The Invisible Woman (1940)

The Invisible Woman (1940) is an US science fiction comedy film with little to commend it to the regular noir nor horror marketeer noireau, and yet comedy included it still grabs the headlines with its genre mixup and inevitable 1940s-style gender statements. It features Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, and Oskar Homolka.

The Invisible Woman is an US science fiction comedy film. In this fil, well, to say the least an attractive model with an ulterior motive volunteers as guinea pig for an invisibility machine. Danger and hilarity and gender immorality ensues.

The Invisible Woman  emerges from the annals of cinematic history as a US science fiction comedy film, boasting a star-studded cast including Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, and Oskar Homolka. Within its narrative confines lies the tale of an attractive model, her motives shrouded in secrecy, who volunteers as a guinea pig for an invisibility machine, setting the stage for a whimsical and perilous journey into the unknown.

Meanwhile, in the realm of literary critique, a discerning book penned by a professor versed in the history and philosophy of education sheds light on the dichotomy between H.G. Wells' utopian themes in his novels and short stories spanning from 1895 to 1933 and their adaptation into films from 1909 to 1997. This scholarly exploration reveals how the fervent eagerness of both Wells and filmmakers to harness the power of cinema as a tool for enlightenment often resulted in a dilution or outright omission of the utopian issues inherent in Wells' writing, as the masses clamored for popular entertainment and spectacle over intellectual discourse.

Delving into the depths of this scholarly tome, readers are treated to meticulous scenarios and commentaries on Wells' literature, alongside synopses of the films inspired thereby. The author's keen insights dissect the fidelity of cinematic adaptations to their literary counterparts, offering a comprehensive evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, complete with numerical ratings.

This makes of The Invisible Woman,  a cinematic confection that transcends the mere mortal bounds of its era, a crifical feast, analytical trove, a deep well of study, a veritable odyssey of sly winks and coquettish capers. Herein lies Virginia Bruce, a veritable Valkyrie amongst men, delivering swift retribution to her oafish overseer, casting aspersions upon her nefarious nabbers, and, in a delicious twist of fate, orchestrating her own salvation with aplomb.

This silver screen escapade, however, is an enigma wrapped in celluloid—a narrative in pursuit of itself. The title, a brazen declaration of its B-movie pedigree, revels in the interludes of gaiety. Birthed in the same annum as  The Invisible Man Returns,  it stands at a crossroads: a radical reimagining or a whimsical offshoot crafted for sheer spectacle? The latter seems more plausible; this charming fable is naught but a frolicsome romp.

Yet,  Invisible Woman  wears its moniker with pride. Post-credits, Charles Ruggles executes a balletic tumble, a comedic ballet of blunders. Ruggles, a sardonic delight, serves as the valet to a debonair playboy in decline, portrayed by John Howard. The narrative seizes upon this dynamic—men ensnared by their own machinations when confronted with a woman of indomitable spirit.

The screenplay, a triad’s creation with Gertrude Purcell at the helm, is not devoid of the era’s gendered biases. Bruce’s portrayal teeters on the whimsical, her character often succumbing to the siren call of spirits. She is less a persona than a delightful zephyr, her ethereal form a literal interpretation. Even Barrymore’s man of science, upon discovering his subject’s gender, quips with antiquated surprise, as if the notion of a woman’s existence was a novel revelation.

The Invisible Woman the third instalment in Universal’s  Invisible Man  series, stands as a whimsical anomaly amidst its spectral siblings. Unlike its predecessors, which maintained a semblance of continuity with the original, this chapter diverges, introducing John Barrymore’s eccentric professor and his novel invention—a process distinct from the serums of yore.

The Invisible Woman  pirouettes into the annals of Universal’s  Invisible Man  series not with the expected shroud of mystery, but with a burst of unabashed comedy. A stark contrast to the early '40s horror fare that flirted with humour, this film embraces the ludicrous with open arms. Kitty’s spectral striptease, a dance of the unseen, is played for chuckles rather than chills, her modesty shielded only by the era’s stringent moral code.

Margaret Hamilton in The Invisible Woman (1940)

Virginia Bruce, with her effervescent charm, breathes life into the whimsical Kitty, navigating the absurdity with a knowing smile. John Howard, the dashing hero of Bulldog Drummond’s adventures, transitions to the small screen with ease, his presence a nod to the golden days of serial thrillers.

And then there’s John Barrymore, the titan of thespians, whose grandeur is cloaked in the garb of the zany Professor Gibbs. No longer the master of memorization, Barrymore’s reliance on off-camera cues is a poignant reminder of the passage of time, his eyes darting to and fro in search of his forgotten lines—a silent ballet of sight that speaks volumes of a star’s twilight years.

A. Edward Sutherland, the English maestro of mirth, steered this cinematic vessel with a seasoned hand. His pedigree in laughter, tracing back to the silent era’s Keystone Kops, and collaborations with luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, imbued  The Invisible Woman  with a comedic spirit that set it apart from its more solemn series counterparts.

The film’s cast is a cavalcade of comedic talent, featuring Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame and Margaret Hamilton, the iconic Wicked Witch of the West, in roles that playfully subvert their established personas. Sutherland’s foray into genre fare, while sporadic, showcased his versatility, from the screwball antics of  International House  to the macabre humor of  Murders in the Zoo. 

The Invisible Woman is also unusual in that it’s an out-and-out comedy — though as we have seen, many horror films in the early 1940s such as Horror Island (1941) and Murder in the Blue Room (1944) — were played for laughs. While all of the Invisible Man films had some comedic moments Kitty’s invisibility is never taken seriously. Kitty’s invisible nudity (to the extent allowed by code-enforced decorum) is proffered for our amusement and the presence of the wiggy Professor Gibbs anticipates Boris Karloff’s turn in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).

