THE INVISIBLE MAN: From Wells to Whale

Once upon a time, there was an invisible man. That invisible man stood among the legends of horror. The invisible man had one fatal flaw. Like many of his contemporaries – he tried to play God.

Sitting comfortably among horror masterpieces is James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). Whale’s moviehad a lot to prove in order to fit in with Universal Pictures’ horror cannon as it already stood by 1933, and perform it did becoming one of the highest grossing productions released that year. Reviews were positive as well with The Hollywood Reporter stating that The Invisible Man is “a legitimate offspring of the family that produced Frankenstein and Dracula.” No higher praise could have been offered to a movie with an unknown leading man and featuring special effects that had never been tried. However, you only need look at the players to know this was a cannot-miss situation.

H.G. Wells was born Herbert George Wells in Kent, England in 1866 to a shopkeeper/professional cricketer and former domestic servant. Despite his family’s unstable income, Wells was able to secure an education by his genius reading constantly on a wealth of topics. He received a bachelor’s degree in zoology, just one of the topics in which he excelled. Wells published his first book, The Time Machine in 1895, which was a huge success. He followed with The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896, The Invisible Man in 1897, and The War of the Worlds in 1898, all becoming the basis of popular motion pictures and varied other forms of media. The War of the Worlds, about an alien invasion, later caused a panic when an adaptation of the tale was broadcast on American radio. On Halloween night of 1938, Orson Welles went on the air with his version of The War of the Worlds, claiming that aliens had landed in New Jersey. You can read about that broadcast here. That is one just one example of the influence of H. G. Wells’ work, one reason why he is considered “the Father of Science Fiction,” accurately predicting advances in science and technology through his work.

In 1932, Paramount Pictures released The Island of Lost Souls directed by Erle C. Kenton. Based on H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Island of Lost Souls proved consequential. Although Lost Souls is an effective, entertaining horror picture, Wells was not happy with what Paramount had done with his story. When Universal Pictures planned to make The Invisible Man, Wells requested and got script approval.

The Invisible Man was originally published as a serial in Pearson’s weekly in 1897 and was published as a novel that same year. MGM turned down the rights to the book in 1931 due to the mystifying special effects required to tell an effective story. Universal, on the other hand, could turn to John P. Fulton called “the doctor” in the trick department at the studio at the time. Fulton was confident he could manage the effects so Universal purchased the rights in 1931, the deal included H. G. Wells’ approval.

More than a dozen treatments, story ideas, and scripts were submitted for The Invisible Man. Some by known writers like John Huston and Preston Sturges, but it was the script by R. C. Sherriff that ended up on the screen. Sherriff had written the play Journey’s End, which was directed by James Whale who also directed the 1930 movie version starring Colin Clive. Whale and Sherriff also collaborated on the highly entertaining The Old Dark House (1932) with Whale directing and Sherriff writing dialogue.

James Whale was born into a poor family in the coal-mining town of Dudley, Worcestershire, England in July 1889. Eager to leave the small town, Whale joined the army in WWI. He began acting and directing while a prisoner of war. Whale continued to act after the War and eventually became a director. R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End brought James Whale prominence and a legendary career in Hollywood. In 1930, he was invited to direct the film version of Journey’s End. The rest is history. Whale’s movies brought forth a unique style and a wicked sense of humor that permeates every story.

James Whale

Following Journey’s End, James Whale signed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1931 to direct Waterloo Bridge, “a praiseworthy picture” as the NY Times reviewer noted upon its release. It was Frankenstein, based on the Mary Shelley novel, however, that placed Whale among other legendary directors. That story about the ultimate outsider stands tall among classics today.

A huge popular success, Frankenstein was originally scheduled to be directed by Robert Florey, but when Bela Lugosi bowed out of the picture after Dracula, James Whale was assigned the project. Among Whale’s decisions was the casting of the mostly unknown British actor, Boris Karloff who, as we all know, became a legend himself thanks to his portrayal of the Monster. Karloff worked with James Whale again in The Old Dark House (1932) and was the director’s choice to play The Invisible Man. Karloff, now a mega-star, had a contract dispute with Universal Pictures at the time, however. Universal refused to meet the salary increase conditions stipulated on Karloff’s contract. Karloff walked and in stepped Colin Clive, Whale’s second choice to play Jack Griffin. Clive and Whale had worked together on Journey’s End and Frankenstein and the actor was interested in another collaboration. However, Clive had worked continuously for several years and decided to return to England for a break. James Whale then thought of an awful screen test he had seen where the actor’s over-the-top, theatrical performance was laughable, but the man’s voice was extraordinary. That actor had all the characteristics Whale wanted for the main character in The Invisible man.

