Friday, January 26, 2018

The Bat Whispers

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Bat Whispers (UA, 1930) – Director: Roland West. Writers: Mary Roberts Rinehart & Avery Hopwood (play); Roland West (adaptation). Stars: Chester Morris, Una Merkel, Grayce Hampton, Maude Eburne, Spencer Charters, Gustav von Seyffertitz, William Bakewell, Chance Ward, Richard Tucker, Wilson Benge, DeWitt Jennings, Sidney D’Albrook, S.E. Jennings, Hugh Huntley, & Charles Dow Clark. B&W, 83 minutes.

One of the novelties of 1920s Broadway was the Old Dark House thriller. These productions combined mystery and horror with a slice of comedy to relieve the tension. The most successful of these plays were The MonsterThe Cat and the CanaryThe Gorilla, and The Bat. Decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with criminals and mad scientists terrorizing hapless victims, they played to sellout crowds and delivered more then their share of thrills. All would be purchased by Hollywood and made into films.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment