Posted by Susan Doll on November 2, 2009
Prior to watching the silent thriller The Bat (1926) a couple of weeks ago at Chicago’s Portage Theater, my only knowledge of the film’s director, Roland West, was his connection to the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd. West’s involvement with Todd and the link to her death resulted in his withdrawal from Hollywood, meaning his best work was done during the silent era. This factor guarantees his obscurity, at least to contemporary audiences who are loathe to watch black and white films, let alone silent ones. West’s involvement with Todd and her strange, tragic death offer another example of the sad truth that scandal endures longer than accomplishment.
West directed only 14 films between 1916 and 1931, but he exhibited a personal style and a large measure of creative control over his work. Born Roland Van Ziemer in Cleveland, Ohio, West began his career as an actor in road companies. In 1906, he and W.H. Clifford wrote a short play for the vaudeville circuit called The Criminal, also known as The Under World. A talented writer of popular fare, West also costarred in the piece, which required him to play five different characters in five separate costumes. The play toured until around 1911, when he stopped acting in order to write and direct skits and playlets for road companies on the vaudeville circuit. Most of his productions were light-hearted crime stories and detective mysteries. From the very beginning , West specialized in mysteries and detective stories, which became his genre of choice as a film director.
West caught his big break in 1915, when the film industry was at an important juncture. At the time, big studios were still in the process of establishing themselves in Hollywood, the feature film was about to become the norm instead of the one- or two-reeler, and the dependence on movie stars to market movies was still relatively new. In other words, the systems and practices that would soon define the Hollywood industry as well as stabilize it were just crystallizing. Though chaotic, this period was much less rigid than it was even a few years later: For example, women served in many capacities in the industry, including positions of creative control; directors began their careers with relative ease; and creative alliances among unlikely partners were not uncommon. In 1915, West entered an alliance with Joseph Schenck, who played an early role in the development of the Hollywood industry and eventually became chairman of 20th Century Fox. The pair formed the Roland West Film Corporation, with Schenck serving as a mentor to West, who aspired to be a director. The following year, West directed his first film, Lost Souls.
In 1917, Schenck set up another production company for his wife, Norma Talmadge, tapping West to serve as general manager. West directed the company’s third film, De Luxe Annie, featuring Talmadge as an amnesia victim who reinvents herself as a master criminal. During this time period, West cowrote and produced a play with the offbeat title The Unknown Purple, which was an Invisible Man-like tale in which the central character could disappear via “a purple ray of invisibility.” The play proved to be a major hit, and through shrewd investments of his profits, West became financially secure. After that point, he directed only those film projects that truly appealed to him, maintaining creative control by writing the scripts and serving as producer.
West married actress Jewel Carmen in 1918, and though their relationship was volatile, with frequent quarrels and separations, she became a fixture in his films. He developed The Silver Lining (1921), a doppelganger tale about orphaned twins told in flashback, as a vehicle for Carmen. The flashback structure worked so well, he repeated it the same year in Nobody, which also starred Carmen. A film version of his hit play The Unknown Purple followed, and the special effects required for the story worked better on film than on stage.
The earliest of West’s films to survive is The Monster (1925) a Lon Chaney vehicle adapted from a Crane Wilbur play. An “old dark house” story, a genre wildly popular on stage and on film during the Jazz Age, The Monster mixes comedy and mystery in a standard tale about a group of diverse people trapped in a spooky house. Typical of the period, the mystery has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with human greed and malice. The Monster does reveal aspects of Roland West’s directorial style. It is heavy on mood and atmosphere and light on story and character, with a focus on lighting effects, including a high-contrast style with extreme darks and lights in the same frame.
The Bat (1926) firmly established West’s reputation as a master of crime dramas and mystery thrillers in addition to his strong visual style. As I discussed in last week’s post, The Bat’s strength is its use of visual symbols and techniques. The few scholars who have written about West tend to criticize aspects of his style for being stagy, primarily because of his preference for long shots in which the action unfolds in a proscenium-like setting in one long take—as opposed to a series of medium shots. Even his fondness for high-contrast lighting in which very specific areas of the set are brightly lit while the rest of the frame is in the darkest of shadow is sometimes attributed to the influence of the use of spotlights in stage plays.
I humbly disagree. Instead, I see a strong connection to German Expressionist films not only in lighting effects but also in West’s use of symbolism, doppelganger storylines, and extreme angles—the latter not generally associated with stagecraft. Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Variety were released in America during the 1920s and became widely known. Not only was West enthralled with many of these classics, he planned to shoot a film with Norma Talmadge at Germany’s famed UFA studios. Like West’s mystery thrillers, the shots in Expressionist films tended to be long in distance and duration to allow viewers sufficient time to soak in the atmosphere. In addition, West’s high-contrast lighting is so harsh that it achieves a two-dimensional graphic quality, which again reveals an Expressionist influence rather than any tendency to cling to his stage experience. I see the same graphic quality in the lighting and a similar penchant for long shot in Karl Freund’s The Mummy from 1932.
West developed a set of imagery for his films that gave their visual design a dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality. Narrow passageways, laundry chutes, tunnels, and secret stairways leading from the main house offered characters opportunities to climb, crawl, and fall as did rooftops and windows. Tunnels, stairways, and laundry chutes extending from the old dark house that is the primary setting in The Monster, The Bat, and The Bat Whispers seem almost Freudian in their suggestion of birth canals with the house as the womb. The fact that the characters seem trapped in the “womb” adds an interesting layer to the subtext of West’s old dark house tales. The plotting of his films may be confusing and complicated, and the use of old-school comedy to undercut the suspense a bit frustrating, but his imagery sparks thoughts of interesting themes and subtexts.
West made three talkies before leaving the film industry, Alibi (1929), The Bat Whispers (1930), and Corsair (1931). The Bat Whispers is a sync-sound remake of The Bat in a more naturalistic visual style. Alibi is a crime story involving a police detective, while Corsair finds West breaking away from the mystery genre to direct an action-adventure tale about modern-day piracy on the high seas. Still, all three films feature some of West’s favorite characteristics. For example, all three are versions of the doppelganger story in which the main characters lead double lives, with each exhibiting both a good side and a dark side. Alibi offers an arresting visual style, with a focus on blocking the action in the corners of rooms, so that the camera shoots the action at a 45-degree angle. Repeated use of this preference makes for an off-center effect, while characters in trouble are often filmed in long shot in large, empty rooms, making them look small and vulnerable. Though filmed in a more naturalistic visual style than The Bat, The Bat Whispers is notable for its tracking shots, including one that plunges down the side of a skyscraper.
West’s three talkies all star Chester Morris, who is better known for playing Boston Blackie in the well-known crime series of the 1940s. Morris and West became lifelong friends. West’s wife, Jewel Carmen, did not make the transition to talkies, having retired after her appearance in The Bat. Whether her departure from films was due to professional or personal reasons, I cannot say.
Corsair is most notable because it costarred Thelma Todd. Roland West met Todd socially in 1931 during one of the rockiest periods in the director’s extremely volatile marriage to Carmen. Todd’s blonde, fair beauty and out-going, fun-loving personality were the opposite of the Carmen’s brunette locks and somber demeanor. West seemed to fall hard for the vivacious Todd, who did not reciprocate his intense feelings. The two struck up a friendship, with West hoping for a romantic relationship after promising to turn her into a dramatic actress. Todd was under contract to Hal Roach, who developed a star image for her as a film comedienne. The Ice Cream Blonde, as she was known, was talented enough to hold her own in Charley Chase’s riotous comic vehicles, but West thought she could handle more prestigious roles. West and Todd did not think her contract with Roach was an obstacle, because the famous producer was willing to loan the actress to other studios if he felt the film would not damage her image; for example, in 1931, she appeared in Monkey Business alongside the Marx Brothers.
