Horror Is Universal: “The Invisible Woman” (1940)

Because why should the men get to have all the fun of being invisible?

One thing I really like about the Invisible Man films is how they play with genre, something that the other Universal Horror series haven’t really done up to this point. Each one mixes and matches plot and tone elements to create distinct stories and different viewing experiences. The Invisible Man is pretty straightforward horror with its characters being stalked by an unseen menace, while Griffin’s playfulness adds an additional layer of dark comedy to the proceedings. The Invisible Man Returns adds in a murder mystery plotline and makes the horror angle more subtle. Its fear comes from the idea of losing control of yourself and becoming a threat to the people you love.

But with today’s movie, we see the most dramatic genre shift yet in these horror movies. Because instead of making it a horror movie, Universal said “What if we turned this into a live-action cartoon?”

Turns out you would get something that’s actually pretty fun.

The Plot: Absent-minded inventor Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) is in a bit of a pickle. His benefactor, notorious playboy Dick Russell (John Howard), is cutting him off on account of being broke himself. In a last-ditch effort to save both their fortunes, Gibbs sets out to find a human test subject for his new invisibility machine. The advertisement he puts in the newspaper reads “WANTED—a human being willing to become invisible. No remuneration.” Now who would send a serious response to an ad like that? Enter Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce), a girl who’s also down on her luck and has some big plans. She has the decidedly unglamorous job of being a department store model, getting leered at and harassed by customers while her abusive boss bullies her and the other girls for any small mistake. So when a chance to literally disappear comes calling, Kitty accepts, believing it will give her the means to give her boss a taste of his own medicine. The professor’s experiment is a success—but with Kitty wandering off, how will Gibbs prove to Russell that he’s really made a woman invisible? Things become even more muddled when Kitty starts to display some bizarre side effects, and when a group of mobsters show up with a plan to steal the invisibility machine. Can Kitty be returned to normal? Can the professor’s invention be kept out of the wrong hands? Can Russell learn to love a woman for her brains and not just her looks? And can Russell’s long-suffering butler (Charlie Ruggles) finally get a break from all this nonsense?

Development on The Invisible Woman started right after the release of The Invisible Man Returns, and a few of that film’s key crew members were involved from the start. Curt Siodmak and Joe May, who respectively wrote and directed Returns, both receive a story credit on Invisible Woman. The actual screenplay was written by Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo, both of whom were known for doing comedy films at the time. Playwright Gertrude Purcell also did some work on the script. In the director’s chair this time is A. Edward Sutherland, a prolific filmmaker who transitioned from silents to talkies and, like the screenwriters, was known for doing comedy.

What about the actors? Virginia Bruce was a Broadway star turned Hollywood actress. John Howard had been in high-profile projects like Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, and he had also starred as gentleman adventurer Bulldog Drummond, a bit of a James Bond prototype, in several films for Paramount. Charlie Ruggles had acted in a lot of comedies, notably Bringing Up Baby a few years before this. In the supporting cast we have some notable names like Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame and Margaret Hamilton — yes, the Wicked Witch of the West herself. But if any name in this cast sounds familiar to you, it’s probably John Barrymore. His Hamlet days were far behind him, of course, but he was still a highly respected actor and regarded as a great tragedian. Yeah, I wondered what he was doing here too. But if he thought The Invisible Woman was below him, you can’t tell in the film itself.

You need to know what you’re getting into with Invisible Woman. If you go in blind expecting it to be like the first two films, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. It has no narrative connection to either of those films, the only link being the presence of a person who turns invisible. And as I said in the beginning, this is very much not a horror film. It’s not even trying to be a horror film, like The Mummy’s Hand occasionally was. What we’ve got here is a screwball comedy with fantasy/sci-fi elements. If you told Howard Hawks to direct a Universal Horror movie, this is the kind of movie you’d get. And whether or not a viewer would enjoy this movie really depends on how they feel about that subgenre.

It might be helpful in this discussion to define what a screwball comedy is. A subgenre that was born and had its heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s, the purpose of a screwball comedy is to subvert your typical romance tropes. A female protagonist, who’s usually clever and outspoken and stubborn, chases after a man who initially wants nothing to do with her. A verbal battle of the sexes, during which the man gets challenged and humiliated and the woman gets to show off her wittiness. At the same time, farcical situations are piling up all around our heroes. A dog steals and buries a precious dinosaur bone, a tame pet leopard is mixed up with a dangerous one, a wrongly convicted man escapes from jail and you have to hide him from the police, a mob boss is trying to get married so his girlfriend can’t testify against him, or a woman has to help a millionaire outwit his wife’s lover by pretending to be Hungarian royalty. All of these are real, by the way. No matter how convoluted things get, everything gets a happy resolution and all the couples get married. It’s all very Shakespearean, when you think about it.

