Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: COMPLICATED WOMEN by Mick LaSalle

First published in 2001, Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood is primarily a feminist consideration of Pre-Code actresses and the roles they were able to play before Joseph Breen threw a big, wet blanket on the Tinseltown party in 1934. Although it is probably not an ideal introduction to Pre-Code pictures for the absolute novice, Complicated Women is a very good resource for those who already know something about the era and its stars, and it's written in a casual, personal voice that will appeal to classic movie fans who aren't necessarily academic in their approach to pictures.

LaSalle, who reviews movies for the San Francisco Chronicle, focuses on the actresses who helped to define the distinctive themes and styles of the Pre-Code era. Starting with Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, he works his way through discussions of Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis, Joan Crawford, Ann Harding, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Miriam Hopkins, and other leading ladies who rose to stardom during the early days of the talkies. LaSalle contrasts the kinds of pictures these women were making before 1934 with the melodramas that came into favor after the strict enforcement of the Hays Code, and he argues that Hollywood - and perhaps society as a whole - were forced to take a big step backwards in terms of women's liberties and sexual freedom because of the rabidly conservative forces that lined up behind Joseph Breen. In LaSalle's view, the Hays Code was primarily and vindictively concerned with screen images of women enjoying active sex lives, pursuing careers, and being perceived as morally complex individuals; the Code attempted to shut down these visions of gender equality and force women to see themselves in the old 19th-century roles as domestic angels or worldly temptresses, with the temptresses inevitably being punished for their sins.

The book reveals LaSalle's particular interest in Shearer and Garbo, to whom he devotes the lion's share of his attention. In contrast, he clearly has no love for Joan Crawford, whom he often describes in pejorative terms. While his discussions of Harlow, Stanwyck, and Blondell are intriguing, most readers will probably finish the book wishing there had been more pages dedicated to them. There's a reason Norma Shearer graces the cover of Complicated Women, and Shearer fans will be delighted to find LaSalle championing her cause most emphatically. LaSalle's treatment of the movies made in the later 1930s and 1940s might upset fans of that period, especially those who love the women's weepies, or melodramas, that made huge stars of Crawford and Bette Davis. LaSalle finds these pictures stifling in their reactionary images of women who must give up sexual freedom, economic independence, and even personal integrity in order to please the flawed men who expect so much from them. He observes that 1940s film noir escapes from the Code's strictures in its depictions of the femme fatale, who often conforms to the letter of the Code by getting killed for her iniquities but also impresses viewers with her strength and refusal to submit to conventional morality. Toward the end of the book, LaSalle speculates about more modern actresses as the heirs to Shearer and Garbo's legacies, but classic movie fans might find these segments the least compelling of the whole work, since they deal in actresses who might not even be familiar to those who haven't seen a lot of their films.

Reading the book in 2014, it's hard not to wonder what LaSalle thinks has changed since Complicated Women was first published. Pre-Code movies have become much easier to watch with the advent of streaming and specialized services and television channels. Has Shearer's reputation risen with the success of Turner Classic Movies and the arrival of Warner Archive and Warner Archive Instant? Have the movies finally caught up with Pre-Code visions of women's sexual and professional lives? While LaSalle did publish a follow-up, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, in 2002, he hasn't produced another book since then. Maybe it's time for him to provide readers with a new consideration of Pre-Codes that turns more of its attention to the other actresses who enjoyed their greatest success during that brief, wild fling before Breen and his cronies shut the party down.

Complicated Women is currently available in paperback on Amazon for just over $12. It would make a great Mother's Day gift for Norma Shearer devotees or fans of Pre-Code film.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

James Stewart Blogathon: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)

This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here.

If we come to Jimmy Stewart as a Western star looking back from the present, we peer through a history that makes his appearance in the genre seem obvious, perhaps even necessary. We see him in The Shootist (1976) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with that greatest of Western icons, John Wayne, and he holds his own there as a believable resident of Wayne’s frontier world. Stewart seems as much a part of the genre’s history as his real life friend, Henry Fonda, with whom he starred in The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and Firecreek (1968). All three Western stars would appear in How the West was Won (1962), which is basically a who’s who of the genre. Thus, from where we stand now, Stewart looks like a natural part of the Western landscape, but that wasn't the case at all in 1939, when Stewart starred in Destry Rides Again.

