I’m sure if you come into this movie knowing as little about it as I did, you won’t get anything close to the plot you imagined from the title. I pictured a ray that rendered people or objects invisible. I’m still not entirely sure what the ray is that the title refers to. The posters seem to suggest it has something to do with the powers Boris Karloff’s character acquires, but posters have been misleading before. (See my entry on Night Key.)
What we actually have here is a rather sad melodrama entangled with science-fiction. Boris Karloff is Dr. Janos Rukh, a brilliant scientist who (with the help of some 1930s movie pseudo-science) proves that a meteor struck Africa millions of years ago leaving a deposit of an unknown element that will revolutionize both physical and medical science. Unfortunately, his initial exposure to it not only causes him to glow in the dark, but also makes his skin deadly to whoever else touches him. Thanks to renowned physician Felix Benet (played by Bela Lugosi) the physical attributes of his condition can be held back, but Benet can do nothing to prevent the effects on Rukh’s mind.
What follows is a tragic descent into madness. The element, Radium X, is refined and through the work of Rukh, Benet and their colleagues becomes everything they’d hoped it would be. However, the expedition to Africa has caused Rukh’s marriage to crumble, and he feels that he is not receiving his due from the other scientists for his discovery despite being awarded the Nobel Prize. His madness leads him to blame all of his misfortunes, both real and imagined, on the rest of the expedition and he decides to use his deadly powers to enact his revenge.
As is often the case, there is a romantic subplot, but this time it’s at the cost of Rukh’s marriage. Frances Drake, as Diane Rukh, really appears devoted to her husband, but events in Africa lead her to believe he no longer cares for her, and she runs to the arms of Frank Lawton as Ronald Drake. All just part of the spiral that Dr. Rukh’s life goes into. At the beginning he seems to have a lot going for him, and slowly he begins to lose it all, and more to due to happenstance than to his own faults. Very sad.
While essentially enjoyable, The Invisible Ray is also a mixed bag. It opens in a classic stylized Universal mansion complete with a laboratory and an observatory; the middle section, set in Africa, is filled with politically incorrect natives and wealthy Brits who whine about the weather and fancy themselves great white hunters, and the final act is the exploits of a serial killer in the streets of Paris. It could have been a mess, but once again the lead performances of Karloff and Lugosi manage to tie it together. Despite his eventual villainy, Karloff is easy to sympathize with, and Lugosi is a welcome surprise in a more heroic role for a change. The two have a wonderful chemistry that manages to keep the film’s lesser performances from dragging it down.
Now I find myself wondering, and I think I already know the answer, as they so often seem romantically motivated, will Boris or Bela ever get the girl?
This week’s supporting features:
Goofy in Goofy and Wilbur (1939)
The Our Gang short Helping Grandma (1931)
I’ll be taking a break for a bit now as I prepare for our big vacation, which includes my annual trip to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia (See you there!). I’ll be back the weekend of September 16 with:
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Boris Karloff