One of the most intriguing movies I have seen in a long time is 1933’s The Invisible Man. Starring Claude Rains and loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel, it’s considered part of Universal’s stable of horror but it isn’t all that scary. More like it’s wryly funny and cerebral and outside the norm.
The film starts out with a guy (Claude Rains) trudging through the snow. His face is fully wrapped in bandages and even though it’s the middle of the night, he’s wearing dark glasses. He spies a sign for a village called Iping and trudges into the Lion’s Head Inn, asking for a room to rent. It has to be the best one, and preferably include a sitting room. The innkeepers, Jenny and Herbert Hall (Una O’Connor and Forrester Harvey) don’t have a room ready because it isn’t tourist season, but they finally give him a nice suite upstairs.
Bandage Guy, whose name is Dr. Jack Griffin, demands complete privacy. He doesn’t want Jenny to take his hat and coat despite their being wet through. He even takes umbrage when Jenny brings him a jar of mustard she forgot to include with the dinner tray she gave him. That’s when Jenny starts wondering what’s up with this new tenant of theirs.
Jack holes up in his room, fiddling with test tubes and chemicals while making copious notes in a notebook he’s lugged along. The inn workers bring him his meals at set times, but otherwise, they are to stay away. All the villagers are wondering about him because they never see him, and some speculate about why he doesn’t show his face. Jenny thinks he must have had a horrible accident.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, Jack’s hometown, his fiancee, Flora (Gloria Stuart) is worried sick. Jack just walked away, leaving a note behind that said he would be out of touch for a while. Flora thinks Jack was acting strangely right before he left–he went from telling her everything about his scientific experiments to shutting her out.
Flora’s dad, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), who’s also Jack’s employer, isn’t worried, but Jack’s coworker, Dr. Arthur Kelly (William Harrigan) thinks Jack might have written them a letter at least.
Jenny finally gets fed up with Jack because he’s a jerk, not to mention creepy, so she sends Harold to settle the bill and kick him out. Well, Jack kicks Harold down the stairs. Naturally, Jenny gets the police, who rush up the stairs, and by the time they get there, Jack is just wearing his shirt. He’s invisible.
Yeah, that’s one of the things with this movie. Whenever Jack is completely invisible, he’s also completely naked. It gets tricky, because even though we don’t see Jack in his birthday suit, the characters keep us conscious of being him in the all-together. It feels odd today and probably felt odd in 1933, but it’s just one of the many ways this movie toys with the viewer’s head.
Jack barrels through the village terrorizing the people, who don’t have the foggiest what’s going on. It’s fairly innocent stuff, like knocking things over and throwing one guy’s hat in the river, but as far as they’re concerned, there’s a poltergeist on the loose. After his tear is done, Jack races home, where he sneaks into Arthur’s house. Arthur freaks out at just hearing Jack’s voice, but Jack sits down and fills Arthur in on where he’s been.
Basically, Jack has developed a serum that turned him invisible, but his concoction worked a little too well, so he decided to go hide out while developing the antidote. It’s not perfect, though–any food Jack eats is visible until it’s digested, and any dirt or moisture gives him away. Fortunately they don’t talk about what happens when nature calls, but I digress. See? This movie makes the head go to weird places.
Anyway, Jack can’t wait to shed his invisibility, so he and Arthur return to Jack’s old room at the Lion’s Head so Jack can get his notebooks back. While he sneaks upstairs, the villagers just happen to be sitting around listening to the police chief deny that an invisible man exists, and on the way back down Jack upturns a bottle of ink.
Flora is overjoyed to find that Jack has come home, but she’s weirded out by his invisibility, and Jack regrets ever messing with his serum. Dr. Cranley is troubled when he finds out that one of the ingredients in Jack’s potion is mood-altering on the level of Jekyll and Hyde. He tells Arthur to keep Jack calm and don’t let him go anywhere. Even when the police start sniffing around looking for Iping’s mysterious poltergeist.
True to Dr. Cranley’s prediction, Jack snaps and threatens to kill Arthur. The police hatch a plan to spirit Arthur out of his house and put the place on surveillance to catch Jack, who steals an officer’s pants and goes skipping away singing like a kid.
So the townspeople and the police mount a joint search for Jack thoughout the countryside, despite the ironic futility of searching for someone who can’t be seen. There are ways around that not-so-small obstacle, though, and Jack will inevitably get too cocky for his own good.
Irony and absurdity are where The Invisible Man really succeeds. It can’t help it. No movie that has a pair of pants frolicking down a snowy lane while Claude Rains sings “Here We Go Gathering Nuts In May” will be anything else.
And how was the invisibility effect created? According to film historian David Skal, Rains wore a black velvet body suit against a black background, and then it was combined it with a shot of whatever set was supposed to be behind the character at the time. Rains’ daughter said that her dad was claustrophobic after having been exposed to mustard gas during the First World War, and he couldn’t breathe freely inside the suit, so shooting was stressful. More often than not, a body double was used.
Rains’ performance is masterful. His face isn’t onscreen for the majority of the movie, so he has to convey everything through his voice, and it’s pure pleasure because Rains had such a flexible, expressive voice. Although he’s surrounded by a bevy of competent actors like Henry Travers and Gloria Stuart, their delivery pales in comparison to his just on intensity alone. The film could have been completely dark all the way through and Rains’ voice would have made it work.
Amazingly enough, Rains wasn’t the first choice to play Jack Griffin. The studio thought Boris Karloff was a better bet, but Karloff wasn’t available, so they went with Rains, who was relatively unknown at the time. It was only Rains’ second movie and his first sound movie, but it set the tone for all the other Invisible Man films that followed it, even the remake that’s set to hit theaters today.
However, there’s nothing quite like the original. It was from a time when Universal really hit its stride with the horror-thriller talkie, and made Claude Rains a household name. Eighty-seven years later, it’s still an iconic piece of film history.
The Leap Year Blogathon is coming up tomorrow, all, and it’s gonna be fun. Thanks for reading…
David J. Skal. Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed!, Universal Home Entertainment, 2000.