I’m Looking Through You

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940), was a lot more fun than we were expecting! Fiona was particularly taken with the film’s female empowerment stance, which has zesty Goldwyn Girl Virginia Bruce avenging herself on a nasty boss (above) and defeating a whole mob of gangsters single-handed before the hero even arrives on the scene. The gang includes Shemp Howard and is led by Oscar Homolka, a mob boss afflicted with crying jags sixty years before Tony Soprano…

“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head.”

The fact that VB achieves all this empowerment by taking her clothes off gives the whole rigmarole a modern, post-feminist (ie, mixed up and self-contradictory) feeling, as well as a sexy one. Chris Schneider informs me that an invisible shower scene was considered too racy at the time (Ginnie’s outline picked out by the water spray, presumably) but the film still ends with the hero embracing a naked lady, using the art of mime. (Actually it finally ends in epilogue form with the couple’s adorable baby vanishing while the mad prof declares, “Hereditary!”) The have-your-empowerment-and-eat-it message is so contemporary that a modern remake actually seems like a passable idea.

The mad prof is John Barrymore, whom one should feel sorry for, except he seems to be having the time of his life: he’s over the top even by the standards of the hokum surrounding him.

WAY down the cast list is a speechless Maria Montez, the inaudible in pursuit of the invisible, and the guy being kicked up the arse is Charles Lane. Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider suggests I turn to David Ehrenstein for elucidation on the subject of that esteemed performer…

26 Responses to “I’m Looking Through You”

  1. Virginia Bruce was so likable; it’s so sad and so very Hollywood that for some reason she eventually became known as a jinx on the set and no one would cast her. I totally agree about Barrymore in this: he just ripped it up in a “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light” manner. What’s great about Universal studio product from that era is that those films are still products of a studio system, but unlike the top studios, there’s less window-dressing and one can truly appreciate “the genius of the system.”

  2. I wonder if Bruce’s rep was based on something in her behavior, or just sheer bad luck?

    I guess the film was intended for Joe May, who worked on the story (with Kurt Siodmak) and had directed The Invisible Man Returns. The film’s actual director, Eddie Sutherland, is best known for his brief marriage to Louise Brooks. He directed a lot of pictures, but never really achieved distinction: the perfect lens to focus the genius of the system?

  3. That looks kind of wonderful. How is it that the unloved, bottom of the barrel products of the system like this often seem to carry such a remarkable load of subtext?

  4. An egregious spud named Hutch Dano recently gave an interview in whcih he declared the films of his maternal grandmother — Virginia Bruce — are completely unavailable.

    What a Maroon!

  5. Charles Lane (1905-2007!) is an Axiom of the Cinema. Whenever a mean lawyer, businessman or process-server was required Lane is at the ready. So essential was the character he played it’s safe to say Hollywood couldn’t have functioned without him. Yet just like Jane Lynch today, the meaner he was on screen the more the audience adored him. Waiitng for Charles Lane to show up in everything from Twentieth Century to I Love Lucy is almost as much fun as my favorite movie game — “Spot Bess Flowers.”

    My favirte late period Lane perfornance is Strange Behavior, a truly witty sci-fi weirdie written by Bill Condon and starring Fiona Lewis and Dan Schor’s fabulous naked ass.

  6. Christopher Says:

    I used to laugh my head off at The Invisible Woman..It is such a quirky film and not like any of the other Universal horros..Maybe thats why it often got excluded in the Universal line up on TV years ago..They seemed to jump from Invisible Man Returns to The Invisible Agent in those days..
    Maria Montez..and Acquanetta I believe,are amongst the Models..
    Charles Lane!..what a lovely man.It dosen’t suprise me he lived till 2007(hes too mean to die!)..but I’d see him in stuff from the 1980s and 90s..and he’d still look the same..and I’d think..now THERES your movie star!

  7. Longevity + quality + typecasting = axiom of cinema!

    Invisible Woman has five credited writers, so some subtext was bound to creep in somewheres! Maybe Gertrude Purcell, the sole woman, is responsible for the women’s lib stuff.

    Good old Charles!

  8. I guess The Invisible Woman marks the true moment Universal turned horror into comedy, way ahead of Abbot and Costello.

  9. “John Barrymore, whom one should feel sorry for, except he seems to be having the time of his life” — this seems to be true for more of his late filmography than folks were once willing to admit, since the legend of his boozy decline (“He was once Hamlet! Now he’s in trash!”) was so firmly in place. There was also something postmodern in Barrymore’s willingness to publicly parody and deconstruct his reputation. I’ve also heard that his performance in the Invisible Woman is a parody of Lionel at his hammiest.

  10. Christopher Says:

    drinking pal W.C Fields was at Universal at this time…probably felt like a party!…just one more drink with Jack”

  11. Twentieth Century certainly alludes to nearly all Barrymore’s great roles from the silent and early talkie era, suggesting that he willingly entered into self-parody. I guess the knowing side of it was all the more distressing to the folks who thought he should be doing Shakespeare. “Barrymore, before the movies got him by the throat!”

