“I went to shake his hand, his hand was gone, I looked up to speak to him, his head was gone. Then he took off his shirt, his body was gone, he took off his pants, his legs were gone! Then he spoke to me, I was gone.”
I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. If you’ve read my reviews of the other Invisible Man films from this month, you’ll know I’m fond of the series, the first being one of my favorite movies of all time. The added bonus of Bud, Lou, and the backdrop of corrupt boxing (a setting I’ve always been drawn to despite my aversion to the actual sport) makes it practically a given that I would enjoy Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).
Bud Alexander (Bud Abbott) and Lou Francis (Lou Costello) are recent graduates of Dugan’s Detective Training school. Their first case comes walking through the door in the form of Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer on the run from the police. After Tommy refused to throw a fight, his manager was found dead. Tommy has been accused of the murder, but he says he’s innocent.
Eventually, Bud and Lou agree to take on the case of clearing Tommy’s name. To aid the boys in their detective work, Tommy has Doctor Gray (Gavin Muir), use Jack Griffin’s old formula to make him invisible. Now Tommy can listen into conversations and help uncover the truth behind the frame job.
Meanwhile, Lou and Bud have gone undercover as a boxer and manager to try to collect evidence and get a confession out of whoever framed Tommy. Lou gets more than he bargained for when he’s set to face Rocky Hanlon (John Daheim), the boxer Tommy wasn’t supposed to beat, in the ring – but thankfully the invisible Tommy has his back. But will Tommy be able to keep Bud and Lou from being bumped off by a corrupt boxing promoter played by Sheldon Leonard?
With the exception of a photograph of Claude Rains as Griffin from The Invisible Man (1933), our previous male leads – Rains, Vincent Price, and Jon Hall – aren’t in a frame of this movie. That’s too bad, because I would’ve loved to have seen Rains or Price reprise their role (despite whatever continuity errors that would cause for Rains’s character).
But after watching it, I’ve decided the film actually works better with a new character. This isn’t a horror comedy but a comedic crime flick with a science fiction twist. Price might’ve pulled this off (The Invisible Man Returns, 1940, is essentially a crime film, too), but I just can’t imagine him as a boxer. The same goes for Rains.
I do wonder, though, if an invisible man was even needed. Except for the climax, which sees (no pun intended) the invisible Tommy helping Lou in the ring, this whole movie could be done as a straightforward comedy crime movie without any trace of H.G. Wells. This wasn’t the case with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which needed to have those monsters to make everything work.
Not enough is done with the invisibility concept to make it worthwhile. I don’t want to say there isn’t an attempt to craft gags involving the invisibility concept. There is. Tommy becomes drunk and gets Bud and Lou in a scrap or two, he makes Bud look like a loony when he (Tommy) starts raving like a mad man at a public restaurant Bud is eating at, he confuses a waiter when Bud and Lou try to order food, and he frustrates police when he keeps disappearing whenever Bud calls them to apprehend him.
But these jokes aren’t that funny. Similar gags with food and side-characters unaware of the invisible man were done in Invisible Agent (1942) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). There’s nothing new or creative here to make the invisible-centric comedy stand out.
I have to admit to an affection for the film regardless of its okay script. Again, I like the invisibility concept and I love the boxing setting. One other thing I enjoy about the movie is that Abbott has more to do. In Meet Frankenstein he’s almost regulated to a side-part, Lou getting all the great material.
That was partly because Abbott’s character in that film didn’t believe in the out of the ordinary goings-on until near the end of the picture. It’s also a matter of Abbott generally playing a straighter, authoritative part to counter balance Costello’s over-the-top role.
Here Abbott is in the loop from much earlier on. We lose the misunderstanding gags between the duo (where Abbott never manages to see the weird happenings that Costello is fully aware of), but I’m fine with that. I get frustrated with that type of comedy and am much happier seeing Bud and Lou work together toward a mutual goal. I still wish Abbott had better jokes to work with, but it’s just how their team films worked.
I can’t say this is a better film that Meet Frankenstein. That movie had a better script and better utilized its stable of monsters. But it’s always fun hanging out with Bud and Lou, and this comedy is no exception.