The many alternate universes in which science fiction films are played out include plenty of familiar stereotypes. One of the most durable of these, of course, is the mad scientist. His job is to tamper with things that humans were meant to leave alone, and then to pay the terrible price for having done so, thereby serving as an object lesson to us all. These characters' specific crimes of hubris range from the creation of infernal machines all the way up to the creation of life itself.
Since 1897, the year in which "The Invisible Man" by H.G. Wells was published, one of the most cherished goals of mad scientists in the movies has been to discover the secret of invisibility. That's the premise played out in the recently released film, "Hollow Man." If you're interested in seeing how earlier filmmakers developed this premise, look for these titles on home video.
"The Invisible Man" (1933). During the early Thirties and on up into the Forties, Universal was the studio that had a virtual lock on monster movies and other fantasy-oriented stories, owing to their dual triumphs in that field in 1931 with the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein" and the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula." The director behind "Frankenstein" had been James Whale, who has himself been recently portrayed on the screen by Ian McKellen in "Gods and Monsters" (1988). Universal, eager to solidify its grip on horror and fantasy films, called upon the witty and urbane Whale to direct yet another literary classic of the genre: Wells's "The Invisible Man." Claude Rains took on the title role, an exceedingly odd starring role in that his face is seen onscreen only briefly. It is Rains's magnificent voice that incarnates Jack Griffin, aided of course by John Fulton's remarkable special effects. The story, as adapted by screenwriter R.C. Sherriff, is a cautionary tale about science and the sin of pride. It seems that Griffin's invisibility formula has a fatal flaw: along with invisibility, it induces insanity. In Griffin, this insanity takes the form of virulent megalomania, prompting him to use his discovery not for the benefit of humanity but rather as a means to rule the world.
"The Invisible Man Returns" (1940). Universal's sequel to "The Invisible Man" features Vincent Price in an early starring role, although he, like Rains, was saddled with the thankless task of playing a character who remains unseen through most of his scenes. Fortunately, like Rains, Price brought an exceptionally rich voice to the role. His character is the brother of the original Invisible Man. Unjustly charged with murder, he is driven to use his brother's dangerous invisibility formula to prove his innocence. Once again, Fulton provided the special effects.
"The Invisible Woman" (1940). While Universal was riding high with their cycle of horror films, the name of the game was to introduce a successful premise and then produce as many variations on it as possible to keep the franchise going. Reworking the story of the Invisible Man on the distaff side was an obvious way to go, but they also chose to play the story more for comedy this time. The mad scientist here is played by John Barrymore, but unlike his predecessors he has the foresight not to experiment on himself. Instead he renders a model named Kitty (Virginia Bruce) invisible. Although the storylines were beginning to decline by this point in the series, Fulton's effects remained excellent. In fact, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for its special effects.
"The Invisible Agent" (1942). As the Second World War continued to escalate, it became clear what Universal's next variation on the Invisible Man theme would be. As part of Hollywood's contribution to morale on the homefront, virtually every continuing screen character was sooner or later recruited to fight the Axis, from Superman to Sherlock Holmes. In this wartime fantasy, the son of the original Invisible Man, played by Jon Hall, employs his father's invisibility formula to obtain a secret list of Axis spies operating in America.
Believe it or not, even after four films, Universal was still not ready to put the Invisible Man series out to pasture. Next week we'll look at where the series went from here, as well as taking a look at latter day variations on the theme after the Universal series finally ran its course.