It was the first Western of the young actor's career, and at that point Stewart seemed an odd choice for the role. Tall and amiable, with an air of peculiarly American innocence, Stewart had primarily been seen in romances and comedies. Frank Capra had put him to good use in You Can't Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but Destry was entirely new territory. It took Stewart out of the polite, civilized settings he had previously inhabited and dropped him into the rugged and rowdy frontier.

Stewart plays the film's title character, the son of a legendary lawman and the last hope of the honest citizens of Bottleneck, a wild, corrupted frontier town. Summoned by the town drunk (Charles Winninger), whom the crooks have made sheriff as a cruel joke, Destry at first seems like a terrible disappointment. He doesn't even carry a gun. As Destry says, however, first impressions are darn fool things, and even the local good time girl (Marlene Dietrich) is drawn to him, despite her understanding with the conniving crime boss (Brian Donlevy). When the crooks murder Destry's friend, he is compelled to take up his guns and rid the town of its oppressors for good.

Stewart makes Destry work precisely because he seems so unlikely as a gunslinger. Lanky, soft-spoken, and polite, Stewart's hero doesn't strike anyone as a threat, much less a gunfighter. Destry, of course, knows his own ability and lets the townspeople wallow in their assumptions. Stewart invests him with an easy nature that is only mistaken for weakness. In fact, it's born of self-assurance. When he finally takes out his guns, we see the other side of Destry's character, and this is where Stewart surprises us most. He is tough. He can be a dangerous man. There's a whole future unfolding for Stewart in this moment, one that will make him an icon not only for It's a Wonderful Life (1946) but also for Winchester '73 (1950), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There's an unexpected edge to Stewart that later directors will seize upon: Anthony Mann will reveal Stewart's darkness as an underlying vein of hysteria in The Naked Spur (1953), and Alfred Hitchcock will make it the sublime theme of his masterpiece, Vertigo (1958). Despite the fact that Destry Rides Again is technically a comedy, it actually paves the way for Stewart to venture far beyond the territory he had covered in the Capra pictures or early work like Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Born to Dance (1936), or Vivacious Lady (1938).

Thus, as a Jimmy Stewart picture, Destry Rides Again is a watershed moment in the actor's career. Only by looking back at it from the perspective of 1939 can we really appreciate how important it would become in terms of Stewart's own legacy and the evolution of the Western as a whole. Destry opens the door for an actor who would go on to make some of the finest Westerns in Hollywood history, one who would become so associated with the genre that his final screen credit would be for his performance in a Western tale. By the time he loaned his voice to An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), Stewart was as much a part of the Western as any actor who ever rode a horse into a dusty frontier town. For that, we have Destry to thank.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: HOLD YOUR MAN (1933)

Directed by Sam Wood, Hold Your Man (1933) is a Pre-Code women’s prison story with Jean Harlow as the primary jailbird and Clark Gable as the career con man who lands her there. Put those elements and stars together, and you’re certain to get one crackerjack of a picture, but despite its focus on rocky romance Hold Your Man also reveals a deeply benevolent interest in the lives of women behind bars. This is a story about tough guys and dames with surprisingly soft hearts, even those we little expect to see jumping ship to the side of the angels. With Anita Loos on the screenplay and an ensemble of fine supporting actresses populating the reformatory, Hold Your Man sympathizes with its women instead of exploiting them, which gives viewers all the more reason to love Jean Harlow as the impetuous, streetwise heroine.

Harlow plays Ruby, who gets a shock when fleeing con man Eddie (Clark Gable) bursts into her apartment in order to hide from the cops. Despite being surprised while taking a bath, Ruby covers for Eddie, and after a short while they reunite and become lovers, much to the disgruntlement of Eddie’s former squeeze, Gypsy (Dorothy Burgess). Eddie decides to con one of Ruby’s admirers by luring him into a compromising tryst, but Ruby gets nabbed by the police after Eddie accidentally kills the mark in a jealous scuffle. In the reformatory, Ruby contends with the angry Gypsy, realizes that she is pregnant with Eddie’s child, and wonders if her lover has abandoned her to her fate.

