl – thus again setting up the curious trope of the ”secondary love interest” in these films. And just as in Frankenstein, the rest of the film completely forgets about this subplot, which bears no significance for the story whatsoever. This ploy would appear in almost every mad scientist film where the scientist was basically a goodhearted man gone astray – always the girl and always her secondary love interest, often a friend of the scientist. Peculiar.
Anyhow, from Floras father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), we learn that Griffin had found a rare plant that removed the colour from all it was used on, with the added bonus that the subject went completely cuckoo, and they set out to rescue him from himself.
Griffin later seeks out his old friend Kemp (named Arthur in the film), as he needs a visible accomplice. He threatens to kill Kemp unless he helps him bring about this reign of terror, in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, where the invisible man smokes a cigarrette, pokes the fire with a poker, moves around books and matchbooks, and even leaves an impression when he sits in a chair. Kemp secretly notifies the police, but Griffin overhears him and escapes. He later kills Kemp by pushing his car over a cliff, and sends his trademark manical laughter as a farewell present.
Hunted by dogs and hundreds of policemen he is finally caught in a barn. The police set the barn on fire, forcing Griffin out into the untouched snow, where he naturally leaves footprints as he walks, then gets shot. In a final scene, as Griffin is dying in a hospital. Not even in death is he remorseful, he simply says to Flora that he did it all for her. This seems very much like an afterthought, as the movie shows that at the height of his power, he completely forgets all about her. As he dies, he slowly becomes visible, for the first and last time revealing the face of Claude Rains.
Apparently it was director Robert Florey who set his eyes on The Invisible Man. He had made Murder in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi in 1932, and had been the first director slated for Frankenstein. Unviversal boss Carl Laemmle Jr. was hesitant, as he wasn’t sure the studio could pull it off. But Florey along with writer Garrett Fort to write a draft, which didn’t quite please the studio, and then pulled out when approached by another studio for another project. John L. Balderston, who had adapted both Frankenstein and Dracula for the American stage versions that the films where based on, wrote three different scripts including one with director Cyril Gardner, who was the director-to-be after Florey left. To no avail. At least four or five other writers, including John Huston, wrote drafts of full scripts, but no-one had the magic Laemmle and the studio heads were looking for. James Whale, who had been on and off the project, wrote a script that depicted a man who makes himself invisible because of a horrible facial deformation, but that is driven mad because of the potion he uses, which drives him to kill his love interest and himself. That was also rejected. Later star director and writer Preston Sturges wrote one version, that was set in Czarist Russia, and that split the main character in two – a scientist and his mentally disturbed guinea pig – which was also rejected. Especially Whale disliked it, calling it an ”invisible Scarlet Pimpernel”.
One of the reasons as to why there was so much trouble with the screenplay was that the studio had not only bought the rights to the Wells novel, but also the novel The Murderer Invisible (1931) by Philip Wylie, who had also worked on Paramount’s 1932 Island of Lost Souls (review), also a Wells adaptation. (Wylie also wrote When Worlds Collide, made into film in 1951, review.) And now the studio tried their best to do a hybrid script of the two novels, which was difficult, since the Wylie novel had a lot more fantastic elements than the rather gritty and reality-bound book by Wells. Another problem, as novelist John Weld discovered, was that Wells’ book was out of print, and Universal, who were set to adapt it for the screen, didn’t even own a copy of the novel. Weld took matters into his own hands, borrowed a copy from the library, and wrote a very straightforward screen adaptation. Lo and behold, Laemmle liked it. Whale still suggested bringing in R.C. Sherriff, who had written the play Journey’s End, which had been Whale’s ticket to Hollywood. Sherriff made some major contributions; he kept Whale’s suggestion of the madness of the scientist, and added the love story and the part where Griffin kills Kemp in a dramatic car crash, and rewrote most of the dialogue, adding most of the invisible man’s raving mad speeches about bringing about a reign of terror in the world – as well as some dark comedy.
