The citizens are terrified! The police are baffled! A costumed criminal known as The Bat has been stalking the city, stealing and murdering with impunity. And a now missing suitcase of money is said to be hidden in an isolated manor house. Do I even need to add that it is a dark and stormy night? This looks like a job for… Jack Pickford?
Batman 1.0… ish.
The Old Dark House genre has been dead for a while but I do wish it would come back. Horror tropes, meta humor, a few genuine thrills (but not too much!) and a creaking mansion proved the be a potent combination in the silents and early talkies. There was a brief revival of the genre in the 1970s and 1980s, with everyone from Don Knotts and Tim Conway to Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner trying their hand at old houses on a dark and stormy night. The internet is still laughing along with the 1985 cult classic Clue.
For the perfect classic talkie example of this genre, do check out James Whale’s very appropriately titled The Old Dark House. It really doesn’t get any better. But what about the origin story? How did these films come to be? For the answer to that, we will need to talk about Roland West.
West is most often brought up today as a possible culprit in the suspicious 1935 death of Thelma Todd. However, in the twenties, he was considered a top director who could fill a theater. The Bat is the movie that made that reputation and it is also considered the prototype for Old Dark House movies.
Of course, horror comedies were not invented by West. After all, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had both wrestled with haunted houses years before the release of The Bat and George M. Cohan had filmed his own comedy chiller in 1917. What West did was bring in the atmospheric shadows and sets of the stylish German cinema and combine them with the chills and humor. I should note that West claimed sole credit for these German touches, declaring that he was making this sort of thing before Ufa ever existed. I find that less than believable, to say the least.
West had been trying to obtain the rights to the stage smash The Bat and while he was waiting, he made The Monster with Lon Chaney. It’s a deeply flawed horror comedy but I have a sneaking fondness for it. It also displays very little of the German technique, though it does have an appropriately dark and stormy atmosphere.
With the rights to The Bat finally secured, West set to work topping himself. The result was a massive hit and a film (or, rather, its West-directed remake) that would influence other creators for decades.
So, is The Bat any good as entertainment or is it a film that is valuable for historical purposes only? That’s what we’re here to find out.
The movie starts with a bang. A criminal mastermind known only as The Bat has sent a letter to a millionaire warning him that he means to steal the Favre emeralds. (No! Not the Favre emeralds!) Our millionaire lays a trap for The Bat but is himself trapped and strangled by the masked villain, who makes off with the emeralds. Flying over the city (as one does) The Bat lands atop a bank roof and witnesses someone absconding with large amounts of money. Hmm.
The scene changes to a dark and stormy night (but of course!) and we are introduced to some new characters. Miss Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy, probably best known as Lillian Gish’s gabby landlady in Way Down East) has rented a mansion from Courtleigh Fleming, a bank executive who subsequently died in a freak accident.
Miss Cornelia shares the mansion with her maid, Lizzie (Louise Fazenda) and Billy (Sojin), who was Fleming’s butler. And if you are worried that the movie features insulting Asian stereotypes aimed at Sojin, let me assure you that you are absolutely right. Hoo boy. It’s going to be one of those movies, isn’t it?
The Bat arrives at the mansion in full regalia (including the most adorable ears you ever did see!) and lurks about. There is also another unknown person skulking in the old dark house. Miss Cornelia is fearless and is not afraid to go investigating, pistol in hand. Lizzie is a complete ‘fraidy cat and does her part by setting up bear traps outside her bedroom window.
It seems that the very bank that The Bat spied on, the very bank with a dead executive, has been robbed. A considerable sum is missing and it looks like an inside job. The prime suspect is Brooks Baily (Jack Pickford), a nebbishy teller who also happens to be engaged to Miss Cornelia’s niece, Dale (Jewel Carmen). Dale sneaks Brooks into the mansion to try to find evidence to clear his name. Miss Cornelia catches on immediately but doesn’t say a word. She wants to see how all this plays out.
At this point, characters are introduced fast and furious. Buckle your seatbelts and try to keep up:
Detective Moletti (Tulio Carminati) is a policeman investigating the bank robbery.
Dr. Wells (Robert McKim, Douglas Fairbanks’ nemesis in The Mark of Zorro) is the local physician but he is also mysteriously unlocking windows.
