The Invisible Woman (1940) — Sticking it to the Hays Office and getting away with it

“Whew! Kinda chilly. I wonder how the nudists stand it.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: “Deep Hurting, Joel. Deeeeeeeep Hurting.”

Sitting Duck’s review: Of the Universal Classic Monsters (hereafter UCM) films, The Invisible Woman is akin to the sketchy cousin no one likes to bring up at family reunions. Much of this has to do with how it doesn’t feature so much as a passing mention of Jack Griffin, the original Invisible Man. Because of this, there’s a sense that it’s not a properly canonical installment in the Invisible Man series.

In fact, earlier this year, a random Wikipedia flunky yanked the UCM tag from the Invisible Woman article, pointing out in the edit comment the absence of a connection to any of the other Invisible Man films. The miscreant was put in his place a couple weeks later. The person who reinstated the tag noted that it was included in the Invisible Man Legacy Collection DVD set that Universal released. So the studio regards it as canonical, which would presumably settle the issue. Yet the stigma that this shouldn’t be considered a proper UCM movie lingers. Which begs the question as to whether this status is truly deserved. Only one way to find out.

Crackpot inventor Professor Gibbs (a past his prime John Barrymore) is in a pickle. His sole benefactor Dick Russell (John Howard) is being pressured into curbing his spendthrift ways. As Gibbs has never produced anything that works, he’s guaranteed to get the axe. His future prospects hinge on his new invisibility machine, for which he needs a test subject. However, none of the responses to his ad are serious, except for one from department store model Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce).

This is problematic, as the subject must be nude for the process. Odds are Gibbs would have a heart attack if Kitty so much as exposed her knees. So an opaque screen is arranged for the sake of modesty (sorry, horny teen boys of the 1940s). The machine works and Gibbs is ecstatic, leaving to inform Dick about his success. However, Kitty decides to use her new state of being to take off and prank her petty tyrant boss (Charles Lane). Meanwhile, a gang of moronic crooks (which includes relief Stooge Shemp Howard among their number) who saw the ad attempt to steal the machine.

As you might gather from that summary, this is first and foremost meant to be a comedy. The only problem here is that it’s actually a komedy, the sort of thing Disney’s live action division regularly cranked out before the 1980s. That means lots of exaggerated double takes, cringe-inducing pratfalls, and “humorous” dialogue that has gone stale over the years.

It also doesn’t help that our two romantic leads have absolutely no chemistry. Part of this can be blamed on how these scenes occur while Kitty is invisible, so Virginia Bruce is not actually on the set. But even if they could have performed face to face, the dialogue still would have landed with a thud.

This is made worse by Bruce’s elocution. The enunciation technique she uses is one that was frequently employed among actresses at the time, a sort of almost but not quite sultry tone. For me, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. I hate it with every fiber of my being. The fact that for much of film her presence only manifests through her voice makes it even more intolerable.

Which brings us to the invisibility. Like Jack Griffin, only Kitty’s body is invisible. As a result, much of the komedy revolves around how John Howard’s womanizing playboy character is interacting with a naked lady he can’t see. It does however cause one to speculate on what might have been had it been produced earlier. Prior to the Hays Office gaining real clout, nudity in Hollywood films wasn’t too unusual (though local laws might prohibit screenings in certain states). One of the more notable surviving examples comes from the 1934 move Tarzan and His Mate, where viewers get an eyeful as Jane goes skinny dipping with Tarzan. Unlike Jack Griffin, Kitty’s invisibility is explicitly temporary and could wear off at any moment. It’s quite simple to imagine the komedic potential in a situation like that. But as the Hays Office was at the height of its power at the time, conjecture is all it will be.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend seeing this movie. The only instance I can think of where you might want to view it is if you want to brag with a clear conscience that you have watched every UCM film, even the lame ones.

Didja notice?

  • Whatever the stunt double for the butler (assuming there was one) got paid was surely not enough.
  • The cleaning lady is Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton.
  • The title role had originally been intended for Margaret Sullavan, who turned it down as she considered it beneath her.
  • Due to his failing memory resulting from his alcoholism, John Barrymore had a series of cue cards placed around the set to help him keep his lines straight.

3 comments

    • Afraid so. You need to understand that it’s not a monster comedy, but a monster komedy. Also Virginia Bruce’s elocution really bugs me (I had a similar issue with Carole Lombard in To Be or Not To Be). Anyway, the actors you mention were minor side characters in this one.

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