A. Edward Sutherland, 1940
Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard
The third in the Invisible Man series after the titular film and The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman is a complete departure from the first two films and strips away all of the horror and many of the sci-fi elements, leaving behind a slap-stick comedy with a romantic subplot. Kitty, a down on her luck model, gleefully volunteers to test out an invisibility machine when her boss at a department store nearly fires her. The scientist who has invented the machine, Professor Gibbs, was not expecting a woman, but tests her anyway, as his benefactor, playboy Dick Russell, is hard up for money. Russell has spent all of his considerable fortune on women and is hoping for a major cash in. Kitty successfully becomes invisible and quickly dashes off to torture her boss. Terrified, he changes his ways and starts being nice to the other models. She returns to Professor Gibbs, who is determined to show Russell that his device is a success. Meanwhile, they are being pursed by a gang of mobsters who want the machine all for themselves.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I loved The Invisible Woman. Sort of a less compelling Bringing Up Baby with a touch of sci-fi and gangster film about it, the humor is excellent, whether slapstick or wordplay, and Virginia Bruce (The Great Ziegfeld) is excellent as Kitty. Unlike most other Universal heroines of the time, Kitty has a huge personality and plenty of sass, enough so that it is easy to forget she is just a disembodied voice for much of the film. Her headstrong character flaunts many of the production codes of the period. Because she is invisible, she’s allowed to be naked, get drunk, beat the hell out of some gangsters and rescue herself, etc. Russell "accidentally" gropes her naked torso soon after they meet. She also fires a machine gun in his general direction to convince him to “rescue” her (after she has already knocked out all the gangsters) and they jump into a pond together while she is invisible and thus naked. While invisible, she also convinces him she is attractive by putting on only her stockings and other sexual and nudity jokes abound.
Another shining moment of the film is great character actor John Barrymore, who is his usual charming self as the absent minded Professor Gibbs. He and Virginia Bruce have great chemistry together and their scenes are humorous and endearing. The scene where he and Kitty discover that alcohol will reactive her invisibility is one of the high points. Though leading man John Howard (The Philadelphia Story) is a little bland and serves as a poor stand in for Cary Grant and/or Clark Gable, overall the supporting cast is wonderful. Stooge Shemp Howard plays one of the gangsters, Charles Ruggles (Bringing Up Baby) is hilarious as the accident prone butler, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) is the uptight housekeeper, and Oscar Homolka (The Seven Year Itch, Mr. Sardonicus) is the ridiculous lead gangster.
Assertively directed by A. Edward Sutherland (Murders in the Zoo), certainly more so than Joe May’s previous The Invisible Man Returns, May surprisingly returned to help Curt Siodmak come up with the film’s premise. Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo (both regular writers for Abbott and Costello) completed the script and added heaping amounts of slapstick, apparently just what the series needed. Though John Fulton returned to continue his Academy Award-winning/nominated special effects, they play second fiddle to the humor and don’t build much on what was developed for the first two films.
You can find The Invisible Woman as part of the The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection box set. It comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys slapstick and/or romantic comedies from the ‘30s and ‘40s with a touch of the bizarre. Don’t expect a horror sci-fi mash-up or a retread of The Invisible Man plot and the film will likely hold some pleasant surprises.