Saturday, September 23, 1978: The Invisible Woman (1940) / Man Made Monster (1941)

Synopsis: Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce) is unhappily employed as a department store model. Each day she and a half-dozen other women put on a little fashion show of the store’s newest offerings to jaded customers. It isn’t a job that pays very well, and Kitty is frustrated with the constant humiliations she and her co-workers face at the hands of their boss Mr. Grawley (Charles Lane). Mr. Grawley docks them an hour’s pay if they are a minute late, verbally abuses them, fires one girl because she has a cold, and so on.

Meanwhile, millionaire playboy Richard Russell (John Howard) discovers that he is in financial trouble and needs to eliminate any unnecessary expenses. Among other things he’s been paying money to crackpot inventor Professor Gibbs in hopes that he will come up with a marketable product. He goes to Gibbs’ lab to inform him that the money spigot is being turned off.

But as it happens, Gibbs has finally invented something worthwhile: an invisibility formula. He places an ad in the newspaper looking for a volunteer test subject. When Kitty sees the ad, she immediately replies, seeing it as a way to get revenge on Mr. Grawley.

The formula, once injected into the body, needs a special machine to complete the invisibility process. It works just as well as Gibbs could have hoped, and a now-invisible Kitty leaves to terrorize Grawley, demanding that he treat the women on his staff better. Immediately, Grawley changes his ways, but when Kitty returns to the lab she discovers that the formula hasn’t worn off as expected — she is still invisible.

While Gibbs and Russell try to get this sorted out, a group of mobsters has heard about Gibb’s invisibility machine and want to use it to smuggle their boss down to Mexico. They steal the machine, and even though Gibbs knows it’s useless without the formula, he also knows it’s only a matter of time before the mob shows up looking for that too….

Comments: The Invisible Woman is an oddball film in Universal’s vaunted Golden Age of Horror; it shares no continuity with the other films in the Invisible Man series. In fact the name Griffin, which had been important in all the other films, doesn’t show up here at all.

The Invisible Woman is also unusual in that it’s an out-and-out comedy — though as we have seen, a number of horror films in the early 1940s such as Horror Island (1941) and Murder in the Blue Room (1944) were played for laughs. While all of the Invisible Man films had some comedic moments, Kitty’s invisibility is never taken seriously. Her invisible nudity (to the extent allowed by code-enforced decorum) is proffered for our amusement and the presence of the wiggy Professor Gibbs anticipates Boris Karloff’s turn in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).

Virginia Bruce is a very likable actress, and she makes the most of the slightly daffy role of Kitty. John Howard starred in the Bulldog Drummond pictures in the late 1930s, and we’ve seem him on Horror Incorporated in The Man Who Returned to Life. He made a number of guest appearances on television through the 1950s.

The once-great John Barrymore is almost unrecognizable here, playing the goofball professor Gibbs in an Edwardian collar and pince-nez. At this point in his career Barrymore could no longer memorize dialogue and had his scenes pasted up just off camera where he could see them, and you can clearly see his eyes moving back and forth as he reads his lines.

All in all, this likable programmer seems an inevitable use of Universal’s invisibility gimmick as comedic fodder, and while it isn’t a great movie it seems like a good use of Virginia Bruce’s talents. I don’t know if it made money for Universal; I hope it did. We’ve seen plenty of dire films on Horror Incorporated — let’s hope light-hearted little films like this one did well too.

Man Made Monster

Synopsis: Late one night a bus is speeding along a rain-slick highway. It takes a turn too quickly and plows into an electrical pylon, electrocuting the driver and passengers. The only person to survive is a man named Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr) who performs in carnival sideshows as “Dynamo Dan the Electrical Man”.

In the hospital, Dan talks cheerfully about the various feats he performs that showcase his resistance to electricity — sticking his fingers in light sockets and so on — and while he clearly believes these are just simple tricks to entertain the gullible (“yokel shockers”, as he puts it) it appears that Dan’s life was saved by the resistance to electricity he has been building up over time.

This captures the attention of scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who invites Dan to stay at his home / laboratory complex and be studied. He’ll be paid for his participation, which Dan finds too good a deal to resist, and he accepts.

Dr. Lawrence shares his lab with his partner, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill), a brilliant but somewhat obsessive man. It just so happens that Dr. Rigas’s pet theory involves turning human beings into slaves controlled by electricity.

When Dr. Lawrence is out of town for a conference, Dr. Rigas takes over the experiments on Dan, strapping him to a table and juicing him with larger and larger jolts of electricity. Dan becomes more zombie-like and taciturn — and completely under the control of Rigas.

When Dr. Lawrence returns he questions what Dr. Rigas is doing. Rigas explains that Dan is the first of his new race of electrically-controlled slaves. Lawrence objects to how the man is being abused just to prove Dr. Rigas’ theories (the declarative sentence “You’re mad!” gets thrown around) and Rigas orders Dan to kill Lawrence. Helpless to resist, the now-robotic Dan does as he is told.

Rigas then instructs Dan to confess to the police that he committed the crime. Convicted of murder, Dan is sentenced to die in the electric chair, which Rigas knows will not kill him, but endow him with superhuman strength….

Comments: This deceptively modest thriller is less a generic 1940s horror film than it is the template for Universal’s future offerings. On the strength of this film Lon Chaney, Jr., heretofore known only for his father’s famous name and a solid performance in Of Mice and Men (1939), would quickly become the studio’s go-to horror star, appearing in The Wolf Man (1941), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and many others.

Chaney is quite good here; in fact, this might be the best performance of his career. From his very first scene he captures Dan McCormick’s character perfectly. We see right away that Dan is a friendly and innately decent guy, happy with his simple life working at shows and carnivals. This is important because the whole plot of Man Made Monster turns on Dr. Rigas’s contempt for people like Dan.

To him, ordinary people are nonentities, cattle who can and should be controlled by those he imagines are superior — unsurprisingly, people like himself. It seems clear that Dr. Rigas has been reading a bit too much Nietzsche lately, just more evidence that mad scientists need a solid grounding in the humanities to help leaven their Ubermensch impulses.

That Rigas just happens to be looking for a test subject who has built up an immunity to electricity in order to proves his crackpot theories seems a bit too convenient, but let’s cut the good doctor some slack: we’ve got a man-made monster to make, bucko, so let’s speed things along.

The movie hosts a bevy of familiar faces from the Universal bullpen. Lionel Atwill shines as the cheerfully mad scientist Rigas; Samuel S. Hinds provides his usual sturdy presence at Lawrence, and the lovely Anne Nagel provides the film’s warmth and humanity as Dr. Lawrence’s daughter June. Why June is slumming it with sad-sack reporter Frank Albertson as her boyfriend is anyone’s guess, but as we’ve noted before, reporters were often seen as good boyfriend material in films ca. 1940. They really haven’t been regarded as such at any other point in time, before or since.

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