#15 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The Universal Horror franchise had been toying with comedy for several years, making it more prominent after the change of ownership at Universal Pictures. With The Invisible Woman, though, the franchise reaches full comedy and the results are surprisingly decent. It’s too busy and not all of the comedy really works, but this is a light entertainment that takes a concept first used for really effective horror and makes a little comedy out of it. I’m more okay with that than the unimaginative turn into the familiar that we got with The Invisible Man Returns.
A wealthy lawyer, Richard Russell (John Howard), is running out of money after a series of affairs with young attractive women that leads him to settlement payout after settlement payout, much to the increasing chagrin of his loyal butler George (Charles Ruggles) who keeps quitting and coming back. Russell employs an eccentric inventor Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) who has the key to his salvation: an invisibility machine that he puts an ad in the paper to find a willing participant. In walks the low-end model Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce) who decides that she desperately wants invisibility to give her mean boss Growley (Charles Lane) a literal kick in the pants without him knowing it’s her (this movie has very low stakes). The experiment is a success except that Kitty leaves before Richard can see (or not see, a lot is made of this attempt at a pun) the evidence since when she finally comes back the effect wears off and she becomes visible again.
This is all pretty standard stuff that would later dominate sitcoms with the rise of network television. It’s very light with little risked and little gained. It’s slightly amusing, mostly from two actors, Ruggles and Margaret Hamilton as Gibbs’ housekeeper, and it’s functional narratively. Into this comes the henchmen of the exiled gangster Blackie Cole (Oskar Homolka) in Mexico, led by Foghorn (Donald MacBride), who want the invisibility so that Blackie can *checks notes* return to the city to take in the ambiance. Seriously, very low stakes. After Gibbs and Kitty chase Richard to a country property, the gangsters steal the machines while a labored comedy scene of Gibbs trying to keep the knowledge of the invisible woman from George (none of which matters because he finds out anyway and there’s no narrative problem with that) plays out until Richard finds out and decides that he’s going to fall in love with this invisible woman. Sure. He might as well, and she might as well as well because why not.
There’s a kidnapping, some comedy stylings around using the machine wrong, and a showdown at Cole’s remote compound. There’s a comedic setup around the invisibility being extended and even triggered by alcohol, and some decent special effects. That being said, that this was nominated for Best Special Effects at the Oscars is honestly an indication of how incredibly primitive and little used special effects were in Hollywood at the time. First of all, I don’t think this created a single new technique from the previous two films. Secondly, there’s a whole lot of wires visible. That this wasn’t figured out seems to indicate that the production was super cheap.
So, is it any good? It’s okay. Charles Ruggles is in most of the film, and aside from his early slapstick stylings, he’s actually pretty funny (Margaret Hamilton, disappointingly, just kind of disappears from the film after a certain point). It also has a nice, light tone that never takes itself seriously, poking fun at Kitty’s implied and near-constant nudity while also giving John Barrymore room to simply take his eccentric professor character as far as he can (this isn’t exactly Twentieth Century levels of hilarity, but it’s pretty good).
Narratively, use of gangsters is so out there it feels like it should be borderline surreal in its inclusion, but it’s so low stakes (they couldn’t have a great plan to rob a bank, or something, that required invisibility?) that I question its inclusion at all. The romance is thin and unbelievable, as well. However, it’s nice. It’s quick at only 72-minutes long, and it’s pretty consistently amusing. It’s okay.
4 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman”
They should have had Lon Chaney show up at the end and give a wolf whistle. That would lead into the next entry, if I’m guessing correctly.
Heh. That would have been funny, like Vincent Price’s voice cameoing as the invisible man at the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
I don’t think there was any kind of serious thought about franchising going on at Universal at this point. It was just push out product fast.