At a brisk 71 minutes, The Invisible Man opens with a gorgeous sequence. Following the description in H. G. Wells’ novel to a tee, we see a man walking through the countryside. The wind and snow swirl around him as he laboriously walks toward The Lion’s Head Inn (the Coach and Horses Inn in the novel). We do not know who the man is as he enters the pub in a manner reminiscent of the Monster’s entrance in Frankenstein. The man’s face is covered in bandages, an eerie sight to the locals merry with drink in hand. The man has traveled to the village of Iping, where the Lion’s Head sits, to be left alone to continue his work. He asks for a room with a fireplace and the innkeeper and his wife oblige. Soon, however, it becomes clear to the couple that the man is up to no good.

The stranger enters the inn

Sometime later the man’s room at the Inn is in shambles. He laughs heartily as he removes his clothes before a shocked policeman and a group of locals. He is invisible, his madness and power evident as he clutches the policeman’s throat and makes a beeline through the pub causing mayhem as the townsfolk stand stunned at what their eyes have just witnessed – and not.

We then learn from a Dr. Cranley in conversation with a Dr. Kemp that the man, the invisible stranger, is Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who has been working on a secret experiment on invisibility. Griffin and Kemp both work as assistants to Cranley and both are in love with Cranley’s daughter, Flora. Cranley and Kemp express deep concern that Griffin has gone to a remote village to try to find an antidote to monocane, the drug that has made Griffin invisible. They are concerned because, unbeknownst to Jack Griffin, monocane causes madness.

Having left the Lion’s Head Inn in mad urgency, Jack Griffin pays a visit to his rival, Dr. Kemp who now knows that Griffin is likely going mad. “An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck and kill!” says Griffin to a shaken Kemp who is forced to help the invisible man in his “reign of terror!” At the first opportunity, however, Kemp reaches out to Dr. Cranley and the authorities for help. Kemp fears for his life for several reasons not the least of which is that he put the moves on Flora Cranley as soon as Jack Griffin left for the village. Having learned of Kemp’s betrayals, Griffin promises to kill him, but not before Griffin goes on a killing spree that includes the derailment of a moving train, which proves shocking even for this “modern” audience. They must find and stop the invisible man! 

Knowing that Griffin is bent on killing Kemp, the police use Kemp as bait, which proves ineffective as the invisible Griffin is privy to the plans. Authorities seem to forget the invisible man can be anywhere at any time and when Kemp drives away in hopes of luring Griffin into a trap, Griffin is hiding in the back seat of the car. Griffin manages to do away with Kemp in most dramatic a fashion. A terrific scene ensues as Griffin overpowers Kemp, ties him to the front seat of the car and sends the car over a cliff causing it to explode on contact.

At the end of our screen story Jack Griffin is wounded by police fire and is taken to a hospital. Dr. Cranley is there and, when the dying Griffin asks to see Flora, she is at the hospital to witness his death. Flora’s love for Griffin has not diminished through the nightmare. The defeated Jack Griffin somberly admits to her that he has meddled in things man should leave alone before passing into the ether world. As he does, his body becomes visible introducing us to the man who has so fervidly brought an invisible man to life.

Claude Rains as Jack Griffin revealed

William Claude Rains was born in the slums of London in 1889. To say Rains had a difficult childhood is putting it mildly. His family was extremely poor. Claude was one of 13 children and all but three died of malnutrition. By the time Claude was a teenager, he had found solace and escape from the drudgery in theater. By age 11, he was no longer going to school focusing solely on theater work that helped support his family. He was also gaining experience on his way to becoming one of the most elegant and admired actors in history.

The Invisible Man was Claude Rains’ first sound picture and his first Hollywood movie. He was cast right before shooting began after Karloff and Clive passed on the project. By the time Rains made this movie, he had played a vast range of roles on stage. In fact, it will surprise no one to know Claude Rains was named the Theatre Guild’s outstanding character actor. He would remain that the whole of his career, but movies were not his thing up to that point at all. In fact, Claude had only seen about six pictures in his life. He knew absolutely nothing about moviemaking and had no idea prior to the first day of shooting that he would be bandaged for most of the movie. 

Claude Rains as The Invisible Man

Apparently, the bandages and the fact that he is not seen did not bother Claude Rains who delivers an outstanding performance in The Invisible Man. Having experience in theater certainly helped as being invisible automatically takes the physical aspects of emoting out of the picture. Rains’ invisible man is theatrical and over-the-top, a memorable portrayal of madness, menace, and egotism that stays with you well after the movie concludes. According to Claude Rains’ daughter, his portrayal of The Invisible Man stuck with him too albeit for a different reason. This was the only one of his own movies that Claude Rains ever saw. Rains loved acting and the process of acting, but he was not necessarily interested in watching his own “big face on a big screen” after seeing it in this movie. Most interesting about that is the fact that when his face slowly appears at the end of The Invisible Man it never fails to make this fan sigh a little. He is beautiful.

