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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Invisible Man

Before exploring further, it seems like a good time to look back at a classic and some of its sequels. In 1933, Carl Laemmle jr.'s Universal Pictures further solidified their dominance of the sci-fi / horror market with this adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel. James Whale, who directed two of the Frankenstein films, directs The Invisible Man (TIM) with similar skill. Claude Rains stars as the "Invisible One" -- this being his big break into stardom, even though his real face is seen only briefly at the end. Universal would go on to make several sequels, though with other stars.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A man trudges along a snowy country road to the town of Iping. At the Lion's Head Inn, he orders a room. Everyone in the pub is silent at the man, his whole head bandaged. His brusque manner and odd appearance set the rumor mill in motion. Elsewhere, Flora frets to her father, Dr. Cranley, about her fiancee, Jack, who has disappeared for a month. An assistant of Cranley's, Dr. Kemp, makes overtures to Flora, but she's too distraught for wooing. Back at the inn, Jack is working on an antidote to his invisibility formula, but is regularly interrupted by the meddlesome Jenny. Jack throws her and her husband out. The call the constable. Jack flaunts his invisibility to the constable and crowd, causing a stir in the media. Kemp hears this on the radio, but Jack snuck in his room. Jack tries to enlist Kemp to be his partner for a "Reign of Terror." He has Kemp drive him back to Iping to retrieve his notebooks. While there, Jack kills a police chief conducting an inquest on the rumors of an invisible man. Kemp, fearful, plays along, but that night, calls Dr. Cranley, then the police. Flora tries to coax Jack into letting her father find a cure, but the arrival of the police set Jack to running again. He promises to kill Kemp at 10:00 tomorrow, as revenge. The police hatch a plan to catch Jack using Kemp as bait, but plan to sneak Kemp out of the police station disguised as a bobby. The plan fails, as the cordon is imperfectly kept. Kemp is dropped off at his house. He then drives away to the mountains, but invisible Jack is in his car. He chokes and ties up Kemp, then pushes him and his car off a cliff. On his way back from that mischief, Jack hides in the hay inside a farmer's barn to get some rest. Early in the morning, the farmer hears the hay snoring. He rushes to tell the police. As they arrive in force, a light snow falls. They light a fire on the barn to smoke out Jack. They can see his footprints in the snow as he rushes to the line of policemen. The chief inspector shoots where Jack's body must be. A body-shaped print appears in the snow. In the hospital, the doctor says there's no hope. Flora goes to have a few last words. Jack laments at meddling in things man shouldn't meddle with, then dies. He becomes visible again, in death. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Wells' story is great, Sherriff's screenplay does it justice. The special effects hold up reasonably well for their age. The pace is brisk and there is enough action that the screenplay does not devolve into talky scenes.

Cultural Connection
Universal launched another great story franchise (even if not as famous as their Frankenstein or Dracula series) Not only would Universal capitalize on the popularity of invisible people stories, others would create their own. The trope "had legs" enough to spawn remades and television seres, even into the 21st century.

Based on the Book -- H.G. Wells' novel was published in 1897. Unlike Shelley's Frankenstein, there were no movie versions until Universal produced this film in 1933. They had R.C. Sherriff adapt Wells' story into a screenplay. Hollywood being Hollywood, Sherriff added a lovely lady as love interest. (Wells seldom wrote in romantic "others") He adapted the Kemp character to be a would-be rival. Wells went into much more explanation about how the invisible formula worked, dwelling on indexes of refraction and such. Sherriff's version cited a fictional drug named Monocaine, said to drain all color from objects -- but also cause madness. Well's Griffin went mad with power-lust. Sherriff's version blamed drugs -- a functional enough subtext. All in all, though, Sherriff stayed fairly faithful to the original.

Cautionary Tale -- Like many (if not most) pre-Cold War films, the moral of the story is a cautionary tale on the dangers of science -- chemistry in this case. Kemp tells Flora that Jack was meddling in things man shouldn't meddle with. On his death bed, Jack confesses to Flora, ""I wanted to come back to you. I meddled in things that man must leave alone." Pre-war audiences were both excited by the advances of science, but still had a healthy concern over what might go wrong.

Cold War Prelude -- Wells' original and Sherriff's version make a good prelude to the nuclear problem to come after the war. Mere men, when given an enormous advantage (whether it be invisibility or nuclear bombs) tend to let the power go to their heads. What starts out as a boon for mankind, becomes a means to world domination.

Star Gazing -- Claude Rains stars in what was his big break in movies. This, even though it was primarily his voice that anyone experiences. It was for his voice that James Whale wanted Rains to have the role. Collin Clive (who played Dr. Frankenstein in Whale's 1931 film) was suggested for the role, but Whale preferred Rains' voice. Another notable star is Henry Travers. He plays the kindly Dr. Cranley. Travers played in many films, but his legacy is Clarence the misfit angel in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). From how he plays the role, Cranley could believably be what Clarence was in life. Una O'Conner plays the innkeeper's wife. She was cast as comic relief. Her annoying shriek-screams must have been more amusing in the 30s. To modern ears, they're just annoying. Watch for a brief scene with John Carridine, who would become a mainstay of 50s B-movies. He plays a cockney villager who calls the police with a plan to catch the invisible man by squirting ink around until you hit him with some. Carridine's role is uncredited, which is mostly what he had at that early stage in his career.

Bottom line? TIM is a must-see for movie buffs, even if sci-fi is not their favorite. This film is the ancestor of many and well worth the effort to find it and watch it.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Great review of a great film!