I'm not a fan of this one. I'm happy with it being comedy instead of horror, but it expects its audience to be idiots and its bad guys might as well be cartoon characters.
Ostensibly it's the third film in the Invisible Man series, but it's not. It's unrelated to the first two, except in the most generic way, i.e. a scientist is turning someone invisible. John Barrymore is a dotty professor who's invented an invisibility machine that he thinks will make a fortune for his charming layabout of a rich sponsor, John Howard. This suggests a mind-bending sequel that alas never happened. Imagine a world in which invisibility was a commercially available product. Fancy being invisible for a day? Pop down the shops and get yourself fixed up!
However that's the future. Barrymore's still at the prototype stage. He's not so scatterbrained as to use himself as a guinea pig, so he advertises for a volunteer and gets Virginia Bruce. This young lady is happy to be injected with unknown and near-magical substances, then exposed to some kind of radiation. Well, that's pretty much what the U.S. government would soon be doing with its H-bomb tests. Wow, safety standards in human clinical trials have come on since 1940. (This film's epilogue suggests that I'm right to be thinking such thoughts, incidentally.)
Bruce thus turns invisible and deals with a bullying boss and some gangsters. Such wackiness.
In its favour, the cast are often very likeable. The great John Barrymore is hamming it up something rotten, but of course he's got the acting chops to get away with it. Howard is adorable. Bruce is clearly having a ball. Charles Ruggles as Howard's butler does admirably with a ridiculous role and very nearly pulls it off, despite the idiocy of the character as scripted. He's kind of adorable. Oh, and Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West) is Barrymore's housekeeper.
When the film's not worrying about plot and instead just doodling with the interactions of the core cast, it's happy and fun. This is more than half of the film.
Unfortunately it's still a pantomime. This is painful when Bruce is vanquishing villains, but the stupidest plot point involves a dress. Barrymore surprises Bruce by buying her a ballgown. Does he know her measurements, or indeed anything at all about her? (No.) Would we trust him to buy women's clothes even if he did, or even to know how to shop or feed himself? (No.) Does it fit Bruce perfectly in all the right places? (D'oh.) Note that shortly before this, he'd said, "I never have paid much attention to women myself."
Those villains, though... Charles Lane (often used by Frank Capra and Lucille Ball) is merely an eye-roller, but the gangsters will make you want to shoot your TV. Invisibility hypnotises them. An invisible girl can be standing in front of them, talking aloud and holding a pen to show them where she is, and they just stand there gawping for about a minute or so until she knocks them unconscious. She should have died. They'd have killed her. Gun, knife, fists... I don't care, but they'd have done something. It's not even as if they're surprised by invisibility, because the gang boss (Oskar Homolka) had sent his men into the USA from Mexico in the first place to steal Barrymore's invisibility machine. How did he hear about it across the border? Does he read every newspaper in America? Why did he take that anonymous advert so seriously?
The actors playing the villains aren't bad at all, although I'd say that Charles Lane is struggling. However it's not the performances that are the problem. If it's any indication, one of the gangsters is Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges. Also the gun business is downright insulting.
Oh, and yet I haven't ranted enough about Ruggles. The butler is an oversensitive, feebleminded drama queen who'd be the world's most outrageous stereotype if he were gay. He swoons. He resigns his post at the drop of a hat. However he's not homosexual, thank goodness, and there's never any such implication. Furthermore Ruggles also doesn't make his character stupid, which is a brave but unbelievable decision. Instead he's simply a straight camp twat, albeit lovable as well thanks to the actor's efforts. "Call the airport." "Oh, airport!" "No, on the phone." That's not repartee, but instead a character who's sufficiently addled that he can shout in seriousness, "Oh, airport!"
What I liked best about the film was its lack of innuendo. There was plenty of opportunity. To be invisible, Bruce must strip naked. Hands probably go everywhere if you're looking carefully and you'd expect the film to get risque, but miraculously no one regresses to a mental age of fourteen and all the tiresomely obvious jokes are avoided. I never thought I'd be grateful for the Hays Code!
The special effects were Oscar-nominated, incidentally, putting John P. Fulton in competition with himself for The Invisible Man Returns
. To be honest, I preferred that film's effects. These are good too, but there's nothing as eye-catching as the previous film's smoke silhouette and they're trying to do the impossible at the end when the Invisible Woman falls into a pool. In fairness, they show a hole in the water where she's standing. That's good. However the evidence of our eyes is that invisibility makes your body frictionless and water-repellent, leaving you dry as a bone even after total immersion. Are there any water contours floating in mid-air? Of course not. Don't be silly. (However if anyone out there is filthy-minded, likes making fan edits of classic movies and can do CGI...)
This isn't a horrible film. On the contrary, it's a light and charming souffle that happens to be shooting itself in the foot repeatedly. The cast is star-studded, with Barrymore being practically a legend. The production values are way better than you'd expect for this kind of bubble-headed material, since at 300,000 dollars it was one of Universal's most expensive productions of 1940. I was fond of the characters. Nevertheless the thing I'll remember longest about it is its idiot plot points, e.g. a woman can knock out any number of gangsters with one blow at the first attempt. Ruggles isn't credible as a human being. The gangsters wouldn't pass muster in a Children's Film Foundation movie. I enjoyed a lot of this movie, but I still wouldn't bother if I were you.