Wednesday, October 29, 2008

3 More Universal Invisibles

"The Invisible Man Returns" (Universal, 1940)

"Invisible Agent" (Universal, 1942)

"The Invisible Woman" (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For The Invisible Man Returns John P. Fulton was back as the special-effects wizard, and the effects were even better, with none of those telltale black rings (optical printers improved remarkably between 1933 and 1940). Alas, none of the other elements work as well here as they did in the original film. Vincent Price is the new invisible man (a sympathetic coal-mine owner who was framed for the murder of his brother and sentenced to hang), and John Sutton (a staff researcher at the coal mine and the brother of the character Claude Rains played in the original film) uses the invisibility formula to help Price escape from prison on the morning he is to be hanged. The rest of the film is a race — can Price find out who really murdered his brother before the side effects of his invisibility formula drive him crazy? Interestingly, this film — made just two years after Price’s film debut in Service De Luxe in 1938 — was his first horror film; but he would not make another one until House of Wax 13 years later, and that was the one that really started his reputation as a horror actor.

Also, the drug on which the invisibility formula is based is called Monocaine in the original film and Duocaine in The Invisible Man Returns — and a 1940 moviegoer with a long memory could have readily been forgiven the assumption that in the third film of the series it would be called Tricaine. (H. G. Wells wrote his book in the 1890’s, when cocaine was still legal but already proving highly toxic — and no doubt his nomenclature was inspired by that example.) The Invisible Man Returns has a strong cast (headed by Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Alan Napier as the real murderers, who killed Price’s brother and framed Price so they could get rid of both of them and control the mine themselves), a decent if unspectacular script (by Curt Siodmak and future Hollywood Ten blacklistee Lester Cole — I presume Cole is responsible for the hints of anti-capitalism in the portrayal of the mine and the way it’s being run under the dastardly manager Hardwicke and his foreman Napier) and atmospheric but sluggishly paced direction by German expatriate Joe May. It’s an O.K. movie but it’s indicative (as was Son of Frankenstein the previous year) of how far horror movies at Universal fell in quality (losing the charming quirkiness of directors like James Whale, Robert Florey and Edgar Ulmer) when the Laemmles lost control of the studio in 1936. — 8/30/97


Charles and I settled in our room where I ran him two more movies from the Universal Invisible Man Legacy box: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Invisible Agent (1942). The Invisible Man Returns is a competent, workmanlike sequel with few of the thrills of the original but a certain amount of good-natured good-timeliness and a script that at least hints at a social critique of capitalism. (Curt Siodmak has a co-credit on the original story with the film’s director, fellow German expat Joe May, and a co-credit on the actual screenplay with future Hollywood Ten member Lester Cole — and lists another card-carrying Communist, Cedric Belfrage, as an uncredited additional writer.)

Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is about to be hanged for the murder of his brother Michael. The Radcliffe family owns a coal company in Wales that, since the death of one Radcliffe brother and the incarceration of the other, has been run by manager Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, top-billed) and the drunken miner he’s promoted to foreman, Willie Spears (Alan Napier). Cobb has deliberately set aside all the safety measures the Radcliffes ordered and is sending the miners down a shaft that’s known to be unsafe.

Unable to get anyone in the British government to sign on for clemency, on the eve of Geoffrey’s hanging the Radcliffe family and Geoffrey’s fiancée, Helen Manson (Nan Grey), send the Radcliffe company’s official physician, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), to see him — and Frank, whose brother Jack Griffin was the character played by Claude Rains in the 1933 Invisible Man who invented the invisibility serum in the first place, brings along a dose of it and turns Geoffrey invisible in the cell, allowing him to escape. (There are a couple of amusing inconsistencies between this and the first film: the key ingredient of the drug, called “monocaine” in the original film, is “duocaine” here — which once led me to joke that in the third film in the series they were going to call it “tricaine” — and whereas the original serum took several injections over a period of weeks in order to work, this version takes effect immediately upon a single injection.)

The Invisible Man Returns is a bit on the dull side and hardly as great a film as its predecessor, but it has its appeal. There’s some marvelously atmospheric cinematography by Milton Krasner — a lot of dollying around the standard Universal “outdoor” horror sets (actually done inside a soundstage with some pretty obvious painted backdrops) and great rolling banks of fog — which, as anyone who recalls Claude Rains’ description of the perils of invisibility from the first film (most of it taken directly from the H. G. Wells novel) will remember, means that the invisible man would become visible after all, appearing as a bubble in fog or rain.

