The mystery play, with its creaking doors, sliding panels and bodies falling out of unexpected places has long been a staple of stage thrillers. THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) and others were made into films with the fusion of the forties of horror/mystery to come.
Boris Karloff, or “Billy Pratt” as his older brothers called him, takes center stage in name only in this John Farrow directed picture THE INVISIBLE MENACE ( 1938).
The picture clocks in at a mere fifty five minutes, suggesting that it was to be part of the bill with other features. THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) does feature Boris Karloff on the poster and in the trailer as Karloff returns. There are many fine performances crammed in to that short screen time.
The story is Pvt. Eddie Pratt (nice reference to Boris in the cast), played by Eddie Craven, who gets married to Sally (Marie Wilson) on pass. He smuggles her to his island base in his bag to spend their honeymoon. The base does not allow women, so poor Sally gets to hide under bunks, in lockers and boxes to evade being found.
The night is filled with fog and shadows as a man is found bayoneted and hung. Lt. Mathews (Regis Toomey), Colonel Rogers (Cy Kendall) and Dr. Brooks (Charles Trowbridge) all try to solve the murder with Jevries (Boris Karloff) becoming the harried suspect. The FBI is called in the person of Colonel Hackett (Henry Kolker) to drive the investigation forward and make an arrest.
Lt, Mathews, Col Rodgers, Dr Brooks, and Jevries have some amusing dialogue as they trade barbs. Their mutual excuse of ‘being in bed and read’ seems too similar. When Colonel Rodgers makes that observation he is told “not to pick on them.” Colonel Hackett arrives in a tuxedo to take charge, which he does quite well. The pace changes with rapid fire dialogue between Hackett and Jevries, reducing him to a babbling mess, plus revealing a secret pass involving a trip into the jungle. Henry Kolker does well in the role as a change of pace from his usual slimy film noir gangster. The dialogue with Boris Karloff peaks in an excellent interrogation scene with both actors going at each other.
The comic relief is supplied by Sally and her enlisted man husband trying to get privacy for their honeymoon. Marie Wilson does her trademark “innocent blonde” routine with bits of dialogue and chirpy screams at the right moment.
In her career, Wilson developed took the role of ‘dumb’ blonde with a figure that ‘never quit’ to new heights. She lost the role of ‘Billie Dawn’ in the film version of BORN YESTERDAY to Judy Holliday. This was major disappointment for her. At that time a girl named Norma Jean Baker came onto the scene and changed her name to Marilyn Munroe, thus limiting Wilson’s career options. Wilson did go on to a career in vaudeville blackout shows in the forties with the highlight being a mock strip tease. The stage was a forum for her work, even playing the title roles in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES, BUS STOP and BORN YESTERDAY on the stage in summer stock and dinner theater.
Regis Toomey had a huge career in film, television, and silent film; usually playing buddy roles for some larger name. He later moved on to soldiers and other characters. Toomey could do musicals, physical comedy and just be the all around smiley face.
Boris Karloff was featured on the bill for box office appeal. The horror film genre ceased production and was banned in the UK and the US because of the horrific, heavily censored story (yet still violent) THE BLACK CAT (1934) and THE RAVEN (1935), in which he co- starred with Bela Lugosi. The pictures featured sadistic scenes like the flaying of flesh in silhouette and themes of necrophilia and hints of incest. Those threads were still were apparent, even after the Hays Commission came down on the films. The versatile Karloff found work in mystery films, playing Asian despots and detectives such as the MR. WONG series for Poverty Row Studios. The horror ban was lifted in 1938 with his return appearance as the monster in THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Karloff complained about these and his mad scientist pictures to follow as just walk through roles, but he always put an effort to do a complete performance. He was dismayed at actors who complained about typecasting as he felt it always gave him work and kept food on the table. A lesson he learned from his poorer traveling stock theater days in Canada when one had to learn how to fry an egg if you were lucky have one on an iron plus press your clothes under the mattress you slept on.
THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) also has an unbilled quick moment with Carole Landis before her career took off and tragedy struck.
THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) packs a lot into its 55 minute running time. John Farrow keeps the action going in the fog: a good way to not have spend money on a set and still be effective. Farrow was married to Maureen O Sullivan. One of their children turned out to be Mia Farrow, who later married Frank Sinatra. The picture features performances and moments that go by pretty fast, and this makes for good ‘pot boiler’ entertainment even if you can easily figure out the mystery.