Have you seen…’The Invisible Man’ (1933)

Tiger Media Network

“King Kong” isn’t the only special effects landmark celebrating its 90th anniversary. “The Invisible Man”, directed by James Whale with special effects by John P. Fulton is one of the best films of its kind from back in the day, and we’re going to give it’s well deserved due.

“The Invisible Man” is about a scientist named Jack Griffin who creates a formula that can turn himself invisible. Two problems arise with this discovery, however. One, he can’t find a way to turn back. Two, one of the ingredients he used is a drug that slowly turns the user insane. As Griffin progresses through the film, he goes from an intelligent and respected scientist to an egotistical, murderous madman who must be stopped.

This film is a part of the Universal Monsters canon which debatably began in 1931 with “Dracula” and debatably ended in the 1950s with the Creature From The Black Lagoon” movies. Based on the 1897 book by H.G. Wells, when “The Invisible Man” entered production in 1931 almost none of the early drafts bore any resemblance to the novel. The studio was only interested in using Wells’ name for publicity purposes but since Wells had script approval, the final script had to adapt his novel at least somewhat faithfully. By the time it was ready to be filmed, James Whale (fresh off “Frankenstein” and “The Old Dark House) was attached as the director, but two things of almost equal importance still needed to be decided.

First, who was going to be the Invisible Man? They wanted someone with a unique voice to play the character, and they had a few options. Boris Karloff (the actor who played the Monster in “Frankenstein” and the titular character in 1932’s “The Mummy”) was considered but ultimately didn’t work out. Colin Clive (who played Dr. Frankenstein) was also considered but also didn’t work out. In the end, just as James Whale did the casting for the Monster in “Frankenstein,” he cast a complete unknown for this high-profile role.

On the left is actor Claude Rains. On the right is director James Whale.

Claude Rains was a British stage and theater actor who had never acted in a feature film other than a silent film from a full decade before. That lack of experience in film didn’t matter at all to Whale. What Rains had was a very unique and identifiable voice that was perfectly suited to the character. This film ended up launching Rains’ Hollywood career, leading him to star in other iconic roles in films such as “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Casablanca,” occasionally returning to the Universal Horror films in such projects as “The Wolf Man” and the 1943 color remake of “Phantom of the Opera.”

The second thing that had to be decided was how to do the effects. For scenes where the title character had no clothes on, that would be simple enough to convey. Have the visible actors act out the scene as if he were there, dub over his voice, and use wires when he’s picking up stuff. Simple enough, but how about scenes where he’s taking elements of these clothes off exposing his invisibility? Enter Hollywood effects man John P. Fulton. 

This mirror scene required four separate shots. One of the character’s back, a front shot of the character, the room itself, and the reflection background.

Fulton’s solution was pretty much the precursor to the modern-day green screen. What they would do when filming the taking off the clothes scenes, was have the actor wear black velvet, have him put on his character’s clothes, film him taking off said clothes in front of a black velvet background, and superimpose him on the background of the scene. It was a painstaking process that required tons of work and ingenuity but paid off. Sure, by modern standards not all shots hold up, but still it’s incredible how they were able to do it all and they deserve to be admired for all the hard work that was put into them. Sadly, there was no Academy Award for Best Effects in 1933, but if there had it would’ve surely been a close match between this and “King Kong.”

The rest of the film is also pretty great. Most of the cast members are good for the most part. Claude Rains is excellent, and two members of the cast have had pretty iconic roles in other films. The character Dr. Cranley was played by Henry Travers, best known as Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Dr. Cranley’s daughter is played by Gloria Holden, best known as Old Rose in “Titanic.” The rest of the cast is fine for the most part, but Una O’Connor’s maid character is pretty annoying, and the acting for some of the cops is a bit off. Though for an early sound film, the latter might be a bit expected since some actors hadn’t become adjusted to acting in sound films yet.

The film moves along at a quick pace. It’s only 70 minutes and it doesn’t waste any time. It moves right along and gives you all that you want. One peculiar thing that I noticed watching this film is the musical score. Most early sound films of 1927-1933 don’t really have much of a score, and this film is no exception for the most part, except for the beginning and end. The opening credits have a score (which was customary back then) but in the last ten minutes, suddenly there’s a score to go along with the movie. It’s odd. It’s almost as if James Whale was like, “Oh yeah, this film should have music” and just pressed the music button or something. Regardless, I don’t really think the lack of music is really a problem. It moves along so fast anyway, I don’t really mind.

One last thing to note is that weirdly the film is actually kind of funny. There’s a lot of dark humor at play, which is very much the style of director James Whale. Plenty of other examples of his humor can be found in his other films such as “The Old Dark House” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Early on when the Invisible Man is doing crazy stuff you sort of laugh with, at least until he goes too far. Then, you realize that there’s no going back and he must be stopped.

Naturally, the film was a huge success when it was released in November of 1933, and like all the Universal Monsters it had its fair share of sequels. The only one that I would seriously recommend is the first sequel, 1940’s “The Invisible Man Returns.” That one featured effects that built off the original (and earned an Oscar nomination) and featured Vincent Price (as the titular character) in one of his early roles. The rest of the sequels after that one mostly disregard continuity and decline in quality going forward. The original also received a remake in 2020 that was also well received, and while that one did do a good job updating the original, I personally prefer the former. I guess I’m just a man of the classics. 

Overall, “The Invisible Man” is one of the best films in the Universal Monsters’ film canon. If you’re looking for a good introduction to classic monster movies, this would be a pretty good one to start with. And for anyone else, it’s probably still a good time. Provided that you can find a way to see it.

Side Note

The Invisible Man has the highest kill count of any of the classic monsters. During the course of the 70-minute film, he killed at least 104 people. Yikes.

John Billinger is in the Informatics department at FHSU.

He is currently working on his own invisibility formula.