The Body Disappears

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(3/10) Warner produced its first invisibility comedy in 1941. This time it’s a bridegroom who’s accidentally turned transparent on the eve of his wedding. Actors like Jane Wyman, Edward Everett Horton and Willie Best help keep this bland, programmatic situation farce afloat, if only barely.

The Body Disappears. 1941, USA. Directed by D. Ross Lederman. Written by: Scott Darling, Erna Lazarus. Starring: Jeffrey Lynn, Jane Wyman, Edward Everett Horton, Willie Best, Marguerite Chapman. Produced by Benjamin Stoloff & Bryan Foy. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1941_body_disappears_004Warner Brothers wasn’t known for science fiction in the thirties and forties, but was known to dabble a bit when the studio thought it financially advantageous. Such a dabble was the SF comedy The Body Disappears, an invisible man story released only months after Universal’s own invisible woman comedy, creatively called The Invisible Woman (1941, review).

The plot concerns millionaire heir Peter DeHaven (Jeffrey Lynn) who is about to tie the knot. After he passes out on his bachelor party, his friends decide to play a little practical joke, and carry him to the university morgue, hoping to give him a fright when he wakes up. Unfortunately for DeHaven, the nutty Professor Shotesbury (Edward Everett Horton) is working on a formula for bringing people back from the dead, and along with his black valet Willie (Willie Best) decides to “borrow” the “body” from the morgue in order to inject it with the professor’s new serum. And sure enough, the “body” wakes up, with the mother of all headaches to boot. But the serum has an unexpected side-effect: it turns poor DeHaven invisible.

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Edward Everett Horton in a promotional image.

When the hangover has dissipated, along with certain misconceptions regarding his death, DeHaven is already long past due for his own wedding, and a trial is underway to determine, apparently, what has happened to him, as he is officially declared as a missing person. What has happened are a few invisible shenanigans during which he realises that his wife-to-be (Marguerite Chapman) is only marrying him for his money and that he is in love with the scientist’s daughter (Jane Wyman), as well as the fact that Willie Best has some of the worst puns in the history of cinema.

The film did not receive enthusiastic acclaim when it was released, with Bosley Crowther at The New York Times calling The Body Disappears a “blunt imitation of […] several predecessive Topper films”. He added that “only the unacquainted customers are likely to be mildly amused”. Variety called it a “tepid comedy”.

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Mary Brodel and Marguerite Chapman.

I will say this for the film, though, that it moves along at a good pace and with its duration of 70 minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Journeyman director D. Ross Lederman directs with confidence and experience, if not necessarily with inspiration. Process photographer Edwin DuPar’s invisibility effects are passable, even though somewhat shoddy in many places. I must also admit that the culmination of the movie, in which the scientist’s daughter makes both herself and her father invisible to get out of a pinch is at least somewhat original. Plus, this gives Warner the opportunity to include the invisible woman without copying Universal outright. With that comes the obligatory striptease scene. For a while the invisible woman walks around in nothing but her undies and a bra, which was naturally even more suggestive to the male audience than having her completely “nude” onscreen. And like in Universal’s movie, the invisible woman turns out to be a woman of action, as she hops in the driver’s seat of the car, racing through the streets of the city with the police on her tail. This is a well directed sequence, however, those in the know claim that large chunks of it is lifted from Topper Returns, released by Warner earlier the same year.

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Jane Wyman and Jeffrey Lynn during a break from shooting.

Mark David Welsh sums up the critique against the film on his blog: “Unfortunately, the film is the very essence of a standard comedy product of its time, with events, gags and pratfalls developing upon completely obvious lines. Director D Ross Lederman keeps things moving at a decent clip, and Horton is always a pleasure to watch, but the whole project has ‘second rate’ stamped all the way through it. Even the SFX are a bit tatty by the standards of the time. lt’s also not particularly nice to see black actor Best wheeled out to do his usual ‘pop-eyed, fear-ridden, comedy servant’ routine.”

TV Guide is a lot more forgiving, giving the film 2/4 stars, calling it “a fine, funny B movie with Horton and wide-eyed Best giving fine comic performances”. Dennis Schwartz calls The Body Disappeares “a delightful screwball comedy” and “the kind of old-fashioned comedy that can cheer you up with a few laughs if you are down”. “Lindsey” at The Motion Pictures is likewise positive, giving the film a full 3.5/stars, calling it “a pretty fun little film to spend time on”.

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Edward Everett Horton and Jane Wyman.

My personal opinion on the matter is that The Body Disappears commits the worst offence a comedy can commit, namely not being funny. The premise itself has a good, if over-used, setup for a decent situation comedy flick, namely a bridegroom stuck in some kind of mess that threatens his participation at his own wedding. But the script defuses this tension almost immediately by blowing the wedding deadline almost from the start, which means the film has no sense of urgency — instead it has to manufacture it by one plot convenience after another. The comedy rests almost solely on the shoulders of Horton and Best, who are unfortunately stuck with some of the lamest comedy material ever put to screen. The funniest scene of the film is one that has nothing to do with invisibility, but comes early on as the undynamic duo try to hide the “body” of DeHaven behind the curtains as they are interrupted by Wyman. Otherwise Prof. Shotesbury is supposed to be funny because he is absent-minded and Willie Best because he is scared and makes puns. And the puns are dreadfully bad. An example: Prof. Shotesbury sends Willie through the morgue window to collect the “body” of DeHaven, and tells Willie: “Don’t worry, I’m at the back of you”. Willie, standing in front of the body replies: “You may be at the back of me, but look at what’s at the front of me!” Yes, I’ll give you a minute to reassemble your sides.

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Willie Best.

