Dick Russell is a wealthy young playboy whose latest adventure with the opposite sex has cost him $100,000 in a court settlement with the young woman in question and now, he's flat broke. What's more, Prof. Gibbs, an eccentric old scientist who used to work for his late father and whose experiments Dick continues to fund, needs $3,000 to go on. When Dick is unable to pay him, Gibbs, undeterred, goes to the offices of the city's newspaper and changes his advertisement for a human test subject for his experiment, saying that there will now be no remuneration for participating in it. The goal of the experiment? To make a person invisible with a special machine Gibbs has built, an endeavor that he insists will make millions for Dick. And sure enough, he soon gets an answer to his ad from a K. Carroll, who happens to be Kitty Carroll, a lovely but much put upon fashion model who's far behind on her rent and has had it with her cruel, mean-spirited boss, Mr. Growley. After a particularly bad day on the job, Kitty quits her job and shows up at Gibbs' house for her appointment. The experiment is a complete success, as Kitty is made completely invisible, but before Gibbs can present his success to Dick, Kitty leaves the house to get even with Growley, frightening him into being more kind and understanding with his employees. When Gibbs is unable to come up with any evidence that has made a person invisible, Dick loses all faith in the professor and prepares to have everything taken away from him. When the invisible Kitty returns to Gibbs and manages to scare off a man who claims to be a fellow scientist but is actually one of several gangster who are interested in the machine, she agrees to help the professor prove himself to Dick, but they're forced to follow him to his country lodge. Although Dick is eventually convinced, he and Kitty don't exactly hit it off with each other, which is complicated when she drinks a lot of brandy and the alcohol causes her to remain invisible longer than she should. Even worse, the leader of the gangsters, Mexican crime boss Blackie Cole, is determined to use the machine so he can return to the home he's been banished from and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
As two-dimensional as they are, many of the characters in the film are likable in their own ways, chief among them the Invisible Woman herself, Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce). She's a fairly intelligent, witty woman, kind of in the vein of Carole Lombard, and is also adventurous, leaping at the opportunity to become invisible in order to escape her unenviable life, where she has to endure the unimaginable cruelty of her boss, Mr. Growley, on a daily basis in her position as a fashion model, a job that doesn't pay much and has caused her to fall far behind on her rent. After a particularly insufferable day on the job, she becomes more determined than ever to have her appointment with Prof. Gibbs and, once she becomes invisible, she heads back to the company's offices and uses her newfound ability to terrify Growley. She does this not only for herself but also for all of the other women Growley cold-heartedly pushes around and steps on, and she puts the fear of God in him to the point where he becomes far more understanding and nice in his position so as not to upset "the voice of his conscience." In her haste to get back at Growley, though, Kitty unintentionally makes Gibbs look like even more of a fool to Dick Russell than he actually is, when he tries to convince the young millionaire that he's succeeded in his experiment, only to learn she's not there, and when she realizes what she's done, she apologizes and agrees to help set things right for him (she already did him a favor beforehand by getting rid of Foghorn, one of Blackie Cole's cronies who was posing as a fellow scientist to try to get at Gibbs' machine). She makes the long drive up to Dick's country lodge with Gibbs and proves to him that the professor isn't as much of a crackpot as one would think, although she and Dick initially get off on the wrong foot because of his attitude and her being well aware of his playboy reputation, as well as losing her inhibitions when she gets drunk. Speaking of which, she also unintentionally complicates matters by doing so, as the alcohol's mixing with the formula causes her to stay invisible longer than she normally should, leading to further tension between her and Dick as he makes comment about her walking around in a dress with no head. But, as things go on, their relationship becomes less antagonistic, as Dick begins to realize what a beautiful woman she truly is, especially when she regains her visibility thanks to Gibbs. However, she and Gibbs get kidnapped by Blackie's cronies and brought to his hideout in Mexico, as Blackie tries to force the professor to make the machine work. Fortunately for Gibbs, Kitty drinks some alcohol that she finds, which causes her to become invisible again and she uses it, along with her wits, to defeat the criminals, and when Dick and the others come to the "rescue," she decides to see how much he wants her by making it seem like the hideout is more heavily guarded than it is. When he proves his devotion, they officially become loves and the movie ends with a scene some time later where they've married and had a baby boy who's a lot like his parents... in more ways than one.
As you might expect, the bad guys can hardly be called menacing or threatening; in fact, they're complete bumbling idiots for the most part. Even the Mexican mob boss, Blackie Cole (Oskar Homolka), for all of his threats and yelling at his cronies, is not nearly scary as this type of character is often portrayed. In fact, he has a legitimate, personal interest in Prof. Gibbs' invisibility machine that doesn't involve crime: he wants to use it to return to his Mexican home, which he's been banished from, and he's actually very sentimental about it, prone to breaking down and crying whenever he thinks about it for too long (Gibbs is able to pick up on this trait of his personality simply by looking at him). Ultimately, Blackie is defeated, along with his other cronies, and Foghorn ends up paying him back for forcing to be a guinea pig for the machine once they bring it to Mexico. Speaking of Foghorn (Donald MacBride), his name comes from the fact that he has a nice, deep voice and he's also more intelligent and eloquently-spoken than Blackie's other cronies, able to pass himself off as another scientist to Gibbs (before Kitty exposes him as a gangster) and reassemble the machine by making a diagram when they take it apart to get across the border. Unfortunately for him, they didn't realize they needed a chemical to inject into the subject before being put through the machine's process and, when Blackie forces him to allow them to test it on him, instead of making him invisible, it gives him a falsetto, Mickey Mouse-like voice. Enraged at this, Foghorn turns on his boss and eventually manages to make his way to Dick Russell's house after Blackie's other cronies have kidnapped Kitty and Gibbs. He tells Dick and George where they've been taken, leads them to the hideout in Mexico, and manages to get back at Blackie, knocking him into the machine and causing him to become a falsetto as well. Luckily for him, Blackie giving him a punch to the head beforehand was all that it took for him to get his voice back. Among Blackie's other cronies is Shemp Howard as Frankie, also known as "Hammerhead," by the far the most bumbling member of the gang. If you've seen Shemp in the Three Stooges shorts, just imagine him as a gangster and you've pretty much got his performance here, as he has that same street-smart but clumsy persona and doesn't get to do much other than fumble around like an idiot. It's interesting to see him in something outside of those shorts (this was during the long period between his leaving the act with Ted Healy back in its vaudeville days and when he rejoined Moe and Larry onscreen after Curly had his stroke, during which he appeared in many films and shorts all his own) but there's little else to it other than that. And finally, you have Bill (Edward Brophy), and while he doesn't have much to him that makes him stand out from the other gangsters, other than being short and stocky, it's interesting to note that Brophy went on to costar with the Three Stooges in the movie, Swing Parade of 1946 (at the tail end of Curly's tenure).
There are some other small but notable characters in the film, including Hudson (Thurston Hall), Dick's exasperated family attorney who tires of all the trouble the young playboy gets himself into, informs Dick at the beginning that he's broke thanks to the lawsuit he just caught up in, and tries to get him to cut ties with Prof. Gibbs and stop giving him money, only to be told later on that the professor's latest invention is going to make him rich again. You don't see Hudson again after that, making me wonder if, unlike George, he was able to quit. Jean (Ann Nagel) is the poor woman who's forced to work as a model, even when she has a cold, Mrs. Patten (Kitty O'Neil) is Kitty's sympathetic but still business-minded landlady, and Mrs. Bates (Mary Gordon) is the models' supervisor who is treated no better by Mr. Growley and is so freaked out when Kitty returns to the building while invisible that she runs off in fear. And finally, Maria Montez, who would go on to have a glamorous career in a number of big budget, Technicolor movies throughout the next couple of decades, makes her screen debut here as one of the other models, although she only has one line.
At first glance, The Invisible Woman may seem like a pretty standard, B-level movie of the time. There are no big stars in the cast (save for John Barrymore but, like I said, he was basically a has-been at this point), there's nothing particularly glamorous about it, in spite of the inherent charm and sophisticated nature of studio movies of this era, the film's look and camerawork is nothing special, and the same goes for the production values. Indeed, the sets and location work, which consist of Dick Russell's fancy mansion, the more average house on the property where Prof. Gibbs lives and his laboratory in the basement (which is just a bunch of scientific equipment in an otherwise ordinary-looking room), the country lodge Dick and George retreat to, the offices of the modeling company where Kitty works and the apartment building she lives in, and Blackie Cole's hideout in Mexico, which is another big, luxurious place with scientific equipment inside and armed guards outside, are very average-looking and give no hint of a lot of money backing the movie they're in. For that matter, when Gibbs first makes Kitty invisible, there are shots of the equipment working that I'm sure at bits of stock footage from past mad doctor movies Universal had produced, including some of the Frankenstein films. But, in actuality, this was one of the studio's most expensive films of that year, with a budget of close to $300,000, which was far more than they usually spent on their B-pictures. Its high level of prestige might have been more noticeable at the time had the studio's first choice for the lead, Margaret Sullivan, had done it to finish off her contract, but as her career was really taking off at that point and she was getting offers for more glamorous movies, she felt this film was beneath her and passed. (In fact, they didn't know she'd rejected the role until she failed to show up for rehearsals, prompting Universal to file a restraining order to keep other studios from hiring her!)