Gable and Harlow appeared in six pictures together, with Hold Your Man coming just after their steamy collaboration in Red Dust (1932). As Ruby and Eddie, they prove that their chemistry in the previous film was no fluke. Gable tosses Harlow lines, and she knocks them out of the park, but all the while they both have a look that says they really enjoy this sort of game. The second half of the movie offers them more serious scenes, especially when Eddie sneaks into the reformatory to see Ruby and then hatches a crazy plan to marry her on the spot. Love proves powerful enough to make both of them go straight, especially when Eddie realizes that Ruby is carrying his baby. Both actors are perfectly cast as these dynamic characters, since both can play crooks without making us like them any less. If Ruby is fleecing lovers like the gullible Al (Stuart Erwin), well, a girl has to make a living somehow, and since Al doesn’t hold it against her we can’t, either.

The supporting cast really shines in the reformatory scenes, where we find a world of characters who defy stereotypes in their emotional complexity. Dorothy Burgess fills Gypsy with jealous spite during her first encounters with Ruby but later reveals her own capacity for change and becomes an important ally. Blanche Friderici gives a subtle but effective performance as the reformatory matron, Mrs. Wagner, who sympathizes with her charges in their sorrows and their hopes. Most striking is the uncredited appearance of the fantastic Theresa Harris as Lily Mae, a preacher’s daughter whose own father sends her to the reformatory not because he rejects her, but because he loves her and wants her to become a better person. Even though she is African-American, everyone in the prison treats Lily Mae as an equal, but the racism of the period denied the actress the credit she thoroughly deserved for her work. Muriel Kirkland and Inez Courtney add to the reformatory atmosphere but don’t actually contribute more than Harris. George Reed, also uncredited, makes the most of a few brief scenes as Lily Mae’s father, who listens to a higher power when he agrees to hide out in the reformatory in order to marry the desperate couple.

Some viewers might complain that the ending of Hold Your Man is too sentimental, but for most its sincerity about love will add to its appeal. Pair it with Ladies They Talk About (1933) for another Pre-Code take on women in love and behind bars. For more of Harlow and Gable, see China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Be sure to appreciate Theresa Harris in Baby Face (1933), Jezebel (1938), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Sam Wood earned Oscar nominations for Best Director for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), but he also directed the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Anita Loos, who wrote the screenplays for many memorable films of the 1930s, also wrote the novel from which Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was adapted in both 1928 and 1953.

Hold Your Man is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: ANDY HARDY MEETS DEBUTANTE (1940)

This installment of the popular Andy Hardy series takes the Hardy family out of idyllic Carvel and sends them off to New York City, where teenage Andy promptly gets himself into all kinds of trouble. Despite the change of venue, it’s a typical Andy Hardy story, with youthful mistakes, romantic entanglements, and Mickey Rooney’s boundless zeal. You don’t have to have seen all of the previous Hardy pictures to drop into the action, although it does help if you have seen Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), the earlier movie that introduces Judy Garland’s Betsy Booth character. Garland’s return to the world of the Hardy family makes Andy Hardy Meets Debutante a particularly appealing picture for fans of her collaborations with the energetic Rooney. For newcomers, the distinctive mix of adolescent romance, humor, and wide-eyed American idealism sums up the essence of the Hardy films’ enduring appeal.

At home in Carvel, Andy is nursing a crush on New York society girl, Daphne Fowler (Diana Lewis), and he foolishly brags about knowing her when his friends discover his passion. Andy is forced to prove his claims when Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) takes the whole family to New York as part of his mission to protect the Carvel Orphanage from big city lawyers who want to defund it. Andy’s friend, Betsy (Judy Garland), tries to help him, but Andy suffers a series of shocks to his ego as he attempts to meet Daphne, and even Judge Hardy becomes concerned about the implications of Andy’s behavior.

