In 1933, Universal Studios released a horror film about a scientist who develops a serum that makes him invisible. The film was based on a novel by H.G. Wells, and starred Claude Rains as a man who loses not only his body, but also his mind.
In 1951, Universal Studios decided to pull the Invisible Man concept out of the drawer and try it on again, this time featuring comedy superstars Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, they of “Who’s on First” fame. Abbott and Costello had already made several comedy/”horror” films for Universal, such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.
But Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is not a horror film, and it’s not much of a mystery. It’s actually an amusing film about the world of boxing. Or, rather, Invisible Men in the world of boxing.
In this madcap adventure, Abbott and Costello are detective school graduates. While they move into their new office and brag about how smart they are, a man bursts through the door. They don’t realize that this intruder (Arthur Franz) is a boxer who has just escaped from jail, where he was imprisoned for the murder of his manager.
Franz hires the pair to drive him to a doctor’s home – the same doctor who has uncovered Claude Rains’ Formula That Makes People Invisible. Franz, desperate to clear his name, takes the serum so he can better spy on people. Meanwhile, Abbott and Costello learn Franz’s identity and plan how they can turn him over to police so they can collect a hefty reward.
The usual Abbott and Costello formula is at play in this film: Costello discovers the Invisible Man first; Abbott doesn’t believe him. When the Invisible Man plays tricks on Abbott, Abbott blames Costello. There are lots of fun, if low-tech, visual effects: doors opening by themselves; floating cigarettes in the hallway; and Costello fighting with the Invisible Man over a plate of spaghetti.
We also cheer when the Invisible Man lands some terrific punches on an opponent (a bad guy) in the boxing ring. The opponent is in a fixed boxing match with the hapless, in-waaay-over-his-head Costello, and we can’t wait until the Invisible Man shows this thug a thing or two.
The dialogue is pretty good, too. In one scene, Abbott and Costello are in a car that is being pursued by police and driven by the Invisible Man:
Abbott: [motioning to Invisible Man] I hope he has his driver’s license.
Costello: I hope he’s in the car.
One thing that bothers us about the Abbott & Costello schtick is that Abbott always comes across as SO unsympathetic. In this movie, he refers to a woman as a “swell-looking dish” whom he wants to “order as a side dish”. A line like this would be more palatable coming from the likes of Jack Carson, but from Abbott it sounds a little creepy and it makes you say, in your out-loud voice, “Eww.”
Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man has a completely ridiculous ending, but what Abbott & Costello movie doesn’t? Besides, if you’ve bought into the premise of an Invisible Man, the ending shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man: starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nancy Guild. Directed by Charles Lamont. Screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant. Universal Pictures Co., B&W, 1951, 82 mins.