Universal made a bunch of people invisible.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
Directed by James Whale, the man who brought us Frankenstein, and inspired by an 1897 novel written by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man is a unique entry in the Universal Monsters in that it creates an iconic character out of the title maniac without even showing us the man's face - since he is, of course, invisible, and is already invisible by the time the film catches up with him. We don't see Dr. Jack Griffin's experiments in invisibility, we only see him after injections of the bleaching powder monocane have made him invisible... and after the drug has started to drive him insane. Madness being a side effect of monocane that Griffin wasn't aware of.
Having abandoned his friends and fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) after turning invisible, Griffin seeks shelter at an inn called The Lion's Head in the snowbound English village of Iping. He spends his days desperately trying to find a cure to the invisibility, trying to hide the fact that he's invisible by wearing bandages and goggles. He demands privacy from the innkeepers, and his odd style of dress and reclusive nature soon becomes the talk of the town.
Eventually this precarious situation falls apart, as the innkeepers and their odd guest both grow tired of each other. Stripping down, Griffin makes an invisible spectacle of himself, smashing furniture in the inn, riding a bicycle through the middle of the village, and causing general mayhem. In one shocking moment, the invisible man even flips over a baby carriage that's being pushed down the sidewalk. That's one of the most glaring examples of a film being "pre-code" (released before the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines) I've ever seen.
Griffin only gets more dangerous and insane from there. When he comes back in contact Flora for a brief scene he does calm down a bit and explains to her why he has done this to himself. Being a poor chemist, he was seeking fame and fortune so he could give her a better life. But the more he talks, the more he goes back off the deep end, and soon enough he's ranting and raving about the world being afraid of him. And this is what he wants. He wants people to be frightened, he intends to go on a reign of terror, and then he will offer up the secret of invisibility to the highest bidder. The nation that wins his secret could sweep the world with invisible armies. He's fine with that, as long as he gets paid.
Griffin's reign of terror includes beating a policeman to death, committing robberies, derailing a train and causing the deaths of the one hundred people on board... He's a bad guy. Much worse than the average, usually more sympathetic Universal Monster. Probably worse than even Dracula. Being invisible allows him to evade the authorities for a while, but you can't get away with doing things like that, even if nobody can see you doing them.
This film is carried by Griffin and he comes across as a complete and captivating character even though we can't see his face. Actor Claude Rains delivered his performance through layers of covering and still pulled it off perfectly. It helps that Rains had an incredible voice - a voice that he worked hard for, getting rid of a cockney accent and a speech impediment. When Griffin strips down, the special effects department takes over. The special effects won't blow people away these days - the sight of furniture toppling over, clothes bouncing around a room, or a bicycle riding itself probably won't drop jaws in the 21st century - but they're quite good for the time.
Even though Universal had Wells's popular source material to work with, the studio had a lot of trouble trying to crack this project. Directors came and went, a dozen scripts were written with various settings, including Mars. There was even consideration given to the idea of using the Invisible Man title but actually adapting the 1931 Philip Wylie novel The Murderer Invisible. All this despite the fact that Wells had the right to approve or reject the script. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff had the right idea when he joined the project: stay faithful to Wells's novel, just add some more emotional depth (the Flora character), streamline things (like merging two of Griffin's associates into one character), and update the story from the 1890s to the 1930s.
Sherriff's script, when combined with the direction of Whale and the performance of Rains, resulted in another classic being added into Universal's library.
Universal was obviously pleased with the success they had with The Invisible Man and felt they had a winning concept on their hands, as the Invisible series became one of their biggest franchises.
THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)
It wasn't returning characters that carried the "Invisible" franchise, but rather the idea of someone being invisible. So even though the title of the first sequel is The Invisible Man Returns, its invisible man is not Dr. Jack Griffin. That makes sense, given the fact that Griffin was killed, but then again Universal always found a way to bring its dead monsters back to the screen, even if that meant completely ignoring their death scenes. I don't think anyone would have batted an eye if a sequel had presented the idea that the invisibility drug monocane (referred to as duocane in Returns) had somehow also given Griffin a touch of immortality, but that's not the approach director Joe May and screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Lester Cole took.
You might think Griffin has somehow come back to life when The Invisible Man Returns begins and a character is being called Dr. Griffin, but this isn't Claude Rains as Jack, it's John Sutton as Jack's brother Dr. Frank Griffin. When Frank's friend Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is convicted of killing his own brother Michael and sentenced to death, Frank saves the man from execution by giving him a dose of duocane.
The invisible Geoffrey just walks right out of prison, but this act of desperation could have serious repercussions. The longer he's invisible, the more insane he'll become, just like what happened to Jack Griffin. While Geoffrey tries to evade the authorities and find out who really killed his brother so he can clear his name, Frank struggles to make the scientific breakthrough his brother never achieved - finding the antidote that will restore visbility and save Geoffrey from madness. While all this is going on, Geoffrey's cousin Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who will inherit the family mining business in Geoffrey's absence, is busy making moves on Geoffrey's fiancée Helen (Nan Grey).
Since we're following the film's hero rather than its villain this time, Returns has a very different sort of tone than the first Invisible Man. We're rooting for this invisible guy and it's fun to watch him use his invisibility to mess with his enemies. There is no stroller flipping or train derailments here, but scenes where Geoffrey confronts his brother's real killer and convinces the killer's accomplice that he's a ghost. Of course, the fun doesn't last the entire film, because there is that chance of insanity hanging over Geoffrey's head, and he does start raving like Jack Griffin after a while...
Although The Invisible Man Returns isn't much of a horror movie, more of a murder mystery with an invisible person at the center of it, the movie is considered to be the horror debut of Vincent Price, who at the time was only a couple years into his film career. This is the movie that opened the gate for him to become a horror icon, even though he's barely seen in it. Most of his performance is vocal. But anyone who has ever heard Price's voice knows how powerful that was.
This film might disappoint viewers who were expecting the series to continue on with evil invisible men, but when taken on its own merits it's a good, entertaining film and it delivers more of those "floating object" invisibility special effects. Those special effects were nominated for an Academy Award this time. As this first sequel already indicates, you have to take the Invisible franchise on a film-by-film basis, because it was always switching characters and genres.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940)
Seven years passed between The Invisble Man and The Invisible Man Returns (and nine years in the story), but Universal didn't waste any time getting another Invisible movie together after Returns was well received. Returns was released in January of 1940, and The Invisible Woman was in theatres by the end of December 1940.
Returns director Joe May and writer Curt Siodmak provided the story idea for Woman, but didn't go all the way with directing or writing it - The Invisible Woman was directed by A. Edward Sutherland, the screenplay written by Robert Lees, Fred Rinaldo, and Gertrude Purcell. While Returns hadn't been as dark as the first movie, Woman switches things up completely, ditching the horror/thriller edge in favor of being a slapstick comedy.
There is no connection at all to the previous films in this one, there is no dangerous monocane or duocane required for characters to turn invisible. The method of invisibility is a machine that has been created by John Barrymore as Professor Gibbs, a to-this-point underwhelming inventor who is bankrolled by the formerly wealthy Richard Russell (John Howard), whose playboy ways have drained his bank account. Since Richard is out of money, Gibbs can offer no money when he puts out an ad for a human subject to test his machine on. He first tested the machine on his cat, so it's fitting that the person who answers the ad is named Kitty; Virginia Bruce as model Kitty Carroll, who just wants to be invisible for a little while so she can teach her overbearing boss a lesson.
Gibbs' machine works quite well. While an injection of some kind of formula is involved, most of the work is done by electrically powered stuff that would look at home in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. Kitty just gets her shot, steps behind the screen, the electricity gets flowing, and soon she's invisible. And there's no up front danger of getting stuck invisible or going mad like the invisible men. After getting up to her vengeful shenanigans, Kitty regains visibility within a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, when Gibbs makes her invisible again so he can show off the success to Richard, Kitty finds herself drawn to the alcohol Richard has available. She's not usually a drinker, but something about the invisibility process has stirred a thirst within her. And drinking alcohol does get her stuck invisible for a while.
