Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: ‘Karloff as The Invisible Man’

A swarm of potential Karloff vehicles materialized in the vapor trails behind Frankenstein. Universal jolted many into existence: The Old Dark House and The Mummy and The Black Cat. Several were stillborn, including films that would eventually be realized with different actors in their lead roles. Too bad for Boris, but The Wolf Man would make a star of Lon Chaney, Jr., and The Invisible Man would do the same for Claude Rains, even though the actor’s face is only non-invisible (or visible, if you prefer) for mere seconds before the credits roll. Of course, Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, and such scant screen-time hardly befitted a creature of his stature. Director James Whale saw his latest horror project (and his latest project to delay his career-long obsession, The Road Back) run through a number of variations before he deemed it suitable for filming. By that point, Karloff was off the project because studio execs Carl and Junior Laemmle had failed to give him the salary increase he deserved.

A voice as distinctive as Karloff’s dulcet lisp would have made the actor as recognizable as an invisible man as a visible one, but early drafts of the film would have given viewers far more glimpses of his equally iconic face than the completed film starring Rains. In the latest essential volume in his essential “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” series, Philip J. Riley collects all that remains of the discarded swipes at The Invisible Man. After his brief overview of the film’s history, Riley hands over the reins to R.C. Sherriff, who would ultimately compose the script James Whale filmed in 1933. In an extended excerpt from Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady, the screenwriter spends much time wringing his hands over the faithfulness of his accepted script. Apparently, Universal expected its screenwriters to use their source material as the merest seeds that might sprout almost completely original ideas (it is unclear whether this was Sherriff’s interpretation of the studio’s desires or if the Laemmeles specifically demanded originality). Indeed, his plot is the most similar to the one in H.G. Wells’s novella, though the author took issue with Sherriff’s decision to have the invisibility formula turn Dr. Griffin into a madman.

One can only guess how violently Wells would have reacted to James Whale and novelist Gouveneur Morris’s treatment, which recasts the Invisible Man as a sort of evil faith-healer, who lives in seclusion because of his horribly scarred face like the Phantom of the Opera and fears crucifixes like Dracula. Or Richard Shayer’s distasteful unfinished treatment/script, which would have set Karloff off on a rape-spree through Manhattan. John Huston’s treatment is the eeriest, but Sherriff clearly made the right decision by adapting Wells faithfully while working in the humorousness of the Shayer draft. And Sherriff quite sells himself short in his autobiography by suggesting he did little more than reformat Wells’s novella as a screenplay. He enriched that tale by inventing the madness-inducing drug Monocane, introducing the love interest that would somewhat humanize the otherwise deplorable Griffin, and nudging in the humor that surely appealed to cheeky Whale and helped make his film a classic. Because the unfilmed treatments all end abruptly, Riley includes the complete first draft of Sherriff’s shooting script, which is most notable for missing some of the film’s funniest flourishes.

Get Karloff as The Invisible Man on Amazon.com here.
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