Detective Anderson (Eddie Gribbon) is a bumbling private detective hired by Miss Cornelia. She doesn’t know what she was thinking.
Richard Fleming (Arthur Housman) is the nephew of the dead bank executive and he wants to get his hands on the loot.
Random blood-stained guy (Lee Shumway) staggers into the mansion and no one knows who he is or where he came from.
Random other lurking guy (Charles Herzinger) who lurks and such.
As you can see, The Bat suffers from cast bloat. There are so many people running around that it is difficult to keep track of who’s who. This was probably the idea in order to hide the identity of The Bat but it’s just sloppy writing.
In fact, I would say that the huge cast is the single biggest flaw of the film. As Miss Cornelia, Emily Fitzroy walks off with the picture. Louise Fazenda’s antics are as amusing as can be and reliable baddie Robert McKim skulks very well. Tulio Carminati makes a good impression as the determined detective and Arthur Housman is suitably smarmy. We actually could have just made a movie with them and eliminated everyone else.
Miss Cornelia is one of the feistiest and cleverest heroines of the silent era. I am always in favor of a mature woman playing the hero and so Cornelia’s sharp brain, wry wit and handiness with a pistol are definite pluses. While the rest of the cast is panicking and plotting, she looks up with a raised eyebrow, coldly assesses the situation and takes action. I won’t reveal all but her calm, decisive manner saves the day at the end of the film.
Jewel Carmen is a generic heroine (pretty, screams a lot) and Jack Pickford is as meh as ever. By 1926, Pickford’s career was entering its death throes. He would only make three more films before leaving motion pictures forever in 1928. I know there’s a trend right now to reevaluate his career but I honestly have not found much to recommend him either personally or professionally, especially in his later career. His boyishness had faded and a good deal of his charm along with it. And by 1926, performers like Billy Haines and Richard Barthelmess were regularly winning over audiences with their boyishness. Tough competition, eh?
Arthur Housman, though… Now you’re talking! Modern viewers probably recognize him from his many, many, many (MANY!) drunk roles in the talkies, often opposite Laurel and Hardy. In the silents, he did a smashing job of playing posh fellas with consciences that existed more in theory than in practice. While his role in The Bat is brief, he is memorable as one of many schemers trying to get their hands on the hidden money.
If the bloated cast is the films biggest flaw, its greatest strength is its stylish opening scenes and a few memorable visuals later on in the story. Roland West took the lessons of the Germans to heart and built moody, shadowy sets and costumes. (The fact that these elements were not present in The Monster is very strong evidence that West was full of baloney in claiming credit.)
The opening stinger with the emeralds has all the elements that would have made the film unforgettable if they had extended to subsequent scenes.
Similarly, the early scenes in the mansion show real promise. Secret tunnels, stalking through basements, silhouettes in the windows… The only scene later in the film that matches it is the famous “bat signal” scene, in which the shadow of a bat sweeps across a darkened room. (Oh, and in case you were wondering, the inspiration for Batman was actually this film’s talkie remake, also directed by West.)
The problem is that these scenes are few and far between once the movie actually gets going. Much of the film’s time is spent spinning its wheels on characters that we don’t care about and can barely remember. The pace is deadly dull at points and only really picks up again at the climax. Emily Fitzroy and a few others manage to save some of the scenes but there is only so much they can do.
It seems that director Roland West had a few great ideas for the film and lost interest in everything else. Like, you know, pacing and stuff.
West is not on my good side. After sound had arrived in Hollywood, he declared that the era of the “dummy” was over and that silent stars were too stupid and lacking in personality to make it in the talkies. Stage talent was needed! (May I harm him, oh please, oh please?) I would retort that West is discussing something he knows nothing about. Sets, special effects, dark and stormy night? He could handle those. Silent actors? Well… I think I have already explained that the performances in The Bat are all over the place.
In the end, The Bat is a frustrating blend of brilliant design and a mundane script. West borrowed good stuff from the Germans but he didn’t seem to understand how to follow through with it. It’s worth seeing for its historical importance and to enjoy the antics of Emily Fitzroy, Louise Fazenda and Arthur Housman. So, a tepid recommendation from me.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
There are no high quality versions of The Bat available at the present. The Alpha release is not too bad and, as usual, is extremely cheap. There is also a version available from Sinister Cinema but I have not viewed it.