The Invisible Man (1933) Directed by James Whale.  Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Una O’Connor (71 min).

The special effects in H G Wells’ 19th century sci fi classic still thrill and Rains’ debut, using his voice alone, made him famous. Ingénue Gloria Stuart waited until Titanic for her immortality.  “Whale’s most elegantly inventive movie… a film that always feels both more sinister and more prankish than you remember it as: it’s a startling piece of studio-made surrealism.” Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times.

As soon as Frankenstein and Dracula were a hit for Universal, the studio began contemplating adding The Invisible Man to their gallery of the macabre.  Universal purchased the rights to H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel for $10,000, and the author had script approval. Although Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker were long dead, Wells was very much alive, and had strong opinions about how his works should be adapted for the screen.  Today, H. G. Wells is known primarily for his speculative fiction, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man.  In the 1930s, he was revered as an elder statesman for his outspoken views (he was a socialist) as well as non-fantasy novels, histories and social commentaries.

Before The Invisible Man reached the screen, it would involve four directors, nine writers, six treatments, and ten screenplays. Universal had bought a novel by Philip Wylie called The Murderer Invisible, and there were misguided attempts to fuse the two storylines. There would eventually give up on a battle with an invisible octopus. At the end, the magic formula turned out to be following the novel, and not just devising a story about an invisible man.  Studio screenwriter Preston Sturges had advised, “The strange thing about these horror characters is that their effectiveness grows in inverse ratio to the amount of time we see them.  Familiarity breeds contempt, and too much gruesomeness becomes funny” (Viera 54). But his version was among those that strayed farthest from the original concept, taking place in Russia during the Revolution, and according to R. C. Sherriff, the playwright who would end up crafting the screenplay, it turned the leading character into “a sort of transparent Scarlet Pimpernel” (Weaver, Brunas and Brunas 79).

Sherriff, and old friend of James Whale’s, had been recommended by Wells, himself, to write the screenplay, and Wells agreed with his embellishment to the story, that the same chemical which makes him invisible also drives him mad.  Sherriff made the bold move of basing his screenplay on the novel, assuming correctly that nobody at the studio had read it (or wanted to). Sherriff said Wells “agreed with me entirely that an invisible lunatic would make people sit up in the cinema more quickly than a sane man” (Viera 55).  David J. Skal reports the character evolution somewhat differently, and that Wells disapproved. “’If the man had remained sane, we should have had the inherent monstrosity of an ordinary man in this extraordinary position.  But instead of an Invisible Man, we now have an Invisible Lunatic.’ Whale had a ready retort, which caused Wells himself to chuckle, ‘If a man said to you he was about to make himself invisible, wouldn’t you think he was crazy already?’”

Rains and Stuart “Even the moon’s frightened of me!”

In the novel, Jack Griffin is clearly a little unhinged to begin with, an irritable egomaniac. He thinks his power will be unlimited, “And that Invisible Man much now establish a Reign of Terror.  Yes—no doubt it’s startling.  But I mean it. A Reign of Terror.  He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it.  He must issue his orders.  He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice.  And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them!” (Wells 230). But at the last, he is just a cold, naked man, alone in the snow, with the soot of the city settling on his shoulders and revealing his secrets.

After Frankenstein, Boris Karloff was the studio’s biggest star, and was penciled in for the lead of his studio’s latest horror film.  He was still earning only $750 a week, when he asked for his promised raise of another $250, budget minded studio head, Carl Laemmle balked, and Karloff departed to make a film for a British studio.

Whale had never wanted Karloff, regardless of studio salary disputes.  His silhouette would have been too distinctive, for one thing. He was determined to cast stage actor Claude Rains, who had recently bungled a screen test for A Bill of Divorcement, “I really chewed up the scenery” he admitted (Curtis 202).  He thought his hopes of a Hollywood career ended.  But, Whale asked for the tests (he knew Rains from the stage) and insisted, “I don’t give a hang what he looks like.  That’s how I want him to sound, and I want HIM” (Viera 55). Rains distinctive voice was a combination of his stage training, and a throaty rasp that resulted from his being gassed in the trenches during WW I.

Director Whale (on left) directing Rains.

Rains did another test, which mistakenly led him to believe that he would be invisible for only part of the film.  Whale sent him over to the make-up studio to have a cast made of his head, without telling him what he was in for, and he nearly suffocated in a series of life-mask castings, in plaster, clay and papier maché.  The rig also triggered flashbacks to his war experience and hospitalization. Not only his voice, but his vision had been damaged by mustard gas, he had only 10% sight in his right eye. Rains, who told Whale he had only seen half a dozen movies in his life was told to see three a day until he learned something about acting in the movies; that there is no back row to project to in a movie theater. His blackly comic way with a line is one of the highlights of the film

.Universal built an English village on the back lot for $25,000.  The set was closed, and the special effects were shrouded in secrecy.  “When I began work on The Invisible Man I took on the biggest and yet most fascinating job I have ever tackled. Directing a picture is not easy in the best of times, but when the principal character spends a great deal of his time on the screen yet completely invisible, then one has a need for all one’s ingenuity” (Curtis 206). Although the studio expected that all effects work would be worked like a marionette, on wires, Whale wanted something completely new and different.
The cinematography was done by Arthur Edeson, but John P. Fulton was in charge of the complicated effects work, and he devised all of the techniques himself.  Any scenes with the Invisible Man himself used complicated printing.  First, the scene would be shot with all the other actors.  Then Rains was dressed from head to foot in black velvet tights, black gloves and a black helmet, and the Invisible Man’s clothes over the black, and shot against a black background. One matte would be cut for his figure, and another for the background.  These four negatives, the background, the invisible man, and the two mattes would be printed together, with all of the imperfections fixed by hand.  Technicians using tiny brushes and opaque dye worked on the footage while looking through microscopes.  64,000 individual frames, or half the film’s run time had to be retouched one frame at a time.

The heat while filming was stifling, and the Rains could only breathe through an air hose, and could only hear the sound of his own breathing.  At least once, the air hose failed, and he passed out. Endless retakes were needed, with Fulton shouting through a megaphone to be heard by his leading actor. At least some of his scenes were enacted by a stunt double, with his voice dubbed over. Rains hated the restrictions. He told Whale, “’I want to do a little more.  I thought I could at least try to express something with my eyes.‘ Whale replied, ‘But Claude, old fellow, what are you going to do it with?  You haven’t any face?’” (Viera 52).

Rains in costume, you can see the breathing tube at the back of his head.

Claude Rains was one of those individuals determined to be an actor, even though it would seem that everything was stacked against him.  William Claude Rains was born in London in 1889, on what he called “the wrong side of the Thames” (Stein 513), one of three survivors of 12 children who died in childhood of poverty-related diseases. His father was unsuccessful at several professions, including silent film actor, and the family was extremely poor.  Willie Rains ran away from home at the age of 9 and joined a boy choir, his voice was beautiful, even if he had a Cockney accent, a lisp, and pronounced his “r” as “w.” At 11 years old, the choir performed in a stage play, and Rains decided he wanted to be an actor.   He worked backstage, building sets and holding prompt books, and then was promoted to stage manager by the time he was 18.  Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, whose troupe called His Majesty’s Theatre home, mentored Rains and helped him with speech to overcome his speech defects, so he could pursue his dream. He made his stage debut in 1911, and began working steadily on the English and American theater.  In 1932, his current troupe was forced to disband because of the Depression and he despaired of the movies because “I wasn’t the collar-ad type” (Stein 515). Even though Whale supposedly roared with laughter while viewing a his screen test, Rains not only got the part, but a Universal contract.  Unexpectedly, in spite of being a short, stocky man in his early 40s, he was a movie star. He would star in many memorable films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Notorious and Casablanca.

