WATCHING THE UNSEEN: Universal's Invisible Man Films

by Dr. Abner Mality

Who knew that the invisible could be so much fun to watch? H.G. Wells, the brilliant father of science fiction, had a good idea. His classic novel "The Invisible Man" illustrated perfectly both the allure and peril of being unseen and is considered to be one of his cornerstone tales, along with "The Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds". Wells knew that absolute power corrupts absolutely and that virtually anyone would become carried away with the power of invisibility.

Following the tremendous success of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula", Universal Studios in the early 30's was eagerly looking for more popular characters that they could turn into a profitable horror film. Enter The Invisible Man. At first, the studio came up with several treatments of the story that jettisoned Wells' story in favor of other ideas. The first version of the movie was to be directed by Robert Florey but that fell through. Finally, Universal settled for a relatively straightforward adaptation of Wells' story and they found just the man to helm the project: James Whale.

Whale eagerly accepted the challenge of "The Invisible Man", using it as a way to avoid doing a sequel to "Frankenstein". The eccentric director wanted to avoid repeating himself with another Frankenstein film and wanted to keep an eclectic film resume. A couple of years later, he would wind up doing "The Bride of Frankenstein" anyway...a film that many consider the greatest Universal horror ever made.

Universal originally wanted Boris Karloff to play the role of Jack Griffin, the Invisible Man, but in 1933, Karloff was having a disupute with the studio over money and was unavailable. The always superb Karloff would have certainly done well as The Invisible Man and if he had essayed that role, he would have added that character to an already strong list of horror characters that included Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy.

With Karloff's unavailability for the role, it was tough finding an actor who would agree to be virtually unseen. Finally, James Whale decided to hire English stage actor Claude Rains after hearing Rains' wonderfully rich speaking voice. Rains had never been in a movie prior to "The Invisible Man" and by all accounts, his first screen test had been an absolute disaster. But Whale was captivated by Rains' voice and finally got him to accept the role of Jack Griffin. He could have hardly made a better choice, as Rains is still considered the definitive Invisible Man. He also went on to an outstanding film career that included roles in "Casablanca", "The Adventures of Robin Hood", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Wolfman".

The plot of "The Invisible Man" is wonderfully simple and follows the general pattern of Wells' book with few exceptions. It begins in the midst of a blinding snowstorm as a mysterious stranger arrives at the Lion's Head Inn in the tiny English village of Iping. This opening sequence is magnificent and the viewer is sure to get a chuckle out of the comical Cockney characters inhabiting the pub. The stranger, covered in bandages and sporting dark glasses, demands a room where he can be left alone. Naturally, the locals try to pry into his every move and the stranger tosses the Inn's proprietor down the stairs in a rage. When a policeman comes to arrest him, the stranger laughs and removes the bandages from his head, revealing...nothing! "'E's all eaten away!" breathes the bobby in wonder. The stranger is invisible! Tossing off his clothes, the Invisible Man cackles madly and turns the Inn upside down with his shenanigans.

We learn that the Invisible Man is struggling chemist Jack Griffin, who has stumbled upon the secret of invisibility after much secretive work. What Griffin doesn't know is how to make himself visible again. Also, the chemicals he has injected himself with have a dangerous side effect...homicidal madness! Griffin has become an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur who aims to terrorize the whole country. "I can use my rob and rape and kill!" he screams...a line of dialogue that wouldn't make it past the censors with the passage of the Hayes Code a year or so later.

Griffin tries to enlist the help of his former colleague Kemp, who is terrified of him. Griffin's fiancee Flora (played melodramatically by Gloria Stuart, who gained fame in "Titanic" 60 years later) and his former boss try desperately to reason with The Invisible Man, but it's too late. Following a series of horrific crimes, including the derailing of a train, the whole country is out to find and kill the unseen madman!

Director Whale put plenty of his macabre humorous touches in the finished film, making it seem almost a comedy at times. The movie is full of outrageous characters like shrieking Una O'Connor and bumbling policemen.At one point, Griffin pulls the pants off a policeman and then goes skipping up a country lane wearing them while singing "Here we go gathering nuts in May" and terrorizing an old lady. But just when we laugh at the light-hearted scenes, Whale throws in something to remind us just how deadly an invisible maniac can be...a police inspector is brutally murdered by Griffin and a train derailment causes more than a hundred deaths. In terms of body count, the Invisible Man' s tally far surpasses other Universal monsters like Dracula and the Wolfman.

