Is it possible for a comedy about invisibility to be smart? Or at least not stupid? There hasn't been a lot of evidence for the ``yes'' proposition, but Universal's 1941 The Invisible Woman, a thematic sequel to its Invisible Man films, is also not an example of ``yes''. The film stars John Barrymore as Professor Gibbs (non-mad scientist working on the invisibility problem), Virginia Bruce as Kitty Carroll (department store model with a thirst for adventure and a cruel boss), John Howard as Richard Russell (busted millionaire playboy and non-mad science patron), Charlie Ruggles as George (Russell's valet) and in smaller parts Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Housekeeper of the Mad Scientist, and Shemp Howard as the minor mobster Frankie. Spoilers to follow:
With the last of Russell's sponsorship Gibbs advertises for a volunteer to try being invisible, and to get some hackneyed old misogynist gags about ``if you can make my wife disappear -- signed, a henpecked husband'' in letters on screen. Carroll, fed up with her petty, demeaning boss, takes him up on it, although since Gibbs expected a man to answer he insists on the Wicked Witch of the West chaperoning. See, she has to take an injection, and strip naked, to stand in the machinery and go invisible. I can accept her having to strip for the process, but, here's the thing: they insist she stay naked while Gibbs goes to get Russell. Why?
Well, for the titillating idea of a naked woman kind of on screen. And it makes it easier for her to escape the Wicked Witch's oversight and go off to bully her boss. This one is quite the scene: she marches in, proclaiming her disembodied voice, which her boss doesn't recognize (forgivably, I think), to be his conscience. She throws his office stuff around and kicks over the time clock, and then shoves her boss into the window, closes the frame, and spanks him. This works wonders, and in his next scene he's a gentle and compassionate and generous boss, calling out to ask for his conscience's approval, showing the power of the newly-invented ``public punishment/humiliation by ghosts'' fetish.
Meanwhile, Blackie (Oskar Homolka), a mobster down in Mexico somewheres, who looks like every male member of the original Star Trek cast mooshed together, saw Gibbs's ad, and wants the invisibility process himself so he can go home. His dopey sidekicks pretend to be investors, but Carroll's overheard them plotting and grabs a pair of scissors, holding them in that horribly awkward way that doesn't look a thing like an actual human being holding scissors might but does look like a pair of scissors held on a string might be held, chasing them off and showing they really fail mobster class.
The invisibility wears off before she can be shown off to Russell, who loses faith --- to his slapstick-prone butler's relief --- and they set off for Russell's hunting lodge. Gibbs and Carroll try again with an extra-heavy dose of the injection and the machinery. Up at the hunting lodge Gibbs insists she strip again, because, yes, not seeing anything is much more convincing of invisibility than seeing plainly worn clothes walking around with nobody in them. Carroll starts drinking to ward off the cold, though Gibbs and George do some nice comic business trying to keep her from having any more. The invisibility doesn't wear off on schedule, causing Gibbs to reason that alcohol somehow extends the invisibility effect, and the invisibility effect makes her want more alcohol. This should do much to cure the world's shortage of naked drunk people.
Anyway. The mobsters steal the invisibility machine, without understanding there's an injection too, so when they try it on deep-voiced Foghorn, it ... Gibbs mentions in exposition that the machine without the injection can produce weird effects. In this case, it gives Foghorn a falsetto voice, destroying his sense of identity. I mean, come on. Given that setup I expect mildly special effect-sy stuff going on, shrink him, fatten him, make him grow feathers. (I admit I dreaded it was going to put him in blackface and have him sing jazz.) Changing his voice? How does that flow?
The lingeringly-invisible Carroll and Russell chat up about how much they resent one another for their obvious and major personality flaws, so, rather belatedly the romance subplot lurches into motion. Gibbs whips up a new injection to undo the invisibility, even without the machine, and while I wonder how he found a vein to inject it into, he mentions how Carroll should have a nice gown to present herself visible for the first time to Russell and mentions he got one from the department store. I'm not sure why Gibbs is so eager to hook up Russell and Carroll; conceivably he realized their personalities would hit it off nicely, but, he hasn't learned his housekeeper's name in twelve years, they mention explicitly. Plus, he's a scientist in a movie. Sensitivity to human emotions is beyond him.
The mobsters kidnap Gibbs, who stalls them by thrusting technobabble at them, and Carroll. She grabs some pure grain alcohol from their stolen lab equipment and gulps it down, letting her turn invisible again, and she chases the mobsters back on a slapstick chase. Meanwhile, Foghorn, feeling betrayed, is leading Russell and George to the lair, showing that the underworld can demand many things of people, but not the timbre of their voices.
With the mobsters vanquished, Russell hasn't got any chance to act heroically, so I was honestly surprised at this violation of the laws of movies. It's all right, though; Carroll, possibly drunk already, declares that ``if he wants me he's going to have to fight for me''. And she grabs the gangster's machine gun and starts shooting at Russell, George, and Foghorn. Excuse me. And she grabs the gangster's machine gun and starts shooting at Russell, George, and Foghorn! Her little excursion into making a relationship somehow one-fiftieth as screwed up as Silver Age Lois Lane/Superman comics gives the mobsters a chance to recover, and things lurch into a much bigger slapstick battle.
Zip ahead about a year to after Russell and Carroll are married, and they have a baby, and George pats the kid down with rubbing alcohol. The kid turns invisible. This is a fascinating evolution of the species into regular humans and the humans who turn invisible when drunk, since if there's anything we really need it's more invisible alcoholics.
It does bother me that the movie is so half-witted, as a comedy, though. I appreciate a good dumb joke, but I think you have to be quite smart to pull off a dumb joke. Look to Gracie Allen: her nonsense tales are complicatedly stupid, and brilliantly entertaining for that. There's some good scenes and nonsense --- in waking the passed-out Russell, George empties a fishtank on him; Russell asks, ``Did you have to throw the fish?'' and is answered, ``It's Friday, sir'' --- but there's also a lot of, ``You'll be not seeing me in a moment.''
All right, it's a dopey movie. It's not a horrible one, though. It's probably one to see when you're under ten years old, or to tolerate watching in the background. The plot structure is weird, threatening but not quite becoming episodic --- the department store isn't seen after a third of the way into the picture --- but all right. The special effects are not going to fool the modern eye, but if you watch 1940 movies for the special effects you're doing it wrong. I haven't mentioned much of George the butler's stuff, since it's almost irrelevant to the plot, but he's steadily if broadly amusing. And John Barrymore is John Barrymore, after all; making him play a scientist is automatically giving you a convincing character for the story. And Shemp is Shemp, after all; you may not like him as a stooge, but I do.
Trivia: The landed gentry participating in Robert Dover's 17th century Olympick Games (in Glouchestershire, England) could participate in (among other events) hunting by scent; lesser ranks could shovelboard; townspeople entered ``fighting at the barriers''; and the rural population could enjoy cudgel-play, jumping, and throwing the sledgehammer. Source: Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement, Editors John E Findling, Kimberly D Pelle. (Also, back in 2008, I'd mentioned, there was competitive shin-kicking. England is a weird place.)
Currently Reading: This Is Not A Weasel: A Close Look At Nature's Most Confusing Terms, Philip B Mortenson.