I never participated in that line at The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the lips would sing “Claude Rains was the Invisible Man” and the audience would shout, “Who’s Claude Rains?” Ignoring that the answer was right there in the song, of course I knew damn well who Claude Rains was. The Invisible Man was, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for Rains, who appeared in many classics over his career, but this was his first major role, and the one that made him famous, which is interesting considering his face is only seen for about twenty seconds.
Jack Griffin is quite a contrast from Rains’ other roles too. There’s usually a level of charm in a Claude Rains character, just look at the often unscrupulous yet always likable Captain Renault in Casablanca, arguably his other most famous role, but there’s little to like about this self-serving invisible man with an inflated sense of importance. But it’s a memorable performance for such an unlikable character. He lashes out at people with little provocation and embarks on a reign of terror with an air of pure glee.
At least in the film, his madness can be blamed on the ingredient monocane in his invisibility formula; in the novel, his egotism is a constant that the formula merely intensifies. Yet, The Invisible Man is a far more accurate reflection of its literary source than Frankenstein or Dracula. Yes, it has a romantic subplot injected into it, some of the novel’s characters are absent, and it has a very different climax, but a lot of the elements of the book are still there.
In the end however, I’d say this film is more Whale than Wells. One of director James Whale’s trademarks was his dark sense of humor. There’s plenty of humor simply in the casting of the wonderful Una O’Connor who plays the landlady at the inn where Griffin takes up residence, (and who gets an even bigger and funnier role later on in Bride of Frankenstein), and more humor can be found as Griffin dispatches one-liners when he victimizes innocent villagers, but it’s Whale’s juxtaposition of slapstick and horror that really struck a chord with me. Take for example Griffin’s murder of a policeman that is preceded by his throwing ink in the man’s face resulting in an Oliver Hardy-esque take to the camera.
There are many great performances by character actors in small roles too numerous to mention, though I must give props to E. E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Henry Travers, who is probably best known as the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is enjoyable as Dr. Cranley, but William Harrigan is rather dull as Dr. Kemp. And I’m afraid even Gloria Stuart’s role as Griffin’s love interest, Flora, leaves something to be desired. It may not be her fault, as I said, the romantic subplot seems like it’s only there to fill an obligatory niche, and I feel the need to go easy on Miss Stuart, as I was somewhat irritated last year when she passed away and headlines could only refer to her as the “Titanic actress” as if the rest of her 72 year career was non-existent.
Rounding out the things that make this movie special are John P. Fulton’s special effects. Even today those scenes where Griffin removes his bandages to reveal nothing underneath are pretty startling. I’m sure they incited many gasps in the 1930s.
Something else that sets the Invisible Man series apart from the Frankenstein and Dracula films is that the author of the source material was around to see it. I’m not sure if H. G. Wells’ reaction to the movies is documented, but I’d be very interested in what he thought of seeing his late 19th Century story, brought into the age of automobiles and radios.
This week’s supporting features:
Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Ali Baba Bunny (1957)
The Our Gang short Bargain Day (1931) featuring the final appearance of Jackie Cooper in the series.
Next week I go to a theatrical screening of Dracula (1931), I’ll post my entry on that sometime the following weekend. If you’re going to be in Central Florida on October 8, stop by the Enzian in Maitland and join me.