I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.
For the subject of Universal's next "monster" movie, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., settled on the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, and following the released of a mystery starring Paul Lucas called The Kiss Before The Mirror, director James Whale began production in June 1933.
The Invisible Man is the story of Dr. Jack Griffin who discovers a process that will render a man invisible, a secret he initially plans to sell to the highest bidder until he realizes to his horror that there's no way to reverse the process. Its screenplay proved to be a tough nut to crack—no less a writer than Preston Sturges tried and failed, as did Garrett Fort and John Balderson, who had successfully adapted Dracula. Ultimately it was playwright R.C. Sherriff, whose Journey's End had provided Whale's break, who figured it out. He focused on the practical problems of invisibility—for example, Griffin must hide for an hour after he eats while his meal digests. In addition, Sherriff and Whale agreed that since the film's audience would believe that "only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," the story would emphasize Griffin's descent into madness.
"We'll begin with a reign of terror," Griffin says as his megalomania takes hold, "a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction."
To play the invisible man, Whale had initially planned on Boris Karloff, who had been such a sensation in Frankenstein, but when he proved to be unavailable, Whale opted for Claude Rains, a veteran of the stage and an instructor at the Royal Academy where he counted both Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud among his students. Although he was reluctant to begin his movie career with a horror film, Rains proved to be an inspired choice. Since the audience can't see him until the final scene, Griffin's entire character must be conveyed through his voice—and Rains had one of the richest, most melodious voices in movie history.
The other key to the success of The Invisible Man was, of course, its special effects, and those concocted by John P. Fulton and Arthur Edeson are among the best of its era. To create the illusion of invisibility, Fulton clothed Rains from head to toe in black velvet and filmed him before a black background. The footage was then optically printed over the scenes filmed on the set. In addition, to cover imperfections, Edeson retouched over four thousand frames of film by hand.
The result is startlingly effective, especially when Rains unwinds the bandages that conceal his face to reveal first empty eye sockets, then holes where his mouth and nose should be, and finally, nothing at all.
But as convincing as the special effects were, the movie would have collapsed had Whale not known how to move the story along, pull memorable performances from his actors—Una O'Connor as a terrified bar maid is unforgettable—and ratchet up the tension as the film races toward its conclusion.
The film was the critical and commercial hit Laemmle had hoped for. The New York Times named it one of the year's ten best and Whale himself won the special recognition at the Venice Film Festival for his direction. Even more important to Universal, the box office appeal of Whale's films helped keep the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.
In 2008, the Library of Congress added The Invisible Man to the National Film Registry.
Despite reaching such heights, though, glory proved to be fleeting for Whale. After 1935's Bride of Frankenstein—the sequel he had resisted making for as long as he could—he never again directed a horror picture, and although credited with directing Show Boat, he was actually fired before production ended, having uncharacteristically gone over budget. Afterwards, he directed a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures and was pretty much out of movies by 1941.
In 1957, after a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool. One of the few openly-gay directors working in Hollywood, Whale's life was the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen.