July 13, 1974: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) / The Crimson Canary (1945)

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey’s cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey’s fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb’s last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin’s visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family’s coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother’s work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners’s dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug — knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane….

Comments: Universal got a lot of mileage out of its various horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy each kicked out a number of profitable sequels.  Oddly, The Invisible Man didn’t prove to be quite as durable.  Tonight’s movie, The Invisible Man Returns, was the first and really the only decent follow-up.  The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were all misfires of one kind or another.

The problem seems to be that once the protagonists turn invisible, their story options narrow considerably; the story can either focus on the invisible protagonist’s hijinks (creeping around like a ghost, listening in on private conversations, or smashing things like a poltergeist), or on the authorities’ efforts to locate and detain their quarry.

But hunting an invisible man can remain suspenseful for only so long.  And the poltergeist route, as we’ve seen, gets tiresome rather quickly — particularly in Invisible Agent, where the thick-headed hero succeeds not because he’s clever, or even because he’s invisible, but because the Nazis he’s fighting are an uncommonly dim-witted and cowardly bunch.

That The Invisible Man Returns succeeds at all is largely due to its brisk pace and clever screenplay, which relies less on the invisibility gimmick than it does on a simple mystery story: who framed Geoffrey Radcliffe, and why? 

John Sutton’s Frank Griffin connects us to the events of the first film, but Sutton himself is secondary to the action.  Nan Grey gets a good deal more to do than most female leads of the time (certainly more than the dismal Gloria Stuart in the first film) and her performance is uncommonly intelligent, as we see her constantly trying to suss out Geoffrey’s erratic mental state.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who famously disliked appearing in genre pictures, is nevertheless splendid here.  His Richard Cobbe is a smooth and reassuring presence throughout the early part of the picture; we trust him implicitly, and when his betrayal becomes clear it adds enormous impact to the final act.

Watching Vincent Price in this film makes me empathize with casting directors in the early 1940s.  It was clear that Price was an uncommon talent, yet finding the right roles for him must have been extraordinarily difficult.  He clearly wasn’t cut out to be a romantic lead, yet he was in some ways too warm and sympathetic to play a conventional bad guy. Early in his career he was often cast as a character who seemed   pleasant on the surface, but who proved to be hiding a sinister agenda (we’re clearly supposed to wonder which way he would fall in The Invisible Man Returns, and both Laura (1944) and Shock (1946) make exquisite use of Price’s warm yet vaguely unsettling demeanor).  In time this dilemma would be addressed by constructing the sort of hybrid character that Price specialized in playing: the grimly amused owner of an existential spookhouse, the same sort of character that Lugosi tried unsuccessfully to play in The Raven–  and one can only imagine the sinister delight that Price would have brought to that role.

The Crimson Canary

Synopsis: Danny Brooks (Noah Beery, Jr.) plays the trumpet with a jazz band that tours steadily but is still looking for its big break. Singer and manipulative goodtime girl Anita Lane (Claudia Drake) has been trying to worm her way into the band, but Danny tells her she’s been sowing dissension between the guys — implying that she’s been sleeping with more than one of them — and is not welcome. Anita then tells him that she and drummer Johnny (Danny Morton) are engaged. Danny insists that he won’t allow her to travel with the band, regardless of who she is or isn’t engaged to. She replies that she might call Danny’s girlfriend Jean (Lois Collier) and tell her some old “bedtime stories” about her and Danny. Angry, Danny walks out. As a result of this snub, Anita gives Johnny the cold shoulder, which greatly upsets him. Johnny goes to the bar at the club and begins drinking heavily.

During their set at the club, Danny’s trumpet gets a stuck valve, and he goes to the back room to get a replacement. He resumes playing, but Johnny is soon so drunk he can’t carry on, and staggers off to the back room by himself.

When the band finishes their set, they find Johnny unconscious in the back room, and Anita dead a few feet away, bludgeoned to death by Danny’s trumpet. Unsure of what to do, the band decides to leave immediately for their next tour date and pretend they never saw the body.

A jazz-loving homicide detective (John Litel) is assigned to the case, and he immediately suspects that Danny’s band was involved. The band finds their tour dates have been preemptively cancelled. Johnny decides to turn himself in to the authorities, but Danny argues that someone at the club that night committed the murder and is trying to let Johnny take the fall. He also believes that he knows how to prove that no one in the band was the guilty party….

Comments: Universal’s ambivalence about The Crimson Canary’s subject matter is plain to see on the poster: below the lurid promise of “Rhythm Cults Exposed!” is a blandishment for jazz stars Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford, as well as guitarist Josh White, all of whom are featured in musical numbers during the film.

Big band and swing had been the popular music forms of the war years, but now that the war was over things were changing. Small groups were in fashion, and they were playing new styles of jazz. Bebop was a more challenging, less accessible form of music, pioneered by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others. Jump blues borrowed riffs and hooks from the traditional blues. These forms of jazz were fast-paced and full of nervous energy, well-suited to a nation that was eager to move on after the war years.

The establishment wasn’t ready for these new styles of jazz, just as it wouldn’t be ready for rock n’ roll a decade later. The provocative rhythms and the permissive lifestyles of those who partook in them were seen as suspect. Like rock n’ roll, the racial makeup of the trend-setting artists were problematic as well.

“Race records”, as they were called, had limited appeal to white audiences, and for that reason the black faces delivering the new sound would inevitably be pushed aside by the record companies in favor of white ones. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in The Crimson Canary Danny Brooks and his jazz musician friends are all white — in fact, we never see any black musicians or patrons in the club they work at. It is only in later scenes, when they are on the lam and stop at a jazz club in a different city, that they watch the performances of the black jazz musicians promoted on the movie poster. But these scenes are carefully quarantined from the movie’s plot, presumably so they could be excised from prints playing in the American south — a frequent practice at the time.

The jazz performances from Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford and Josh White are decent, though not of stellar quality; but their music is much better than that recorded for Danny’s band. While I don’t know much about jazz, these numbers aren’t really bebop, sounding more like Dixieland. In any case, it isn’t great music, and the actors don’t try very hard to synch their fingering with the music, presuming they tried at all.

As to the plot — well, Danny’s crew runs from the scene of the crime and then wanders around, wondering what to do. They sneak up to the hotel room of the detective who’s been assigned to the case (Johnny is going to confess) but hear through the door the sound of the very number they recorded live the night of the murder. This gives Danny an idea that the record they made can exonerate them, but their plan comes to nothing when Danny drops the record and breaks it.

There’s a lot of this sort of running around to little effect, and it’s apparently meant to eat up time. It’s not much of a mystery, as it turns out, but Noah Beery, Jr., whom we last saw in the similarly-titled The Cat Creeps, is quite likable as Danny. This is a rare starring role for him, and he makes the most of it, playing Danny as a guy whose first love has always been music, and who never quite grew up. Beery later found fame as Jim Rockford’s dad in the 1970s series The Rockford Files.

Lois Collier also appeared in The Cat Creeps (her seductive pout in the posters of both movies looks quite similar, in fact) and she isn’t any more memorable here than she was in that film.

Claudia Drake is convincing enough as a lure for the guys in Danny’s band, but her obsession with them doesn’t make sense. Why would a relatively sophisticated woman work so hard to worm her way into the good graces of a struggling bunch of jazz musicians? Why not seduce some successful artists instead?

Well, I don’t know much about music, and even less about love. But I do know a little about horror films, and this barely qualifies; but it’s passable fare, and I imagine that the viewers who tuned in to Horror Incorporated on that July night all those years ago were pretty happy with what they saw.

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