Posted by Susan Doll on October 26, 2009
Inspired by the season, Chicago’s alternative movie venues are celebrating Halloween by showcasing a wide range of horror films, from the silent classics to contemporary gore fests. Recently, the Silent Film Society of Chicago showed The Bat, a 1926 mystery thriller that continues to intrigue me long after the initial screening. At first, I was fascinated by the striking visual style of director Roland West and his set designer, William Cameron Menzies, because I recognized that it must have been an influence on the character and visual design of Batman. While I was researching The Bat, I discovered that it was once on the list of permanently lost films before a copy miraculously popped up in Idaho, of all places. And, finally, after pondering the name Roland West, which seemed familiar to me, I realized he was involved in the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd, though he was married to Jewel Carmen at the time, who actually costarred in The Bat. What a film; definitely Morlocks material.
Because of the many interest angles behind the history of The Bat, I decided to pull a “Moirafinnie” and turn this into a two-part post, focusing on the film this week and the director next week.
The print of The Bat shown at the Portage Theater by the Silent Film Society of Chicago had come from the UCLA Film and Television Archives, and it was in pristine condition. For decades, The Bat was thought to be lost to the ages, but in 1988, a print turned up in Idaho. A movie-loving surgeon who owned a vast collection of 35mm prints had died, and his films were donated to a university in Boise. The university contacted UCLA to inform them of the donation, and when they mentioned The Bat, the main archivist at UCLA didn’t quite believe it. He thought it must have been the 1930 remake of The Bat called The Bat Whispers, which had also been directed by Roland West. UCLA acquired the reels, and the staff was surprised to find out that it was indeed the 1926 silent version. The print had eroded over the years, and extensive restoration was necessary. They also discovered that the first reel was missing, so the archival team tried to recreate the missing footage through other means. Just when they completed their restoration, someone in Boise found the missing reel, and UCLA was able to restore the film to its original state. I always enjoy stories like these in which classic or not-so-classic movies missing for decades pop up in private collections, forgotten archives, or even old basements. It’s the cinematic equivalent to finding a valuable painting in your grandmother’s attic or at a flea market. However, as time marches on, I suspect such happy discoveries will become fewer and farther between.
The Bat is an old dark house tale about a murderous cat burglar who dresses in a bat costume. His latest target is the summer home of mystery writer Mrs. Cornelia Van Gorder, who rents a huge mansion complete with secret passages, mysterious laundry chutes, and hidden rooms. Several servants take care of Mrs. Van Gorder and the mansion, including Lizzie the maid, a Japanese handyman, and a new gardener who seems to know Van Gorder’s niece, Dale Ogden, really, really well. On the night the Bat strikes, Ms. Van Gorder is visited by a motley crew of people who get involved in the mystery. Richard Fleming, slacker nephew of Courtleigh Fleming, deceased owner of the mansion, skulks around the house, while Dr. Wells drops in for no apparent reason. Two investigators—slick police detective Moretti and local yokel Bloodhound Anderson—are hot on the trail of the Bat and arrive on the scene at different times. The convoluted plot is difficult to follow because of the many twists, turns, and red herrings that are designed to keep us guessing as to the true identity of the Bat. The final plot twist with the reveal was so important to the studio at the time that an opening intertitle asked the audience to please keep the identity of the Bat a secret so as not to spoil it for future audiences—a gimmick updated for horror films with “shocking” endings in the 1950s.
Old dark house tales were rampant in the movies and on stage during the 1920s. The Bat was adapted from a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, which opened on Broadway in August 1920. It ran for 867 performances. The play was a reworking of Rinehart’s popular novel The Circular Staircase from 1907 with a healthy dose of her short story “The Borrowed House” thrown in for good measure. The play version of The Bat was famous for its clever staging of the action and its intricate plotting, which was something the intertitles of a silent film could not adequately convey.
The old dark house stories that were the rage of the Jazz Age differed from those of later years, because they were whodunits or crime mysteries in which the villains were flesh and blood as opposed to haunted house tales with ghosts and spirits. The American horror genre was born at Universal Pictures in the early 1930s with the first Dracula and Frankenstein films, after the immigration of many German Expressionists to Hollywood. Carl Laemmle Sr. had an open-door policy for the Austrian and German filmmakers leaving Europe, offering jobs to the many directors and craftsmen who immigrated. With the influx of Expressionists came a serious treatment of supernatural storylines combined with a compendium of visual techniques that would define the horror genre in the early 1930s. In comparison, earlier horror-like movies from the 1920s seem like a hodge-podge of stage and literary influences, mystery plots, and comic archetypes thrown in to take the edge off the suspense and terror. Though visually influenced by Expressionist films, American horror-inspired movies from the 1910s and 1920s couldn’t seem to commit to a full-blown terror-filled tale of the supernatural.
The Bat is typical of old dark house tales of the 1920s in its use of comic characters and the constant plot turns, designed to keep the audience guessing. Louise Fazenda costars as maid Lizzy Allen, whose fear of the Bat becomes the running joke of the film. Though Lizzy is a broadly drawn character—a version of the archetype of the timid, impressionable servant—Fazenda’s comic expressions and adeptness at physical comedy still inspire audiences to laugh. Mrs. Van Gorder, played by Emily Fitzroy, also has her humorous moments. No matter what room the characters find themselves in, or how tense the situation, Mrs. Van Gorder is constantly knitting. Whether she’s standing among suspects, offering her opinion on the Bat, or sitting around the mansion, her hands rapidly work the needles, while a knitting bag hangs from her arm. The broad comedy is amusing but it intentionally undercuts the suspense, as I have found in other old dark house movies from the 1920s, such as The Cat and the Canary or Midnight Faces. I’ve often wondered why serious tales of the supernatural, with their other-worldly monsters who come back from the dead, were not part of Hollywood moviemaking during the silent era. At any rate, after the Expressionist directors and crew members became part of Universal, Americans quickly fostered a taste of true horror, and the comedy was left behind.