Even with superb direction and a great performance by Rains, the movie's success hinged on its special effects. And here again it hits a home run. Designed and executed by the brilliant John P. Fulton, the effects of "The Invisible Man" are outstanding and hold up well even today.The scene of Griffin gradually unwrapping bandages in front of a mirror to reveal a blank void where his head should be are startling and convincing. Those shots took hours of painstaking work, as Rains was completely encased in black and filmed against a black backdrop. The resulting footage was then carefully matted in with background scenery. Invisible wires were then used to achieve many of the effects requiring objects to move. Fulton would continue to work on all the remaining "Invisible" features at Universal until the final one, "Invisible Man's Revenge", which clearly suffered due to his absence.

"The Invisible Man" wound up being one of Universal's top money-makers for 1933. Yet despite its success, a sequel was slow in coming. Whale wanted nothing more to do with the character and Rains went on to become one of the best character actors in Hollywood. It was 7 long years before "The Invisible Man Returns" was issued.

The director of the sequel was German-born veteran Joe May, who may have lacked Whale's eccentric touches but who could be counted on to produce a polished and professional product. John P. Fulton remained to give the film his magic. The real question was, who would be the new Invisible Man and how would the story tie-in with the original?

The new Invisible Man was to be a silky voiced Missouri native who had starred in the medieval Universal horror
"Tower of London" a year earlier...Vincent Price. A better choice could not have been made. Though nobody knew it at the time, Price would go on to become the only horror icon who's name could legitimately stand with Boris Karloff as "king of horror". Like his predecessor Rains, Price himself would remain unseen until the very last minutes of "The Invisible Man Returns".

Price played Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, the wealthy heir to a coal mining company. As the movie begins, Sir Geoffrey is awaiting execution...he is suspected of killing his brother Michael so he could obtain control of Radcliffe Mining. But Geoffrey is respected as a good man and his close friends believe it is impossible that he killed his own brother. One of those friends is Dr. Frank Griffin, scientist brother of Jack Griffin, the original "Invisible Man". When no reprieve is forthcoming for Geoffrey, Griffin injects him with the invisibility formula. Geoffrey escapes from the authorities and now begins to search for Michael's real killer using all his powers of invisibility. But, as before, the formula also threatens to turn him into a homicidal maniac!

While lacking the unique feel of the original, "The Invisible Man Returns" proved to be a terrifically entertaining sequel. Price was excellent as the new Invisible Man and he even cut loose with a truly maniacal speech that rivalled Rains' rants in the first movie. The cast of the film was also great, with Sir Cedric Hardwicke emerging as the real villain of the movie and Cecil Kellaway standing out as the droll police inspector who devotes himself to pursuing the unseen menace. Nan Grey played Geoffrey's devoted fiancee while John Sutton was Dr. Frank Griffin. Keep an eye out for Alan Napier, the future Alfred the Butler in the 60's "Batman" series, as the drunken accomplice of the evil mastermind, Billy Spears.

Best of all, the special effects were every bit as good as they were in "The Invisible Man". The best scene has Geoffrey pretending to be his own ghost in order to scare a confession from the boozy, superstitious Spears. Also memorable is a wounded Sir Geoffrey politely borrowing the tattered rags of a scarecrow and then walking into town wearing the scarecrow's clothes while invisible!

"The Invisible Man Returns" was a very high quality sequel and proved to be a modest success. One would have thought that the next sequel would play off of the plot of its predecessor, but instead, Universal suprisingly decided to go in an entirely different direction with their next "invisible" film, "The Invisible Woman".

"The Invisible Woman" disposed of the entire Griffin character to start everything over from a complete screwball comedy. There wasn't a stitch of horror or real suspense to be found here...invisibility was played completely for laughs. The film was made to resemble one of Ernst Lubitsch's dizzy romantic comedies of the period, with snappy dialogue and plenty of slapstick caused by the title character's invisibility.

If horror fans were disappointed by "The Invisible Woman"'s approach, mainstream moviegoers loved the film. The title character was struggling model Kitty Carroll, engagingly played by cute Virginia Bruce. When Kitty answers a kooky want ad promising invisibility, she runs into the even kookier Professor Gibbs, who subjects her to his invisibility treatment. As opposed to the chemical methods used by Jack and Frank Griffin, Gibbs' treatment was more electrical in nature and more closely resembled the one used by Dr. Frankenstein! Upon turning invisible, Kitty promptly uses her power to terrorize her mean and sexist boss, fittingly named Mr. Growley. There's a theme of woman's empowerment running throughout the picture, well in advance of other "women's lib" pictures that would follow later.

