Deadly serious fans of the Universal horror films have never quite come to grips with The Invisible Woman; somehow its screwball farce just doesn't seem to fit into the rest of the series. They're missing the point. Invisibility of any sort is bizarre; the original H. G. Wells story was full of weirdly humorous bits, and James Whale's 1933 film, which launched Universal's Invisible series, successfully translated that weirdness into visuals. Even the more formulaic later pictures in the series still contained scenes that inspire giggling, and not always by accident.
It was this sort of whimsy that, judging by her previous appearances (consider, for instance, The Shop Around The Corner), you might think would have appealed to Margaret Sullavan, Universal's first choice for the role of Kitty Carroll. But Sullavan refused to take the part, which got her suspended by the studio, and Virginia Bruce was chosen to replace her. The actress formerly known as Helen Virginia Briggs grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, moved west as a teenager to attend UCLA, but wound up doing bit parts in pictures instead, graduating to leads shortly thereafter. She was thirty years old when she signed for The Invisible Woman. It's not likely that she considered it anything more than a paycheck, but today it's one of the roles for which she's best remembered. Her last appearance was in Strangers When We Meet in 1960, playing Kim Novak's mother; she died in 1982.
John Barrymore, by all accounts, was a few thousand drinks past his prime by the time The Invisible Woman was filmed; the role of the absent-minded Professor Gibbs was apparently ideal for him, since reportedly he couldn't remember lines for more than a few seconds. It didn't matter. Barrymore, sixty years old and not looking a day over seventy-five, missed not a single comedic nuance, and managed to work in a wicked parody of his older brother Lionel in the process. Maybe it doesn't rival his sterling work in silents and in the theatre, but The Invisible Woman demonstrated that even the aged and dying John Barrymore (he did only two more pictures, and died in 1942) was still a force to be reckoned with on screen.
At twenty-seven, John Howard was the youngest of the lead players, but was already a seasoned lead; he had played Captain Hugh Chesterton "Bulldog" Drummond in seven films in that late-Thirties series, not to mention a role as Katharine Hepburn's fiancé in The Philadelphia Story. In The Invisible Woman, he is the nominal straight man, a character who has no idea he's as wooden as he appears, and he plays it to the hilt.
Charlie Ruggles' slightly stuffy "gentleman's gentleman" is only one of dozens of harrassed-for-comic-effect characters he played in a lengthy screen and television career, one of whom was actually named Charlie Ruggles (in an early ABC-TV sitcom, The Ruggles, which aired from 1949 to 1952). He did not, however, play Ruggles in the 1935 film Ruggles of Red Gap; that was Charles Laughton playing that, um, slightly stuffy "gentleman's gentleman".
For some, the real star of The Invisible Woman is John P. Fulton, who devised the special invisibility effects for these and the other Universal Invisible films, three of which (including this one) scored Academy Award nominations. He would go on to win two Oscars®, for Danny Kaye's Wonder Man and for Cecil B. DeMille's 1957 remake of The Ten Commandments. Your mileage may vary, but for some of us, a stocking sliding up Virginia Bruce's unseen but undeniably shapely leg is just about as compelling as the parting of the Red Sea.