That's not the only issue the characters have to deal with over the course of the film; there is also a group of criminals who wants to get their hands on the secrets of invisibility so their boss Blackie Cole (Oskar Homolka) can escape back home from his hideout in Mexico. I'm not quite sure where Cole wants to go after he's invisible, but Homolka was from Austria and was not hiding his accent.
One of the three goons Cole sends out to do his dirty work is played by one of the Three Stooges, Shemp Howard. Like I said, this is a slapstick comedy, and Shemp's presence confirms that. Shemp was between stints with the Stooges when this movie was made and you might be disappointed if you watch The Invisible Woman expecting to get much Stooge-level laughs out of him. Shemp doesn't get much direct attention here. His character has a name (Frankie), but he's basically just Henchman #2. It's good to see him here, though.
The performances in this film are fun across the board, with Barrymore being the standout for me, but the other actors - including Charles Ruggles' as Richard's butler and Donald MacBride as a henchman called Foghorn who finds out you shouldn't use the invisibility machine without taking the injection first - also bring the laughs.
The Invisible Woman can't be compared to its predecessors in any way, except maybe in the special effects department. It's just a short, simple, silly movie that's a good way to spend 72 minutes.
INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)
Things changed in the United States between entries in the Invisible franchise, and Invisible Agent reflects that, even working a major real world tragedy directly into the plot. The Invisible Woman was released in December of 1940, Invisible Agent reached theatres in July of 1942 - in between these two films, the U.S. entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The Invisible Man had been a horror/thriller, The Invisible Man Returns had been a murder mystery, The Invisible Woman was a comedy, and the fourth film is a spy movie, directed by Edwin L. Marin and written Curt Siodmak. Siodmak was a refugee in the U.S., having fled Nazi Germany, so you can imagine that he must have gotten some satisfaction from delving into the idea of unleashing an invisible secret agent on our enemies.
Invisible Agent pretends to be connected to the original film, but the connection doesn't hold up if you're really pay attention. The story begins in 1941, when an adult man called Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) is threatened by a group consisting of both S.S. and Japanese agents - and oddly one of those Japanese agents is played by character actor Peter Lorre, who certainly wasn't Japanese. This wasn't the only time Lorre played an Asian character during his career, but thankfully they didn't do anything to his face to turn him into Baron Ikito here. This group of villains reveals that they know Raymond's true identity. His is Frank Griffin III, the grandson of the Invisible Man. This idea is a continuity disaster: the Invisible Man was Jack Griffin, his story happened just ten years before this one, and he died without having any children. Frank Griffin was Jack's brother who had a part in The Invisible Man Returns, but again, there's no way that character would have an adult grandson two years after that movie. So Invisible Agent isn't really connected to anything, it just brings back the Griffin name.
The villains want the secret of invisibility, which has been passed down to Frank, but Frank refuses to share it with them. After he escapes from that group, Frank also refuses to hand the invisibility formula over to the American government, saying "There will never be an emergency critical enough to justify its use." Then the attack on Pearl Harbor happens, and Frank changes his mind.
Frank offers the American government the chance to use the invisibility formula for World War II missions, but under one condition: he is the only person who can be made invisible. It's too dangerous to let anyone else become the Invisible Agent.
There is suspicion that the Nazis are planning to attack the United States, so Frank is sent to Germany to gather information on the attack so it can be thwarted. He parachutes into the country, disappearing during the fall. Frank soon makes contact with Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey), a spy who has drawn the romantic attention of two high-ranking Nazis: Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg) and one of the men who threatened Frank earlier, Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke - who also played a villain in The Invisible Man Returns).
