The Invisible Man had a circuitous route to production with 9 different writers, including John Huston & Preston Sturges, creating 6 treatments & 10 screenplays, while 4 separate directors were at times attached during the 2+ years of pre-production. Whale, in fact, left the production twice, before finally agreeing to shoot a script by R.C. Sherriff (Goodbye, Mr. Chips & That Hamilton Woman) that most closely resembled H.G. Wells’ classic novel. Mixing Wells’ typical blend of science & fantasy, The Invisible Man tells the story of a chemical scientist who discovers a serum that renders him invisible, but also may have serious side effects. While he retreats to work on an anecdote his mania increases with murderous results.
Once production finally began, however, Rains balked at the constrictive nature of not only the bandages he wore throughout, but also Whale’s efforts to simplify his performance. Harkening back to Rains’ screen test & his experience in theatre, Whale’s goal was to have Rains utilize his dynamic voice to create character & limit the emoting for the back row. Using a combination of a maniacal laugh, a haughty attitude & an overall disdain for all he felt inferior, Rains constructed a character that clearly boarders on insanity, often ranting and railing against ignorance & stupidity. While not the classic monster, in the vein of Dracula or Frankenstein, Rains’ Dr. Jack Griffin is every bit as frightening, both in his bandaged physical appearance, but more forcefully as he terrorizes while invisible.
The initial scene of a bundled soul, wandering through a snowstorm, only to bring about recoil as he enters The Lion’s Head Inn, wonderfully sets the tone for the film. The rogue’s gallery of inn patrons brings both color & depth to Whale’s frame, adding a three dimensionality to the proceedings, highlighted by the elastic faced & piercingly shrill Una O’Connor as the inn’s proprietress. Whale relies on these secondary characters to temper the horror/suspense with moments of levity, highlighted by the special effects flying objects. Rains is at his best as he cackles loudly while flinging beer mugs, tossing bicycles & hurling caps, all pulled from the hapless villagers. It’s the genius of the film/screenplay that undercuts horror at the same time emphasizing the mental instability of Dr. Griffin. His physical expression of his madness is supported by his verbal rampages of mostly political & revenge fantasies, always bringing the danger back to a more serious & threatening realm.
That danger is never more palpable than when Griffin transforms from a bandaged physical being to fully invisible. Using state of the art special effects, sometimes combining 4 separate pieces of film to create the illusion, Whale & special effects master John P. Fulton, literally disappear the invisible man on screen, a remarkable feat for the early ‘30’s. In doing so, however, they also craft a level of believability that in itself is terrifying & elevates the film beyond carnival sideshow. Griffin’s anger, while always on edge while bandaged, often explodes when he is invisible, no more so than while intimidating Dr. Kemp, his erstwhile colleague & romantic rival. Only when in the presence of his love Flora Cranley (Gloria Stewart) does Griffin soften. Rains utilizes his voice especially well while invisible, creating a growl of sorts that exacerbates the otherworldly experience of being disembodied. Whale’s camera marks his movements with a certain fluidity, but it is Rains’ voice that commands the viewers eyes to follow the action.
The entirety of the special effects required nearly 45 minutes of the film to be hand touched to make sure no flaws in the effects took away from the illusion. This required an extraordinary performance by Rains, trapped as he often was in bandages, but sometimes in heavy black velvet clothing & a paper-machce helmet. In one particularly long scene, shot on a very hot sound stage, Rains actually passed out from heat exhaustion. All this is to say that even though Rains was forced to act primarily with his voice, was constricted by his director, heavy costumes & special effects props, he created a deranged & emotionally challenging character in spite of everything. The Invisible Man is a testament to his talent as an actor, even as we only see his face for a matter of seconds (in the last shot of the film).
Boris Karloff is often credited with the quintessential monster performance in the classic Universal Horror series, but I would argue that Claude Rains performance in The Invisible Man is equally iconic. Karloff signaled great emotional depth solely through his expressive eyes, giving Frankenstein’s monster a soul that elevated the entire film. Rains , however, gives his character an invisible soul completely through the sound of his voice. He captures a range of emotions that includes anger & sadness at their basest, grandiosity & mania in the extreme & sorrow & remorse in all its subtlety. The accidental invisible man launched his career in American film with grace, imagination and a voice that would long be remembered in the many parts he made his own.