Silver Screen Standards: The Invisible Man (1933)
With a new film inspired by the H.G. Wells story having arrived earlier this year, it seems like a great time to revisit the original movie adaptation of The Invisible Man, which made its first appearance back in 1933 and helped to build the horror canon of Universal Pictures and director James Whale. Although he’s not quite as iconic as other horror heavies like Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula, the Invisible Man has enjoyed plenty of cinematic representation over the decades, and the original movie still holds a special appeal for its darkly comedic tone, its startling effects work, and its breakout performance by an unseen Claude Rains.
The tone of The Invisible Man is one of its most striking elements, with Whale indulging a deeply perverse sense of humor even as he unfolds a tragic cautionary tale about delusional, self-destructive madness. The two moods exist simultaneously in almost every scene; we laugh at Jack Griffin’s antics and wild exultation even as we recognize that he’s quite literally a naked madman running through the streets. Whale offers us a delicious but terrible feast of irony, with Rains’ vocal performance as its most essential ingredient. Griffin rants about wealth and power, but he spends most of the movie alone and naked in the snow. He imagines himself a god but quickly sinks to the desperate existence of a rabid animal. Hunted for his crimes, he ends up sleeping in a barn instead of a palace, and the audience knows early on that the “way back” he is obsessed with finding can never exist.
Ambition and greed drove him to invent the serum, and those qualities are amplified as Griffin becomes more and more unhinged, until all that’s left is a raging malignant narcissism that destroys everything around him. The kindest interpretation of events, that is offered by his mentor Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), is that Griffin’s madness is a side effect of the drug that made him invisible, but we see very clearly that the seeds of that madness were already growing in the man who created such a drug in the first place. It’s a particularly provocative version of the familiar plot about the overreaching scientist, the man who dares to do something that should never be done and foolishly believes he is smart enough to escape the consequences.
Another highlight of the movie is its use of special effects, many of which look better today than those seen in films made much more recently. Griffin’s unwrapping to reveal his invisible body is such fun that we get to see it several times, and it never fails to impress. Simple tricks make footprints appear in snow, bicycles take off without riders, and furniture flies across the room, but they are presented so perfectly that they seem miraculous even if you know how they’re done. John P. Fulton and his special effects team really deliver in scene after scene, and it’s no wonder that Fulton would go on to win Oscar nominations for his effects work in three Invisible Man sequels, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), and Invisible Agent (1942). Fulton couldn’t be nominated for his work on the original movie because the award didn’t exist in 1933, but the later nominations prove how remarkable and groundbreaking Fulton’s work was on the whole series of films. He’d go on to win Special Effects Oscars for Wonder Man (1945) and The Ten Commandments (1956), but he worked on hundreds of pictures over the course of his career.
The supporting cast in The Invisible Man also deserves a lot of credit for helping the effects work their magic on the audience. They look as thunderstruck or terrified as the situation requires, especially when Griffin cuts loose on the hapless villagers. Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers have the biggest supporting roles but the least interaction with the invisible Griffin, while William Harrigan has to sell his fear of Griffin in multiple scenes. Whale indulges Irish character actress Una O’Connor with plenty of memorable moments in which she shrieks in horror at the invisible invader running amok in her establishment; he apparently thought O’Connor was so funny that he cracked up when shooting her scenes, and I admit that I also laugh out loud every time she starts screaming. Classic horror fans know both O’Connor and E.E. Clive, who plays Constable Jaffers, from their roles in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), while sharp-eyed viewers will also recognize genre regular Dwight Frye in an uncredited role as a reporter.
I haven’t seen the 2020 version of The Invisible Man to know how it compares with the original, but I’m much more a fan of classic horror than the modern entries into the genre. I can say that the later invisible protagonist movies lack Whale’s biting ironic humor and instead go for more straightforward comedy, although they still feature some fun effects and performers. The original movie earns its place in the pantheon of horror classics; it’s a must-see picture for fans of Universal monsters, James Whale, or Claude Rains. If watching The Invisible Man leaves you hungry for more than just a glimpse of Rains’ distinctive features, follow up with his turn as Sir John Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) or as the tragic title character in Phantom of the Opera (1943).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.