There’s a great performance by Cecil Kellaway as the Scotland Yard inspector who, recalling the events of the original film, figures out almost immediately that Geoffrey Radcliffe has become invisible and the original invisible man’s brother has made him so — he spends a lot of time puffing on a cigar to create an aura of smoke around him hoping that the invisible man will materialize inside it. There are also some quite amusing slapstick gags in which the invisible man torments the various people he suspects of framing him — and, not at all to our surprise, Cobb turns out to be the real killer of Michael Radcliffe; he shoved him down a mineshaft and framed Geoffrey for the crime, but Spears witnessed the whole thing and blackmailed Cobb into giving him the job as mine foreman.

At least this film preserved one of the key plot elements of the original — the whole gimmick that a side effect of the invisibility drug was to drive its user insane — and Vincent Price gets to deliver some of the same kinds of megalomaniac utterances Claude Rains hurled at us so vividly in the original film. Alas, where Rains sounded genuinely scary in these speeches, Price does them in high, florid tones that already — at the very beginning of his career as a horror actor (this was his first horror film and, unless you count the 1946 Gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, he didn’t do another one until House of Wax, from 1953, which “typed” Price as a horror star) he’s already playing scenes like this as high camp (which he did more blatantly as his career went on until in the late 1960’s and 1970’s he was obviously relishing the camp aspect of his roles and realizing that audiences were going to see his films precisely to watch him camp it up). It’s much like the difference between his performance in House of Wax and Lionel Atwill’s richer, more sensitive one in the earlier version of that story, Mystery of the Wax Museum (which I still think is a better movie all around!).

Still, there are nice compensations from The Invisible Man Returns, including a more adventurous than usual score from the Bobbsey Twins of Universal horror music in the 1940’s, Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter; a good suspense ending in which Radcliffe and Cobb wrestle on a trestle car dumping coal from the mine down a runway into a bin (they both get caught and fall down, and Cobb uses his dying breath to confess to Michael’s murder); and a climax in which Geoffrey nearly dies but is brought back to life and to visibility by transfusions of healthy blood from visible people: “Blood was the antidote after all” says John Sutton as the film ends. — 10/28/08


I bypassed the next film in the sequence, Invisible Woman — which wasn’t really a series entry at all; it was an out-and-out comedy with John Barrymore cast as a quirky mad scientist who tests out his invisibility process (an electrical machine rather than a drug this time) on put-upon model Virginia Bruce, who uses her new-found power to drive her oppressive boss crazy — and then showed Invisible Agent, one of the rare Universal horror films from this period I’d never seen before. At least this one is a literal sequel to The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns, but it’s also a World War II drama and it’s really more a combination espionage and science-fiction film than a horror piece.

Frank Griffin (Jon Hall) runs a printing shop in New York City under the alias “Frank Raymond” because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s really the grandson of Frank Griffin, the man who invented the invisibility serum in the first place. (Actually, as you can readily tell if you’re watching the films in sequence from the same DVD box, it was Jack Griffin who invented the serum; Frank Griffin was his brother, who used it on someone else in The Invisible Man Returns.)

A group of Axis agents from both Germany and Japan, led by Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, playing a different character than he did in The Invisible Man Returns but still cast as a villain) and Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre, who as usual practically steals this movie — he doesn’t wear any “slant-eye” makeup to resemble an Asian, but then he didn’t as Mr. Moto either, and nobody cared), crashes into his shop and threatens to torture him by cutting off his hand in his own paper-cutting machine if he doesn’t tell them where he’s hiding the last supply of his granddad’s invisibility formula. (Making Jon Hall’s character the grandson of Claude Rains’ character in the original film would have made sense if the 1933 Invisible Man had been set in the 1890’s, when H. G. Wells wrote the source novel, but it doesn’t given that the film had been set in 1933 — and it also begs the question of when Jack Griffin would have found the time to father a child, and whom he would have fathered one with since it’s clear from the first film that he’s never actually had sex with the one woman he’s genuinely interested in: his fiancée Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.)

Having successfully fought off the Axis agents who were trying to get his family secret, he’s then approached by the Allies in the person of John Gardiner (John Litel), who seems to be playing essentially the same character he did opposite Ronald Reagan in Warners’ Brass Bancroft films, to ask if he’ll let our side use the formula. He will, but on one condition: rather than administer it to a professional commando, he insists on doing the operation himself. The operation involves contacting the German anti-Nazi underground and finding out the plans for a German attack on the U.S. — which I originally thought meant the plot to infiltrate eight saboteurs into this country, which actually did occur (though they were caught almost immediately and ultimately all but two of them were tried in a special tribunal and executed, a precedent the Bush administration cited while setting up the secret courts at Guantánamo), though eventually it turned out the Germans were actually building a long-range bomber for an attack on New York. (One poster noted that this was an impossible plot device since no plane in existence in 1942 had the range to cross the Atlantic Ocean with a full payload of bombs sufficient to attack an entire city.)

