Friday, January 26, 2018
One of the most popular of the Broadway mysteries was The Bat, written by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart and directed by Roland West. The play was a reworking of Rinehart’s 1907 popular novel The Circular Staircase, throwing in elements from her short story “The Borrowed House” for good measure. The stage version was noted for the clever way it staged the action and its intricate plotting, which was something the original silent’s inter-titles could not adequately convey to the audience.
Purportedly the inspiration for Bob Kane to create Batman, it’s a potboiler set around the wealthy summer mansions of Long Island and featuring a costumed super-criminal named the Bat, a cat burglar and murderer who is terrorizing New York City. The plot revolves around a hidden fortune from a bank robbery in an isolated summer mansion rented by mystery writer Cordelia Van Gorder. The Bat is after it and it is up to Van Gorder and her guests to solve the mystery and unmask the Bat.
After running on Broadway for 867 performances, West made it into a film in 1926 (released through United Artists), and when talkies came to stay in 1930 he decided to make a sound version, titled The Bat Whispers, to differentiate it from the original. The remake differs very little from the silent; it is still essentially a stage play that combines elements of comedy and mystery. It was also the first film to perfect the use of the moving camera. In those early days of sound cameras were enormous and quite cumbersome, and remained static. Though a clever use of dollies and miniatures West is able to lift the film from its stage-bound setting and inject a dynamic fluidity that still dazzles today.
Though saddled with a more complex plot than its silent predecessor, The Bat Whispers is more fun to watch due to the technological advances, which include some of the best rear projection work for the time. As a squad car races along a New York City street, we learn that police have isolated the apartment building where wealthy jewel collector Bell (Tucker) resides. He has gotten a warning from the Bat that the pride of his collection, the Rossmore necklace, will be stolen at the stroke of midnight. Despite the police presence the Bat makes his way down from the roof, strangles Bell and makes off with the necklace, leaving behind a mocking note for the befuddled police.
Having made his getaway, the Bat shifts his sights to a bank in Oakdale County. However, he finds he’s been beaten to the punch. Watching the other robber make his getaway, the Bat follows, but a smokescreen generator the other robber installed in his car temporarily leaves the Bat behind. We see the robber pull up to the gate of a mansion marked “Fleming” and let himself into the basement. Obviously, he’s familiar with the place, using a ladder to access to into the laundry chute, which leads in turn to a network of secret passages inside the mansion’s walls. But the noise he makes attracts the attention of the mansion’s tenants, Cornelia Van Gorder (Hampton) and her nervous maid, Lizzie Allen (Eburne). The caretaker (Charters) tells them the noise comes from ghosts in the cellar, but Van Gorder and Allen suspect it’s none other than the Bat.
The bank robber isn’t the only one making noise. A hooting noise from the garden that has Lizzie practically climbing the walls turns out to be a signal from Cornelia’s niece, Dale (Merkel), to her fiancé Brook (Bakewell) hiding in the bushes. Dale hopes to pass Brook off as a gardener. The reason behind the deception is that Brook, a teller at the Oakdale bank, is now believed to be the prime suspect in the robbery. He and Dale have an idea that the real thief has hidden the loot in a secret room inside the mansion. Dale has also called Richard Fleming (Huntley), the nephew of the man who owns both the mansion and the Oakdale Bank, to come out to the house once she and Brook are safely inside to aid in the hunt for that secret room. In addition, Doctor Venrees (von Seyffertitz), an old friend of the Fleming family, has arrived to tell Mrs. Van Gordner that he has received a telegram from Fleming stating that the robbery is forcing him to return from Europe and that he will need to occupy his house.
As if all this wasn’t enough, a detective named Anderson (Morris) shows up. Not only has he come to investigate the strange goings-on that Cornelia and Lizzie have seen and heard, but also tells them he’s been assigned to catch the Bat. Cornelia, however, completely trust Anderson and has engaged the services of a private detective named Brown (Clark), who arrives just in time to investigate the fatal shooting of Fleming by persons unknown. Anderson thinks Dale is the killer, as she was not only apparently alone in the room with Fleming at the time, but also because he knows that she’s engaged to the prime suspect. In his eyes this makes her a rival for the loot if there’s anything to Cornelia’s belief that Fleming was looking to get his hands on the loot to alleviate his gambling debts.
