Yesterday we looked at ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Now we turn to another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel, one that was greeted more warmly by the public and the author himself.
Universal, continuing its roll of superior horror productions in the early 30s, released THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933. It starred Claude Rains as scientist Jack Griffin, who, dreaming of doing something no man has ever done, injects himself with a drug of his own creation that turns him invisible. All this he does to impress his lady love, Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.
At the beginning of the film, Griffin has secreted himself away in a country inn, hoping to reverse his invisibility so he can return to Flora. Wrapped in bandages, prone to temperamental fits, he brings disaster upon himself by throwing the innkeeper down a flight of stairs.
In a famous scene, Griffin, confronted by a gawking band of locals including a thick-headed constable, raves as he unwraps his bandages, bewildering his onlookers as he reveals himself to be invisible. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. You see, a side effect of the drug — one Griffin is unaware of — is madness.
James Whale, director of FRANKENSTEIN, brings his usual romantic panache for the love scenes and touches of dark wit. Witness the scene in which horrified villagers run from a bicycle that rides itself through the village square, or the vignette in which a seemingly empty pair of trousers skips along a country lane as Griffin sings “Here we go gathering nuts in May.”
But the touches of humor are balanced by sheer terror. Under Flora’s influence, Griffin can recover some semblance of his humanity. He is gentle and loving in his scenes with her. But out of her influence, he is a maniac, bashing policeman to death and derailing trains, causing hundreds of deaths. (He may be the most prolific murder among the classic monsters.)
Claude Rains’ face remains unseen until the final moments, when Griffin becomes visible, proclaiming his famous final line before dying: “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” Rains’ wonderful vocal tones and rich, theatrical delivery of the excellent dialogue, as well as his powerful use of hand gestures, result in an unforgettable portrayal.
“We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. We might even wreck a train or two – just these fingers around the signalman’s throat, that’s all…”
“There is a way back, Flora! And then I shall come to you. I shall offer my secret to the world, with all its terrible power! The nations of the world will bid for it – thousands, millions! The nation that wins my secret can sweep the world with invisible armies!”
“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies. Power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me! Frightened to death! The whole world’s frightened to death!
- The special effects, which included such techniques as dressing Rains all in black against a black backdrop before combining that footage with the scene’s actual background, were groundbreaking for the time and much praised by critics.
- The film spawned a number of sequels, all missing Claude Rains and the Jack Griffin character, although sometimes a Griffin relative would show up to resurrect the invisibility formula. A few of the sequels got pretty far from the source, including INVISIBLE WOMAN and INVISIBLE AGENT, a wartime story showing an invisible patriot parachuting into Germany to play havoc with the Third Reich.
- Gloria Stuart almost disappeared from film screens starting in the 1940s, but made a memorable return decades later as the older version of Kate Winslet’s character in 1997’s TITANIC.
“You must be indulgent of Dr. Werdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats!”