Trouble for Kitty arises when scheming gangster Blacky Cole, hiding in Mexico, learns of Gibbs' invisibility machine and sends a trio of bumbling thugs to scare it out of him. When the thugs kidnap Gibbs, Kitty races to the rescue...while finding time to both romance and spar with playboy Dick Russell, who is financing Gibbs' research.

The resulting movie is so slight and frothy, it evaporates as soon as you're done watching it. Yet, while you're watching it, it's entertaining enough and has some truly funny moments. The cast is again exceptional...famed John Barrymore plays the hare-brained Gibbs with good comic timing while Bruce is delightful as Kitty. John Howard is enjoyable as Russell, Charles Lane is the grumpy Growley and Oscar Homolka is the not-so-threatening Blackie Cole. But its Charlie Ruggles who runs away with the movie as the fussy and dry-witted butler George. Watch out also for once and future Stooge Shemp Howard as one of Blackie's henchmen.

Despite the breeziness of the film, the special effects were some of John P. Fulton's best yet. There's an amazing scene where an invisible Kitty picks up and handles Gibbs' pet cat...I had no idea how they did it. And the scenes where Kitty spooks Mr. Growley are also top-notch. In the final analysis, Universal produced another fun and entertaining movie utilizing the power of invisibility.

1942 brought America into the heat of World War II...and Universal into another twist on the "Invisible Man" theme. This time, they returned to the "Griffin" storyline and they also decided to make the Invisible Man an all-out hero who uses his powers to thwart the Nazi menace. The movie was "Invisible Agent" and it was the first to feature Jon Hall as The Invisible Man. Hall would be the only actor who would play the character twice...he returned in "The Invisible Man's Revenge".

"Invisible Agent" is another odd film devoid of horror touches. Hall plays Frank Raymond, the grandson of Jack Griffin, the original Invisible Man. Raymond possesses the secret of invisibility but guards it carefully, since it drove his grandfather to mass murder and insanity. One wonders what time period the first movie was set in, if Raymond is Jack Griffin's grandson and is an adult during World War II. That would seem to place the original Invisible Man movie at the very turn of the 20th century at least, though it seemed set in a later time. These sort of lazy timeline mistakes were a staple of all of Universal's horror series.

At any rate, Raymond is jolted into action by Pearl Harbor and he offers his services as an "Invisible Agent" to help stop the Nazi menace. For their part, the Nazis are eager to get a hold of the invisibility formula. The thought of Hitler's armies using invisibility is as close to horror as this movie gets.

Raymond heads over to Germany to hook up with a double agent who's life is in danger. The luscious Ilona Massey, star of "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman", plays the delectable double agent, Maria, and naturally she and Frank hit it off. But standing against them is a trio of Nazi villains. Cedric Hardwicke returns with a different character. Col. Stauffer, and stuffy J. Edward Bromberg is his superior, Karl Heiser. But the real scene stealer is nefarious Peter Lorre, making his only appearance in a Universal movie, as Baron Ikito, a dangerous Japanese spy. If you've ever seen Lorre's cunning Japanese detective Mr. Moto and wondered what he'd be like as a bad guy, Ikito is the answer. Lorre comes across as quietly menacing and at one point threatens to remove a character's arm with a paper slicer. Hardwicke, Lorre and Bromberg all shine in their roles and make for an excellent villainous trio.

The light-hearted aspects of "Invisible Woman" still lingered in "Invisible Agent", though, and a lot of time was devoted to Raymond making fools of the Nazis with his invisibility. A lot of the shenanigans are amusing, but somewhat like "Hogan's Heroes", it's rather uneasy to see real monsters like the Nazis treated only as bumbling buffoons. Again, one major plus was the FX work of John P. Fulton, who did some more amazing scenes this time around, including the strange sight of an invisible Raymond parachuting into enemy territory! Though the Universal movies of the 40's did not have the high production values they did in the 30's, "Invisible Agent" still emerged as a handsomely mounted and directed picture for its budget.

1944 saw the final installment in the classic Universal Invisible Man series, "The Invisible Man's Revenge". By now, the studio's horror films were strictly B-movie programmers and a far cry from the lavish 30's treatments like the original "Invisible Man" and "Bride of Frankenstein". World War II was also winding down, with the Allies clearly headed for victory, so there was no further need for a patriotic drum-beater like "Invisible Agent". The series wrapped up with a film that was clearly the least of the bunch. And yet, it was still not without interest and originality.