West tried to use his connections with Schenck and his reputation in the industry to land Todd the female lead in Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels, but Roach would not let his fair-haired beauty take the role, claiming it would damage her image. Several harsh arguments later, the part went to Jean Harlow. Next, West battled Roach over casting Todd in Corsair. Again, Roach refused, claiming it would destroy Todd’s image as a comedienne. West struggled forward with his plans anyway, threatening to sue Roach and then launching a publicity campaign in which he planned to change Todd’s name to Allison Lloyd as a way to distance the actress from her comic persona. Roach finally gave permission for her to costar in the film, but the ugly battle made Todd a nervous wreck, prompting her to drink more heavily than usual.
After the film was completed, she went back to her comedies with a less-than-sincere smile planted on her face, while Roach seemed to have no qualms about lending her to other studios and filmmakers. The furor over Hell’s Angels and Corsair had a disastrous effect on West’s career. He became extremely disillusioned with his mentor, Joseph Schenck, who would not back him on any of his struggles with Roach, and he was disappointed with his relationship with Todd, who never wanted a long-term romance. He turned his back on the industry, losing interest in the other properties he was supposed to produce and direct. Corsair turned out to be his last film, and West settled back into his on-again, off-again marriage to Jewel Carmen.
However, that was not the end of Todd and West. West invested in a restaurant along the Pacific Coast Highway on the border of Palisades and Malibu, which he dubbed Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. The Café attracted Hollywood’s famous and infamous, and on the surface seemed a big success. The restaurant was supposed to be Todd’s in name only with Carmen and West as the financial backers, but poor management incurred heavy costs, and Todd ended up putting in a great deal of money. West and Carmen (when not quarreling) lived in a home perched on the hill behind the restaurant, which also included two garages and an apartment above one of the garages. In one of those strange living arrangements that seem normal in Hollywood but would be ridiculous in the real world, Todd lived in the apartment.
West never seemed to accept the fact that his relationship with Todd did not grow into something more passionate. The pair argued frequently, often in earshot of restaurant diners. He needled her over her late nights out, and he did not like the fact that Todd was being pressured by gangster Lucky Luciano to allow gambling in the Café.
On the night of December 15, 1935, West was miffed that Todd was out late at the Trocadero, and he locked the door that their two residences shared in common so that the errant actress would have to take the long way around to her garage. However, his spiteful act came back to haunt him when Todd’s dead body was discovered the next morning in her 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible parked in her garage. The maid discovered the body and instantly retrieved West, who took one look and called the cops.
The medical examiner believed the death to be caused by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He reasoned that Todd climbed into her car upon returning home, because she couldn’t get into her locked apartment. She turned on the car for warmth and succumbed to the fumes. However inconsistencies cropped up his theory almost immediately and a grand jury was called. West was called to testify, and rumors flew around town, fueled by a rabid press, that he had killed her because he was jealous and frustrated. Supposedly, old friend Joseph Schenck pulled strings to cover up the crime. But, this was only one theory that was floated regarding Todd’s death, and one that had little evidence to back it up. The inquest’s final ruling was that Thelma Todd died an accidental death, despite the inconsistencies that were never cleared up and the leads that were never followed. Who killed Todd? The most viable theory is that organized crime in general, and Luciano in particular, had her murdered because she wouldn’t agree to allow gambling in her establishment.
Sadly, West never got over Todd’s death. Shortly after the Ice Cream Blonde’s funeral, he and Jewel Carmen finally divorced, and he sold the Café and went into seclusion. In 1940, he married actress Lola Lane. Little was heard from Roland West until 1950 when he suffered both a stroke and a nervous breakdown, still fretting over the death of Thelma Todd. In 1952, he made a deathbed “confession” to his favorite actor and friend, Chester Morris. West blamed himself for Thelma’s death because he had locked her out that night, dooming her to either murder or death by carbon monoxide. As he became more delirious, he told Morris convoluted stories in which he took on more and more responsibility for her death. In one version, he claims to have followed her up the stairs after she came home, and two argued in the garage. He then locked her in the garage where she died from carbon monoxide in an effort to keep warm. In another version, he claimed responsibility because he caved into pressure from the Mob and introduced Todd to Lucky Luciano, putting her on the path to her murder.
Tormented to the end of his days, the once notable director of old dark house movies with complicated plotlines died while trapped in an “old dark house” of his making, twisting the story of his life into a dark mystery with the most tragic of conclusions.
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