So, where did all that money go, you may be wondering. Why, the special effects, of course. As it was with The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns, John P. Fulton headed the special effects, creating them by shooting Virginia Bruce in a black velvet bodysuit up against a black velvet background and compositing her into the scenes, as well as wires and similar techniques to manipulate the environment to make it seem as if Kitty is carrying things, opening doors and windows, etc. Also like The Invisible Man Returns, Fulton's efforts would win an Oscar nomination and, while I don't know if the effects work here is that good (the follow-up, Invisible Agent, has instances of invisibility and partial invisibility that are far more impressive), it's still pretty impressive for the time, especially when other people are interacting with Kitty. Some of the best occur at the country lodge, where Kitty is picking up glasses, pouring herself drinks, and picking up and swaying a cat in the air to mess with George. The effects are practically flawless in those scenes, as they are when Kitty is putting stockings on her invisible legs, wearing a bedspread around herself and later a veil around her face that she pulls up from time to time to reveal her invisible head, and when her face disappears in Blackie's hideout, as well as when her baby boy disappears during the final scene. Mind you, I said they're "practically" flawless. Like before, there are hiccups in the effects, as you can often see soft edges around the clothes and other objects that Kitty comes into contact with while she's invisible, some instances of them being see-through, as well as a very vague outline of Bruce's head and other appendages in some shots (not nearly noticeable as it was before, mind you), and wires that you can pick out when things are being moved around. The most glaring mistake occurs when Kitty confronts Mr. Growley in his office and begins disrobing in front of him. At one point, she puts her arms in front of her white skirt and you can very plainly see the black velvet Bruce was wearing for the compositing process (it's only onscreen for a couple of seconds and I never knew it was there until I read up on it on IMDB). But, despite those flubs (which have their own archaic charm to them), these effects are still fun to watch and you can see how far Fulton and his team had come from the already very impressive work in The Invisible Man.
While we're on the subject of the invisibility effects, it's worthwhile to mention that the rules of invisibility and how it's administered here is played with a little bit. Instead of a simple injection with a special serum like before, here it's created via the combination of a serum and being exposed to the power of a special machine that Prof. Gibbs has built, and if you don't have the serum, the machine, for whatever reason, will mess with your vocal cords and cause your voice to go a few octaves. Plus, alcohol causes the invisibility to be prolonged longer normal, forcing Gibbs to find a way to counteract it when Kitty drinks way too much brandy for her own good. And somehow, this effect is passed on to her and Dick's baby boy, as he instantly turns invisible when George rubs him down with rubbing alcohol. It's nothing brilliant, mind you, and the effect alcohol has on the invisibility is little more than a convenient way for Kitty to easily be able to thwart Blackie Cole and his men, but it is nice that they decided to do something a bit different with the gimmick rather than it simply being an invisibility serum (I think it would've heightened the comedy a little bit, though, if they kept the madness side-effect in the previous films, albeit in a more lighthearted and comical fashion). It's also noteworthy that they take into account the fairly risque notion that, even though she's invisible, the lead character is a woman who's naked for a good portion of the movie and make it part of the comedy, with Gibbs being initially reluctant to use her as a test subject since she'll have to be nude, instances where Kitty isn't sure if she is invisible and is, understandably, reluctant for the men to get near her, a moment where she passes out drunk and Dick feels around for her before stopping, saying, "Oh, I forgot. She's..." and Gibbs says, "Yes, she certainly is," Dick failing to hide his growing interest in what she looks like, Kitty putting a pair of stockings on her invisible legs so he can get an idea as to where she is, and so on. Nowadays, you wouldn't bat an eyebrow at this stuff but it was considered pretty daring for the time and it's also why they couldn't go further than they did, causing the comedy to suffer.
