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The Invisible Man (1933) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review

The Invisible Man
Gloria Stuart gets top billing, believe it or not

In the early 1930's, Universal Studios was riding high on their new monster movie craze. 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera had given way to 1931's Dracula, 1931's Frankenstein, and 1932's The Mummy. In the years that followed, these popular horror films would form loose connections and become cinema's first shared universe, nearly eighty years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the envy of every Hollywood studio. Before that, however, Universal was looking for a new monster to join in the fun, and so they turned to H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.

H.G. Wells' work had been adapted to critical and box office success with 1932's Island of Lost Souls, so Universal set out to replicate it with the help of Frankenstein director James Whale (a fascinating figure in his own right). Development of The Invisible Man was a difficult process, but the movie that was finally released in 1933 became one of Universal's biggest hits, nearly beating Frankenstein at the box office. Incidentally, the two movies--Frankenstein and The Invisible Man--have so much in common, I could devote a whole article to their similarities.

Despite widespread critical acclaim, Wells himself was lukewarm on Whale's The Invisible Man. The novelist didn't outright hate the film the way he did Island of Lost Souls, but he was disappointed enough to conclude that none of his works could be adequately adapted to film, a belief he maintained until his death in 1946. Viewed solely as an adaptation, the film does present some significant problems based on a few drastic changes from the source material, but given what the studio actually wanted from the project, it's remarkable the film bears as much resemblance to Wells' story as it does. (Wells did have final script approval, which is no doubt the reason Universal couldn't gut the story as completely as they wanted to.)

The Invisible Man
He definitely looks the part

For starters, there's the obligatory Hollywood romance, with the titular monster, Griffin, having a fiancée in Flora (played by future Titanic alum Gloria Stuart). Flora contributes very little to the actual story, presenting more of an obstacle than a benefit. By giving Griffin a love interest, the story must deal with the fact that Griffin would seem to have the capacity for love rather than being the bitter loner of Wells' novel. Perhaps this is why the script makes another significant change, and the one that is sure to be the most controversial among purist fans of the novel: monocaine. Monocaine is the name given to a fictitious drug that is part of Griffin's experiments in invisibility, and it has the little known side effect of making people go mad.

Griffin, in the film, is not portrayed as having already been an amoral monster before turning invisible. Rather, his insanity is explained away as the side effect of monocaine, while it is made relatively clear that he was a normal, albeit secretive, man whose motives were more sympathetic. This is a drastic change from Wells, and it strips the story of its teeth. If 1933's The Invisible Man makes one unforgivable change, this is surely it.

The Invisible Man
Not enough throwing priceless jewels into the sea

That said, I still love this movie, and it deserves its place in cinematic history. It showcases some incredible special effects for the time period, with mind-numbingly difficult film compositing using analogue technology that was downright primitive. More than that, though, it is carried almost entirely by the brilliantly theatrical performance of Claude Rains in the title role.

It's important to remember that this is still the talkies era of film, with everybody having their dials turned up to eleven if not twelve at all times. Actors weren't aiming for realism; they were aiming for drama. Subtlety and nuance weren't valued commodities in those days, and Rains was hired (after several other actors either quit or asked for too much money) by people who thought the man was hammy even by those standards. Rains, a London theatre actor, only had one American screen test under his belt that was apparently so bad and campy that nobody in Hollywood wanted to hire him for anything, not even a minor role. He moved his limbs too much and didn't have movie star good looks. Still, he had an incredible voice, and since the role of Griffin required exaggerated physicality, a face covered at all times, and a good voice, director James Whale took the gamble on Rains, a gamble that paid off in spades.

The Invisible Man
The effects are shocking!

When you think of the stereotype of an early cinematic villain, Claude Rains' Invisible Man is who you're thinking of. He has a thick British accent, going from sinister whisper to megalomaniacal laughing all while rolling his Rs and punctuating every syllable as though it were the most important one. If he had a mustache, he'd absolutely be twirling it at all times. Despite the drastic change to his backstory, Rains' Griffin is pretty damn close to Wells' version, albeit dialed up a few notches, and his performance is singularly entertaining and fascinating to watch. The scene where Flora tries to talk to him before his "reign of terror" is easily my favorite, where you watch Rains go from restrained and compassionate to full-on villainy that would make Bond baddies blush. If there is only one reason to see 1933's The Invisible Man, that reason is Claude Rains.

I intend to cover at least two more adaptations of Wells' novel in the coming weeks (and maybe one or two of the sequels/spin-offs, such as The Invisible Man Returns), but I'm pretty confident in saying that this 1933 classic is the closest we've come to a true adaptation of Wells' work. There is another adaptation from Universal coming out next year (to be directed by Leigh Whannell, an up-and-comer worth paying attention to), but from what I know about it, it's going to have even less in common with the source material than ever before, as though Universal has finally gotten its wish: it can make a movie with Wells' title and the idea of a man turned invisible, but they can remove absolutely everything else about the story. It's a shame, too, because I daresay a faithful adaptation would make for a pretty good film.

-e. magill 9/26/2019

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