We’re just a few weeks away from the 80th anniversary of the November release of The Invisible Man, which makes this reliable octogenarian a logical choice for a revisit this Halloween. A horror classic from those glory days of Universal’s dominance of the genre, The Invisible Man was directed by Englishman James Whale at his moviemaking peak: after his Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932) but before his Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It’s a film distinguished not only by its director but its star, who this time around happens not to be Boris Karloff. Celebrated on both London and New York stages, Claude Rains (like Whale and Karloff, another Englishman) had appeared in one previous film, a 1920 British silent, before playing the invisible scientist known as Jack Griffin. The role and the film launched his extraordinary Hollywood career, with Rains (1889-1967) soon one of the industry’s most admired and versatile middle-aged character actors. He would unfortunately become an inexplicably overlooked player at the Oscars, losing four times in the supporting-actor category. (I wish he’d gotten the award for Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious.) But let’s always remember that it was The Invisible Man (based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel) that ignited Rains’ remarkable screen career.
Unlike Whale’s two Frankenstein movies, The Invisible Man is not a great film, but it’s nonetheless an enduring gem of the genre. Something that it does share with Whale’s Frankenstein movies is rare indeed in horror films: the opportunity for a first-rate actor to showcase and challenge his talent. Karloff was brilliant in his ability to express a range of piercing emotions from within that hulking mass known as the Monster, while Rains, primarily through his mellifluous voice, provides a showstopping mix of elegance and ferocity.
It’s instantly intriguing that The Invisible Man begins midway in its plot, with Rains already invisible and in search of an antidote. (Nowhere are all the expected scenes of our madman’s initial failures and eventual “eureka” moment in his laboratory.) The image of Rains—a man with a face wrapped like a mummy’s and his eyes covered with goggles—is unforgettable. Later, his surgical bandages are strikingly set off by sunglasses. And the special effects surrounding his invisibility, including those unraveling stripteases, still look wonderful and remain endlessly amusing, right up to those magical footprints in the snow.
Invisibility has its perks and its drawbacks, but Rains has the additional problem of going mad, a condition directly related to a dangerous drug (from India) he used in his formula. Considering the inherent limitations of acting a role without the use of one’s face, Rains must have delighted in the significant dramatic boost of his character’s descent into an angry, power-crazed, and murderous madness. He kills a cop and also develops a penchant for sending people off cliffs. We see Rains’ face just once, but the power of his presence and the distinctiveness of his voice—with its insinuating modulations and raspy beauty—were enough to cement this performance as a high point in horror.
Also on hand are Whale favorite Una O’Connor, pleasurably screaming her way through her role as an innkeeper, and blondly pretty Gloria Stuart as Rains’ love interest. (Stuart later had an Oscar-nominated comeback with Titanic, but she was a non-actress starlet in 1933.) There are also tiny roles for villagers Walter Brennan and John Carradine.
Rains was now on his way to becoming one of the Golden Age’s quintessential sophisticated villains (paving the way for George Sanders) in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which features his nonchalantly self-amused performance as evil Prince John. Yet Rains was never really typecast, however much audiences enjoyed him as devious fellows. He had big successes as the gentle patriarch of Four Daughters (1938) and as the literally angelic title role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). In 1942, he played two psychiatrists: Robert Cummings’ dark and moody mentor in Kings Row; and then the doctor who nurtures Bette Davis out of her browbeaten shell in Now, Voyager. Most famously of all, he was essentially the witty comic relief of Casablanca (1942).
There would be two other major horror films in Rains’ filmography: The Wolf Man (1941), in which he slums his way through the thankless role of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s father; and the Technicolored Phantom of the Opera (1943), which, though no real threat to Chaney, Sr.’s version, at least gave Rains an irresistibly showy opportunity. Whether his face was invisible, or obscured by a phantom’s mask, or completely exposed, nothing got between Claude Rains and his gallery of characters.