With script completed, and Whale in the director’s chair, it was time for casting. All along it was thought that this would be a reunion for Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart, who had worked together on Whale’s black comedy-laced horror film The Old Dark House. But salary negotiations between Karloff and Universal broke down, and Whale wasn’t fond of the idea of Karloff as the invisible man from the beginning. A number of actors were considered for the role as Griffin, including Colin Clive, who had played Victor Frankenstein, but he was unavailable. (Bela Lugosi was out of the question, since his thick accent was unacceptable in a role that required a clear and understandable delivery) All the while, Whale himself rooted for British theatre actor Claude Rains, who was now stationed in New York. But the studio was hesitant.
And Universal’s hesitation was understandable. Rains was virtually unknown outside theatre circles, his last film performance had been over ten years earlier, he had never made a talkie, and had little regard for the medium. The Great Depression and dwindling roles on stage nevertheless made him swallow his pride, as it were, as movies were becoming an ever more profitable alternative for actors.
The only reference the studio had for Rains’ acting was a legendary screen test he made for RKO’s film Bill of Divorcement in 1930, where he – unprepared for the camera, and looking to show off, had chosen two pompous monologues to deliver. He read them in an over the top, declamatory style, which of course got greatly magnified by the camera, and turned out completely disatrous. Rains would later describe it as ”the worst screen test in history”. Legend has it that these auditions were circulated among directors as an inside joke. An often told story is that James Whale would have ”discovered” Rains through these tests, and exclamated that he didn’t care about the actor, ”but listen to that VOICE!” As is often the case with good stories, this one isn’t true. In fact Whale and Rains were old acquaintances from the stage in London, and Whale was fully aware of Rains’ talents, as well as his wonderful voice – though it is possible that he showed the test reels to the Universal bosses, and might have told them to disregard the performance, and ”listen to that VOICE!” And what a voice it turned out to be. It is largely Rains’ fantastic delivery of the lines that makes the film work. The range, vibrations and personality he brings to the performance makes him almost appear as flesh and blood in our minds, although he is never seen. With a lesser actor, the film would have completely fallen apart.
If the audience was unprepared for the superb special effects, so was Rains. In fact, when debarking for Hollywood, he had only read a rough draft of the script, and was baffled when he arrived and was told that not only would he appear on screen for just half a minute, but he also had to do his acting wrapped in bandages or in an extremely uncomfortable black velvet suit covering his whole body, head, face, and even eyes in some scenes. In some close-up scenes not even his nostrils could be exposed, so he breathed through tubes that ran inside the suit – as well as wearing a headgear that muffled out almost all sound – so he sometimes had to act both blind and deaf. And on top of this, some of his scenes were acted by a stunt man/body double, to which he had to sync his lines. Rains was not a happy camper, and was described as unpleasant, irritable and showy by Gloria Stuart. She nevertheless forgave him, as it was his first big film role, and there was a lot of pressure on him to succeed. ”It was an honor to work with him”, she later said.
Rains later recalled:
”And for five years, five years, mind, I was prating to the Theatre Guild about my artistic integrity. I was so cock-a-hoop about it. My artistic integrity. Then the first day at the studio, James [Whale] brought over some bandages. I asked about them, and he said, oh yes, I was going to be bandaged for most of the picture. And there I had been fighting with the Theatre Guild about my artistic integrity. It served me right.”
Whale also found out the Rains had only seen six movies in his life, and gave him the assignment to see three films a day before he came to Hollywood. Rains learned to turn down his theatrics as time went on, and would deliver superb roles in a huge number of classics, like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Oscar nomination), The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942, Oscar nomination), Passage to Marseille (1944), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), and Notorious (1946, Oscar nomination). He was also the best thing about the otherwise disastrously bad Irwin Allen remake of The Lost World (1960), as Professor Challenger. The next year he played one of the leads in the brilliantly wacky Italian sci-fi film Battle of the Worlds, directed by cult director Antonio Margheriti. It was only Italy’s second science fiction film, after Margheriti’s 1960 movie Assignment Outer Space / Space Men. He would later go on to direct the so-called Gamma series for MGM (Margheriti, not Rains).
