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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940) / INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

As part of Universal’s resurgence as the House of Horror in the 1940s, the studio not only resurrected its icons of fear and put them to work again, it also experimented with their formulas. This was ultimately to their detriment, watering down the original chills to a thin gruel of gruesomeness with unintentional and intentional laughs (respectively the King of the Ring multi-monster features like House of Dracula and the diminishing returns of the later Abbott and Costello Meet comedy franchise). One series that departed from and then returned to its roots was The Invisible Man. After the first two films, the titular one in 1933 and the sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the next two iterations changed direction into other genres, The Invisible Woman coming out in December of that year.

I shan’t dwell greatly on these non-genre entries yet they’re worth noting as part of the franchise’s evolution. The Invisible Woman dispensed with all elements of darkness, instead being a science-fiction comedy and very much reminiscent of Disney’s mad boffin family fantasies. This could so easily go wrong in subverting expectations but it works well partly due to the expert guidance of director A. Edward Sutherland whose comic chops were well established working with screen comedians such as W.C. Fields (many times), Mae West in Every Day’s A Holiday (1937) and Laurel and Hardy in 1939’s The Flying Deuces.  He gets colourful and confident performances from his leads - Virginia Bruce as beleaguered department store model Kitty Carroll is adept at both sexy glamour and down-to-earth savvy as she volunteers to turn invisible for cash and to get back at her ruthless old boss. There’s witty romance on hand too in her developing banter with Dick Russell (John Howard, whose pleasantly-relaxed charm served him that same month’s release of the classic The Philadelphia Story).

To offset the cuteness, there’s eccentric screwball comedy, slapstick and weird science.  Russell’s gloriously sarcastic butler is beloved screen comedian Charlie Ruggles who gets most of the best lines deferring to no-one and observing the growing insanity in his household with withering sarcasm:
“Did you shoot that moose?”
“No, I think it was born there”.

As if having Margaret Hamilton as the severe housekeeper isn’t enough - who can forget The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West? - we get John Barrymore hamming it up with fruity relish as Professor Gibbs. By 1940 Barrymore had sacrificed his early theatrical prestige on the altar of booze, resorting to self-parody cash-ins to fund his still lavish lifestyle (I highly recommend reading Hollywood’s Hellfire Club and Goodnight Sweet Prince for the very low-down) and yet even in decline he is marvellously afire. He alternates between grandfatherly dottiness and stern virtual misogyny as he dematerialises Bruce with his invisibility machine into a farcical and fun plot plunging them into competition with Oscar Homolka’s bungling criminal gang. (What chance could it have with the Three Stooges’ Shemp Howard as a member?).  With pratfalls galore and some great one-liners, The Invisible Woman is a very entertaining alternate reality for the formula, though thankfully not continuing the absurdities of the ending whereby Bruce’s baby has inherited her invisibility properties.

The third sequel, Invisible Agent (1942) equally rejects both horror and also comic elements in favour of splicing science fiction with a straight-arrow pandering to topical WWII-themed B-movies. Here, Jon Hall is Frank Raymond, a fake identity concealing him as the grandson of Dr Jack Griffin from the original film. We learn he has the invisibility formula when Axis agents come calling, led by Conrad Stauffer (the venerable British actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Peter Lorre, his slightly Asiatic looks cunningly cast as Japanese Baron Ikito. They attempt to coerce Griffin into giving up his secret for money. Instead of agreeing, the lantern-jawed patriot tells the U.S. government he will only allow the serum to be used upon himself, thus setting the scene for anti-Nazi derring-do behind enemy lines.

Jon Hall is the only actor ever to have made two Invisible Man sequels as very different characters and acquits himself well in this first. (Stay tuned, we will cover The Invisible Man’s Revenge in the next instalment). Agent allows him to play the clear hero with credible guts and gusto, paired nicely with Ilona Massey as German double agent Maria Sorenson before she played Baron Frankenstein in another Universal franchise extension - Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

The invisibility angle makes sense for its weaponised capabilities in the wrong hands – no more far-fetched than any other technology-centred guys-on-a-mission war movie  such as the ‘heavy water’ component in 1965’s The Heroes of Telemark . As a spy espionage film, Invisible Agent proves once again that the unseen need not be unsupportable when capably  directed with pace, by Edwin L. Marin and a return to full scripting by series creator Curt Siodmak who had only provided the story to The Invisible Woman.

Next, we will see how the franchise returned to a welcome horror tone with Jon Hall coming back to seek The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)...

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