Part of Andy Hardy’s appeal is his penchant for getting into scrapes; neither an angel nor a complete reprobate, he’s a twentieth-century Tom Sawyer with a waggish sense of fun and a lively eye for the ladies. Wherever Andy goes, girl trouble follows, and in this outing he has Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), Betsy, and Daphne to juggle. Andy thinks he’s too sophisticated for Polly, and he treats Betsy like a kid, but he soon finds out that the wealthy Daphne is out of his league. “There are millions of nice people in the world,” Daphne’s mother tells him, “and Daphne can’t be friends with all of them.” The irony of his comeuppance never seems to dawn on Andy, but the audience sees quite clearly that he reaps as he has sown. His taste in girls needs adjusting, anyway, if he can favor Daphne over her more available competition. Polly, the hometown favorite, wins our approval thanks to Ann Rutherford’s flashing eyes and bold manner, while Judy Garland makes Betsy so sweet and sadly lovestruck that we root for her even though we know that Polly has already staked her claim. Garland’s performance of “Alone,” which starts as a gag and ends with tears, is an emotional highlight of the picture that showcases the young star’s tremendous talent.

Comedy tempered with sentiment is the Andy Hardy formula, and the threat to the orphanage provides a counterweight to Andy’s romantic hijinks. Judge Hardy proves his faith in the system, lectures Andy on American ideals, and wins over a courtroom with the assistance of an adorable orphan, all of which will strike modern viewers as terribly naive. Still, with the Depression in the rearview mirror and the war directly ahead, Americans in 1940 must have wanted very much to believe in the benevolent paternal authority that Judge Hardy embodies. Andy’s relationship with his father gets a great deal of play, while his mother, aunt, and sister hardly make appearances at all. The serious part of Andy Hardy Meets Debutante has nothing to do with women but concerns itself with Andy’s emerging identity as a man with a particular place in the world.

The Andy Hardy series continued until 1958, when Mickey Rooney made his final bow as the character in Andy Hardy Comes Home. George B. Seitz directed most of the Andy Hardy pictures, beginning with A Family Affair (1937), You’re Only Young Once (1937), and Judge Hardy’s Children (1938). For more of Mickey Rooney’s youthful roles, see A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Captains Courageous (1937), and Boys Town (1938). Diana Lewis, who was married to William Powell for more than forty years, retired from acting in the early 1940s after roles in Bitter Sweet (1940), Go West (1940), and Johnny Eager (1941). If you enjoy the collaborative work of Rooney and Garland, be sure to see their musicals together, particularly Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), and Babes on Broadway (1941).

Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: CAT BALLOU (1965)

Director Elliot Silverstein’s 1965 Western comedy turned out to be an important moment in movie history, and not only because Cat Ballou became a box office hit and made Jane Fonda a star. It would provide Lee Marvin with the only Oscar of his exceptional career, and it would be the final screen appearance of the legendary Nat King Cole, who died before the movie was released. Cat Ballou also paved the way for later pictures like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Blazing Saddles (1974), and even The Villain (1979) and Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985), all of which kept the Western alive by subverting its familiar tropes. Its legacy, however, is not the picture’s only attraction; Cat Ballou is first and foremost a rollicking good time, with lively performances from its stars and a loving, if irreverent, attitude toward the genre it parodies.

Jane Fonda plays the title character, who returns home after finishing her education only to find her father, Frankie Ballou (John Marley), under pressure to sell out to developers. After Frankie is murdered by the notorious gunman Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin), Cat and her band of misfits turn to crime to avenge his death. Drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen (also Lee Marvin) dries out for a final showdown with Strawn, while Clay (Michael Callan), Jed (Dwayne Hickman), and Jackson (Tom Nardini) agree to rob trains to prove their devotion to the determined Cat.

Lee Marvin thanked the horse for his Oscar.
As the central heroine of the piece, Fonda is buxom, wide-eyed, and adorable, justifying the gang’s willingness to do anything to please her, but she has to play it straight. Other actors, Lee Marvin in particular, get the laughs. Marvin’s perpetually pickled desperado is tragically hilarious, a has-been who can’t hit a barn unless he gets a stiff drink. Even when he sobers up to face his nemesis, his transformation scene revels in the absurd, detailing the layers of artifice that make a lean, glittering killer out of an aging drunk. Like the younger men, Shelleen pines for Cat’s affection, although he eventually realizes that she’s drawn to the roguish Clay. Still, Shelleen has more personality than any of his rivals, and our attention is inevitably drawn to him every time he appears on screen. Marvin provides a textbook lesson on how to steal a picture, which helps to explain why he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance even though Shelleen is technically a supporting role.