Once again, all links to the "Jack Griffin" storyline were cut, even though the main character here was named Robert Griffin. Like "Invisible Woman", this tale stood on its own. Jon Hall returned as the unseen menace once more, though this character had nothing to do with Frank Raymond. This time around, Hall plays a clearly unbalanced and menacing character who uses invisibility for revenge...which at least means the movie's title delivers truth in advertising.

The plot this time was incredibly complex for a short film. After years wandering Africa as an amnesiac, Robert Griffin's memory finally comes back to him. He remembers how his former business partner Jasper Herrick and his seductive wife stabbed him in the back and left for dead in the jungle, leaving the Herricks as the sole inheritors of a diamond mining fortune. But Griffin did not die and is now back in England to get his share of the fortune.

Unfortunately for Griffin, Mrs. Herrick slips a mickey into his drink and while he is passed out, removes Griffin's copy of the contract from his posession, destroying it. The contract was the only proof Griffin had. A woozy and weak Griffin is kicked out of the Herrick mansion and tossed into a creek, where he is found by local Cockney drunk Herbie Higgins. Higgins learns of Griffin's troubles and suggests he teams up with an unscrupulous lawyer to try and blackmail the Herricks. However, through an overly complex series of twists, Griffin is again betrayed by Higgins and the lawyer and is now made a fugitive from justice.

On the lam, Griffin stumbles on the isolated cottage of Dr. Peter Drury in one of those amazing coincidences one finds only in the movies. It seems Dr. Drury has been experimenting with an invisibility formula and has already rendered his German Shepherd invisible. Now he needs a human volunteer. Guess who offers his services?

The formula works and now Griffin, driven almost to madness by all his bad breaks, begins a calculated plan of revenge against the Herricks, Higgins and pretty much everybody he runs across. Although the viewer can sympathize somewhat with Griffin's situation, the character itself is as cold blooded and sinister as those he stalks. In one scene, he drains all the blood from a meddling character just to shut him up! Needless to say, this Invisible Man finally gets his comeupannce and it comes from an most unexpected source!

The movie is entertaining and the pace rarely flags, but it's just too complex a plot to take in all at once and it also suffers because there is a lack of a real hero in the story. A nosy reporter tries to fill the bill but fails. We want the Herricks to get what's coming, but we don't root too hard for Robert Griffin. This is the movie's worst flaw.

Also, for the first time, the special effects of John P. Fulton were not fully available to the film-makers. Fulton did just a few brief shots for the movie before leaving the production due to a money dispute. His absence was glaringly obvious. In the second half of "The Invisible Man's Revenge", wires became visible for the first time. Fulton's replacements had neither his skill nor his patient perfectionism.

As one might have expected, the Invisible Man eventually met up with Universal's resident comedy duo, Abbott & Costello. In 1951, the comedians crossed paths with The Invisible Man, but it was one of their lesser offerings. Though not without laughs, it was not in the class of "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein". widely regarded as the best horror-comedy ever made. The plot this time was much more of a gangster picture, as a disgruntled boxer uses invisibility to make Lou a successful prizefighter. There was no connection to the previous Invisible Man movies and no horror content.

The film brought to a close Universal's Invisible Man series. Invisible characters continued to pop up in film and TV but never quite on the level of the Universals. British actor David McCallum briefly played an Invisible Man on a TV series of the same name but with little success. The 70's brought Ben Murphy as "Gemini Man", a secret agent with the power of invisibility. That,too, lasted only one season and remains mostly as the answer to trivia questions.

Chevy Chase tried his hand at being unseen with "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" but it wasn't really until the year 2000 that the next truly interesting Invisible Man character surfaced. The movie "Hollow Man", starring Kevin Bacon as the title character, used advanced digital effects to create a truly startling character. Bacon played a ordinary man who became power-crazed after obtaining invisibility, using his powers much like Jack Griffin did more than 60 years earlier. As you might expect, "Hollow Man" was much more explicit and what was merely implied before now became spelled out in concrete terms. Most disturbing was the Hollow Man's lustful approach to women.

The crudeness of "Hollow Man" gives it force but it lacks the charm of the original "Invisible Man". And for all his good points, Kevin Bacon is no Claude Rains when it comes to voice acting.

Looking at the Universal series as a whole, it was remarkably entertaining, original and fresh compared to most horror/SF series of the time. The series took some definite chances and for the most part, they paid off. We won't see movies like these again, but at least they are here for all to enjoy. If you haven't seen them, do yourself a favor and try to see The Invisible Man...pun fully intended!