“Are you satisfied now! You fools! It’s easy, really, if you’re clever! A few chemicals mixed together. That’s all. And flesh and blood and bones just – fade away.” – The Invisible Man.
For this week’s spooky movie, it’s time to take another trip in time. The year on this cinematic stop-over is 1933, and what a year that was. Franklin Roosevelt was elected 32nd President of the United States, The Lone Ranger radio program debuted on station WXYZ in Detroit and the New York Giants defeated the Washington Senators, winning the 1933 World Series. On November 13th however, movie history was made and in the process, the career of a man who would go on to become a fantastic actor was launched. So get ready to make some popcorn, its time to dive into The Invisible Man.
Directed by James Whale, this was another triumph of the horror genre for both Whale and for Universal Studios. Whale was already famous for his success with Frankenstein a few years earlier so it was time for another kick at the can. Taking H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel and turning it into a motion picture would be a challenge, especially with both the casting and special effects of how to make the actor playing the Invisible Man live up to his namesake. The first hurdle was cleared with James’ one and only choice for the role, Claude Rains.
Claude Rains became an overnight sensation thanks to his portrayal of Jack Griffin/Invisible Man. A latecomer to the world of motion pictures, Rains was cast based on a screen-test he did for Universal in 1932. His unique tone of voice added to the final decision to cast him over studio choice of Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff. This was Claude’s first American movie role and he would go on to star and co-star in such pictures as The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca and the 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera. But Rains’ talent as an actor was only part of the success of the production. As previously stated, the other half of the equation was in making the leading man appear invisible to the camera’s lens.
Golden Age Hollywood was known for a lot of things: the stars, the movies, the studio politics. But one of the benchmarks of those years was the special effects created to bring directors’ visions to life. In the case of taking Claude Rains and making him invisible, this was done in a very elaborate way. Thanks to the genius of special effects masters John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, the movie was a resounding success. For scenes when Griffin/Rains was in the process of taking clothes or his bandages off, Rains was filmed in an all black velvet suit against a velvet background, then the scene for the movie was combined with the velvet footage using a matte process. The end result being that Claude Rains seemed to be not there at all, shocking audiences to their core.
Films of the fright or horror genre always command a special place in the Hollywood space. Especially older films because of how groundbreaking they were to that era. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man to name a few of these scary classics, all went on to break ground and make movie history. When The Invisible Man came out, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times had this to say about the project:
“This eerie tale evidently afforded a Roman holiday for the camera aces. Photographic magic abounds in the production, the work being even more startling than was that of Douglas Fairbanks’s old picture “The Thief of Bagdad.” The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement.”
As Halloween gets closer and closer, fright movies of all types and styles are being showcased on TV and in movie theaters across the nation. And while a movie such as The Invisible Man may not have the gore and guts of Nightmare on Elm Street or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it does have a few other things going for it: a compelling story, a fabulous leader actor and fantastic special effects (for the time). So if there was ever a great throwback, Golden Age of Horror classic to enjoy, it’s this one. Grab friends and family, throw some snacks on the table and make this the horror movie choice of the week.