The Invisible Woman (1940)
Originally published October 22nd, 2015
You’d be hard pressed figuring out how Hollywood went from the rather serious minded Invisible Man series of films, starring Claude Rains, to the romantic comedy that is The Invisible Woman. Its jovial air and flippant treatment of science creates the troubling aura that female based horror/sci-fi films aren’t a thing of seriousness, and the whole thing plays like an entry in the Thin Man series, especially with its final scene. However, star Virginia Bruce (who I praised highly in Kongo) elevates The Invisible Woman away from its blase possibilities.
Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) has created a machine to make people invisible. In searching for a willing test subject he meets model Kitty Carroll (Bruce), who finds invisibility an exciting means of enacting changes in her own life. Being stuck unseen for longer than anticipated leads Kitty into complications, one of which is a burgeoning lover interest (John Howard) and the other being a group of thugs hoping to nab Gibbs’s machine.
I’d partially watched The Invisible Woman a few years back on Svengoolie, so this marks the first time I’ve seen it in its entirety. The Invisible Man franchise went through several sequels; one, The Invisible Man Returns, was released the same year as Invisible Woman. (Two more, The Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man’s Revenge followed.) The Claude Rains films, particularly the first one, played on the horrors of science, whereas The Invisible Woman explores the benefits of invisibility with the fairer sex and other than a character being invisible, there’s little connection to Rains’ series.
With that, it takes awhile to deduce who’s the film’s hero. We meet Professor Gibbs and Howard’s Richard Russell before anyone. Russell, with a piano full of female portraits, is our soon-to-be reformed playboy while Gibbs is the dithering professor more in line with Fred MacMurray than Colin Clive. And let’s not forget the appearance of Margaret Hamilton playing another horror (I use that term relatively) housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson. All of this sets up the initial theme of how the invisibility will be accomplished, but neither man gives us anything close to something compelling. There’s little desire to follow these men. Because this is meant as a comedy, there’s also little to no fear of the scientist, even when Barrymore’s spouting lines that, in a horror film, are threatening; “Help me pick my victim!”
You might presume Kitty Carroll is the nutty one. I mean, she answers an ad seeking “a human being willing to become invisible.” I mean, is this a legitimate newspaper or the Weekly World News? Kitty sees the ad as a “call to adventure,” and eagerly signs up. The Invisible Woman, by 1940s standards, promotes an interest feminist agenda. Kitty finds herself a victim of a workforce where women are penalized by male bosses for being ill or other minor issues. In just a few hours of invisibility she’s able to get her job back as well as create reform for her female colleagues. Her declaration “I’m sick of leering men buys and snooty women buyers” acts as a rallying call, particularly to 1940s women, that they could, and should, demand respect.
It’s the ultimate twist on the “seen but not heard” adage, and despite it being Kitty who enforces the change, she still defers to calling it Gibbs’s accomplishment. She may see it as a “chicken or egg” thing, but she was the one who actually did something, not Gibbs. I will give the film some credit, it could have easily been 90-minutes of Bruce invisibly wearing clothes.
Speaking of, the movie hints but never points out, that Kitty is naked for over half the film. Because the invisibility would be found out with clothing, Kitty is left to nearly catch pneumonia wandering outside, getting soaked, all nude. The strictures of the Production Code probably prevented a lot of cheap laughs at this fact which actually enhances the humor of the situation with the subtle remembrance of “Hey, isn’t she doing all this in the buff?”
The pro-female nature of the film dissipates rather quickly, unfortunately, leaving wacky hijinks involving thugs (one of whom is Shemp Howard) trying to steal the invisibility machine and the romance between Kitty and Richard. Because Richard can’t see Kitty there’s some snappy “eye of the beholder” elements, although, as Gibbs emphasizes, there’s little doubt that Richard won’t find her gorgeous; she’s Virginia Bruce, after all! Speaking of Gibbs, the daffy professor ends up being the head jerk of the clan, trying to moralize the story with “If more women were invisible life would be less complicated.” The line’s there to serve as a means of highlighting Richard as he retorts that it wouldn’t be as interesting, but geez. Kitty’s also allowed the privilege of planning the attack on the baddies, really bruising them up without any help from the menfolk!
The ending would seem like a rip-off of I Married a Witch if the latter film didn’t come out two years after. Baby ends up making three, à la The Thin Man series, but this baby has some weird powers of his own (movie science, everyone!) akin to little Jennifer of I Married a Witch having her mother’s witchy traits.
The Invisible Woman has some solid ideas, particularly where women are concerned, and I can’t fault it for not following through on them; they didn’t have to include them at all! Despite being unseen for much of the film Virginia Bruce remains wonderful.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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