Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Bat (Roland West Productions, Feature Productions, United Artists, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched two movie versions of the Mary Roberts Rinehart suspense story The Bat. Years ago I read a novel by Rinehart called The Bat and assumed that was the original version of the story; it may have been the book Rinehart published in 1908 under the title The Circular Staircase, or it may have been a novelization of the play actually written by Steven Vincent Benêt in 1926 but frequently reprinted under Rinehart’s name even though she had virtually nothing to do with it. In 1920 Rinehart and Avery Hopwood (who two years later would write a play about aspiring Broadway actresses called The Gold Diggers that would launch the series of Gold Diggers films) adapted it into a hit play that, according to a Mystery File blog post, http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=125, also included plot elements from a story Rinehart published in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Borrowed House.” It’s been filmed several times, but the 1926 version was the first; it was directed by Roland West, whom William K. Everson in The Detective in Film called “a dilettante director who worked because he liked making films, and one of the peculiarities he indulged was a fondness for shooting only at night. His films were literally dark, nightmarish, shot at night as well as taking place at night.” The Bat is a pretty conventional old-dark-house story except for the bizarre villain, a man who dresses up in a tight-fitting costume with a cape, wears a mask that looks like a giant version of a bat’s head, swings acrobatically from building to building on a rope he carries with him so he can use it anywhere, and announces his presence with a flashlight with a silhouette of a bat taped across the business end so he can project the image of a giant bat to herald his arrival.

If all this sounds familiar, it should; Bob Kane, the officially credited creator of Batman, admitted that he ripped off almost the entire visual iconography of his famous character from the Bat in this movie — even though Kane’s (and his uncredited co-creator Bill Finger’s) Batman is a superhero instead of a super-villain. (Also the headdress worn by the Bat in this movie is far more anatomically correct as a replica of a real bat’s head than anything Batman ever wore.) He begins the movie by sending a letter to the owner of the priceless Favre Emeralds that he’s going to steal them that very evening, and indeed he does — helped, this being one of those annoying “comedy-mysteries” that were so common in the 1920’s, by the stupidity of their owner, who takes them out of his safe, holds them in his hand and even dangles them out of an open window, the better to help the Bat rip them off. Then he goes to hide out in a town called Oakdale, which features a large old mansion that is reputed to be haunted. It was built by Oakdale’s principal banker, Courleigh Fleming (Charles Herzinger), who has just been reported dead while on vacation in the Colorado Rockies. Courleigh Fleming had left instructions that under no circumstances was the house to be rented out, but his ne’er-do-well son and heir, Richard Fleming (Arthur Housman, later a comic drunk in movie after movie but here quite good in a straightforward and reasonably serious performance), needed the money to pay off his gambling debts and so he rented the house to eccentric heiress Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy). Two mysterious men talk about how the presence of tenants in the house has spoiled their plans — obviously something criminal, though at this point we know not what — and the Bat himself shows up at the house looking for $300,000 in cash that was stolen from the Oakdale bank by an insider, who took the money in the form of negotiable bonds and then cashed them out. The prime suspect is bank clerk Brooks Bailey (Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s far less popular and successful brother), who got into the Van Gorder household by posing as a gardener even though he had impeccably manicured hands.

There’s also a nice comic-relief performance by Louise Fazenda as Lizzie Allen, Van Gorder’s maid (in one quite wry title she says she put up with Van Gorder’s “socialism, theosophism and rheumatism, but I draw the line at spookism!”), and a Japanese butler named Jimmy (played by the first-rate Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin, the second person to play Charlie Chan — alas, his Chan film, the 1928 silent The Chinese Parrot, is lost, though the 1929 early-talkie from MGM The Unholy Night cast him as a detective and gives an indication of what his Chan might have been like) who supposedly came with the house. There are a few minor characters, including Van Gorder’s daughter Dale Ogden (Jewel Carmen), a sinister doctor named (I’m not making this up, you know!) H. G. Wells (Robert McKim), and the person whose arrival they’re all waiting for, police detective Moletti (Tullio Carminati, one of the few people in this film whose career did survive the coming of sound; though he never became a major star he got the prestige role opposite Grace Moore in the highly successful 1934 Columbia film One Night of Love, which did enough business it convinced a lot of other producers to make films about opera singers), who’s there to catch the Bat. There’s a lot of skulking around the Old Dark House, some of it looking pretty aimless and some of it apparently devoted to finding the missing $300,000, which may or may not exist and, if it exists, may or may not be in a secret room of the house that Courleigh Fleming may or may not have had built in it and which may or may not be indicated in the house’s blueprints — only the Bat steals the blueprints at gunpoint before anyone else has a chance to look at them. The Bat kills Richard Fleming in mid-movie for reasons Rinehart, Hopwood and scenarist Julien Josephson never make quite clear, and in the end it turns out [spoiler alert!] that Courleigh Fleming isn’t dead at all; he embezzled the $300,000 from the Oakdale bank, cashed out the bonds and hid them in the house. It also turns out that the supposed Detective Moletti is really the Bat — and Anderson (Eddie Gribbon), is really the detective. In a nice bit of triumph for the comic-relief characters, an early scene features Lizzie setting up a bear trap with which she hopes to catch the Bat — and at the end of the film that’s exactly how he is caught.

The Bat is one of those films (like Paul Leni’s similar The Cat and the Canary, made at Universal the next year) whose style triumphs over its lack of substance; for most of its running time it’s just people running around the old dark house with conflicting and not always clear agendas, but director West and an astonishing collection of talents behind the camera, especially for a film with such low star power in front of it — Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon — 1941 version — and Casablanca) is the cinematographer (and imdb.com lists an uncredited Gregg Toland as his assistant!); William Cameron Menzies did the set designs (including a beautiful glass-painted cityscape at the beginning and a nice model of the house that manages to strike just the right balance between realism and stylization); and Hal C. Kern, later head of David Selznick’s editing department, was the editor and is also credited as one of four “production assistants” along with future director Thornton Freeland (Whoopee, Be Yourself, Flying Down to Rio). The film is full of chiaroscuro scenes, oblique camera angles and so many stylized sets as to evoke Cabinet of Dr. Caligari comparisons; had Roland West’s directorial career lasted into the film noir era (he lived until 1952 but never directed a film after 1931, even though his first talkie, Alibi from 1929, shows a full command of sound, and in 1930 he remade The Bat as The Bat Whispers with sound and an experimental 70 mm widescreen process) he would have felt right at home! West and his illustrious colleagues fill Rinehart’s and Hopwood’s rather silly and jerky tale with such a sense of style — including one bizarre shot in which the screen is masked in a zig-zag pattern as the Bat walks through a hidden staircase, presumably to that secret room — that it’s enjoyable on its own terms as a romp. The version we were watching was from archive.org, and the picture quality wasn’t especially good but it did come with a dubbed-in soundtrack, appropriately doleful classical music that for once fit the mood of the visuals (though it did seem a bit odd in the comic scenes, which according to the original promotion were one of the elements the releasing studio, United Artists, thought would bring in the customers; the slogan was, “A laugh with every gasp!”) and added to the film’s effectiveness.