While Maria's romantic attention is directed toward Frank (he smears cream on his invisible face so she can tell he's handsome), he busies himself with figuring out what sort of dastardly plot America needs to be protected from. Frank causes a lot of trouble for the Nazis, while the villains also deal with power struggles and crumbling alliances among themselves.
Setting aside that screwy attempt at pseudo-continuity, Siodmak wrote a good script for this one. It's not the most complicated spy movie out there, but it's got more going on than the previous Invisible films. It also has a couple good action sequences.
Your imagination may run wild with the action potential that comes with the idea of an invisible man fighting Nazis during World War II, but you will need to temper 2017 expectations. Keep in mind this was made in 1942 - that's twenty years even before James Bond movies came along to boost action movies up to a whole other level. Still, Invisible Agent does deliver some chases, crashes, and explosions. The climax is great, and there's also a standout scene in the middle of the film where the invisible Frank takes on several Nazis in a fist fight. Seeing Nazis get punched is enjoyable even when you can't see the fist.
Invisible Agent is really good, one of my favorites in this series. I was impressed by what Siodmak and Marin did with it.
THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE (1944)
Invisible Agent star Jon Hall returned to play an invisible character in director Ford Beebe's The Invisible Man's Revenge, but this isn't a sequel to Invisible Agent. He's not playing Frank Griffin III here, but a murderer named Robert Griffin (no relation to any previous Invisible franchise character) who is on the run after escaping from a mental asylum. The Invisible Man's Revenge is its own standalone story that doesn't connect to the other films in any way. Studios really didn't care too much about continuity in these days before home video.
The revenge Robert is seeking extends from a convoluted, silly back story about him being on safari with friends when he was hit in the head by a falling tree branch. Told he was dead, his friends went on to become very wealthy thanks to the diamond mine Robert had discovered during their time in Africa. Afflicted with amnesia after his head injury, Robert began working on the docks in Cape Town. Receiving another head injury while doing his job, Robert regains his memory - but is now a little crazy and homicidal as well. And he wants to make his former friends pay for living off the diamond mine and leaving him for dead.
While avoiding the authorities and scheming to blackmail his way into fortune, Robert crosses paths with reclusive scientist Doctor Drury (John Carradine), whose house is full of invisible pets. Drury has been testing the invisibility formula he has created on bigger and bigger animals, and when he realizes that Robert is a man who would like to be hard to find, he offers to make the fugitive his first human test subject. Robert goes for it.
Whether Robert was invisible or visible, I wasn't very interested in the story screenwriter Bertram Millhauser had cooked up for the character. Robert wants his friends' mansion, he wants their money, he wants to marry their daughter, and he causes more death on the way to achieving goals, but I didn't find any of it particularly engaging. Possibly because Robert is so thoroughly unlikeable, and yet we're stuck with him for the whole movie.
The thing I liked the most about The Invisible Man's Revenge was the friendship Robert strikes up with an older man named Herbert Higgins (Leon Errol), a friendship that leads to a scene in which Robert helps Herbert win money playing darts in a bar by running the darts over to the board's bullseye when Herbert throws them. The fact that the darts are being carried by an invisible man makes the throws look quite odd, but that just adds to the fun of the scene. Getting fun out of a scene involving this invisible fellow is a rare thing.
I don't mean to say that The Invisible Man's Revenge is a bad movie, the story just didn't draw me in, so it ended up being my least favorite entry in the franchise. The story of an unbalanced creep on a quest for money and an unwilling bride can't compete with the story of Jack Griffin's reign of terror, or a man wanting to solve a mystery to clear his name, or an invisible spy fighting Nazis, or even a model thwarting bumbling criminals.
Apparently Universal lost interest in the concept of Invisible people after this film, because the series ended here. "Invisible Man" characters would only turn up two more times in the next decade, both times in Abbott and Costello comedies. An Invisible Man has a two line cameo, voiced by The Invisible Man Returns star Vincent Price, in the 1948 monster mash Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Three years later, the comedy duo would run into another Invisible Man in the appropriately titled Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.