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The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman(1940)

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teaser The Invisible Woman (1940)

Universal Pictures, the studio that created some of the most popular horror and fantasy films in Hollywood history, were experts in the franchise business, releasing sequels - for as long as they were profitable - to some of their most famous cinematic creations; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man were all exploited in formulaic variations on the original versions before they ran their course and became ripe for parody in the late forties with such prime examples as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The Invisible Woman (1940) was an early step in this direction but, despite the title, this screwball/sci-fi farce had nothing to do with the H.G. Wells novel, the basis for Universal's 1933 hit, The Invisible Man, or its sequel, The Invisible Man Returns (1940).

Based on a story idea by Curt Siodmak, brother of director Robert Siodmak (The Killers, 1946), and Joe May, who, coincidentally, directed The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman is played for laughs in the comic style of Topper (1937) but on a B-movie budget. The movie serves up two storylines; in the first one, Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) is trying to perfect his invention for rendering people invisible (don't ask why) even though his patron, millionaire playboy Richard Russell (John Howard), has just gone bankrupt. For his experiment, the scientist solicits through the local newspaper a willing guinea pig - an unemployed fashion model named Kitty (Virginia Bruce) who desperately needs the money. The professor's formula proves to be successful and Kitty slips away undetected to exact mischievous revenge on the fashion store manager who fired her. Meanwhile, the second plot kicks in as a gang of crooks, learning of Professor Gibb's invention, try to steal the machine for their own purposes. Both storylines come together in a climax set in Mexico at the secret hideout of gang leader Blackie (Oskar Homolka) and end on a happy note as Richard and Kitty get married and have a child, who has obviously inherited his mother's invisible abilities according to the final shot.

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland, who got his start working for Mack Sennett in silent comedy shorts and later directed feature films starring Charlie Chaplin (Tillie's Punctured Romance, 1928), W.C. Fields (It's the Old Army Game, 1926) and Laurel and Hardy (The Flying Deuces, 1939), The Invisible Woman is a broad slapstick comedy distinguished by the special effects of John P. Fulton and John D. Hall and a cast of veteran scene stealers including John Barrymore, Charles Ruggles, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard (of The Three Stooges), Charles Lane as the tyrannical store manager and Maria Montez in a bit role.

The Invisible Woman was one of John Barrymore's final films; he would complete two more features before dying in 1942. While no one could make any great claims for his performance here as the whimsical, elderly scientist - he hams it up with gusto and appears to be doing a parody of his own brother, Lionel Barrymore - the actor's presence still lent the movie a certain marquee value at the time. Yet the film is more of a showcase for Virginia Bruce, an attractive and vivacious blonde who rarely broke out of the B-movie rut despite her comedic gifts and musical talent. Bruce is especially appealing here in one of her rare leading roles but ironically, she is invisible, of course, for more than half of her screen time.

While it was never meant to be anything more than a fast-paced, entertaining diversion for undiscriminating moviegoers, The Invisible Woman pleased audiences but critics were harsher in their verdicts. The reviewer for The New York Times wrote, "Perhaps the maddest jape to have arrived hereabouts recently is The Invisible Woman....It is silly, banal and repetitious; it is essentially a two-reel comedy with elephantiasis and full of the trick disappearances and materializations that seemed new when Topper first came out. The script is as creaky as a two-wheeled cart and were it not for the fact that John Barrymore is taking a ride in it we hate to think what The Invisible Woman might have turned out to be. But Mr. Barrymore takes to this trash as if he were to the manner born."

If anything, The Invisible Woman is the sort of film that could benefit from a remake, one that could capitalize and improve on some of its best sequences. Most of these involve Ms. Bruce taking revenge on her former boss and finding liberation and empowerment in her invisible state; its possibilities as a feminist comedy set in a working class milieu are more than promising.

Released in December of 1940, The Invisible Woman actually managed to snag an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects in the 1941 Oscar® race but it lost to I Wanted Wings (1941).

Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Joe May (story); Robert Lees, Fred Rinaldo, Gertrude Purcell
Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Gross
Cast: Virginia Bruce (Kitty Carroll), John Barrymore (Professor Gibbs), John Howard (Richard Russell), Charlie Ruggles (George), Oskar Homolka (Blackie), Edward Brophy (Bill), Donald MacBride (Foghorn), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Jackson), Shemp Howard (Frankie), Anne Nagel (Jean).

by Jeff Stafford

Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler (Atheneum)The Barrymores by Hollis Alpert (The Dial Press)The Universal Story by Clive Hirschhorn (Crown Publishers)

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