Now that the suspects have all gathered, the mystery begins to take off. A masked man sticks a gun in the caretaker’s back, telling him he better get everyone out of the house. The lights go on and off and the shadow of the Bat is seen by various occupants. Anderson tells everyone that Fleming isn’t in Europe. He suspects that Fleming robbed his own bank and accuses Doctor Venrees of being in cahoots with him. Meanwhile, an unconscious man is found in the garage. When he comes to, Anderson questions him, but the man can’t remember anything. Anderson tells the private detective to keep an eye on him.
Eventually, the hidden room and the missing money are found, but that’s not all, as the body of the missing banker Fleming is found behind a wall in the room. The garage suddenly bursts into flames, sending everyone into a panic. In the chaos, the Bat appears and is caught, but gets away before he can be unmasked.
As the Bat flees from the house, he walks into a bear trap, that was set by Lizzie. Unmasked, he is revealed as Detective Anderson, only Anderson isn’t really Anderson. The real Detective Anderson is the man found unconscious in the garage. As he’s taken away, the Bat declares that no jail can hold him and he will escape.
A curtain closes across the screen as it’s revealed that we are in a theater. Chester Morris comes out to tell the audience that as long as they don’t reveal the Bat’s identity they will be safe from the Bat, otherwise, the Bat will get angry.
One of the strongest things the film has going for is its mise-en-scene, which shows the influence of the expressionism so artfully used in German cinema. West has a fine eye for combining thrilling visuals with striking compositions, especially in the use of shadows, dissolves and miniatures. His use of high-contrast lighting, with its stark boundaries between black and white, easily combines with his imaginative set designs. Credit for this goes to cinematographers Ray June and Robert H. Planck. West's technical crew reportedly invented such items as new lighting equipment and a new type of viewfinder while constructing a dolly-mounted camera crane, and a 300-foot track where the camera was suspended by cables from overhead scaffolding.
The miniatures themselves are dazzling, allowing the camera to seemingly swoop through space. They were designed by Paul Crawley and photographed by Edward Colman and Harry Zech.
West shot The Bat Whispers in a 2:1 aspect ratio 65mm widescreen “Magnifilm” version. But though the Magnifilm process was heavily hyped in press releases, it proved to be a short-lived fad, though West previewed the widescreen version in Los Angeles on November 6, 1930. It then played engagements in San Francisco and Baltimore before opening in New York on January 16, 1931.
There were very few cinemas capable of projecting it, which was why the crew simultaneously shot a 35mm 1.33:1 version for general release. A third version, for international distribution, was composed of 35mm alternate takes. The domestic negative was cut down to 72 minutes for the 1938 When Atlantic Pictures reissued the film in 1938 the domestic negative down was cut to 72 minutes with the result that the excised footage was lost.
Another strike against the widescreen process was that many in Hollywood believed the process would cause financial instability. Theaters had just been wired for sound. Now have to upgrade their projectors and screen size, an onerous finial burden with the country in the midst of the Great Depression. The costs of this new technology would have further reduced the number of financially viable theaters. The Hays Office solved the problem by issuing a ruling that forbade studios to postpone any new invention for at least two years. This effectively killed Magnifilm.
Hollywood wouldn’t return to widescreen until the mid-‘50s, when it needed an effective method of competing with television (Cinerama, Cinemascope). Whereas the widescreen process was shot in 70 mm (with 5mm of the celluloid devoted to the multi-channel soundtrack), one competing widescreen process – Todd-AO – was virtually identical to Magnifilm/Grandeur as it used 65mm film.
One of the drawbacks of the the 65mm process was that it required much more light than a 35mm camera. Additional lighting hardware was necessary and it made the actors’ lives more difficult. Merkel claims to have lost twenty pounds from the heat of the lamps, and Morris went through a temporary bout of “klieg eyes.”