The man who gave Claude Rains so much trouble on The Invisible Man, and who was ultimately the reason as to why the film was such a huge hit, was the head of Universal’s special effects department, John P. Fulton. Fulton had previously worked for the company that originally devised the ”travelling matte” system – a precursor to today’s moving green screen images, known to older readers (like me) as blue screen. He then worked on nearly every one of Universal’s horror films on the thirties and early forties in some capacity.
Today, when Martin Scorsese can basically put up his camera in his living room and film The Wolf of Wall Street, knowing that his effects department can digitally insert Venice or New York or any location he wishes to, it is hard to comprehend what an enormous task it was for a studio – a ”B-grade” studio barely saved from bankruptcy, like Universal by Dracula and Frankenstein, no less – to create the groundbreaking invisibility effects. But back then Fulton, John Mescall and Frank Williams pretty much had to make stuff up as they went along. The technique that we today call green screen wasn’t new. Filmmakers like Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon, 1902, review) had been using black screens and double exposures for three decades to insert actors in surprising situations or making people seem ridiculously big or small. But making an actor – partly – disappear and leaving his clothes visible was something completely new, especially if you wanted to insert these images seamlessly with normal action, interacting with other actors, and a moving camera.
As Fulton later described it, it all started rehearsals of the scenes – with actors interacting with Rains, then rehearsals of the same scene – without Rains. The scene with the rest of the actors would then be filmed, sometimes with elaborate wire effects, making doors and windows open and close, and things floating in the air or moving in a sometimes quite elaborate pattern. Then Rains – or the double – would be taken into a room that was completely covered from floor to ceiling in black velvet, wearing the aforementioned elaborate black velvet suit. On top of the suit he would then be wearing whatever clothes or bandages that were supposed to be seen. Sometimes he was both deaf and blind, and the scene would requre as much as 20 or 30 takes to get right. The movements had to be carefully rehearsed as to not give away the illusion. For exampe, a gloved hand could never be put behind the exposed head, as it would then seem to disappear as well. If his hand was invisible (in a black mitten) he could never bring it in front of his shirt, as it would then appear as a hand-shaped whole through his body. This was especially difficult in scenes where the actor was undressing or removing the bandages from his head. The black velvet suit scenes even had to be done twice, as one take was used as a high contrast blocking print, and another as the actual visual print. Sometimes the background scenes even had to be filmed twice, as in the scene when Griffin stands in front of a mirror and removes bandages. One take had to be done to show the room and the mirror, and another to show the room as reflected in the mirror, and on top of that came the two different shots of the actor – all in all the short scene required four different prints to be merged. On top of that, most of these scenes then had to be painstakingly retouched frame by frame with black ink.
And the result was absolutely stunning at the time, receiving high praise from both audiences and critics, and the film was named by New York Times as one of the ten best films of 1933. Enough praise cannot be given to Claude Rains for his hypnotic voice performance, contrasting between mischievous poltergeist and truly satanic madman, with some of his speeches eerily mirroring those of a German dictator just a few years later. This praise, of course, must also go to Sherriff’s writing and the way Whale framed the shots. ”Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies; power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me, frightened to death! The whole world’s frightened to death!” exclaims Rains in his raspy, commanding voice, in an expressionistic shot by a nightly window. The scene still sends chills down your spine.
Sherriff and Whale also imbue the film with their trademark black humour, which makes Jack Griffin a strangely likeable character. He throws false noses at the police, taunting them jeeringly as he undresses, and when he sends Kemp to his death in the car, he politely explains: ”You’ll run gently down and through the railings, then you’ll have a big thrill for a hundred yards or so till you hit a boulder, then you’ll do a somersault and probably break your arms, then a grand finish up with a broken neck! Well, goodbye, Kemp”. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Griffin has murdered Kemp and derailed a train, and then we see a pair of empty trousers skipping happily along a dirt road, singing the jolly diddy: ”Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May. Here we go gathering nuts in May, on a cold and frosty morning”, letting out a cheery hoot, and scaring a poor woman half to death.
