The Invisible Woman (1940)

It is rather hard to grasp.  The mind shudders a bit from the attempt.

H.G. Wells’ original novel, The Invisible Man – and its 1933 movie version – is a rather serious affair, which ends with the main character descending into madness and murder.  Somehow, though, by the time Universal made its second sequel, it became a screwball comedy.

All the classic elements of the screwball comedy are here:  the dominant female character driving the story, the discretely sexualized banter between the guy and the girl, the aloof upper class character cut off from the realities of everyday life, a few naughty – if unseen – hints (remember the “walls of Jericho” and Jimmy Cagney’s insistence on weighing in his cargo?) and, of course, the utterly fantastic situations the characters end up fighting their way through.

Here we have Virginia Bruce as the working girl (well, she’s a model, but she does have to punch a time clock!) who decides to become invisible to get even with her boss.  We have the legendary John Barrymore as an aggravatingly eccentric inventor (with Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as his housekeeper), and his now bankrupt playboy backer (John Howard), whose frustrated manservant is played by Charlie Ruggles, in a remarkably slapstick performance in which he seems to be doing his own, obviously dangerous pratfalls!

But that’s hardly complicated enough, so throw in gang leader Oskar Homolka who wants to steal the machine so he can finally go home, and his trio of bumbling aides:  Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy and, yes, that really is Shemp Howard.  Don’t ask me what he’s doing here.

It’s quite a cast (a pre-Cobra Woman Maria Montez actually shows up as a model with a bad head cold), and they perform admirably, managing to keep it all brisk and reasonably funny, with John Barrymore the standout, and only Charlie Ruggles outstaying his welcome a little.  Curiously, the invisibility gimmick – and the constant references to Virginia’s nudity – fit in very well with screwball comedy.  So well in fact it would be strange if someone hadn’t thought of the idea.

Of course, any pretense of real science – even Wells’ simplistic ruminations on glass objects being invisible when submerged in water – would be out of place in such a goofy movie, and certainly the only “scientific” elements occur only as they are needed by the plot, whether the unpredictable effects of his process when the injection isn’t given, or vague talk of molecular reactions when another popular screwball comedy element proves to have unlikely effects.

It even ends up with one of those “a year later” bits Buster Keaton was already lampooning back in the twenties, played mostly straight so they can get in one last gag.

Oh, well.  it isn’t a classic, but it is fast and entertaining – and short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Just don’t try to connect it to H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, or James Whale’s brilliant movie version.

You’ll just hurt your brain that way.

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