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Monday, September 30, 2019

When It Flies, Someone Dies

The Bat That Kept Coming Back

Remember the scene in Grand Hotel where Beery clocks John Barrymore with the telephone and kills him? There was sad mirror in the life-death of itinerant actor Rodney Ranous, who traveled with a touring company of The Bat, what critics called a “fright wig” melodrama even as they praised its capacity to chill. Ranous’ character was struck nightly with a rubber phone, his co-player not always pulling the blow. Much repeat of this ended with permanent disability for Ranous, whose actress wife ended up supporting the family with what parts she could manage. There’s a dark side to career acting, the price high even where there would be no fame. The Bat was hugely successful from 1920 bow on Broadway, ranking all-time #2 for attendance through most of that decade (#1 was Lightnin'). The Bat could be taken as scary-funny of funny-scary, depending on mood or delicacy of the viewer. It led off a series of old house mysteries like The Gorilla and The Cat and the Canary, the movies taking charge of these properties after legit wearied of them. The Bat for being Daddy of the bunch flew longer and highest, far flung high-schoolers likely as not to see it dramatized by peers. There was a 1926 movie from singular director Roland West, who it was said had money enough not to crawl for credits, but enjoyed chance the work gave him to put over offbeat visuals, which he did to startling effect for versions of The Bat both silent and talking.

The Bat comes off complicated, or maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention. Three tellings (1926, 1930, 1959) won’t yield full comprehension, but we are there for atmospherics, not mouse maze of narrative. The Bat has less repute among horror hounds because for years it was presumed lost, that a fact until UCLA turned up a print, minus the first reel, but they persisted, and by gift of fate, found it. I saw a bootleg off their effort, no way to experience The Bat, but till someone books it nearby or sends me a plane ticket, it will have to do. Evaluating any movie based on a dub is unfair. Better but somewhat is home experience with 1930’s The Bat Whispers, a first sound treatment and also helmed by inscrutable West. This may be the only 65mm feature from that odd epoch where elements still exist. UCLA is also custodian of these, and I believe Milestone owns rights. They released a DVD in yawning days of the format, before even anamorphic mastering was a given. I zoomed that image to fill my wide TV and got hint of The Bat Whispers at full punch, but again, won’t judge the show until maybe, hopefully, a Blu-ray comes along. Imagine such a thing direct from the 65mm source … a fresh horror classic could be born. West does his dynamic opener as in the silent version, only more so, and I’ve a feeling this old house is one you could step into given a truly wide format and clarity no film of the period could approach. Now that we have most thrillers exhumed (at least those that exist), how’s for fresh go at this one?

Roland West did one feature after The Bat Whispers and then quit. He ran a restaurant and lived above diners, sort of a pre-Bogart Rick Blaine. West also kept Thelma Todd in room and furs, but she ran him ragged with loose living and other men. West, nearing fifty, preferred staying home nights, but kept alert for when Thelma dragged in with the sun. It was an arrangement that couldn’t last to anyone’s benefit, though few figured a finish with Todd dead in the garage and West claiming no notion of how she asphyxiated there. Cops grilled him and it is understood that he confessed, but the industry didn’t need one of its high-profile own tried for murder, and so justice went blind and West was left to the verdict of his conscience. This foregoing is the account I believe, though there are others, including Todd being offed by gangland. The story, or speculation, of how she got in, then stayed in, the doomed carport, is one I’ll cede to books and websites that have gone the investigative distance.

The Bat had Broadway revivals in 1937 and 1953. There was sentiment for the property, even if it long since stopped scaring anyone. Old-timers remembered The Bat for nightmares induced. Vincent Price said in the late 80’s: “ … when I was a little kid, I had seen The Bat on the stage and it frightened me to death.” That experience may have predisposed him to take part in a 1959 remake generated by “veterans” Sam Dembow, Jr. (industry involved since 1913) and C.J. Teplin (active from 1917), their Liberty Pictures an indie firm started for purpose of updating The Bat for a new generation of chill-seekers. Allied Artists, having hit a million in domestic rentals with House On Haunted Hill in earlier ’59, agreed to distribute. Dembow and Teplin probably shook to live renditions of The Bat during the 20’s and figured the yarn would fly again. They got financing from kindred spirit Leonard Goldenson (born 1905) who ran the American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatre chain, latter having produced a few genre pics a year before without notable success. With a powerful circuit back of The Bat, chances were good they’d break even at least, so long as costs were held. Tevlin said this was a “shoo-in” thanks to the film being done “under budget and ahead of schedule” (Motion Picture Daily, 7-7-59).