Claude Rains did two more pictures at Universal after The Invisible Man before signing a non-exclusive contract with Warner Bros., Edward Ludwig’s The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) and Stuart Walker’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935). Whale considered Claude Rains for the Doctor Pretorius role in The Bride of Frankenstein, but we know that did not happen. Rains returned to Universal’s classic horror cannon as the senior Talbot in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) and as Enrique in Arthur Lubin’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943). 

Aside from the great Rains, The Invisible Man features several supporting actors of note. Una O’Connor plays innkeeper, Jenny Hall and she does plenty of her brand of shrieking, which is so entertaining if overdone. Acting veteran, Una, was a favorite of Whale’s. He personally invited her to be in The Invisible Man and later featured her in a similar role in The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. We remember Una O’Connor most for these types of roles, which add humor to horror proceedings, but most of her parts were dramatic sans screaming. Playing Una’s husband, Herbert, in The Invisible Man is Forrester Harvey, a fixture in Hollywood films set in England, Ireland and the like though I remember him most as Chalcroft in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Mr. Harvey is the first person the invisible man attacks in the picture.

Henry Travers, best remembered for playing a certain angel who visits Bedford Falls, plays Dr. Cranley, Griffin’s boss and Flora’s father. Neither father nor daughter are in H. G. Wells’ novel, but they are needed here. Cranley serves to explain details of the experiment and dangers of the drug Griffin has used, and Flora is the love interest who softens Jack Griffin when needed. Henry Travers plays a somber doctor in this picture, a stretch from his usual eccentric characters. Incidentally, Griffin goes mad in the novel by using strychnine, not monocane as in the movie.

Gloria Stuart plays Jack Griffith’s fiancé, Flora. Stuart had made two movies with James Whale before The Invisible Man, The Kiss before the Mirror in 1933 and The Old Dark House in 1932. Universal Pictures signed Gloria Stuart to a contract after its casting director saw her in a play. The story goes that Stuart left Universal after Junior Laemmle wanted to maker her a female Tarzan. Can’t say I blame her.

William Harrigan does a fine job as Dr. Kemp with particular praise due his death scene in the car as he battles an invisible man. Harrigan was a last minute replacement for Chester Morris who dropped out when Claude Rains was cast in the title role he wanted. The role of Kemp is much smaller in the novel where he serves as a catalyst for Griffin to tell his backstory. The romantic triangle gist added to the movie works great because making Kemp Griffin’s rival in love serves in selling why Griffin has such a terrible death planned for Kemp.

There are several other supporting actors of note in The Invisible Man. You might recognize Walter Brennan, John Carradine, and Dwight Frye, another James Whale favorite. Holmes Herbert, E. E. Clive, Dudley Digges, and Harry Stuffs are also great to watch as policemen or constables in this sordid tale.

Worthy of special note are the cinematography and special effects, the latter perhaps a bigger star than Claude Rains in this picture. Arthur Edeson did a fantastic job of shooting The Invisible Man, but then he was one of the best. Edeson’s work includes photography for the innovative The Lost World (1925), and perennial favorites The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1941), among others. Arthur Edeson and James Whale worked on numerous pictures together with The Invisible Man being their last collaboration. Numerous scenes and sequences are awe-inspiring in The Invisible Man. The dance hall scene is a favorite. We hear a warning that an invisible man is menacing the village as the camera pans ever closer to the speaker as if it is HE (first person point-of-view shot). There are stunning long shots of interiors where we see breaking walls as one would in a theater production. The entire movie is shot beautifully.

Finally, the special effects are pretty darn impressive to this day. As mentioned, John P. Fulton was in charge of effects at Universal and his work here is exemplary, perhaps rivaled only by King Kong released that same year. If I were interested in a career in special effects, I would look mighty close at The Invisible Man for inspiration. There is also Cleo E. Baker, uncredited in most movies, but in charge of miniatures and whose work is also splendid. The train derailment is worth another mention in this regard. It stuns with reality.

James Whale’s The Invisible Man stays true to H. G. Wells’ novel. Or, as much as a movie allows. Perhaps the most obvious difference is in the character of Jack Griffin himself who is a college student in the novel. His experiments there have to do with light and another dimension and are much more detailed than in the movie. In the novel Griffin invents a way to change a body’s refractive index to that of air so that it neither absorbs nor reflects light. He explains the origins of his testing, how difficult it was at first to adjust to being invisible. Griffin explains how he bumped into people, was freezing because he could not wear clothes without being seen, and avoided eating lest the food be seen in his stomach. The emotional and physical difficulties Jack Griffin suffers because of his invisibility in the novel are not represented in the movie, but this fan is reticent to call the big screen version a lesser one. James Whale’s movie is so supremely entertaining, such a wonderful example of the best of Universal horror, that it can hardly be viewed as anything but a successful rendition of H. G. Wells’ story. In fact, it is the gold standard.