Invisible Agent actually starred (or at least top-billed) Ilona Massey, who had been brought to the U.S. by MGM in 1939 with great fanfare and put into the film Balalaika opposite Nelson Eddy (replacing Jeanette MacDonald when Louis B. Mayer and his staff realized the story — about the love between a Russian opera singer and a student radical in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg — needed a more exotic, and preferably foreign-born, actress than MacDonald) but within three years was at a second-tier studio like Universal doing parts in movies like this and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Aside from some pretty clever slapstick bits — including a To Be or Not to Be-ish scene in which the invisible man torments reluctant Nazi Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg) — and some quite moving playing from Albert Bassermann as anti-Nazi German Arnold Schmidt, Invisible Agent is much more a film of action and intrigue than sci-fi or horror. Scenarist Curt Siodmak (who had worked on The Invisible Man Returns and therefore should have known better) got rid of the invisible man’s stark appearance swathed in bandages; instead, when he encounters Ilona Massey (who’s playing a woman who appears to be an anti-Nazi German, then a Nazi posing as an anti-Nazi to entrap Our Hero, and finally is revealed to be a British agent the British Secret Service infiltrated into Berlin) and she hides him out, he reveals himself to her by dressing in her robe (what was she doing with a man’s robe?) and slathering his face with her cold cream, wearing a towel around his head and putting on dark shades to cover the invisible eyes. In a glitch in the special-effects department, he’s “outed” as a genuinely visible actor when he opens his mouth and we can see his teeth. (In general, the process work in this one is inferior to that in the first two films; around his “invisible” head later in the film we can distinctly see the outline of the velvet-wrapped head of Jon Hall on the screen.)

The original trailer (which was on the DVD edition and which we watched before seeing the actual film) promised a spectacular action scene in which the invisible agent would deliberately wreck a German air base — but the sequence turned out to be a bit of a cheat; in the actual film he accidentally sets the base on fire and blows up several fuel tanks while he and Massey’s character are trying to steal a plane to fly back to England with the secret information about the impending German attack on the U.S. The best scene in the movie is one in which the invisible man is actually caught — Baron Ikito and his associate, a Japanese surgeon played by Chinese actor Keye Luke, drop a net made of fishhooks (pretty large ones, too) on top of him, and the scene is staged to make it look like the Massey character entrapped him — and then there’s a sequence in which Ikito has the surgeon remove the fishhooks and the scene comes across as genuinely painful for Jon Hall even though he wasn’t really there.

Siodmak’s worst mistake is eliminating the plot device whereby the user of the invisibility drug goes insane and becomes megalomaniacal as a side effect — one could readily imagine a sequence in which he starts spouting off dreams of world conquest while in Axis captivity and the Hardwicke and Lorre characters would have said something like, “You sound like us! If that’s the sort of world you want, you’re fighting on the wrong side!” Invisible Agent is a good movie but hardly what it could have been with more sensitive writing that tied it in better with the first two films in the sequence, and though the producer and director — Frank Lloyd and Edwin L. Marin, respectively — were more prestigious “names” than usually made films like this, they don’t add that much. Marin stages the action competently enough but this is hardly on the level of A Study in Scarlet or A Christmas Carol, and only the most obvious invisibility gags (comic and otherwise) appear in the film. One wishes with a sigh that Val Lewton could have got to produce an invisible man film; a man whose reputation is for keeping the horrors invisible even when the characters perpetrating them weren’t would have seemed to be the right filmmaker to take the invisible-man character to a level beyond even what quirky James Whale pulled off in 1933! — 10/28/08


The Invisible Woman is a kind of horror/comedy it’s surprising Universal didn’t make more of, though in this case the “horror” wasn’t all that horrible — even The Mummy’s Tomb, made the same year and also light-hearted in its approach, pulled the plug on the comedy and replaced it with out-and-out horror in the last third, whereas Invisible Woman remained a comedy throughout, with overtones of both the slapstick and screwball styles. Director A. Edward Sutherland, a former Keystone Kop, was obviously more familiar with the former than the latter, and the Robert Lees/Frederick Rinaldo/Gertrude Purcell screenplay (from a story by Kurt Siodmak and Joe May) didn’t have the sophistication or the wit necessary for good screwball.