Virginia Bruce is a very likable actress, and she makes the most of the slightly daffy role of Kitty. John Howard starred in the Bulldog Drummond pictures in the late 1930s. We’ve seem him on Horror Incorporated in The Man Who Returned to Life. He made a number of guest appearances on television through the 1950s.

The once-great John Barrymore is almost unrecognizable here, playing the goofball professor Gibbs in an Edwardian collar and pince-nez. At this point in his career Barrymore could no longer memorize dialogue and had his dialogue pasted up just off camera where he could see it, and you can clearly see his eyes moving back and forth as he reads his lines.

The Invisible Woman  thus revels in its identity as an outright comedy, a lighthearted interlude in a series known for its invisible intrigue, and a testament to Sutherland’s enduring legacy as a purveyor of on-screen laughter.

John Barrymore in The Invisible Woman (1940)

Indeed,  Invisible Woman  dallies with sensuality. The prospect of an unseen Bruce, disrobed yet hidden, prompts Howard to gape in animated astonishment. Bruce materializes, commencing with her extremities, in a tantalizing display. To affirm her spectral state, she adorns herself before a flickering hearth, performing an inverse striptease. The film is sprightly and audacious, embracing its ludicrous premise with a knowing wink. It is a fleeting gem within Universal’s pantheon of fantastical lore, lingering only as long as necessity dictates.

Silly fashion show in The Invisible Woman (1940)

The comedic approach in  The Invisible Woman  was met with a variety of reactions from audiences and critics alike. The film, which took a departure from the more serious tone of its predecessors in the  Invisible Man  series, was seen as a screwball comedy and received mixed reviews:

Variety described it as  good entertainment for general audiences,  suggesting that it was well-received by those looking for light-hearted fun1.

Film Daily praised the movie as  laugh-packed,   brightly dialogued,  and  a lot of fun,  indicating that the comedic elements were appreciated for their entertainment value.

Silly revenge on workplace bully with Charles Lane in The Invisible Woman (1940)

Harrison’s Reports offered a more tempered view, calling it  a pretty good comedy for the masses,  but noted that it  does not offer anything new to those who saw the other pictures in which the character became invisible,  hinting at some audience fatigue with the invisibility gimmick.

Overall, while  The Invisible Woman  may have been a curious spin-off designed for laughs rather than suspense, it seems to have found its place as a comedic entry in the Universal Monsters canon, with some audiences enjoying the change of pace and others preferring the more traditional horror elements of the series.

And lo, there is a semblance of a plot. A trio of inept bandits covets the contraption of invisibility for their overlord of the underworld. Their antics border on the slapstick, so much so that Shemp Howard, pre-Stooge fame, graces the screen. In essence,  The Invisible Woman  is a dalliance of romance and whimsy, yet it dares to elevate its heroine beyond mere damsel, a cause for jubilation amidst the pantheon of Universal’s monstrous mythos.

As the narrative unfolds, we are confronted with the challenge of transforming elite literary utopian themes into a more palatable medium for popular consumption. From  The Time Machine  to  The War of the Worlds,  from  The Island of Doctor Moreau  to  The Invisible Man,  the author navigates the treacherous waters of adaptation, illuminating the divergences between literary intent and cinematic execution.

The YEAR'S FUNNIEST FUN! (original print ad - mostly caps)

IT'S A Ghost-to-Ghost HOOK-UP!

AT LAST! A WOMAN YOU CAN SEE THROUGH and boy! What fun! (Print Ad-Windsor Daily Star, ((Windsor, PO)) 3 April 1941)

She's nothin' but a nothin'-but what a kick you'll get when you see her! (Print Ad- Nashua Telegraph, ((Nashua, NH)) 1 February 1941)

Of particular interest are the eleven cinematic incarnations of  The Invisible Man,  spanning the years from 1908 to 1957. Here, the author elucidates the myriad ways in which Wells' philosophical musings were supplanted by comedic antics and superficial pranks, leaving little room for the exploration of weightier themes.

Edward Brophy, Donald McBride and Shemp Howard in The Invisible Woman (1940)

Oscar Homolka in The Invisible Woman (1940)

Semioticians will never run out of material for examining the style and pre-catastrophe manners of the concerns of the fantasies and myths of 1940, in turning their attention to The Invisible Woman (1940).

Invisibility and womanhood are two of the century's most endearing movie themes, experiential styles of expression, and social myths and subjects.

However, amidst the scholarly discourse, a glimmer of hope emerges with the promise of cinematic rebirth. Universal Pictures, buoyed by the success of  The Invisible Man Returns,  embarks on a follow-up endeavor, signing Curt Siodmak to develop the idea in 1940. Despite its modest acclaim,  The Invisible Woman  fails to capture the imagination of audiences, fading into obscurity with the passage of time.

Yet, even as one chapter closes, another begins, as Elizabeth Banks takes the helm of a reboot,  The Invisible Woman,  breathing new life into the age-old tale of invisibility and intrigue. With Erin Cressida Wilson penning the script and Max Handelman and Alison Small serving as producer and executive producer, respectively, the stage is set for a fresh interpretation of this timeless narrative.

As the curtain falls on  The Invisible Woman,  one cannot help but marvel at the enduring allure of cinema, where each adaptation breathes new life into the stories of old, inviting audiences to embark on a journey of discovery and imagination.

John Barrymore in The Invisible Woman (1940)

The Invisible Woman (1941)

Directed by Edward Sutherland
Genres - Science Fiction, Romance, Comedy, Crime, Comedy Thriller, Sci-Fi Comedy  |  
Release Date - Dec 27, 1940 (USA)  |   Run Time - 70 min.  | Wikipedia

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