The Invisible Woman (1940, A. Edward Sutherland)

It’s entirely possible The Invisible Woman’s concept is a good one—instead of a horror movie, doing a screwball comedy where the female lead is invisible most of the time. Woman is—at best—indifferently acted, poorly directed, atrociously written, without even reasonable special effects. But the idea itself isn’t necessarily bad.

The film opens with suffering butler Charles Ruggles—he gets lots of jokes, they’re always terrible, he’s always bad. His bits are so universally bad, it seems like it has to be director Sutherland. Even Shemp Howard is occasionally amusing. He’s mostly godawful, but every once in a while, some gag won’t completely fail. Everything with Ruggles is a fail. Every single joke. And there are probably four Ruggles jokes every twelve minutes, if not more. The movie runs seventy-two minutes total. So thirty-some lousy Ruggles gags.

Ruggles works for John Howard. Howard is the romance lead, a playboy who funds lovable mad scientist John Barrymore’s projects. Only Howard never asks to see results—not until the movie starts, when Barrymore needs to turn someone invisible. It needs to be a person; Howard apparently won’t believe it if Barrymore turns the cat invisible. The human subject is going to be Virginia Bruce. She initially wants to get invisible to seemingly erase herself from reality. Bruce isn’t good in the scenes where she’s getting philosophical about woman’s place in the universe and so on but at least it’s character.

When she does get invisible and gets to do whatever she wants, it’s just messing with crappy boss Charles Lane. When Lane’s bad, it’s a sign Invisible Woman is never going to be good or even okay. Even with Ruggles, even with Howard, even with Barrymore basically letting his elaborate make-up do all the acting, if the movie were at least funny with its big supporting cast of comedy regulars… it’d have a chance.

But no.

Because Sutherland’s direction is terrible.

And the script—from Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and Gertrude Purcell (from a story by horror guys Curt Siodmak and Joe May)—is terrible. So the movie doesn’t have a chance. Ever.

The best part of the movie is Margaret Hamilton, who plays Barrymore’s assistant and her dismissive, impatient attitude is perfect for the part and movie. She doesn’t camp it up, but she seems to be acknowledging the quality constraints and so on and excels—reasonably—within them. The movie sort of trades her screen time for Oscar Homolka, which is appropriate for Invisible Woman. Hamilton’s the best, Homolka’s the worst. Now, obviously, dramatically speaking, Howard’s the worst. But for the comedy—and Woman’s a comedy–Homolka’s an endless pit of bad comedy.

Invisible Woman gets so painfully bad in the last third—it’s also a slog of seventy-two minutes, probably because there’s not a good “Invisible Woman” set piece. Sutherland is clearly inept at the special effects sequences but the movie needs them. There’s not even a big screwball number, just more plot, as Homolka’s gang goes after Barrymore and friends.

Howard—Shemp—is in the gang. Donald MacBride is in the gang. Edward Brophy is in the gang. Invisible Woman wastes Edward Brophy. Wastes him in a way you think they’d never seen an Edward Brophy performance before. Including the one he’s giving here.

Terrible editing from Frank Gross doesn’t help things either. Occasionally the cuts make it seem like they’re doing a lot of work—revised audio looped in to dialogue-free visuals, jokes muted and faded out on—and maybe Gross was doing the best he could with Sutherland’s footage. It’s sadly immaterial, other than to correctly portion the blame.

The Invisible Woman’s laugh-less and charmless, only impressive because they can never find a good joke, not even on accident.

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