Publicity portrait

Gloria Stuart does not have anything other than a typical ingenue’s part, but she at least looks striking.  Her great fame would come later.  A California stage actress, she had been courted by both Paramount and Universal studios. Universal offered her twice as much money, and she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize Paramount would offer her better material.  She thought Whale the most talented director with whom she ever worked. “He was a wonderful, inspired man, great taste, knew exactly what he wanted. He had a wonderful feeling for actors. Unlike many directors, he rehearsed you thoroughly. He was very precise as to where you stood, how you moved. There was nothing he wasn’t in charge of. He supervised your hairdressing, the wardrobe….he came onto the set each morning and on the left hand side of his script every setup and every detail was indicated. And, on a James Whale set there was no clowning around no chit-chat and joking as you’d have with other directors. We had to be quite serious.” (Server).

She was not a big fan of Claude Rains.  “He was molto difficile, he was an actor’s actor and he didn’t really give.  One day (he tried to steal a scene) and I said to James, ‘James, look what he’s doing.’ And James said, ‘Now, Claude—don’t get naughty.’ James said, ‘We can take it over and over and over, because we’d like half of Gloria!’ But that’s the kind of actor he was” (W B&B 86).

Gloria Stuart reported that the director and star clashed.  “Claude was a big ego.  One could sense a tenseness within him…James was very, very—it’s an old-fashioned word—persnickety about Claude’s interpretation of the man.  He and Claude didn’t always agree, but Claude did it (Whale’s) way” (Curtis 207).

“I remember I did a seminar at Filmex on James Whale, and someone said to me, ‘How did it feel, Miss Stuart, making classics?’ Well, we didn’t know we were make classics. All we were hoping for was to make a good movie. But all of James films are classics.” Stuart had been selected to be a WAMPAS baby star in 1932, an award given to up and coming starlets by the West Coast movie exhibitors. She shared the honor that year with Ginger Rogers, as well as some lesser known beauties, including Toshia Mori, a Japanese actress, and the only Asian American so honored. But, her greatest fame was reserved for the end of her life. She played the 101 year old Rose, Kate Winslet’s aged avatar, in one of the highest grossing films of all time, Titanic. Stuart didn’t win her Oscar, but she was the oldest person ever nominated up to that date. Her newfound fame allowed her to share her very strong opinions on the Hollywood studio system with many people newly delighted to listen.

Humor is in important component of Whale’s films, although you may or may not find Una O’Connor funny.  She’s certainly no Ernest Thesiger (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House).  O’Connor was born in 1880, and was a veteran of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.  Her trademark was an ear-splitting shriek, of which you will hear a great deal in this film.  When I was inviting Lewis Beale to introduce a film in this series (he did Winchester ’73) he informed me that The Invisible Man wasn’t any good.  I replied, “I love The Invisible Man” and he said, “No, really, you shouldn’t show it,” and I suspect his hesitation was based on the amount of screen time Whale gives to O’Connor.

The early scenes at the inn cling closely to the written source material.

In the depths of the Depression, The Invisible Man was such a tremendous success that it single handedly resuscitated the studio’s financial fortunes.  In one theater in NYC, the Roxy, 80,000 people saw the film in four days.  The New York critics raved, one saying, it was “one of those drop everything, it must be seen at once” films (Curtis 214).  An international sensation, it was one of the top grossing films of 1933, and the New York Times named it to its Top Ten list.
The Invisible Man is one of the few Universal horror films spared remakes and sequels, and is perhaps the best H. G. Wells adaptation for the screen.

But, just as last week we saw a mad scientist who was conflicted, and regretted tampering with things man was meant to leave alone, this week we meet a mad scientist with a lot higher self-esteem.  His speech to a bewildered Gloria Stuart, “even the moon’s frightened of me…” was even referenced on a recent Elementary, as Sherlock Holmes watches this memorable rant amongst a battery of televisions.  The Invisible Man still speaks to megalomaniacs everywhere.


(Breathing tube photo from Viera, Inn and on set photos from Curtis. Sources include: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells, Universal Horrors by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas,  , Hollywood Horror by Mark Viera, Screams of Reason by David J. Skal, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis, Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice by David J. Skal with Jessica Rains, Claude Rains by John T. Soister with JoAnna Wioskowski, “Claude Rains” by Jeanne Stein in November, 1963 Films in Review, “Gloria Stuart” by Lee Server February, 1988 Films in Review.