Still, the whole movie was a lot of fun, for John Barrymore’s hamminess, Virginia Bruce’s clear-eyed wit, John Howard’s good-naturedness (one tends to think of him as Ronald Colman’s brother in more ways than one — they were cast as brothers in Lost Horizon and Howard took over Colman’s role in the Bulldog Drummond series — but when Howard got out of his stuffed-shirt typecasting in movies like The Philadelphia Story and Father Takes a Wife, he could be an appealing second-string romantic lead) and charming character performances from Oscar Homolka (doing an Akim Tamiroff imitation), Ed Brophy, Shemp Howard and Charles Lane as a quartet of gangsters who try to steal Barrymore’s invisibility-making machine; also from Charles Ruggles, who almost steals the film as Howard’s put-upon butler; Margaret Hamilton, ditto as Barrymore’s housekeeper; and Maria Montez, in an almost invisible role as a cold-plagued model. — 12/7/94


Charles and I managed to squeeze in another movie before we crashed and, in the mood for something totally light after Slumdog Millionaire, I picked out The Invisible Woman from the Invisible Man Legacy box and ran it. It’s basically a screwball comedy rather than a horror or sci-fi film, and the big gimmick this time is that the invisibility machine is being developed by Prof. Gibbs (John Barrymore), an amiable crank — the delightfully dotty sort of mad scientist rather than the floridly insane kind — under the patronage of rich playboy Richard Russell (John Howard), who more or less inherited him from his father.

When the film opens Russell has just made a $100,000 breach-of-promise payment to his latest flame, only to learn from his attorney, Hudson (Thurston Hall), that this has bankrupted him. Assured by Prof. Gibbs that his newly perfected machine to turn people invisible will re-make his fortune, Russell decides to hang on a bit longer — much to the discomfiture of his put-upon butler, George (Charles Ruggles, superb as usual in this sort of role) — only the human guinea pig Gibbs recruited to test his process (which requires an initial chemical injection and then a bath in an electrical box that looks like a walk-in shower and bathes its occupant with electric rays generated from some of the leftover lab equipment from The Bride of Frankenstein), store model Kay Carroll (Virginia Bruce, top-billed), is more interested in using her newly gained invisibility to sneak back into the store where she worked (until she was fired for trying to organize the other models into a union, in a scene which quite strikingly prefigures Norma Rae!) and wreak her revenge on her martinet boss, Mr. Growley (Charles Lane), and the time clock with which he insisted the models punch in and out like factory workers.

Anxious to keep Russell away from women and from Gibbs, George hauls him off to his fishing lodge — where Gibbs follows them with the Invisible Woman in tow — and when she puts on her stockings so he can see her legs, naturally Russell is smitten with her instantly. Meanwhile, a trio of gangsters — including Donald MacBride from the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, Ed Brophy from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Doughboys, and once-and-future Stooge Shemp Howard (for my money, the funniest of the lot!) — have stolen the invisibility machine and sneaked it across the border so their boss, “Blackie” Cole (Oscar Homolka), can return to the U.S. and visit his native Chicago before he gets caught or dies. All ends well with the gangsters apprehended, Russell and Kay together (and Kay regaining visibility — it turns out that alcohol consumption delays the return to visibility), and a final bizarre tag scene in which the happy couple’s first child is rubbed with alcohol — and disappears! (“Genetic,” says Barrymore as Gibbs as the scene fades out.)

There are some surprisingly racy gags here and also some great slapstick — notably a spectacular fall taken early on by Charles Ruggles (or, more likely, his stunt double) from a ladder — and while the second half is a bit dull and doesn’t quite sustain the high spirits of the first half, the director, A. Edward Sutherland, is an old Mack Sennett hand and absolutely right for the script. (Sutherland was almost exclusively a comedy director, though he did make Murder at the Zoo for Paramount in 1935 — a fine, envelope-pushing horror film with no laughs at all.) The Invisible Woman was quite obviously intended as a comedy from the get-go — though the original story was by German expats Curt Siodmak and Joe May (who also wrote the story for The Invisible Man Returns), the actual script was by Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and Gertrude Purcell — and Lees and Rinaldo frequently wrote the Abbott and Costello movies for Universal (usually alongside A&C’s own private gag man, John Grant, who had written “Who’s on First?” and many of the other famous sketches for which they were known on radio before they ever made a film), while the producer, Burt Kelly, also worked on the early Abbott and Costello Universals.

Though not on the level of The Bride of Frankenstein, Ghost Breakers, Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters as a horror spoof, The Invisible Woman is a quite charming film benefiting from a relatively restrained performance by John Barrymore (he could be a ham and a half, but either the script or director Sutherland calmed him down here — and given what happened to him, his solemn warnings to Virginia Bruce’s character not to drink alcohol are sadly ironic) and a finely honed one by Bruce. She should have been a major star — had it been made for a major studio instead of Monogram, the 1934 Jane Eyre would have probably been a star-making role (as it is, though the overall film isn’t as good as the far more famous 1943 Fox remake, Bruce far out-acts Joan Fontaine in the role); as it was, she got relegated to second leads in major productions and leads in movies like this (though, according to, The Invisible Woman was budgeted at $300,000 — about twice what the usual Universal “B” cost and enough that it marked, for them, a major production). — 10/29/08