The rest of the supporting cast give Marvin plenty of room while making the most of their own characters. Michael Callan oozes charm, and Dwayne Hickman plays an affable clown, but Tom Nardini makes Jackson Two-Bears so attractive and sincere that you might wonder why Cat doesn’t take him more seriously as a potential mate. Also memorable are Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as the balladeers who narrate the film’s action; although not exactly characters within the film, they are essential to its tone and its success, forming a light-hearted Greek chorus to comment on and react to the events as they unfold. Less noticeable but equally important to the movie is Yakima Canutt, the brilliant stunt coordinator and second unit director who gives the movie some of its finest action sequences. His work elevates Cat Ballou beyond mere spoof by making the stunts and chases wildly exciting even as they elicit laughs.

Be sure to appreciate Reginald Denny as the rather silly villain, Sir Harry, and Jay C. Flippen as the more sinister sheriff. Cat Ballou earned five Oscar nominations, but Lee Marvin brought home its only win. For more of Marvin’s Western roles, see Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Professionals (1966). Try Paint Your Wagon (1969) if you have great affection for Marvin and a high tolerance for the ridiculous. Jane Fonda went on to seven Oscar nominations and two wins, the first for Klute (1971) and the second for Coming Home (1978), but if you like her in Cat Ballou you might also like the cult sci-fi classic, Barbarella (1968). Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman both enjoyed successful television careers, while Elliot Silverstein directed A Man Called Horse (1970) and The Car (1977).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940)

Unlike the earlier invisible man movies, The Invisible Woman (1940) leaps right out of the horror genre and lands in screwball comedy, with the feisty Virginia Bruce leading a cast of particularly eccentric characters on a merry romp through mischief and romance. The tonal shift might disconcert those looking for a true follow-up to James Whale’s 1933 chiller, but The Invisible Woman works surprisingly well as a comedy, and the special effects contribute to the fun, this time with a lot of naughty winks about a naked young lady parading around. Fans of classic comedy will also appreciate the performances of great supporting players like Charles Ruggles, Oskar Homolka, Margaret Hamilton, and Shemp Howard, but the hammy highpoint is John Barrymore as the decidedly theatrical inventor of the invisibility machine.

Virginia Bruce plays disgruntled dress model Kitty Carroll, who agrees to become invisible in order to get revenge on her nasty boss, Mr. Growley (Charles Lane). She disappoints Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) by running off before he can exhibit her to his sole financial backer, Richard Russell (John Howard), so the pair have to pursue Russell to his remote lodge in order to prove that the machine works. Meanwhile, an exiled gangster named Blackie (Oskar Homolka) sends his thugs after Gibbs and the machine so that the homesick crook can sneak back into the United States.

Bruce spends a lot more time being visible than either Claude Rains or Vincent Price had done in the earlier movies, but she projects enough saucy personality in her voice to carry the invisible sequences. Like most screwball heroines, her protagonist baffles and thwarts the men around her, but Kitty gets to do it while naked and invisible, which makes her especially intriguing to John Howard’s wolfish socialite, Richard, who thinks he has seen everything when it comes to young ladies. Kitty is a fun, bold character, never a victim and always in control of the situation, even when the gangsters kidnap her and Professor Gibbs. If the earlier invisible men found a power that bred madness in their transformation, Kitty finds a power that is liberating and long overdue.

The rest of the cast is full of top-notch talent, with Barrymore stealing scenes for all he’s worth as the loopy, bombastic Professor, who comes off like Frank Morgan’s long lost brother. John Howard, well-known to audiences in 1940 as the star of the Bulldog Drummond movies, is charming as Richard, even if his part mostly consists of reacting to the nuttier characters around him. Veteran comedian Charles Ruggles gets laughs as the long-suffering servant, George, who keeps trying to resign from Richard’s employ but never actually goes, and Margaret Hamilton is very effective as the Professor’s prickly housekeeper, although we don’t see her often enough. Oskar Homolka puts his crazy eyebrows to good use as the gangster boss, while Shemp Howard and Donald McBride clown around amusingly as his utterly inept thugs. All of these players know exactly how to make their characters memorable and interesting to the audience, which helps to explain why such a silly picture is so much fun.

