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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Invisible Man Returns

In 1940, Universal continued their popular Invisible Man franchise with an actual sequel to their 1933 original. Their serial group had put out two chapter plays in the interim (The Vanishing Shadow ('34) and The Phantom Creeps ('39) ), but The Invisible Man Returns (IMR) was their second feature film to capitalize on the original. Since the original invisible man (played by Claude Rains) was killed in the end, they needed a new one. IMR "stars" (if not being seen counts as starring) a very young Vincent Price.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Geoffrey Radcliffe (Price) is soon to be hanged for the murder of his brother Michael. The backstory is that Geoffrey and Michael owned and operated the family coal mine, along with business partner Richard Cobb. Geoffrey's girlfriend, Helen, frets that a stay of execution can't be arranged in time. The mine's physician, Dr. Griffin, visits Geoffrey in jail. Not long after, Geoffrey is reported as having escaped. Inspector Samson of Scotland Yard suspects it may be another invisible man case. Dr. Griffin is the brother of the original invisible man, John Griffin, though he denies working on the formula with his brother. Dr. Griffin did, however, continue his brother's work, but with no greater success. The formula still caused madness. Geoffrey's immanent execution forced its use. Geoffrey, knowing his own innocence wants to uncover the real murderer. He enlists the aid of Helen and Dr. Griffin, though they both worry that Geoffrey is starting to sound maniacal. Geoffrey learns that the mine's alcoholic night watchman, Mr. Spears, was promoted to Supervisor by Cobb. Geoffrey suspects a payoff, so confronts Spears, who admits that Cobb told him to lie and say that Geoffrey killed Michael, when in fact it was Cobb. (This would have left him the sole owner of the mine AND freed up Helen to be courted.) Geoffrey threatens Cobb, who seeks police protection. Geoffrey gets to Cobb anyhow and the two struggle and fight while on a coal bucket conveyor belt up to a high dump point. Samson shoots at where he thinks Geoffrey must be. The bucket dumps Cobb down the chute. Before he dies, Cobb admits to Helen that he killed Michael. The search of the coal yard does not find Geoffrey. He escapes, but comes back, hoping Dr. Griffin can treat his wound. The doctor gives him transfusions, but cannot operate on an invisible man. He holds out no hope. However, the transfusions themselves turn out to be the antidote. Geoffrey slowly appears. Everyone is happy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
In essence, IMR is a retelling of the original -- which was a good story -- but in some ways better. The "invisible" stunts are similar and hold up fairly well (for the pre-CGI era). What makes this sequel more "fun" is that the protagonist is a more sympathetic character. As a good man framed by the villain, and only out to prove his innocence, viewers care more about what happens to him.

Cultural Connection
Evil Businessman -- The Great Depression certainly added to the villain persona of big business. This was not entirely new, of course. The term "Robber Barons" came from the middle ages, and the practice of already-wealthy noblemen using unethical means to get yet more wealth. The term was used in the late 1800s against equally unethical big businessmen (usually railroad magnates). The bad rich villain in many an old western was a railroad man. The Depression had revived the old trope, so having Richard Cobb cast as the unethical mine owner -- who did not care about the health of his men, and would murder to gain more ownership -- was an easy sell to audiences.

Price of Youth -- Like Claude Rains as the first "invisible man," young Vincent Price hit the big time as the second one. He was only 29 when IMR was filmed, and barely recognizable (when finally seen at the end) since he did not have his signature mustache yet. His voice is recognizable, but even then, not fully developed to its later (famous) sound.

Disappearing Once -- Vincent Price played the invisible man only once, though he got a cameo (of sorts) at the very end of the 1948 comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This was just a final gag, and perhaps a hint at a future Universal comedy starring the duo. The final script of that 1951 film, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man did not feature Vincent Price, but Arthur Franz in that title role. The '51 film borrowed plot tropes (innocent man using invisibility to escape), and even some of the footage from IMR.

Curt Writing -- Sci-fi writer Curt Siodmak was part of the screenplay team. Siodmak had written some early techno-sci-fi screenplays, such as F.P.1 Doesn't Answer ('32) and The Transatlantic Tunnel ('35). He would go on to fame as the creator of The Wolfman franchise. He would also be part of the next Invisible films in this study, The Invisible Woman and The Invisible Agent ('42). In IMR, Siodmak followed the Hollywood formula of including the beautiful woman, love triangles, and even some light comedy scenes.

Bottom line? IMR is better than the average sequel. In some ways, it is better than the original (as sacrilege as that is to say about adaptations of H.G.Wells' works). This is primarily for IMR having a more sympathetic protagonist. Since he's a nice guy (kind to his workers, etc.), his fate (madness? shot?) matters more to viewers. The special effects are (by then) routine, and in a few cases, not quite as well done. Still, IMR is worth watching.

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