The Invisible Woman came out smack in the middle of the screwball comedy’s golden age, and it ticks off a lot of the boxes for the genre. Let’s take a look at Kitty Carroll, for example. We can easily make the argument for her being a Hawksian woman, an archetype named after the aforementioned Howard Hawks, who directed some of the most famous screwball comedies of the time. Like the most famous examples of this archetype, Kitty is smart, outspoken, determined and mischievous. She knows what she wants out of life, and she isn’t afraid to use some unconventional methods to get it. While traditionally feminine in many respects, her wittiness and trickster qualities set her apart as someone who can be “one of the boys,” so to speak. She can rock a dazzling evening gown, but then she can immediately snatch a bottle of pure grain alcohol off a table and chug the whole thing. More on that later.

The slapstick and the “battle of the sexes” elements prevalent in screwball comedies are here as well. The previous Invisible Man films both had a little slapstick to them (especially the original), but this movie cranks it up to an absurd degree. Hell, the first thing you see after the opening credits is an exaggerated pratfall down a flight of stairs. And that’s before Kitty becomes invisible and starts using her newfound power to knock out gangsters and cause chaos at her workplace. We’ve got some real Looney Tunes/Tom & Jerry vibes going on here. The slapstick also ties into how Kitty uses her invisibility to outsmart the men around her and flip the traditional male/female power dynamic. The whole plot begins because Kitty is upset with how her boss abuses the women in his workplace. He docks their pay for being two minutes later to work, he fires a girl who shows up with a cold and he allows the store customers to berate the models for things that weren’t even the models’ fault. So when she becomes invisible, she goes back to literally smack some sense into him and scare him into improving working conditions for his employees. It’s an exceedingly bizarre sequence, by the way: she basically forces him to lean out a window while she spanks him and yells about punishing him for how horrible he’s been. What is this, Fifty Shades of Clear? But he’s not the only guy that she runs circles around. She helps Professor Gibbs out of danger multiple times while simultaneously undermining his authority, and once she meets Dick Russell, she’s quick to give him a stern talking-to about the way he objectifies women.

The entrance of Dick into the story is where we start running into some problems. Because while this movie is entertaining in many respects, it is super outdated in many others. The romance subplot with Kitty and Dick is where most of my issues with the film come from. Dick is introduced as a shallow playboy who only prizes women for their looks. With that setup, the natural course would then be for Kitty to win him over with her brains instead and teach him to love somebody for who they are. What happens instead is Dick immediately becoming obsessed with finding out what Kitty looks like, insinuating that only an ugly woman would want to turn herself invisible, and Kitty trying to prove to him that she really is attractive. So then we get weird moments like her putting on her stockings while invisible so he can get a look at her legs, along with all this agonizing from both ends about whether or not he’ll find her pretty when she becomes visible again. It’s a very disappointing turn of events. None of this is helped by the fact that Dick isn’t an especially likeable or charismatic leading man. We’re supposed to think of him as an example of the “charming asshole” archetype, but that’s difficult when the first thing we learn about him is that one of his ex-lovers has just sued him for a huge amount of money and won. It was probably meant to be a simple gag in 1940, but a viewer in 2020 is more likely to see that and wonder what he did to his ex that warranted such a response. And on top of all that, Virginia Bruce and John Howard just don’t have very good chemistry in this film. It’s a lot more fun to watch Bruce and John Barrymore, who share way more screen time and develop a more interesting relationship. Gibbs is this absent-minded, socially awkward guy who doesn’t really get along with anyone, and Kitty is the first person who’s able to communicate with him. He goes from thinking of her as a test subject to developing a paternal affection for her: at one point, he refers to her as “the nicest visible I’ve ever met.”

Going back to the creepiness, another weird/troubling element of this film is its fixation on the main character’s nudity. The first two films did include this as a minor plot element, owing to how Griffin’s original experiment involved injecting a serum into his own body. But in those instances, the nudity doesn’t really get acknowledged outside one or two lines at the most. I initially thought The Invisible Woman might actually cut this element of the story since we’re now using an invisibility machine instead of a serum, and because female nudity is more of a taboo subject. But the film doesn’t just keep this idea, it doubles down on it. We get multiple scenes of Kitty stripping or getting dressed while invisible, as though to remind us of what we’d be seeing if she was visible. The men around her routinely point out that she’s not wearing anything and adjust their behavior accordingly, such as when they try carrying her to bed without actually touching her. We could argue that the film is simply trying to get more awkwardness out of the situation because it’s a comedy. But The Invisible Man had comedy sequences, and it never did any of this with Griffin. It really does come off like an attempt at titillation or voyeurism.

You know, there are much easier ways to get rid of a woman. Mostly they involve they involve a crawlspace or an acid pit.

