Skiffy Flix: The Invisible Man

This one is copyright 1932 but was released November 1933, says Wikipedia. It was produced by Carl Laemmle, stars Claude Rains, a high-profile actor at the beginning of his career (he was later in Casablanca, Notorious, and many others), and was directed by James Whale, four films past Frankenstein. Also familiar is Una O’Connor, who played the perpetually shrieking woman in Bride of Frankenstein, playing an identical role here.

  • The Universal logo in this era is a small model airplane circling a globe in a flat plane.
  • The film opens with a man walking through a snowstorm at night, following a sign to Iping, a (real) small English town. There he comes to an inn, the Lion’s Head. Inside are men playing music, smoking, and playing darts. (We see a table in a corner with several woman seated around it, quietly. Are these the wives?)
  • The strange man enters, not only bundled up for the cold, but his head wrapped in bandages and eyes covered by goggles. The room falls silent. He asks for a room and a fire, and a sitting room. The innkeeper’s wife Mrs. Hall [Una] shows him a room. When she returns with food he quickly covers his face. After she leaves, he removes the scarf, and we see his lower jaw is invisible.
  • Meanwhile…
    • In an elegantly appointed (check!) drawing room we see Dr. Cranley – played by Henry Travers, famous later for his role as the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life – and his daughter Flora –played by Gloria Stuart, famous decades later as the old lady in Titanic. We learn that Jack Griffin – the invisible man – worked for Cranley, but took off some time ago without a word. Flora is (of course) in love with him (check!), and is worried; she sobs. Cranley’s other assistant, Kemp, explains disapprovingly that Griffin was keeping secrets, experimenting with preserving food and whatnot – “He meddled in things men should leave alone.” (Check!)
  • Griffin spends time mixing chemicals in his room – he’s had trunks delivered from the train station – searching for a mixture to reverse the invisibility. But he’s making a mess and hasn’t paid his bill, so Mrs. Hall sends her husband up to evict him. Griffin reacts in fury and throws the man out. Police arrive; cackling in glee Griffin removes his bandages and reveals nothing underneath! Police flee as Griffin cackles about how an invisible man can rule the world. He runs out through the village – apparently naked, with no clothes on—knocking aside people and furniture, smashing a window.
  • Meanwhile…
    • Cranley and Kemp find a clue—a list of drugs that includes monocaine, a now disused drug that would draw color out of things, but also cause madness.
    • Later Kemp is in his study reading. (Quite a nice house for a lab assistant.) We see a French door open and close, as the radio broadcasts news about a village struck by a disease that gives everyone the delusion of an invisible man.
    • Griffin reveals himself to Kemp – moving things around, even lighting a cigarette, while invisible – and asks for help. He needs a partner; they can rule the world. Kemp is shocked, but agrees to aid him to a point.
  • From here on the two story threads alternate:
    • The police converge on the town, gradually are convinced an invisible man exists, and launch extensive searches.
      • There’s a cute collage of scenes in which various people phone the police with outlandish ideas for how to catch the invisible man – “Throw ink at ‘im!” – so that when Kemp calls to say the invisible man is in his house, he’s almost brushed off.
    • Griffin launches a reign of terror, returning to the inn for his books and causing mayhem, killing a policeman; then attacking the police searchers, finally throwing a rail switch that sends a passenger train over a cliff… just because he can.
  • Various methods are tried to capture the invisible man. Nets. Spray paint. Griffin decides to murder Kemp for betraying him to the police, and does so.
  • Finally a farmer hears snoring inside his barn one night, but sees nothing. He notifies the police; they surround the barn and set it afire. Griffin is forced to run across the snow, leaving footprints—and he’s shot.
  • In a quiet final scene, a doctor in the hospital tells Flora that Griffin, is near the end. Flora visits him. He apologies. “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” Then, dying, he becomes visible – in a creepy transition that shows a skull before the face is fully formed, a young handsome man.


  • I’ve seen the film before, though decades ago, and read the novel somewhat more recently. What I remember noticing about the novel was that it was comedic, in a way entirely lost in the film.
  • You wonder how practical matters of being invisible would be handled. If he’s running through town and no one can see him, he’s naked, right? Yes, this is acknowledged a couple times. And what about…? Griffin explains to Kemp that he mustn’t be seen for an hour after each meal. Also, he can’t work in the rain, or in fog, and he must avoid the soot in smoky cities.
  • During an early scene in Cranley’s spacious home, it occurred to me that perhaps the size of the sets, never mind being realistic, were necessary in order to allow the bulky camera equipment of the era to move around. There’s a scene in which the camera, as if gliding across the front of a stage, moves from left to right from one large room to the next.
  • Finally, though Rains is a striking actor – even being unseen! – and the special effects are clever, in the end this is just another mad scientist movie. Why does every scientist have to be mad with power? Why would a researcher who accidentally discovered invisibility think to rule the world? Wouldn’t there be more practical issues to explore? All these films, it seems, are variations on the American fear of science in that era, the fear scientific discoveries would ruin the world, and that scientists should pay for their impertinence with death.
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