All these technological advances look magnificent when we see the Bat in silhouette looking through the window (which makes him look like a shadow) or POV shots of the Bat’s looking through a skylight at the interiors below. The black and white cinematography, combined with West’s shots of chutes, passageways, and rooftops, give the film an almost eerie, nightmarish quality. The excitement felt by the audience is palpable.
However, when the film moves indoors, the stage-bound aspects, especially the overly talky dialogue, take over and drag the film down. A large part of these problems lie with the source material. Mary Roberts Rinehart was very popular in her day, but her writing tends to be tedious and the play was no exception. The actual narrative of the movie is so excruciating and the acting so outdated that most of the visual power of the direction gets lost.
The acting in the film comes off as rather uneven by today’s standards. As the hysterical maid Lizzy Allen, Louise Fazenda not only functions as the film’s comedy relief, but nearly runs off with the picture, her deft comic expressions and adeptness at physical comedy still making us laugh today. Lizzy’s boss, Mrs. Van Gorder (Fitzroy), is for the most part the epitome of stoicism, though she also has her humorous moments. And no matter where the characters are or how tense the situations, Mrs. Van Gorder can be found working her knitting needles. Una Merkel as Mrs. Van Gorder’s niece, Dale, acquits herself nicely, and Chester Morris, as Detective Anderson, gives another excellent performance.
The Bat Whispers was not a big hit at the time of its release, the victim of a critical and commercial backlash to the over saturation of old dark house thrillers in the theatre. After West's next film,Corsair (1931) bombed with the public he retired from films. He also left his wife, actress Jewel Carmen, and moved in with girlfriend Thelma Todd, concentrating on their restaurant in Pacific Palisades. After Todd died in what the police termed as “suspicious circumstances” in 1935, West, though he was never charged for her death remained the main suspect in the eyes of the police. Following Todd's death and his divorce from Carmen, West virtually withdrew into seclusion. In the early 1950s his health deteriorated. He suffered a stroke and a nervous breakdown. He died in Santa Monica, California at the age of 67 in 1952.
For decades, both The Bat and The Bat Whispers were thought to be irretrievably lost. However, a print of The Bat, owned by an Idaho movie-loving surgeon turned up in 1988. After his death his film collection made its way to UCLA where the print was found to be so eroded it required a restoration. But they also discovered the first reel was missing and decided to go ahead anyway. Just after the restoration was completed, someone in Boise found the missing reel and thus the film was able to be completely restored.
As for The Bat Whispers, the 65mm Magnifilm version was found in the archives of the Mary Pickford Estate. Pickford, who had produced both the silent and sound versions as part-owner of United Artists, intended to remake it with Humphrey Bogart and Lillian Gish. In October 1958 former RKO studio head C. J. Tevlin purchased the remake rights from Pickford for his company, Liberty Films. Starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead and Gavin Gordon, it was directed by Crane Wilbur and distributed by Allied Artists under the title The Bat.
The Bat Whispers was cited by comic book author Bob Kane in his autobiography Batman and Me as having inspired the character of Batman, which he co-created with Bill Finger.
The film’s coda, with Morris asking the audience not to give away The Bat’s identity, lest it make The Bat angry enough to start killing at random, and that The Bat promises not to kill or steal from any viewer if they keep the secret, made a comeback in the ‘50s and ‘60s, appropriated in different form by William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock, among others.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Film in Focus
By Ed Garea
Bed of Roses (RKO, 1933) – Director: Gregory La Cava. Writers: Wanda Turlock (s/p & story), Gregory La Cava, Eugene Thackrey (dialogue). Stars: Constance Bennett, Joel McCrea, Pert Kelton, John Halliday, Samuel S. Hinds, Franklin Pangborn & Tom Herbert. B&W, 67 minutes.
For a film that starts so well and with such a great cast armed with snappy lines, Bed of Roses turns out to be a rather routine programmer.
Lorry Evans (Bennett) and Minnie Brown (Kelton) are two hookers being released from prison. After having their possessions returned and given their prison earnings, the matron (an uncredited Jane Darwell) gives each a short farewell sermon, but Lorry cuts her short, telling her “Save your wind, save your wind, you might want to go sailing sometime.”
Once outside the gates Lorry is met by Father Doran (Hinds), who has an idea to reform her that she quickly rejects, telling him that she’s been doing a lot of thinking while in stir and decided it would be easier to be a kept woman rather than working for a living.
Minnie, on the other hand, has arranged for a ride with a trucker to the docks, where they plan to catch a river boat to New Orleans. She asks Lorry if she can play chauffeur while she helps the driver “check up on his groceries.” Given the highly suggestive manner with which she says it, it’s obvious how she’s paying for the ride.
Once the girls are aboard the ship they find they have only enough money to take them about halfway. Minnie ventures out into the fog to whisper a salacious suggestion to the porter, who shocked, rejects it. “Nothing personal,” he says as she walks away.
While Lorry is sulking in their room, Minnie returns with couple of boll-weevil exterminators and a bottle of gin. They proceed to get the men drunk and Lorry relives one of his cash. When they sober up the next day and discover one’s been robbed they go to the Captain (an uncredited Robert Emmett O’Connor) and report the theft. When Lorry is cornered she decides to jump into the river rather than face arrest.
A few minutes later she finds herself rescued by Dan (McCrea), who captains a cotton barge. Losing her money in the rescue she repays Dan’s kindness by robbing him and skipping out when the barge docks at New Orleans. She then tracks down Stephen Paige, a wealthy publisher she had noticed on the river boat. Disguising herself as a feature reporter she goes to his office to interview him, in the course of which she gets him roaring drunk. When she practically carries him back to her apartment, she dumps him on the couch and rigs the scene to imply that they slept together.
When Paige awakens the next day, Lorry gives him her cock-and-bull story and blackmails him into supporting her in a luxury apartment, lest word of this get out and ruin his social and business standing in town, even though he’s a bachelor.
Now ensconced in the lap of luxury, Lorry soon grows bored and visits Dan on the docks. She repays him the money she stole and the two fall in love. He ends up proposing to her, and though she at first accepts, Lorry, who has kept her past a secret, changes her mind when a lovesick Stephen convinces her that her past life will one day lead to Dan's ruin. She leaves Dan, but rather than go back with Stephen, decides to strike out on her own and lands a job as a sales clerk in a department store.
Stephen, meanwhile, wants Lorry back. He convinces Minnie (who is now married to one of the men they cheated on the river boat) for a little expense money, if she can arrange a reunion by inviting Lorry to a Mardi Gras party, telling her he’ll take care of the rest.
Stephen locates Lorry at the Mardi Gras party and makes a bid for her return, giving her an expensive bracelet as a sweetener. But Lorry turns him and the bracelet down. Meanwhile, Minnie locates Dan, gives him Lorry’s address, and after revealing her best friend’s past, reunites the two lovers.
Bed of Roses was the last of four pictures made by RKO teaming McCrea and Bennett. It was also the last film at the studio for director La Cava, who left an acrimonious relationship with the studio to pursue a freelance career.
Although La Cava co-wrote some rather risqué dialogue, his direction was uninspiring and flat. The film plays like a programmer, with the plot dictating matters and little room left for character development. Bed of Roses follows the usual Pre-Code path by taking liberties with sexual mores, but at the end stressing that honesty is the best policy and one’s inner virtue tells more about that person than any sexual liberties on his or her part.
Lorry’s reform is quite sudden and rather unexplained. There is a noticeable lack of chemistry between Bennett and McCrea because the film’s running time will simply not allow it. When on her own, she shines, but whenever she’s with McCrea it’s as if the air was let out of her performance. For this I blame the director. It’s as if La Cava knew this was the last picture he’d do for RKO and he was hurrying his way through it, come what may, to the detriment of the film.
As for the rest of the cast, Kelton is fine despite being saddled with a poor Mae West imitation in the way she speaks. Halliday comes off bland, for all he has to do is basically react to Bennett’s character. As for the rest of the credited cast, no one is on screen long enough to make an impression.
Kelton is an interesting case. in the Pre-Code days she was pushed as a supporting actress due to her wise-cracking persona. But as the Code became enforced she was forced lower and lower down the ladder, eventually working for Poverty Row studios. She quit Hollywood and returned to Broadway. With the coming of television in the early 1950s she played the first Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, opposite Jackie Gleason. Shortly thereafter, however, Kelton found herself on the blacklist. She was replaced on The Honeymooners by Audrey Meadows, and returned to Broadway, where she make her mark in the stage musical of The Music Man as Mrs. Paroo, Marian the Librarian's mother. She reprised the role in the 1962 film. And she received a vindication of sorts on television when she was cast in the ‘60s as Alice Kramden’s mother on The Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason had never forgotten her.
Bed of Roses will be of interest to Pre-Code enthusiasts and those who chase obscure films. One thing I’ve noticed is the change in the character of the prostitute from Pre-Code to Code enforcement. In the Pre-Code days, the hooker was a wisecracking, vivacious woman who lived large and thought equally large. After the Code was enforced she went to being a victim of her circumstances, downtrodden, careworn and thoroughly disreputable.
Saturday, January 20, 2018
TCM TiVo ALERT
January 23–January 31
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
ALL THE KING'S MEN (January 24, 12:30 am): This is the best political film ever made and one of the 10 greatest movies of all-time. I could watch this 1949 classic over and over again – and have. Broderick Crawford is brilliant as Willie Stark, a do-gooder who fails as a politician until he learns to work the system, gets dirt on friends and foes, and becomes a beloved populist governor. There are other incredible performances, particularly John Ireland as Jack Burden, a journalist who "discovers" Stark and helps him climb the political ladder, stepping over anyone in the way; and Raymond Greenleaf as Judge Monte Stanton, Burden's mentor and role model. If you love politics, this is the best movie on the subject ever made. If you hate politics, you'll love this film as it gives you plenty of reasons to confirm your belief on the subject.
LIBELED LADY (January 27, 12:00 pm): First, a few words about the cast. You can't possibly make a bad movie with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow (the latter had top billing). The chemistry between all four in this 1936 screwball comedy is among the best you'll find in any movie. While Walter Connolly is fine as Loy's father, the legendary Lionel Barrymore was originally cast in the role. If that had come to pass, this would rival Key Largo as the greatest ensemble-cast film ever made. There are so many wonderful and genuinely funny scenes in this film with these four great comedic actors. Powell and Harlow were married at the time, but it was decided that Powell and Loy, one of cinema's greatest on-screen couples, would fall in love though Harlow got to do a wedding scene with Powell. Harlow died of renal failure the year after this film was released. She was only 26. The plot is wonderful with socialite Loy suing a newspaper for $500,000 for falsely reporting she broke up a marriage. Tracy is the paper's managing editor and Harlow is his fiancée who he won't marry. Tracy hires Powell, a slick newspaperman who is a smooth operator when it comes to women, to seduce Loy and then purposely get caught in a compromising position by Harlow, who would pretend to be his wife. Things don't turn out as planned with Loy and Powell falling in love. It's a great movie with a fantastic cast and a joy to watch.
