Released late in 1940, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN was the third in Universal’s Invisible series, though this one bore no relationship to the first two other than the concept of unseen people. This one was a comedy and an entirely different origin for invisibility.
John Barrymore is Professor Gibbs, an eccentric inventor who rarely developed anything practical. John Howard is Richard Russel, his patron, a rich playboy who’d come to the end of his rope. Charlie Ruggles is George, Howard’s unpaid manservant and a comedy foil in the film. Virginia Bruce is Kitty Carroll, a young model fired from her job and looking for revenge when she volunteers to test the Professor’s new process.
Those are the principal players.
There were a number of names and/or faces filling out minor roles. Margaret Hamilton(the Wicked Witch of The West) plays the Professor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson. Charles Lane(one of those faces you know without the name) is Growley, the sadistic boss who fired Kitty Carroll. And the prize, for me at least, is Shemp Howard playing a goofy hood named Frankie. Oscar Homolka is Blackie, a gang leader hiding in Mexico who wants the invisibility machine so he can come home. He’s homesick.
Millionaire playboy Richard Russel is nearly broke. He’s just lost a $100,000 lawsuit to a young woman. So when Professor Gibbs asks for $6,000 to pay a volunteer to try his new invisibility machine, he has to turn him down. So the ad goes out for a volunteer. Kitty Carroll responds, having just been fired from her modeling job for, A: being two minutes late and B: for insulting a rude, prodding woman customer. She plans to use the invisibility, providing it works, as a means of getting revenge on the sadistic Mr. Growley, who seems to take great delight in tormenting all the models for little things.
Of course the machine works and Professor wants to demonstrate the effects for his strapped patron, thinking they will make millions out of it. Kitty has other ideas, the need to get back at her old boss. Blackie, after reading the ad in the paper, sends a trio of thugs(of which Shemp Howard is one) to get the Professor and his machine.
So begins a series of hits, misses as everyone just misses each other. Kitty gets her revenge, returning just as the effects wear off(which was good as she had to be naked while invisible). Russell and George had just left after being disappointed, and disillusioned in the Professor, to find no invisible woman. Gibbs makes her invisible again and they head to the mansion, only to find Russell has left with George for a hunting trip to his mountain lodge. They head after them. The three hoods arrive at the Professor’s place, only to find him gone. They disassemble the machine and take it down to Mexico.
Without the Professor, they missed one key point. A formula must be injected before using the rays in the machine.
finally convinced that the machine works, Russell returns with the other three. meanwhile in Mexico, a test run produces odd results on the “volunteer,” one of the three hoods. His deep voice becomes a high-pitched squeak. Blackie sends the other two to grab Gibbs. Russell and Kitty find Mrs. Jackson locked in a closet and get the story, heading to Mexico to the rescue.
The film is filled with a lot of slapstick, mostly on Ruggles’ part. He gets most of the best lines and Barrymore gets the rest. Kitty gets a few(plus we’re subjected to “here kitty, kitty” more than once while they look for her while invisible). The Russel character mostly just stands around functioning as a straight man for the other principals. Shemp Howard and the other two hoods function as a low rent Three Stooges when they’re together.
Still it was a lot of fun.
For a B-movie, it had a surprisingly high budget, Universal’s largest of 1940. The $300,000 budget would be nearly six million in 2011.
Here’s the trailer:
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