Selling Maestro Terry Turner In Charge of The Bat's Campaign
Dembow pledged two more “modernized versions of stage classics of the same popular scale as The Bat.” As if to grow their beard longer, Tevlin and Dembow hired Crane Wilbur (born 1886) to direct and write, him active since nickelodeon shorts and The Perils of Pauline, where he played hero to Pearl White. Did someone mention updating? The Bat departed from stage origin by making narrative, if anything, less coherent. Vincent Price was aboard before realizing “it wasn’t a good script,” this part of recollection he shared in a marvelous career overview for Cinefantastique in 1989 (Volume 19-Issues 1-2), “It’s a wonderful story, but it doesn’t really hold up. I thought they would revive it and bring it up to date …” The Bat was pallid follow-up to the hit from Haunted Hill that Price enjoyed months before, but as with that one, he duly hosted a trailer almost identical in format and pitch, then incorporated interviews and publicity into a forty day lecture tour he planned for fall ’59. Imagine being an actor, who like Price, felt obligation to give fans a best value for their admission, and here you are having to peddle merchandise you know is poor. Not that this was his first experience along such lines, but Price had to feel lousy being pitchman for a cheat like The Bat after pleasing all and sundry so recently.

Vincent Price Pitches In for The Bat's Theatrical Trailer

At Left Darla Hood About To Be Done In By The Bat

Helpful to us is The Bat being available on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective, a nice transfer and on original widescreen. The movie isn’t half-bad, if you go in knowing it’s bad, which is to say while it is bad, it isn’t half so bad as you expect. There is a good cast with Price: Agnes Moorehead, John Sutton, Gavin Gordon, and pleasingly, Darla Hood, who shocks us by being among Bat victims. Moorehead is especially good; I noticed this time what a pretty smile she had, and how glum she looked when she wasn’t smiling, a characteristic I’d guess she had to take into account whenever on stage or screen. I remember Victor Mature saying once in an interview how he had to enter parties with a big grin lest people think he was in a sour mood. It was an aspect of his natural expression that he couldn’t do much about, other than work to prevent its misleading people. The Bat by the way has a jazz theme by Alvino Rey and His Orchestra that is catchy. You can hear it on You Tube. The Bat is all over the place there as well, being PD.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

10:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

High quality here: .

Another great post. Thanks.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I seem to remember reading that Roland West had Chester Morris stare directly into a bright light several times during "The Bat". Morris wound up not only having to retreat to a dark room for a month, but had eye problems for the rest of his life. Today's stars have no idea how easy they have it.

And as for that theme for the remake, it sounds like Alvino Rey either knew it was bad or thought it was a parody.

1:50 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Some years ago I had a PD disc of the silent version, a blurry print cursed with a tedious and largely inappropriate "original score". Just now found that same version on YouTube.

The opening reel or two is a pretty obvious inspiration for Batman. Bob Kane and/or Bill Finger would have been old enough to see it. Once the action goes indoors I remember it as being more a mystery puzzle than a thriller -- was the costumed Bat guy invented for the film or does that figure in the play?

3:18 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I adore the Morris version -- except for Maude Eburne, whose incessant screaming grates on the nerves.

I loathe the Price version, which (for me) doesn't work either as a thriller or a spoof. It's chockful of good actors given nothing to do.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

There's also a 1960 TV version with Helen Hayes and Jason Robards.

1:06 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

The dvd edition of "The Bat Whispers" uses the same tape master as the 1990s era laserdisc release of the title - I had both and it was easy to spot. It's a title that really deserves a remastering on blu-ray.

So far, the only title on blu-ray from the brief widescreen experiments of that period is "The Big Trail" and the widescreen format really makes that film more compelling.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Had managed to never see either the '26 or '30 versions (and, for that matter, don't think I ever made it to the end of the '59 re-think) so I took the opportunity this weekend to catch up thanks to Reg Hartt's and DBenson's tips on where to find on Youtube. Great stuff! Love those miniature/live action match-ups. And, yeah, you could chart the plot out on a white board and I still couldn't follow it.

9:17 AM  

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