H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man has quite a legacy. James Whale’s The Invisible Man was the first official adaptation of the Wells novel, but we can find all sorts of media through the years featuring the character. Universal Pictures followed the 1933 movie with six more outings dedicated to the invisible man. Subsequent invisible man Universal movie versions fall short of the original and are: The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Despite the title of that last picture, Abbott and Costello had actually met the invisible man at the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) when Vincent Price, who had played the character in The Invisible Man Returns, makes a cameo appearance.

One can also find Wells’ novel popularized in cartoons and comics. In 1939, Porky Pig tracks down the Invisible Man in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes release, Porky’s Movie Mystery directed by Bob Clampett, my favorite although other cartoons followed like the 1947 Hanna-Barbera short starring Tom and Jerry, The Invisible Mouse. Classics Illustrated released an invisible man comic book in the 1950s and Marvel Comics did so in 1976. Television and many more movies followed featuring the invisible man as a central character with varying storylines. The novel’s ending is much more ambiguous than the movie’s allowing for inventive stories about what happens to Jack Griffin or some iteration of him (or her) in numerous productions including an entertaining six-part BBC series in 1984 and the recent 2020 The Invisible Man directed by Leigh Whannell. You get the picture. H. G. Wells’ novel and James Whale’s movie, both rich with possibility and imagination, influenced countless iterations of invisibility on screen. That is why I chose The Invisible Man for the Literature on Film blogathon.

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Please visit Silver Screen Classics for more Literature on Film.

15 thoughts

  1. I really enjoyed learning so much about Wells, and The Invisible Man in particular. My mind is filled with the background information and I want nothing more than to watch the movie again soon.

    Speaking of Wells and Welles, I caught a this Studio One presentation from 1957 on YouTube, The Night American Trembled. It is very well done and filled (stuffed, actually) with familiar faces. Check it out sometime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jeW30vLwds

  2. HG Wells was born in Bromley in Kent, which is a 15 minute drive from where I live! There is a huge mural painted in tribute to him next to the Glade’s shopping centre. I think it is fair to say he is Bromley’s favourite and most famous son!

  3. Great review as always, packed with detail. I only saw the film for the first time recently. Not having read the novel and only knowing the character from later incarnations, I was so surprised to see the invisible man as a madman! The film is so well done as you say. I would like to know more about James Whale who went from these dark horrors to directing Show Boat which I love. I wonder what happened to him after these successes in the early 30s.

    1. Thank you, Vienna. Whale was so talented. Although he is most well known for horror, you are right, his SHOW BOST and is wonderful as are the other few non-horrors I’ve seen.

  4. Aurora, I was thrilled to see that you wrote this article on The Invisible Man. As you know, John P. Fulton, was born in my hometown, Beatrice, Nebraska. My group, Gage County Classic Film Institute, has honored him twice and we will again in the future. Fulton is a three time Oscar winner and his father, Fitch Fulton, won one Oscar for special effects. We have had Fulton family members come to Beatrice for our events. Our guests included his daughter, Joanne Fulton Schaefer and grandaughter, Jill Fulton McClure, who brought one of the Oscars. We learned some of the ways Fulton was able to make him invisible. Fulton was brilliant. Thank you for this article.

  5. Very nice job providing context and background details on all the creative people who brought The Invisible Man to life! As a kid I would watch a movie, then seek out the source novel (or in some cases, the novelization). Sometimes I’d be perplexed at how different the movie was from the book, but that was part of my learning experience. The Invisible Man is a perennial favorite at my house — we just watched it again this past Halloween. I love the dark humor Whale brought to his horror pictures. And then there’s Rains’ voice work, which is unforgettable.

  6. A wonderfully detailed and insightful review. As far as I remember, “The Invisible Man” was the first “Universal horror” I saw, well over 50 years ago, and it is a film I have seen many times over the years. Although the special effects may seem dated to modern movie-goers, used to spectacular computer-created effects, they were surely dazzling to the audiences of the time. Most importantly, “The Invisible Man” has not diminished in entertainment value; those 71 minutes still provide a cracking good story! Finally, I certainly agree that your description of the opening sequence as “gorgeous” is so accurate; this snowy scene is so effective that it has always prompted me to watch “The Invisible Man” on a snowy winter night.

    1. Thank you for stopping by for a visit. I think the effects are still dazzling today and I agree that the film’s entertainment value stays strong. We are so lucky to have been introduced to these movies in our youth.

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