‘The Invisible Woman’ turns 80 but Falls Short for Todays Audience

The Invisible Woman is an odd third addition to the Universal Studios series based loosely on the H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel, The Invisible Man. This incarnation turns its back on the tried and tested Universal horror/sci-fi formula and attempts a confusing hybrid of schlock screwball comedy. 

Kooky inventor Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) is on the brink of brilliance with the creation of an invisibility device. This is his last chance to pay back his funder Dick Russell (John Howard), a sleazy Playboy who is squandering his father’s fortune on a string of failed engagements. Much to the amusement of everyone, the Professor puts out a wanted ad in the newspaper for a “human being willing to be made invisible” – no payment offered. Head strong Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce), a disenchanted model working under tyrant Mr Growley at the Continental Dress Co. Modelling Department answers the apparent “call to adventure” and becomes the Professor’s first guinea pig. The film follows Kitty’s experiences as an invisible woman which ultimately wind up getting her a husband and *spoiler alert* disappearing baby. 

What else could this film need? Well a trio of Mexican gangsters try to steal the invisibility machine in order to get their shady mob boss across the Border. This sub-sub plot is half-hazardly weaved in throughout the second half of the film and adds pretty much nothing to the film except offensive racial stereotypes played off for laughs. There is a welcome appearance from the brilliant Margaret Hamilton who hams it up as Jackson, the Professor’s sharp as a tack housekeeper and the special effects are spectacularly surreal for their day but overall the film does not translate well to a modern audience. 

Like many classic movies, some of the dialogue has definitely not aged well. At the time, the film was marketed as incredibly risqué due to the insinuation that for the majority of the film Kitty is – gasp – naked under the invisibility concoction. This joke gets staler with every rehash by the dopey Professor Gibbs and sleazy Dick who both become increasingly irritating  with their school boy fascinations of the opposite sex. 

The film’s saving grace is Kitty’s all-too-short revenge on the wicked Mr Growley who is rightfully put back in his place as she uses her newfound invisibility to trash her former workplace and gleefully slap her boss across the face. But it appears Kitty can revolt against her toxic work environment and the realities of being a bit of ‘leg’ in the model industry only when she is literally invisible. A film very much of it’s time Kitty’s independent streak is cut short after being swept off her feet by her co-lead. The latter half of the film shows Kitty falling for the salacious Dick who’s main concern is seeing whether or not Kitty is “stout” under her cloak of invisibility. The flirting is basically Dick jeering Kitty to show her true self – naked preferably – as “any girl insisting on being invisible can’t be very easy on the eyes.” This is a film I remember fondly watching growing up but, sadly, revisiting The Invisible Women as a 32 year old woman left me feeling jaded.

by Casci Ritchie

Casci Ritchie (she/her) is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby JaneBeetlejuiceDouble Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter at @CasciTRitchie & her blog www.casciritchie.com.

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