By 1933, Universal Studios had become a veritable fear factory, thanks to the efforts of production head Carl Laemmle Jr. After the amazing profits earned from Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, he was eager to find Universal’s next horror property.
Carl Junior had been trying to get a Frankenstein sequel off the ground, but director James Whale, who had been so instrumental to the original film’s success, had been resisting it. Whale was a true artist who did not like to repeat himself, so the idea of a sequel was distasteful at best, even if it was guaranteed to be a hit.
In an effort to satisfy Carl Junior’s desire for something in the realm of the fantastic, Whale expressed interest in The Invisible Man, based on H. G. Wells’ 1897 sci-fi novella. It presented some special challenges and was just different enough from his previous films to intrigue Whale. This project had been making the rounds in Hollywood for a while, but a satisfactory script had never been produced. Most of the screenplays had little fidelity to the source material, which was somewhat problematic because Wells was still alive and very vocal about the liberties being taken with his work. His book The Island of Doctor Moreau had been adapted by Paramount as The Island of Lost Souls and Wells was openly critical of it. He was determined to ensure The Invisible Man be treated better cinematically and managed to obtain script approval for the project.
Once he’d settled on the project, Whale brought in noted British playwright R. C. Sherriff to turn out a new script for The Invisible Man. Sherriff had written the play Journey’s End, which was Whale’s first big break and led to his film career. While Sherriff’s take on the story was approved by Wells, there were some differences between the book and script. Sherriff added a love interest for the invisible man, Dr. Jack Griffin, and changed the nature of some of the characters’ relationships and personalities. Wells reportedly liked the end result but was a bit upset that Griffin had been transformed into “a lunatic.”
The Invisible Man opens on a snowy winter’s night in the English village of Iping, where a mysterious man covered in bandages and wearing dark shades makes his way to the Lion’s Head Inn and demands a room immediately. Of course, the appearance of this odd man sets tongues a’ wagging in the pub, which is filled with colorful characters. But none are more colorful than Jenny (Una O’Connor), the innkeeper’s wife, who tries to satisfy the escalating demands of her new erratic tenant, whom we soon learn is Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a scientist who has used himself as a guinea pig for his successful invisibility research. Griffin turns his room into an ad hoc laboratory while trying to devise an antidote, much to Jenny’s displeasure. She rapidly loses patience with Griffin’s increasingly violent behavior and demands he leave, whereupon Griffin throws the innkeeper down the stairs. When the police arrive, Griffin removes his bandages and takes great joy in totally freaking out everyone with his invisibility by moving objects around eerily and strangling a policeman before slipping away.
Griffin makes his way to the home of Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), who works with Griffin under Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), a food preservative researcher whose daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) is Griffin’s fiancée. The invisibility formula Griffin has ingested is gradually driving him mad and he wants Kemp’s assistance to help him—dare I say it—rule the world. Flora tries to talk sense to him, but Griffin goes on a murderous rampage before police finally shoot him.
The film feels somewhat slight at 71 minutes, but it’s an effective 71 minutes. With The Invisible Man, Whale delivered what is arguably the most impressive of the first two major special effects blockbusters (the other being King Kong, released a few months earlier). Basically, the film is a few cool set pieces held together with some talky exposition, much like the bloated 3-D CGI movie that’s likely showing at your local multiplex right now. In previous Universal fright fests, it was makeup man Jack Pierce’s work that grabbed all the attention. But there’s no denying that The Invisible Man belonged to John P. Fulton, the special effects whiz who devised the revolutionary invisibility techniques used in the flick.
Fulton studied electrical engineering before moving to Hollywood and breaking in as a cameraman in 1923. He began specializing in special effects photography, which was being invented together with the burgeoning craft of filmmaking. At the time, methods such as matte paintings and miniatures were being developed and Fulton excelled, creating new techniques that moved the art of effects forward.
When The Invisible Man came along, Fulton was already head of Universal’s special effects department and had worked on Frankenstein and The Mummy. The shooting of the invisibility scenes in The Invisible Man was so complicated that Whale allowed Fulton to serve as director of any and all effects shots. To achieve the desired results, Fulton devised a method where a scene would be filmed several times, once with Claude Rains in a special black costume shot against a black background. Then the scene would be filmed without Rains. This would be repeated depending on the number of elements in each shot. Finally, the takes would be superimposed against each other on the final negative, resulting in invisibility. This process could be an arduous experience for cast and crew, often requiring several hours to accomplish. While the end result looks a bit quaint today, this was groundbreaking in 1933.
Casting the role of the invisible man presented something of a challenge for Whale. What actor in his right mind would take a part that wouldn’t allow him to be seen? Whale needed to find someone who could bury his ego, but who also possessed a voice that was distinctive and expressive though not overtly theatrical. Claude Rains was the perfect choice.
Though he would become a highly respected actor with a career spanning almost half a century, in 1933 Rains was an unknown commodity. He began his career on the London stage and showed up in one silent film before testing for The Invisible Man. His style was considered excessively melodramatic, but that superb voice was too magnificent to be ignored. It was a rich and cultured instrument that Rains used to good effect, making him easily believable as both a respected scientist and a demented megalomaniac. As usual at Universal, Boris Karloff was the studio’s first choice for the role, and he would’ve been fine, but, thankfully, destiny stepped in to give Rains a break. And without his role in The Invisible Man, we might never have been blessed with his skilled performances in treasured films such as Casablanca, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Notorious and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Rains would return to the world of Universal horror with appearances in The Wolf Man and the remake of Phantom of the Opera.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Invisible Man is the supporting cast. The movie is full of fun, slightly campy turns from actors such as Forrester Harvey, John Carradine, Dwight Frye, Walter Brennan and Edward E. Clive as Constable Jaffers, who steals every scene except those he shares with the wonderful Una O’Connor. O’Connor was a veteran Irish stage actress who’d worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Noel Coward before Whale cast her here as Jenny. Her broad features, shrieking voice and hysterical mannerisms made her a favorite of Whale, who cast her once more in his masterwork, Bride of Frankenstein.
By now, Whale had become fairly settled in at Universal and seemed able to take each project he chose and make it his own. Although a science fiction tale with sociopolitical subtext, The Invisible Man was a good fit thematically with Whale’s other works, which are colored by his mordant sense of humor and peppered with outsiders, underdogs and those grappling with things mankind would do well to avoid. The combination of director and material paid off for all involved; The Invisible Man did record business and was hailed by The New York Times as one of the ten best films of 1933.
Sadly, the fate of The Invisible Man was the same as most Universal monsters: His dignity was stripped away through numerous sequels of diminishing quality and an inexplicable encounter with comedy team Abbott and Costello. Universal’s shoddy treatment of its most valuable franchises should feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Halloween III or Jay and Silent Bob’s cameo in Scream 3.
Granted, The Invisible Man hasn’t been spotted all that often in recent times, but everyone knows who he is. His story still has enough cachet to have inspired several recent retellings. In 1992, Chevy Chase and John Carpenter took a comedic pass at his legend in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and in 2000 crazed Dutch genre-meister Paul Verhoeven mounted an unofficial remake with Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue called Hollow Man, which played up the story’s more sensational elements. And, of course, as with all classic horror flicks, an upcoming “reimagining” is in development.
H. G. Wells’ tale of a madman who makes possible an impossible dream has definitely struck a chord with the critics and the public through the decades, and I doubt that will change in the future. I think it’s safe to say that although The Invisible Man is sometimes difficult to see in this day and age, you’ll always be able to be find him if you look hard enough.