In contrast with the refined, elegant appearance of Griffin, all the townsfolk are in contrast portrayed as half-wit buffoons, not least the police constable Jaffers, wonderfully played by E.E. Clive, a veteran Welsh stage actor and expert in British accents. The Invisible Man was his first film role, and he would appear in numerous films, often playing comical English stereotypes, in the thirties – including Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936).
The other fix star of the film besides Rains is without doubt Irish veteran actress Una O’Connor. She struck gold with her comical role in the 1933 film Cavalcade, where she was noted by Whale, who then cast her as the hysterically screeching landlady in The Invisible Man. It is the kind of performance that you either love or hate. Whale loved her. Wells loved her. I, for one, can not stand the constant screaming and cackling. God bless the woman, I’m sure she was a wonderful lady, and you have to give her credit – she is a superb comedienne. But for me, it is just too much, too over the top, too hammy. Even in a black comedy film like this. My ears just hurt. She would return with the same screeching in Bride of Frankenstein, fortunately in a much smaller role. After the success of The Invisible Man O’Connor decided to stay in Hollywood, where she was cast in numerous other roles, but often portraying a comic relief character like in the Whale films. She also did do straight roles, and acted in serious plays on Broadway. One of her most successful roles was in Agatha Christie’s play Witness for the Prosecution, which ran from 1954 to 1956 and got brilliant reviews, often praising O’Connor for her role. She reprised the role (again a comic relief) as the housekeeper in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film adaptation, which earned six Oscar nominations, including best actor and best supporting actress for the real-life married couple Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls) and Elsa Lanchester (the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein). After this film, O’Connor retired.
Gloria Stuart inserts real emotion and humanity into her role as Griffin’s worried girlfriend, although she doesn’t get much to work with – but the scene where she is briefly reunited with him is one of the film’s best. Stuart had previously worked with Whale in The Old Dark House – a star-studded black comedy/horror film, with a cast including Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton and Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein), and in the sci-fi musical comedy It’s Great to Be Alive (1933). She had a decent – if not terribly successful – acting career through the thirties and the beginning of the forties, after dropping out to travel around the world, write, paint and do interior and stage decoration for nearly thirty years. She abandoned movies, she said according to New York Times, after growing tired of being typecast as “girl reporter, girl detective, girl overboard.”
“So one day, I burned everything: my scripts, my stills, everything,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1997. “I made a wonderful fire in the incinerator, and it was very liberating.”
In 1961 she got her first public art exhibition, which was well received. During the thirties she was also a noted activist, helping many of the exiled German people who flooded the film industry, and became one of the founders of Hollywood’s Anti-Nazi League, as well as the League to Support the Spanish Civil War Orphans. She was also a prominent member within the California Democrats.
In the seventies Stuart returned to acting, first with small walk-on parts in television, later in bit parts in film, as she said the roles that were around for older women at the time were a lot better than the ones she was offered during her heyday. The greatest moment of her acting career came in 1996, when James Cameron (Terminator, Terminator II, Aliens, The Abyss, Avatar) cast her in the role as Old Rose in his massively successful historical melodrama Titanic. The role earned Stuart an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, and suddenly elevated her to gigantic newfound fame. She passed away in 2010, twelve weeks after her 100th birthday.
Forrester Harvey shines as the equally nitwit husband of Una O’Connor. He would later appear in the 1941 remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and in The Wolf Man the same year. William Harrigan as Kemp is hammy and bland, and Henry Travers as Flora’s father is passable in his small role. He is most known as the angel in Frank Capra’s popular Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life.