Interestingly, Expressionist films, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, were quite popular in America during the 1920s, and some German directors—including Paul Leni who directed The Cat and the Canary—had already been absorbed into the Hollywood industry. Their influence on American movies at the time was primarily a visual one, and The Bat’s artificial, graphic style, predatory animal as the main motif, and heavy use of shadows reveals an Expressionist flavor. Another influence on the film is French director Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, a 10-part serial about a group of master criminals who call themselves the Vampires. Not only do the films share in common a plot revolving around master criminals but the vampire costume worn by the femme fatale, Irma Vep, during a ballet is similar to the Bat’s disguise. Feuillade’s penchant for rooftop scenes is also echoed in The Bat.
Whatever the influences, the mise-en-scene of The Bat is stunning and imaginative. It’s stark, high-contrast lighting, with little or no gray scale, and striking set design elevate the material above the two-dimensional characters and convoluted plotting. Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s premiere cameramen and a cofounder of the American Society of Cinematographers, worked out the lighting schemes and camera angles with director Roland West, while William Cameron Menzies, who later served as art director on Gone With the Wind, did the set design. In some scenes, the entire screen is black except for a brightly lit, narrow passageway that slices across the frame diagonally. In stark, high-contrast lighting, we see a character stealthily climb the secret staircase to another part of the mansion without detection. In other scenes, the Bat runs along rooftops at night, and the geometric shapes of the roofs are silhouetted against the moonlit sky, creating an abstract quality that reminds me of Dr. Caligari. Shots of the Bat in silhouette as he peers through the window make him appear as a sinister shadow, or shots from the Bat’s point of view as he looks through a skylight offer steep camera angles of the interiors below. The angles are some of the steepest and among the strangest I have ever seen, while the black and white cinematography is among the starkest. Along with the focus on chutes, passageways, and abstracted rooftops, the effect is at times dreamlike, at times nightmarish. Adding to the dreamlike effect is the focus on falling; characters are shown in steep angles falling down chutes, off roofs, or out windows—a primal image that is at once familiar and frightening.
The Bat wears a large rodent-like mask with protruding incisors that seems clumsy to me, but in long shot, the pointed ears and the way he wraps his scalloped cape around him appears genuinely creepy. The costume is an innovation for the film, because in the play, the Bat wears street clothing and commits his crimes in the black clothing associated with cat burglars. When he wants to intimidate people, he sends them a calling card in the shape of extended bat wings, or he flashes a signal in which the bat wing logo is silhouetted against a halo of light. All of these touches definitely recall the conventions of Batman–the comic books as well as the films. The bat shape silhouetted in a halo of light looks so close to the bat signal that even nonfans of the Caped Crusader recognize it.
Bob Kane, the originator of Batman, must have seen a version of The Bat—but which version? The 1926 silent film? The 1930 remake by the same director, The Bat Whispers? Or, a play version? (Supposedly the bat silhouette against a beam of light was part of the play’s staging.) Internet sources—which are notoriously sloppy in their fact-checking—are divided over this issue. The Silent Film Society of Chicago, as well as other venues around the country that have shown The Bat, are quick to tout the Batman connection as a marketing strategy. And, who can blame them, because they need to attract audiences to their theaters. Others insist the influence came from the 1930 remake, which was supposedly one of Kane’s favorite movies from childhood. These latter websites often cite Kane’s autobiography as their source. In a 2004 coffee-table book titled Batman: The Complete History, author Les Daniels repeats the anecdote that The Bat Whispers was a favorite of Kane’s as well as an influence, particularly the film’s “forced perspectives, miniature sets, and bizarre camera angles.” However he also notices that the shadow of the Bat in the 1926 version looks “suspiciously similar to a future Batman villain, Man-Bat.” According to Michael Grost on a decent website called The Films of Roland West, The Bat Whispers reworks the story of the Bat and adopts a different visual style. It does not feature the silhouetted bat signal, and it lacks the extensive bat imagery of the silent version. Therefore, Kane must have been influenced by The Bat.
Whatever the case, I think the important point here is that the best of pop culture is a complex interweaving of one medium’s archetypes, formulas, styles, and structures with another’s—and then back again. In other words, originality in pop culture is not a matter of innovating something entirely new; it’s a matter of understanding the attraction and meaning of pre-existing formulas, styles, and conventions and then reworking them in a different format to speak to a new generation. Just how difficult this can be is evident in today’s soulless studio films, which rework little and speak only to adolescent boys—the studio’s target audience. Contemporary genre films, comic-book adaptations, and formulaic stories have always been a part of Hollywood moviemaking, but today they are merely clones of one another, helmed by shallow studio executives with marketing degrees who can’t even spell subtext. And, modern popular culture is the worse for it.
Roland West directed both The Bat and The Bat Whispers. A solid presence during the days of silent filmmaking, West barely made it into the talkie era because of a major scandal and its after-effects. Next week, I will explore the life, career, and style of Roland West.
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