That really is the biggest failing of The Invisible Woman, at least for me: the comedy is very standard and will hardly make you bust a gut. I love slapstick (like I said, big Three Stooges fan) but the antics of George and Frankie and the other baddies here are little more than very typical instances of falling, tripping, getting whacked over the head, and such. As he later would in the Three Stooges shorts, Shemp has a moment where a big, glass bowl gets stuck on his head and yells for help while trying to get it off, but it's not as funny as you would think, and the same goes for when you see that the gangsters stole a car that has a JUST MARRIED sign on the back. The same goes for the comedic bits where people interact with Kitty while she's invisible, as it's exactly what you'd expect: they're freaked out, often because they think that what they're encountering is some kind of ghost, and those who know what's going on simply try to grasp the concept of there being an invisible person around them. That said, it is kind of funny when Kitty gets absolutely hammered while at the country lodge and falls over faint while invisible, slurring her words and laughing, mumbling, "I can't stand up on my good-lookin' legs." The reason why she gets so drunk is to try to warm herself because of it being really cold and her nudity, which is mentioned not only for the fact that she's a naked woman but also that she's nude in general, as she says while she's taking her clothes off outside the lodge, "Kinda chilly. I wonder how the nudists stand it," and is later sniffling and sneezing while trying to keep her presence secret from George. She does acknowledge some of the other cons of invisibility, like trying to find your feet to put socks on, saying, "This is worse than dressing in the dark." There are also some chuckles to be had in the sexual tension between her and Dick, as they bicker constantly from the moment they meet, although Kitty can sense that Dick has an interest in her and constantly jabs at him about it, especially when she's drunk. One of her best lines comes when she's putting those stockings and tells Dick she's a model by profession. When he asks, "What for? Piano legs?", she responds, "Any time you hear of a piano with legs like mine, sonny, run, do not walk, to your nearest music store." There are some funny bits of dialogue here, like when Gibbs first arrives at the lodge and when he asks George if he shot the elk whose head is mounted on the wall, he says, "No, I think it was born there." Another one is when Foghorn tries to hold up the want-ad clerk at the post office and he completely ignores him, saying, "Aw, go on home to your mother!", forcing Frankie and Bill to prove that they're not joking around.
The most laughs that the film gets come from the quirkiness of some of the characters and the inherent ridiculousness of the premise. You can't help but at least smirk when you see other characters putting up with Prof. Gibbs' eccentricities (like that aforementioned moment where Mrs. Jackson sees him drink something you wouldn't expect him to and when he's trying to hide Kitty's presence from George at the lodge by making like he's the one who's sniffling and sneezing, much to George's bewilderment), George and Hudson, especially the former, dealing with Dick's flippant attitude about the trouble he gets into and his going back-and-forth on what needs to be done with the house, and Blackie Cole trying to be a threatening gangster when he's homesick to the point where he often cries about it. As for the premise, it is funny to see how Kitty uses her invisibility to get back at those who have caused her misery, with the image of a dress with no head up top strutting out and scaring the crap out of those who see it being inherently snort-inducing, and the same goes for when Foghorn's nicely deep, rich voice gets turned into an over-the-top falsetto. In fact, the funniest bits in the entire movie come during the moment when he tells Dick and George where Kitty and Gibbs have been taken. Right before the, "Oh, airport!" line I mentioned earlier, there's a bit where Dick gets so excited when Foghorn tells him that he knows where they are that, for a split-second, he voice goes high as well. The timing on both of those gags made me laugh out loud and, for my money, are the funniest parts of the movie. However, in addition to all of the run-of-the-mill comedy here, there's also some that you can see coming a mile away and falls flat, the biggest example being when Gibbs can't find Kitty after he first makes her invisible and feels around on the floor, going, "Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!", when, what happens? His cat runs up to him and he goes, "Not you!" Really predictable. Other gags just plain don't make sense, like when Blackie is talking to a guy in his hideout who keeps saying "si" again and again. He asks him, "What is all this 'sí sí'? Are you Spanish?", which is an odd thing to say, since they are in Mexico and he himself is Spanish, and then, the guy responds, "I'm a Pomeranian!" ...What? Maybe there's something I'm not getting but when I watched the movie to do this review and heard that, I was utterly baffled and still don't get what it's supposed to mean. And the climax, where Kitty becomes invisible again and uses it to dispense with Blackie and his gang, as well as try to make Dick prove how devoted he is to her, is really "meh" and not as funny or exciting as it could be.
By far the least memorable aspect of the film is the music score, which is really disappointing because it was done by Frank Skinner, who came up with a number of memorable scores for Universal's horror films during this period. Besides scoring The Invisible Man Returns the same year, he most notably did the music for Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, creating themes and motifs for those scores that you would hear time and time again in the sequels to those movies. Having also worked on both musicals and other comedies (he started out in the former), he was obviously just as adept at lightweight music as he was scary and dramatic work, but I guess the rather bland nature of this film was something even he couldn't overcome. The score is made up of generic-sounding comedy music of this period that leaves no impression whatsoever, other than a piece that's very bouncy, lighthearted, and goofy, which is orchestrated either to be really fast or slow, depending on the scene; the same goes for the music used for the more tender moments, and I can't even recall a single melody in those instances. Really, the only piece that sticks in my mind is this upbeat, snappy piece that closes the movie out, and I've heard that at the end of other films, so I'm not sure if it was even originally for this one. I hate being so vague about the music but it's such a major example of "in one ear and out the other."