  12. I find those disembodied stockinged legs strangely sexy.

  13. Speaking of disembodied legs. . .

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    Barrymore was deeply in debt in his last years (he died a very OLD sixty) and he refused to welsh on his debts. Seeing his feats of preternatural agility in some of the silents (home movies of a Mexican cruise in the 20’s show him cavorting in the surf, teasing elephant seals who snap at him, missing him by inches—and snagging the binoculars ’round his neck) illustrate how powerful was the effect of booze upon him, and how he aged 30 years in 10.

    He put on a noble front, but if you ever see the footage of his concrete enshrinement at Grauman’s, take note of the moment when he’s wiping the stuff off his face, thinking the cameras are no longer turning. It’s heartbreaking.

    But when he was young, he was truly magnificent.

    David E posted that clip of Barrymore’s idolator and kindred spirit, Orson Welles. They hung out together, a bit, when Orson was on top of the world; Barrymore died a few weeks before the release of AMBERSONS.
    I suspect Jack saw a good deal of his own youthful brilliance reflected in Orson & I wonder if he foresaw Welles’ impending misfortunes. Given the quality of Barrymore’s mind, he probably saw Welles’ fall as inevitable.

  15. Welles on seeing Barrymore onstage in “My Dear Children,” in 1940: “He was so generous to a young theatre man like myself, and so kindly and so gentlemanly and so warm. He was such a good man…He was so sick he could hardly get through it, and pretended to be drunk. He knew he was prostituting himself, and that everybody he cared about was ashamed of him, but he managed to play it as though it were a great lark, and to bring the audience into it as though they were at a party. A great performance, really.”

  16. That’s beautiful. And you don’t generally see Welles’ detractors showing that kind of generosity of spirit towards HIM.

    As near as I can make out, Welles’ fall in Hollywood was a result of his having an artistic temperament without a big hit film to make the brass like it. Other filmmakers behaved worse, and spent far more, but they had made big money.

    Welles actually did have SOME self-control: he tried cocaine with Errol Flynn and liked it, but stayed off it from then on, saying that if he had two lives to live he’d give one over to drugs. He was smart enough to know he had only one.

  17. And Anne Nagel (another Universal contract starlet) who played one of Bruce’s modeling colleagues was on her way to the skids of alcohol and penury too. Poor kid, married to that gay Warner Brothers lead Ross Alexander, who committed suicide a few months after the wedding. Her Universal contract was her lifeline to a movie career, but she didn’t catch on.

    Hmmm, so the Industry’s three smartass aging alcoholics were all on the Universal lot in 1940: Barrymore, Fields and Gregory LaCava. Must have been some good pub-crawling on Lankershim Boulevard during those months…

  18. love this one!

    VB really gets a chance to shine, as she never had in all of those second-lead glamour-girl parts at MGM

    and I’m a huge fan of Barrymore’s late period–Invisible Woman, The Great Profile, Midnight and–for me, especially–The Great Man Votes (a truly unique Garson Kanin effort)… These movies provide documentary evidence that you CAN go to seed without losing your spark–and, to me, these roles seem much less like prostitution than the ones he played in Grand Hotel and Svengali, at any rate (although I love both of those movies too)

  19. Midnight is a joy, and there’s no sense at all that Barrymore is slumming it — everybody gets into the silliness.

    LaCava is probably the saddest case of those three particular boozers, because when his drinking was bad he couldn’t make good work. Barrymore and Fields were still productive to the end (although Fields is a pretty disturbing sight by the time of Tales of Manhattan).

  20. I agree that Barrymore did burlesque himself pretty thoroughly, he also seemed to make sure that he gave us something to watch. 20th Century looks to be the model for his other comic performances – self-referential parodies of his own persona. True Confession has him as a comic boozer, so he hadn’t any qualms about that sort of role. He’d already done Larry Renault, the tragic boozer and a role that hit closer to home, though he was in no way a washout like Larry.

    Oh, BTW, is there something that happened to the formatting of your blog? It’s like the fonts got smaller all of a sudden.

  21. I don’t think I’ve changed the formatting… I hope. try going to View and Zoom In.

    As early as Counsellor at Law, Barrymore was having trouble remembering his lines, we are told. William Wyler was his ruthless self and kept shooting, way over schedule, until Barrymore had nailed every moment, resulting in one of his finest performances.

  22. Incidentally, here’s Welles “introducing” a clip of Barrymore’s screen test as Hamlet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2jWx4IqgEM

  23. Christopher Says:

    Evelyn Ankers,in the Forward for the Script book of The Wolfman,has little nice to say of Lon Chaney Jr.’s drinking.Drunken brawls with Andy Devine and Brodrick Crawford,always breaking stuff on the set..always down at the front office like a bad boy at school down to the Headmaster.People tlk of him like they were sorry for him.Director Charles Barton in the A&C Meet Frankenstein script book says he was a dear fellow and very cooprative but by afternoon he was so sloshed that he didn’t know where he was.
    picturin’ a drunken wolfman

  24. You can see Chaney’s drunken Frankenstein (which went out on live TV) on YouTube. Grim laughs.

    Spencer Tracy. playing Jekyll & Hyde, seemed to regard the story as explicitly a metaphor for his own drinking problem.

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