To celebrate James Whale’s 121st birthday (with a nod to the film’s leading lady, Gloria Stuart, who is still with us and turned 100 on July 4), the Thursday Horror Picture Show presents The Invisible Man (1933). According to Whale’s intimates, this—along with the rarely seen Remember Last Night (1935)—was his personal favorite. This pitch black comedy in horror-movie clothing is certainly one of his best films, and one of his most accomplished, making it one of the great classics in any genre.
The making of the film was interesting to say the least. Whale had made Boris Karloff a star with Frankenstein (1931)—something he realized was going to happen during shooting and which he feared, not unreasonably, would draw attention away from his filmmaking. He made sure that wouldn’t happen again on their inevitable reteaming with The Old Dark House (1932)—a film in which it was clear that the filmmaker was the real star. But Whale didn’t personally care that much for his star (he found him on the dull side and a little too self-serious) and he definitely didn’t want him for The Invisible Man. He wanted an untried stage actor, Claude Rains. The studio wanted Karloff, but Karloff played into Whale’s hands by getting into a salary dispute with Universal that caused him to accept an offer to make The Ghoul (1933) in England. Still, they wanted a name, so Whale suggested Colin Clive—and then privately asked Clive to decline, which he did. Whale got the star he wanted as a result and Rains became forever associated with the role.
Working with his friend and frequent collaborator the writer R.C. Sherriff, Whale managed to turn H.G. Wells’ source novel into a combination horror film, black comedy and an amusing indictment of the British middle class. It’s not accidental that the film’s upper-class characters are sympathetic, its lower-class characters are lovably funny, and its real villain, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), is solidly middle class. Kemp is unlikable, unimaginative, sneaky and utterly duplicitous (so much so that we unwholesomely enjoy his comeuppance). It’s typical of lower-class Whale, who admired, envied and wanted to be upper class (he did his best to reinvent himself in that form) that he’d invariably go after the class he considered to be the most snobbish—an attitude he developed as a soldier in WWI, based on the way he was treated.
Everything about The Invisible Man works—from its snowbound opening to its snowy climax. The performances are all good; Rains’ performance is iconic, The effects work holds up nicely 77 years later. And Whale’s visual panache and wit hasn’t dimmed one whit. The cast is made up largely of actors often associated with Whale, especially Gloria Stuart, E.E. Clive, Forrester Harvey and, in her first appearance for him, Una O’Connor. Look quickly and you’ll even catch Whale regular Dwight Frye in an unbilled bit as a reporter. (Non-Whale performers like Walter Brennan and John Carradine also have unbilled appearances.) The film is interesting in that it marks the first time Whale used a background score (by W. Franke Harling)—and oddly, not until the film’s final reel. In addition, the film gave us one of the most useful horror film lines ever: “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.”