Passing strange it is that one of the most memorable comedic performances of those heady early days of talking pictures occurs in a horror film. Adding to the strangeness is that the performance is provided by an actor whose face is only revealed for a tiny fraction of the film's running time and whose comic heights occur during scenes when his character is unreservedly nude. A few words come to mind when choosing an adjective to describe the performance of Claude Rains in the title role of "The Invisible Man." Hysterical seems to do the job better than any other.
The performance is hysterical in its contemporary meaning as a synonym for incredibly funny, but the goods that Rains delivers using only his voice for the most part can also accurately be termed hysterical according to its multiples definitions found at Dictionary.com. Rains's scientist who has discovered the secret to becoming invisible but not so much the secret to regaining visibility exhibits the definitions of hysterical having to do with irrationality, emotions that have become out of control and behavior stimulated by a profoundly traumatic emotional shock to the system.
Watching Claude Rains bring H.G.Wells' invisible man to life is a hysterically funny portrait of a man coming apart due to the effects of psychological hysteria. In addition to the shock to our own system of preparing for the usual Gothic trappings of a 1930s horror film from Universal Studios and getting such a manic performance at its center, it is important to recognize the time-centered shock that contemporary audiences would have experienced. "The Invisible Man" was released in 1933 and audiences were still used to the effect of sound into the world of filmmaking that had enforced a halt to the theatrical performances of the silent era and the necessity to tone down gesture and movement in front of the camera to ensure that hidden microphones could pick up every line of dialogue.
As a result, the exceptionally theatrical performance of Claude Rains is anything but tempered by the technological demands of the first decade of talking pictures. If Rains were theatrical in a horrifying way, that would be enough. He goes beyond the genre to which the story belongs, however, to seek that element of hysteria that is at the center of the character's personality now that he is caught in the grip of the madness that should most certainly come with losing the very ability to perceive your own being.
Those insane peals of laughter emitted by Rains during times when the stress of his situation conflicts with the criminal insanity of his plans to exploit his unique physical situation are the boldest embodiment of the hysteria that Rains reaches for and achieves. The mirth of the invisible man manages to make us laugh along with him while also inducing a significant wariness. You may take the time to question just what is so funny to this who is, after all, completely naked, in a room filled with men and woman seeking only to bring his madcap exhibition of insanity to an end. And then it hits you: Claude Rains, using nothing more than his voice and the assistance of some camera tricks, is revealing better than anyone else ever has the heights of pleasure that must certainly be reached by anyone who has succeeded in achieving the complete and utter freedom that comes with invisibility.
What could possibly be more comical than the realization that such unfettered loosening of every single shackle binding you to responsibility can only be enjoyed when you are completely naked while surrounded by those in clothing?
For more from Timothy Sexton, Yahoo!'s first Writer of the Year, check out:
- Arts & Entertainment
- Claude Rains