Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt [An Invisible Man Walks the City] (1933)

The biggest problem with the early years of film (and particularly the silent era) is that so much of it is missing.

Consider, for example, the extremely prolific German director and star, Harry Piel.  Nearly everything he made went up in a warehouse fire during World War II.  Only about Thirty percent still survives, although mostly these are exhibitor’s copies and most are in poor condition.

For me, the biggest loss was his 1916 film, The Big Bet, which is one of the first — if not the first — feature length science fiction film, complete with robots and his version of the world of tomorrow.  Only a few pictures and some advertising articles survive.

Science Fiction was something he would return to  in the Thirties, with three films, of which this is the first.  The first two were comedies (the second, Die Welt ohne Maske, about a machine that can see through walls) while the third was a more melodramatic film about robots conquering the world.

It probably comes as no surprise that Piel rushed An Invisible Man Walks the City into the theaters to beat James Whale’s The Invisible Man.

Harry plays “Fast Harry,” a taxi driver with lots of drive, whose high power salesmanship and fast driving make him the most successful cabbie in town.

However, he isn’t quite as successful with the girl at the local flower shop.  But he’s still trying.

Mind you, he seems almost as interested in the beautiful actress who is also a regular customer.

Then one day a mysterious customer leaves a box full of strange equipment in his cab…

It seems almost prescient that Harry’s plan for using his invisibility suit is…cheating at horse racing.  Harry seems to have anticipated the plots of most of the Disney live action films of the Sixties and Seventies (and, come to think of it, the helmet he finds looks remarkably like Merlin Jones’ mind reading helmet).

But his room mate has bigger plans for the invisibility machine, and before you know it, Harry is on his trail, in a massive chase scene which climaxes aboard a blimp.

Energetic chase scenes were one of the hallmarks of Harry’s films so it goes on for quite a while, with cars, a motorcycle, a water rescue, and, of course, that blimp.  Somehow, though, it never seems as exciting as it should.

The Bank Robbery is far better, with a few simple invisibility gimmicks used reasonably well.

Harry’s pancake makeup is very obvious, however.  He might just be following the silent era’s preference for heavy theatrical-style makeup, as compared to the more naturalistic look favored during the sound era, but I have to wonder if he’s trying to hide his age.  After all, he’d been starring in his own films for almost twenty years and a year later, he wouldn’t star or appear on camera in Master of the World.

Now I’ll admit I liked the opening, when Harry sets up the character of “Fast Harry” and I like Harry’s portrayal of him.  The first third or more of the film is a light-hearted romantic comedy and those are the scenes that work best.  But somehow it all gets weighted down by the second half of the film and that endless chase scene.  Even worse, it all comes to what is my all time least favorite Science Fiction movie ending — even if this time it leads to a happy ending.

It’s a pleasant and entertaining film from a man who was, for a short time, a major talent.

But it still needed to be more than it is.

A lot more…

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