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21 March 2010 @ 08:11 pm
Twenty years before Sue Storm  
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940)

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This one's a dud, though not a total loss. It's a minor comedy that's way too heavy-handed and unimaginative (especially considering the possibilities that invisibility offers). John Barrymore invents an contraption that can turn people temporarily invisible, Virginia Bruce promptly volunteers, some moronic gangsters steal the machine and Barrymore, so she goes to the rescue. Along the way, she abuses her unpleasant boss and starts a romance. That's about it. I'm not sure where the movie went wrong, but it just doesn't have the light, breezy touch it needs.

Right off the bat, we see the butler in a plush mansion take a tumble down the stairs for no discernible reason -- and it's accompanied by that awful slapstick music that just kills any sense of whimsy. (I don't like Charlie Ruggles in anything I've seen him in, anyway, he exaggerates every reaction as much as Jim Carrey; they both seem to think the audiences are so dense that everything has to be laid on with a trowel.)

Professor Gibbs, the elderly inventor played by Barrymore is supposed to be just eccentric but he comes across as either in the early stages of senility or seriously brain-damaged by years of heavy drinking (well, it IS John Barrymore in his later years, take your choice). Actually, John Howard as the wealthy playboy who is funding Gibbs' experiments seems fairly likeable in a blithe, unthinking way. He has been spending so much time and money romancing young debutantes that he's just about busted. His inevitable bitchy bickering with the Invisible Woman becomes attraction in a believable way. Her unseen condition adds a nice touch as neither one knows if he'll like what he sees when the process wears off.

As heroine Kitty Carroll, Virginia Bruce brings her usual charm and roguishness to a poorly-written role. (I particularly like her expressive voice; check her out in HOUSE OF HORRORS against Martin Kosleck and Rondo Hatton.) One reason she agrees to the experiment is to get revenge on her boss. Kitty is a fashion model who is trying to lead a proletarian uprising against the horrid man who docks them unfairly when they're late, tells them not to sass the customers and has no sympathy for their soap opera problems. (If they think this is an unfair life, these girls need to try a real job like most of us where you do hard work for tough bosses at much less money than you get for parading back and forth in gowns and makeup). Once she becomes invisible, she shows up to terrorize the clients, trash the place, give her boss a speech and then kick him in the butt repeatedly while he's helplessly trapped in a window. This could have been handled with a lot more subtlety and imagination.

The titillating aspect that Kitty has to run around naked while invisible is never used to good advantage. You might expect a brief glimpse of her outline in fog or rain or something, but nope. It's all dull and harmless. Universal's Invisible Men all had to worry about a side-effect of the Griffin serum that made the user quickly turn into a murderous lunatic but the machine in this movie doesn't have that drawback. Instead, the invisibility wears off after a while but can be restored by an intake of alcohol. (Again, this has a potential for some goofy sequences that are just overlooked. Too bad.)

To give the movie some vague semblance of direction, the invention and the inventor are both absconded with by a small gang of incredibly stupid crooks. (Honestly, when Shemp Howard is your ringleader, don't expect Murder Inc.) The gang is run by Blackie Cole, who is hiding in Mexico but is so homesick that he thinks invisibility is a great way for him to sneak back across the border. A gangster whose only reaction to being invisible is the thought that now he can go home....! This guy dreams small dreams. Oscar Homolka is as bizarre as usual in the role.

The best part of the movie is Kitty as a super-heroine. Twenty years before Sue Storm went up into that cosmic ray bath, Kitty Carroll is being held at gunpoint by crooks who have kidnapped her and Professor Gibbs. Swigging down a convenient flask of pure grain alcohol, she quickly throws her clothes in all directions. To give her credit, Kitty does manages to clobber all the goons successfully without getting caught. As her new boyfriend approaches, she decides to let him "save" her. So Kitty sprays the ground in front of his car with machine-gun bullets (!?). Say, maybe the invisibility is starting to make her homicidal, at that. She then cries pitifully for help and allows him to make a daring leap into an amazingly shallow fish pond. (This is quite a stunt, by the way, looking as if it belongs in a Republic serial.)

I do admire the way Kitty reads an ad in the paper about a volunteer needed for some sort of scientific experiment and just strolls on over. No liability forms are signed, no IDs required, not a trace of a medical exam or tests being done to make sure nothing harmful could happen. She just cheerfully shucks her clothes and climbs into the cabinet for the nice old crackpot. Here's a woman with a sense of adventure. (Watching the scandalous proceedings with spluttering outrage, Margaret Hamilton as the housekeeper is the very definition of "old battle-axe.")

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is not hopelessly awful. You can watch it and enjoy it with a slight chuckle here and there. The special effects are still fun, even today. I just thought the premise had so many possibilities which were never attempted and my reaction is basically disappointment. It's an interesting hiccup in the parade of murderous Invisible Men that Universal gave us.

Dir: Edward A Sutherland



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terry_mccombs on March 22nd, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
The reason she didn't go insane being that women are already crazy and so it would have no discernable effect on them.
dr_hermes on March 22nd, 2010 04:03 am (UTC)
Which reminds me of the old ALL-STAR COMICS story where the Justice Society are driven mad and Johnny Thunder suddenly becomes sane.
egm3 on March 22nd, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
Ditto what you say about Jim Carrey. The same applies to Mike Meyers. I liked Ruggles when he did voices for cartoons.
dr_hermes on March 22nd, 2010 04:05 am (UTC)
I have nothing against broad slapstick itself but those two (and Adam Sandler) really think their audience is barely functional.