Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)


THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)


The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.


Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.

12 Replies to “Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)”

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