I’m probably not making this movie sound very enjoyable, am I? Like I said earlier, whether or not you’ll like it really does depend on whether or not you like screwball comedies, because it is a warts-and-all example of the genre. And I’ll concede that many aspects of it played much better in 1940 than they do in 2020. But for every comedic moment that’s uncomfortable or falls flat, there’s a moment that really, truly works.

Fun little gags are sprinkled throughout this movie. The big draw for audiences was supposed to be slapstick, and the slapstick is perfectly fine, but some of the wordplay was what really got me. The script has a lethal number of groan-worthy puns dealing with invisibility, for example. At one point, “There! You see?” is met with “No, I don’t! I don’t see a darn thing!” Another good one is “Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to go over and not see someone.” It helps that the characters themselves usually seem to know how silly the jokes are. But one joke that really got me was when Professor Gibbs is looking for the invisible Kitty. Thinking she might have passed out on the floor, he starts crawling on his hands and knees yelling “Kitty! Kitty!” In comes his own pet cat, to which he then says “Not you!”

The script is definitely heightened by the quality of the performances. Virginia Bruce and John Barrymore in particular seem to be having quite a lot of fun with their material. But the undisputed MVP of this cast is Charlie Ruggles, who gets the biggest laughs in the whole film. He plays George, Dick Russell’s put-upon butler, and he turns in a performance that’s 50% William Powell in My Man Godfrey and 50% a cartoon character having a nervous breakdown. George has seemingly spent decades dealing with all kinds of nonsense from both Russell and Gibbs, and we see him respond to their weird orders and questions with a kind of simmering resentment laced with sarcasm.

Dick: Stop breathing down my neck.

George: It’s the breath of pleasure, sir. And perhaps a touch of garlic.

Dick: Call the airport, we’re leaving.

George: Oh, airport!

Dick: No, on the phone.

Gibbs: Did you shoot that elk?

George: No, I think it was born there.

He spouts off one-liners like this for a good chunk of the film, but once he meets Kitty and gets caught up in the escalating absurdity of the plot, he quickly loses his “only sane man” status. His gobsmacked terror is the source of even more great gags and lines. At one point he faints in fright and gets revived, only to get a live cat thrown at him by Kitty. “Here I go again, folks!” he yells before promptly collapsing. And later on he has a delayed reaction to being shot at — with a machine gun, no less! He’s also one of the characters who gets knocked around the most, allowing for some of the film’s best slapstick moments. He’s just a really fun character to watch.

Another point I’ll give to this movie is that by the final act, I legit wasn’t sure where it was going. The plot throws all kinds of crazy obstacles in the protagonists’ way, and they just keep piling on top of each other. The gangsters trying to abduct Professor Gibbs is just where things start getting weird. That’s before the characters find out that Kitty’s invisibility makes her more prone to drinking alcohol, and that alcohol makes the machine’s effects last longer than they’re supposed to. And that happens before the gangsters manage to steal the machine itself and start fiddling with it, which leads to even more mayhem. Even the very end of the film isn’t free of twists and turns — but I won’t spoil what happens there.

And what about the special effects, created as always by John P. Fulton? Still pretty good, even if their novelty is starting to wear off by this point. It’s a strong combination of the traveling matte effect and on-set tricks: the sequence where Kitty tears apart her workplace seems to rely mostly on the latter, and it looks convincing with glass shattering and dresses flying off clothes racks.

But ultimately, the strongest mark I can give this movie is a very simple one: it’s just fun. You’d be surprised how far a movie can get just by virtue of being fun to watch. You can tell that the cast and crew knew that they weren’t making great art, but you can also tell that they didn’t care if it was great art or not: they threw themselves into their work regardless and loved the film they were making. Even after eighty years, that joy is still infectious when you watch the final product. And that might be its greatest trick of all.

The Invisible Woman sticks out from the rest of the Universal Horror catalogue by abandoning the horror genre entirely in favor of comedy, but it’s a gamble that pays off. The story preserves the slapstick elements from the previous Invisible Man films and combines them with the tenets of screwball comedy, creating a fantasy-infused twist on that popular subgenre. The strong lead actors and even stronger supporting cast are having a great time with the script, making the one-liners and pratfalls funnier than they have any right to be. The film stumbles and feels outdated in its efforts to strike up a romance between the two lead characters, but the good — or at least the fun — mostly outweighs the bad in this instance. It’s certainly not among the stronger entries in the Universal Horror canon, but it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to be a diverting and entertaining little film, and at that it largely succeeds.

Final Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Well, folks, I know we’ve been through kind of a rough patch with these last few movies. We’ve had some pleasant surprises and some real stinkers. But fear not, for there has been a light at the end of the tunnel all this time, and we have reached it at last! That’s right, folks — we’re finally talking about another big one.

UP NEXT: The Wolf Man (1941)

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