On the Perennial Visits of “The Bat”

One game I love to play is what I call “vertical analysis” — essentially tracing some narrative property through its various media iterations, e.g., book, stage-play, silent movie, radio play, studio-era talkie, recent re-make. (Vertical analysis is a really boring name; that’s okay, I don’t really call it that anyway). It usually happens accidentally. You bump into one version, then another, until you eventually find the need to tie them all together. This happened over the last few months with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.

The phenomenon of The Bat went on for forty years (and in some important ways which we’ll get to, continues). The wellspring was the smash hit 1920 Broadway play, co-written with Avery Hopwood, which ran for two years. The vehicle is often described as a play of the “old dark house” variety, which only obtains if you are talking about an actual old dark house and not the James Whale film, which is in fact a film in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition and not the other way around. Rinehart was primarily a novelist, often paired in discussion with Agatha Christie. The plot of The Bat is somewhat based on her 1907 novel The Circular Staircase, with the addition of several wonderful elements.

Chiefly, it is extraordinarily fun. It is a machine for delivering theatrical pleasure. It is as much a comedy as it is a mystery, and then it has an overlay of horror with early scenes intimating the existence of ghosts, and characters consulting a Ouija board. The whole thing happens at night, in a large rented mansion (with secret rooms and passageways), with servants, a police inspector, and suspects — lots of suspects. And the lights keep going off. And the culprit is a mysterious criminal who has been eluding police for months and calls himself The Bat. The plot, with all its twists and turns, is beyond convoluted. The only logic that drives it is theatrical effect. It is ripping good fun, although dated and sufficiently influential that a lot of its innovations now play like cliche. It is just the right stuff for community theatre and school productions, which is primarily where it continues to be revived.

In 1926, it was made into a silent film by the director Roland West. West, although not prolific, deserves to be far better known nowadays. (His main claim to fame today is an unfortunate one. We’ll get to that in a minute.) West is a stunning visual stylist, and he brought to the first cinematic version of The Bat elements that would forever redefine it. Essentially, he brought out the horror element. Images of full moons, flying bats, and the Gothic manor stay in the mind, as does (especially) the costumed figure of the Bat, which would prove to be influential in a manner we shall reveal shortly.

Also in 1926, this novelization arrived. We are beginning to get incestuous. As we have seen the play was already based on The Circular Staircase. To capitalize on the play and film, a new book was produced called The Bat. In one article I read the author claims that this novelization was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, but I find that frankly hard to credit. Benet was a brilliant poet. The Bat novel is hackwork. I’ve not read Rinehart’s other novels, so I can’t speak to whether it’s all hackwork, but this book struck me as junk. It also makes the mistake of removing the “unity of time and space” that makes the play and film effective. Events are made to play out over many days, often in daylight, making it more of a cop story, and, while retaining the plot points, diffusing their interest.

Brief digression: of the many copycats that The Bat spawned, the most notable might be The Gorilla, in which a criminal dressed as a gorilla terrorizes a bunch of people in an old dark house. (There is a reason real criminals don’t do such things in real life. What a ridiculous waste of time and effort!) The first movie version came out in 1927, with remakes in 1930 and 1939. (The latter version is the only one I’ve seen. It features Bela Lugosi, the Ritz Brothers and Patsy Kelly, and now makes a good deal more sense now that I’ve seen The Bat).

In 1930, West remade The Bat as a talkie called The Bat Whispers. I think this is the best of any of the versions, mixing West’s stunning visual elements with the entertaining dialogue from the play. Certain aspects of the film are a knock out.

But people don’t remember West today and there’s a very good reason. His career ended suddenly in 1935, and for reasons that seem like something from one of his own movies. West’s mistress and business partner was Thelma Todd, known to comedy fans from her films with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy , Charley Chase and many others. Many people speculated that Todd’s death from carbon monoxide poisoning was a murder (there were signs of a roughing-up) and the prime suspect was West. It is rumored that he confessed on his deathbed to his friend Chester Morris (who starred in The Bat Whispers), and the fact that he does retire shortly after the event does seem peculiar.

In 1939, The Bat exerted an influence that would cast its longest shadow. This is when Bob Kane and Bill Finger smashed together visual elements from West’s film (chiefly the Bat’s costume and the bat signal) with The Shadow to create Batman. As fans know, in the early days the Caped Crusader was referred to as “The Batman”, not just “Batman”. Here’s why. Of course, in Batman the relationship is flipped. The costumed character is no longer the villain, but a vigilante hero, but the look and the concept, in case it isn’t completely obvious, is lifted whole cloth from The Bat. (The bat signal above is from The Bat not one of the early Batman iterations)

NOW. I find it inconceivable that there isn’t at least one radio adaptation of The Bat (probably several) but I haven’t turned up any evidence yet. (There is as yet no radio-drama equivalent to IBDB and IMDB, although there ought to be). We know The Bat lends itself to the audio form, because in 1933 a record album of someone narrating the novel version was released, making it one of the very first “books on tape”. There were also several television adaptations, including one in 1953 and one in 1960. The play was revived twice on Broadway, in 1937 and 1953, both times unsuccessfully.

The last major iteration of The Bat came in the form of a 1959 film starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. You might think this would be a recipe for magic, but unfortunately not. It is the same year as The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill, and there is a similar William Castle flavor to the low-budget, late black and white proceedings. (Moorhead flubs her lines at several points and it stays in the film). But this version seems much more based on the novel than the play or previous films. It lacks all atmospherics…the requisite dark shadows. It’s worth watching once if you are curious, but expect to be bored.

And then-?

Well, that’s it. Aside from amateur productions, no one seems to have seen fit to revive this old warhorse in 52 years, after it had enjoyed several decades of almost constant popularity. Certainly later movies like Murder by Death and Clue have maintained the tradition. But ultimately I think the true culprit has been Batman, who has supplanted the Bat’s image, taken it over. In essence, the old arch criminal has been rehabilitated.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks much for drawing my attention to the relationship between The Gorilla and The Bat!

    The Circular Staircase was made into a movie in 1915, and into an episode of Climax! in 1956. I’d like to see the 1915 movie, as it might be the first old dark house movie.

    A few months before The Bat, Universal rushed-out a knock-off, Midnight Faces (1926). It’s a poor movie, and actively offensive in its use of a black character; but it still has some significance in cinematic history.

    My own view of The Bat (1926) is that the actors move around rather like the plastic figurines on the vibrating surface of one of the old football toys that used to be sold by mail.

    For a while after Jerry Robinson began working as a ghost-artist on the Batman, the visuals resembled those of the ’26 movie. I have encountered some odd controversy about whether the Bat-Signal were copied from The Bat, but the costume and use of lines to scale the sides of buildings plainly were.

    The Batman was originally called “The Bat-Man”. Those who get the character still use the definite article.

    Like

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