The invisibility gags are few and far between, and mostly have to do with the fact that Willie is is staring wide-eyed at something floating in the air or a jumping at a voice coming out of nowhere. The slapstick never goes beyond the invisible man knocking the hat off a police detective. Willie Best tries his best with the turgid material that is given to him, and it’s a shame he’s stuck with such rotten material, since he is obviously not a bad actor.

While logic isn’t necessarily required in a screwball comedy such as this, The Body Disappears stretches the plot conveniences to an unbearable point. For the sake of the movie, I’m prepared to accept that a medical doctor, after carrying around a person for the better part of an evening, can’t tell the difference between him being passed out and dead. I might even accept the unlikely possibility that a serum designed to bring someone back to life has the unintended side effect of turning said person invisible. But I draw the line at the fact that a trial is held a mere 12 hours or so after DeHaven has “disappeared” — without an accused or even a accusation of a crime. What it basically is, is a preliminary police investigation, in which the “witnesses” are called to give their recollections of the day and the previous night. The reason Wyman injects herself with the invisibility serum is so that she can spring Horton out of the loony bin, so that he can then administer the antidote to Lynn. But why? She is obviously capable of administering it to him herself. And so on and so forth.

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Jane Wyman.

Edward Everett Horton and Jane Wyman help bring the movie to life. Horton is naturally funny, and elicits a few chuckles with his absent minded professor shtick. A trusted character actor for Warner, Horton showed up in roles large and small in a whole slew of A-list comedies in the thirties and forties, including such classics as Top Hat (1935), Holiday (1938), Aresenic and Old Lace (1944) and the later It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

Jane Wyman is brilliant as the spunky scientist’s daughter, so used to her father’s eccentricities that she takes he whole affair of a naked, invisible man walking around her house in stride, immediately taking control of the situation. A bit of a forgotten great, Wyman was one of the most popular movie stars of the forties and fifties, and winner of four Golden Globes and an Oscar. In the late thirties and early forties Wyman was a minor star at Warner, churning out half a dozen films a year, and when she got the lead, it was mostly in B comedies. So The Body Disappears was just another day at the office. During the early forties Wyman starting getting noticed by critics in large supporting roles of drama productions and film noirs, and her final breakthrough after 15 years in the business came in 1948 in her role as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda, a performance for which she was awarded with both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. The fifties brought more resounding success, with leads in films like Stage Fright (1950), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Pollyanna (1960).

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Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman in 1938.

In 1955 she got her own TV show, Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre, and became a frequent guest star on many of America’s top TV shows, and her career in TV stretched all the way to the nineties. Wyman once again became a household name in 1981, when she landed the role as the stern matriarch in the daytime soap opera Falcon Crest, a role which she played until 1990. Her last TV appearance came in 1993 with a guest spot on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Overshadowed today by the Hepburns and Bergmans and Days, Wyman is perhaps best remembered as Ronald Reagan’s first wife (1940-1949).

Marguerite Chapman, a good actress in her own right, is wasted on a nothing role as DeHaven’s fiancée in The Body Disappears. On the other hand, this was one of her earliest movie roles — she made her screen debut in 1940, at the encouragement of her friends. A tomboyish secretary and switchboard operator nicknamed “Slugger“, she never had any Hollywood dreams, but her career got a flying start, even though she was primarily featured in B movies for her first years. She was typecast in propaganda war movies in the forties, and got her break playing leads in A-films like Destryoer (1943) and Counter-Attack (1945), in which she played the memorable role as the Soviet guerrilla fighter Lisa Elenko opposite Paul Muni.

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Marguerite Chapman and Paul Muni in Counter-Attack (1945).

Chapman starred in a number of successful films in the late forties, but her career began to wane in the fifties, and she was mostly stuck in B-movies and as guest star on TV shows. In 1951 she played a Martian called Alita in one of the very first Mars mission films, Flight to Mars and returned to the genre again in The Amazing Transparent Man (1960). Such was her name recognition that she was top-billed in both movies. The Amazing Transparent Man was her last film, and she soon retired from acting. She was asked to play the role of Old Rose in James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic, but declined, due to poor health, and the role went instead to Gloria Stuart. Chapman passed away in 1999.

I haven’t said much of Jeffrey Lynn, playing the titular body, mainly because there is little to say. Described on IMDb as a “handsome, pleasant dark-haired leading man of WWII films who typically played young husband, boyfriend or recruit”, that about says it. His work in The Body Disappears is in no way memorable, which can be taken either way. Partly the reason for this is that it is so blandly written that Lynn really has nothing to work with. He is capable and does what can be done with the character.

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Jeffrey Lynn and Jane Wyman.

Final verdict? The Body Disappears isn’t in any way offensively bad, but it fails to take advantage of its premise, and as a comedy it is completely predictable and played by the numbers. It isn’t campy enough to cater to so-good-it’s-bad fans, neither does it have a Lugosi or Karloff to spice it up in the ham department. The only one chewing scenery here is Willie Best, and the casual racism of his character makes he film somewhat cringe-worthy. For completists it’s a fairly breezy watch, but anyone else needn’t bother.

Janne Wass

The Body Disappears. 1941, USA. Directed by D. Ross Lederman. Written by: Scott Darling, Erna Lazarus. Starring: Jeffrey Lynn, Jane Wyman, Edward Everett Horton, Willie Best, Herbert Anderson, Marguerite Chapman, Craig Stevens, David Bruce, Ivan F. Simpson, Tod Andrews, William Hopper, Natalie Schafer, Charles Halton, Sidney Bracey, Wade Boteler. Music: Howard Jackson. Cinematography: Allen G. Siegler. Editing: Frederick Richards. Art direction: Esdras Hartley. Gowns: Milo Anderson. Makeup supervision: Perc Westmore. Sound: Stanley Jones. Special effects: Edwin B. DuPar. Produced by Benjamin Stoloff & Bryan Foy for Warner Bros. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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