ED’S BEST BETS:
EARLY SUMMER (Jan, 23, 5:15 am): Yasujiro Ozu was a director of extraordinary technical and emotional range. Give him two actors such as the beautiful Setsuko Hara and the superb Chishu Ryu to works with and the result is yet another Ozu masterpiece. His best films are subtle examinations of the clashes that take place in postwar Japanese families as traditional values are being replaced by modern ones. The Mamiya family, which consists of three generations who have lived together in Tokyo for the last 16 years, has it hard times. Father Shukichi (Ichirô Sugai) and mother Shige (Chieko Higashiyama) want to keep the family together. To this end they have delayed their retirement to their birthplace in Yamato and continue to live with Shukichi's brother until their 28-year-old independent-minded daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is married. Noriko’s older brother, Koichi (Chishu Ryu), is a doctor in the hospital. He and his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) have two young spoiled boys. Minoru, the older one (Zen Murase), has temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. His younger brother, Isamu (Isao Shirosawa), is a mischief maker. In order that the family may retire Noriko must marry, but the problem is that she is in ho hurry to do so. The crux of the film is how Noriko handles her family’s pressure. The thread running through the film is one that those familiar with the director’s work will easily recognize: the changing family attitudes in bustling postwar Japan driven by a strong Western influences that are speeding up this inevitable change, giving women the freedom and power to choose their own husbands in a society that its becoming more and more consumer driven. In lesser hands this might turn out to be a turgid piece of melodrama, but Ozu’s deft use of a comic approach gets his points across without making the proceedings too heavy. This is a film that will touch the heartstrings of all who watch without making us grab for the Kleenex.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Jan. 24, 11:00 pm): Ernst Lubitsch was best known for what was called “the Lubitsch touch,” a style of sophisticated comedy unmatched by anyone else. And this film represents Lubitsch at his best. Jewel thieves Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins fall in love in one of the most riotous scenes of one-upmanship in the movies, but now find their newly minted relationship threatened when Herbert turns on the charm to their newest victim, rich Paris widow Kay Francis. Their mastery of their characters is helped along with a witty script full of sparkling dialogue, clever plotting, great sexual gamesmanship, and brilliant visuals. Critic Dwight MacDonald described the film “as close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies.” All I can say is to watch for yourselves.
WE DISAGREE ON ... ON THE TOWN (January 30, 11:45 pm)
ED: A-. Produced in the Golden Age of MGM musicals, On the Town is a delight for the eyes and the ears. This musical about three sailors in New York City on 24-hours shore leave, marks an important departure in the history of the movie musical. Prior musicals were studio bound, never leaving the soundstage. Director Gene Kelly, who earlier managed to shoot a Brooklyn Bridge sequence in 1947’s It Happened in Brooklyn, wanted to shoot this film on location. However, the studio allowed him only a week of shooting, hence the breakneck pace of the movie, which often used hidden cameras for the crowd scenes. The other innovation Kelly made was to emphasize dancing over the singing. Hitherto, musicals were dominated by song, but On the Town is noted for its dancing, including the use of dance to advance the plot. From this point forward, dance became the driving factor in MGM musicals. Not that music was forgone entirely: though the songs “New York, New York” and “Come Up to My Place” were the only songs kept from Leonard Bernstein’s original score for the Broadway musical, MGM employed Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write new lyrics for some of the original songs, and Roger Edens wrote six new songs for the movie. All of this innovation and styling would have been for naught if the movie turned out to be a dud. Not to worry - On the Town is one of the best musicals in the history of Hollywood. The dance numbers meld perfectly into the plot and enhance the musical numbers. Having Frank Sinatra to warble five of the songs didn’t hurt, either. Were I to teach a course on the history of the Hollywood musical, this film would not only be featured on the syllabus, but would be lionized for the breakthrough film it was.
DAVID: C. As you can read from Ed's review, many cinephiles, particularly fans of song-and-dance films, love On the Town. It has a certain charm to it, but is vastly overrated and too over-the-top for me to consider it a classic. I consider it nothing more than an average movie with a few good moments. There's too much of an "aww, shucks, golly, gee whiz" feel to the film that it become a corny, very dated musical with dancing thrown in for good measure like Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. There's a couple of problems with the song-and-dance focus – Gene Kelly wasn't much of a singer as he was more of a melodic talker, and Frank Sinatra was certainly no dancer. The plot is so predictable that the viewer knows right away that when the three sailors meet the three women with whom they fall in love that each is a fait accompli. The songs aren't good or memorable. The dancing by Kelly, Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller can be entertaining, but it's not enough to make me want to watch the movie again. The sailors are on 24-hour leave and looking for love. You would think that would make the film fast paced, and it is at times, and yet there are portions of it that drag like an anchor is tied to the movie.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.