Friday, 13 June 2014

The Invisible Woman (1940)

The success of The Invisible Man Returns in 1940 inspired Universal to make a second sequel later the same year, The Invisible Woman. This time the idea would be played purely for laughs, an ominous sign of the way Universal’s science fiction and horror movies would go as the decade progressed.

Millionaire playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) has been funding the researches of eccentric scientist Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore). That is, until Dick’s money ran out. Horrified by the thought that the money is about to dry up Professor Gibbs tries to convince Dick that his latest invention will be a sure-fire money-spinner. There must surely be millions in an invisibility serum. No, I don’t follow that argument either but logic is not exactly this movie’s strong suit.

All the professor needs is a willing human guinea pig, which he finds in the person of fashion model Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce). Kitty wants to become invisible so she can pay back her boss Mr Growley (Charles Lane) for making her life and that of the other girls at his fashion house a misery.

The idea of invisibility also has considerable appeal for gangster Blackie (Oscar Homolka), slowly going mad from homesickness in Mexico. If he can become invisible he can return to the States. Blackie despatches three of his stooges to steal the invisibility machine from the laboratory of Professor Gibbs. 

Of course Dick Russell falls madly in love with the invisible Kitty Carroll. Kitty and the professor get kidnapped by the mobsters but they find an invisible woman to be too much to cope with. Given how irritating Virginia Bruce’s performance is I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the mobsters. The gangsters discover that using the invisibility machine without the serum makes their voices go high-pitched and squeaky, which we’re supposed to find incredibly funny.

John Barrymore’s career just about hit rock bottom with this movie but by this stage he would accept any part he was offered. He does his best and his hammy performance suits the mood of the movie even if it is sad to see a great actor reduced to such crude mugging. John Howard manages to be the lest annoying member of the cast. I found Virginia Bruce’s performance to be much too overdone for my tastes although to be fair she was undoubtedly giving the director what he wanted. The supporting cast, and indeed the major players as well, try very hard although (to my mind) with very little effect. Margaret Sullavan had been the studio’s choice as the female lead but having taken one look at the script she turned it down even though it meant going on suspension. She felt it was well worth the trouble to avoid making this picture, and she was right.

Director A. Edward Sutherland seems to have been most at home in the comedy genre which was presumably why he was picked for this production. He keeps the pacing very tight which is certainly one of the film’s assets. Curt Siodmak was initially responsible for the screenplay, being later replaced by Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Rinaldo and Lees specialised in broad comedy and that’s what Universal wanted.

The comedy here is very broad indeed and relies heavily on slapstick. It’s a type of comedy that was all too common in American movies of this era and it’s an approach that has always left me cold. If slapstick is your bag then you might get more enjoyment from this movie than I did.

On the plus side the gadgetry is quite good and the invisibility machine is rather cool. Even Universal’s lesser efforts generally looked reasonably good and this movie is no exception. Universal’s special effects maestro John P. Fulton earned an Oscar nomination for this effort and the invisibility effects do work extremely well.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones. The transfer is acceptable without being anything special.

I found The Invisible Woman to be an insufferable ordeal although as I’ve been at pains to point out this type of comedy is one to which I seem to be immune. I can’t recommend this one unless you’re very fond indeed of broad comedy in which case it might perhaps be worth a rental. Although probably not.

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