Like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman earned an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects. A. Edward Sutherland, who directed The Invisible Woman, also made the 1928 version of Tillie’s Punctured Romance starring W.C. Fields, but during the silent era Sutherland had been an actor himself. See more of Virginia Bruce in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Born to Dance (1936), and catch John Howard in The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Undying Monster (1942) for more of his roles after the Bulldog Drummond run. John Barrymore gives more comic performances in Twentieth Century (1934) and Midnight (1939), while Charlie Ruggles appears in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Look for Oskar Homolka in Sabotage (1936), Ball of Fire (1941), and I Remember Mama (1948), the last of which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)

This sequel to the 1933 classic, The Invisible Man, stars Vincent Price as the latest victim of the invisibility formula that brings madness and doom to those who use it, a fate already experienced by Claude Rains in the original outing. Much like the first film, The Invisible Man Returns is primarily a showcase for its star’s distinctive voice and a series of special effects, although it lacks the pitch-black comedy and perverse genius of James Whale’s earlier work. Still, the 1940 installment provides enough entertainment in its performances and visual tricks to make for very good matinee fare, and Price fans are certain to appreciate the star’s early foray into the horror genre.

Price plays Geoffrey Radcliffe, who has been convicted of killing his brother and sentenced to hang. Innocent but desperate, Geoffrey accepts the help of his friend, Frank Griffin (John Sutton), the brother of the original invisible man. Frank has learned how to replicate his brother’s invisibility formula, which Geoffrey uses to escape prison and hunt his brother’s real killer, with the help of his fiancée, Helen (Nan Grey). Pursued by a Scotland Yard inspector (Cecil Kellaway) and rapidly succumbing to insanity caused by the formula, Geoffrey walks a fine line between hero and monster as he closes in on the secret enemy who framed him for his brother’s murder.

Although his mellifluous voice is heard almost constantly, Price spends most of the picture wrapped in bandages or completely unseen, which is a shame considering the actor’s youthful good looks. When we do see him, we understand why Helen is attracted to him, even though she recoils in horror from his invisible form. Price’s Geoffrey has more masculine appeal than either John Sutton’s nervous Doctor Griffin or Cedric Hardwicke’s oily Richard Cobb, but he also evinces a wry gallows humor that presages the kind of performance Price would become famous for in later years. Price’s delivery of his lines helps us believe in the invisible man as much as the special effects that show his movements, perhaps more so since only Price’s dialogue clues us in to Geoffrey’s many moods, from mounting insanity to melancholy and mournful despair.

The supporting players also work to suspend our disbelief in their unseen companion. Nan Grey is actually quite lovely as Geoffrey’s love interest, and she reacts with credible terror without seeming too weak to be worthy of Geoffrey’s devotion. Cedric Hardwicke pulls off some especially tricky physical business toward the end of the picture; he might be telegraphing Richard’s true intentions a bit too forcefully early on, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in making the real killer’s identity much of a mystery. Poor John Sutton has little to do beyond kicking the plot into motion as Dr. Griffin, since his character is basically a third wheel in every other scene with Geoffrey and Nan, although we do get the idea that he also harbors an unrequited passion for Nan. Character actors Alan Napier and Cecil Kellaway both make the most of their roles, with Napier getting some comical action as the drunken Spears and Kellaway managing to keep his policeman likable even though we know he has given orders to shoot on sight at an innocent man.

The Invisible Man Returns impressed the Academy with its special effects; it earned an Oscar nomination for them but faced stiff competition that year and lost to The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Joe May, who directed the film, also directed Vincent Price in The House of the Seven Gables (1940). See more of the inimitable Price’s work from this era in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Laura (1944). For more invisible man movies, try The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944).