“A few chemicals mixed together, that’s all, and flesh and blood and bone just fade away.”
When I first read it in sixth grade, H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897) captured my imagination. I was dying for a film adaption. One night, my wish was answered when I landed on a black-and-white 1933 film playing on TCM. I was enthralled by the work of James Whale, Claude Rains and special effects wizard John P. Fulton, who created a film that’s as fascinating and interesting as its source material.
The film’s beginning is identical to the novel. One wintry night early in February, a mysterious stranger (Claude Rains) dressed in a long winter coat with his face completely obscured by medical bandages and dark goggles, takes up room and board at a small inn somewhere in the U.K.
The man quickly sets up shop. His room becomes a regular mad scientist’s workshop with test tubes, beakers and bottles littering a large table.
The innkeepers, a husband and wife played by Una O’Connor and Forrester Harvey, get fed up with the man after one too many angry, cursing outbursts and demand that he leave. The man refuses and, furious, pushes Harvey’s character down the stairs. The police are sent for, and the stranger reveals himself for what he is: an invisible man.
The Invisible Man turns out to be a scientist named Jack Griffin, who’s been away from home far too long. Worried about his absence, Griffin’s lover Flora (played by Gloria Stuart) insists that her father, Dr. Cranley (played by It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Henry Travers), and Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), colleagues of Griffin’s, find him and discover what he’s up to.
Meanwhile, crazed and obsessed with gaining power, Griffin, with the police ever on the lookout, begins a reign of terror in which no one will see him come and no one will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob and rape and kill.
This is one of the darker horror films we’ve covered. This is Pre-Code, so that probably helps. I doubt references to rape (which we never see or hear about beyond a single line) would’ve been permissible even a year later.
Thankfully, the film isn’t so bleak and dreary that there isn’t still fun to be had. Whale, as ever, has a wicked sense of humor. He injects his rather camp comedy throughout the film. I’ll admit it can be corny when it comes from overacting extras and character actors playing over-the-top, eccentric locals, but enough of it works for me to give it high marks, especially the deliciously dark humor.
Rains was gifted with one of the best voices in Hollywood. He had that great ability to switch on a dime from calm and intelligent to angry and raving, then to soft and romantic. Perfect for a character whose voice has to do all the heavy lifting.
It’s hard to see someone else in the role, but Rains was not Universal’s first choice.
Much like with The Mummy (1932), Universal wanted to continue its association with its megastar Boris Karloff. He had a marvelous voice, lisp and all. There was great power behind it, even when it was calm and reserved. Sadly, salary disputes with Universal head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. prevented Karloff from taking on the role.
A list of alternate actors were suggested. Amongst them was Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) co-star Colin Clive, who played the mad Doctor Frankenstein.
The role appealed to Clive, and I can only see him excelling in the part. Even more so than Karloff, his voice was magnificent and able to invoke rage, madness, and violence, but also tenderness and love. Wanting to get back home to England, Clive ended up turning the film down.
Claude Rains was picked after Whale came across Rains’s 1920s screen-test. Story goes Rains looked terrible in the test, him later calling it “the worst screen test in the history of movie making.” But it was Rains’s distinctive, husky baritone voice that interested Whale and won him the role.
The Invisible Man was Rains’s second ever film, his first movie in Hollywood and his inaugural sound picture. It’s appropriate that his introduction to talkies would so heavily feature his iconic voice.
But Rains was only half of what would be the Invisible Man. The other was Universal’s head of special effects John P. Fulton.
I won’t go into the logistics of how Rains was made invisible, but it was a complicated, exact and difficult process. It’s one of the great achievements in special effects, even if some wires and flaws in the process can be seen.
Sadly, Fulton’s work is often overshadowed by the equally amazing stop-motion animation used to create a team of dinosaurs and the eighth wonder of the world in King Kong, which came out that same year.
The Invisible Man special effects, acting, humor and story still have the ability to captivate and fascinate. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and if you don’t see it, then you’re surely missing out on a underappreciated classic.