The film is photographed by the brilliant thrice Oscar nominated Arthur Edeson (The Lost World, 1925, review, Frankenstein), which certainly adds to the refinement of the movie. Heinz Roemheld’s music is effective, where it can be heard, but nothing much to write home about. The editing by Ted J. Kent continues very much in the vein that Whale had established in Frankenstein – we get lots of fast editing, with successive close-ups, zooming by editing – and it works well, if not quite as effective than in the predecessor. Kent would go on to edit many of the Universal horrors.
The film included some extras who were later go on to great fame: future three time Oscar winner Walter Brennan appears as the man whose bicycle takes on a life of its own, and John Carradine in one of his first roles is a townsman who suggests Griffin uses invisible ink. Carradine had a rollercoaster of a career, appearing in John Ford classics like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Stagecoach (1939), as well as Z-grade schlock like The Astro Zombies (1969). He became a noted horror actor, and featured in a slew of sci-fi films: Bride of Frankenstein, (1935), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), The Incredible Petrified World, Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snoeman, The Unearthly (all 1957), Invisible Invaders, Space Invasion of Lapland (both 1958), The Wizard of Mars (1965), Bigfoot (1970), and The Bees (1978). His last film was the horror movie Buried Alive in 1990. Legendary horror actor Dwight Frye appeared as a local newspaper reporter.
Like the earlier Universal horrors, the plot is distilled to its bear minimum, and the scenes go by rapidly and effectively, which again makes the film seem longer that it is, because so much happen in such a short time. Unfortunately this also makes the scenes where nothing much is happening seem dull and draggy. Such a scene is the scientific mumbo-jumbo exposition scene where Dr. Cranely explains what’s going on with Griffin.
In my experience there are two ways to explain the unexplainable in fantastic films. One is not to explain it – just tell the audience to go along. ”Hey, I discovered a potion that will turn me into a snarling sex-crazed and violent beast! Move along.” The other is to base the explanation in some actual science, and then lightly skip over the bits where things don’t make sense. Wells was a scientist, and in the book he gives a lengthy lecture on visibility and invisibility – the fact that what we see is a reflection of light, and depending on how well we can or cannot see through it, depends on its refraction index. We can see through glass, although it is solid. And if glass, which is basically sand, can be invisible, then why not human flesh, if we could tweak its refraction index? And so Griffin does. Hmm, seems like sort of plausible if you don’t think about it too long. What this film does is try to both oversimplify and give a scientific explanation, which is always a disaster. According to Dr. Cranley, Griffin has gotten hold of a ”rare flower that grows in the Himalayas”, which ”drains all the colour of anything it is injected into”. Err, what? What does that even mean? How do you ”drain all the colour” from something? Isn’t colour just reflections of light? And even if you could drain all the colour, wouldn’t it then turn white? Or black?
One of the problems of this film is that all the characters, other than Griffin, become bystanders, and we really don’r care what happens to them. They are given too little screen time, personality and motivation to create an emotional response. Our hero is also our villain, which is certainly interesting, but when he doesn’t seem to have much of a motive other than to generally wreak havoc, that isn’t enough either. So despite all the brilliance, we are left with a strangely unpersonal film, that fails to touch us on a basic emotional level in the same way as we feel for Mina in Dracula or Henry Frankenstein or the monster in Frankenstein.
But all in all, despite its flaws, this remains one of Universal’s best horror films, a terribly witty, frightening and funny film all at once, and a true landmark for special effects.
The Invisible Man. 1933, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by R.C. Sherriff. Uncredited writers: James Whale, Preston Sturges, John Weld, Philip Whylie. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Starring: Claude Rains, Una O’Connor, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Forrester Harvey, E.E. Clive, Holmes Herbert, Dudley Digges, Harry Stubbs, Donald Stuart, Merle Tottenham, John Carradine, Dwight Frye, Walter Brennan.Cinematography: John J. Mescall, Arthur Edeson. Special effects: John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall, Frank D. Williams, Roswell A. Hoffman. Music: Heinz Roemheld. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal.