Movie Review – The Bat (1926)
In 1908 Mary Roberts Rinehart published her first best-seller mystery novel, The Circular Staircase. Though the story was adapted to film in 1915, Rinehart found new life in the tale by teaming up with playwright Avery Hopwood to create a stage version of the tale, setting the events all in one night and adding the role of an enigmatic criminal mastermind. The play hit Broadway in 1920 and became a smash sensation. In 1926 Roland West filmed his first screen adaptation of the mystery-thriller play, now called simply The Bat. (West would remake the film as a talkie in 1930 as The Bat Whispers, inadvertently providing inspiration for Bob Kane in his creation of Batman.) The year prior, based on his adoration for Rinehart’s play, West had adapted another horror play to the screen, The Monster, which had starred Lon Chaney.
The story is an “Old Dark House” whodunit, entirely familiar to contemporary audiences. The opening intertitle reads, “Can you keep a secret? Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat.’ Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” Kendall R. Phillips locates the appetite for such on-screen puzzles as resulting from recent paranoia regarding political instigators. He writes: “In the years following World War I, Americans were particularly attuned to pursuing mysterious figures lurking within their midst” for “anxieties over the infiltration of Bolsheviks and anarchists into various segments of American society – especially labor unions and nascent African American civil rights groups – had become part of the national discourse.”
In the story Miss Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy), a writer, rents a mansion where many believe a large sum of cash has been hidden. Among the people searching for the fortune is a killer known only as the Bat, and he could be any one of the estate’s present occupants. Unlike in the stage version, in which the criminal wore only a black handkerchief to conceal his identity, this villain wears a fanged bat mask which, as Steve Haberman notes, results in “edging this offering closer to a horror film.”
The script is fast-paced and clever, with witty one-liners, especially from Van Gorder, who despite being seemingly fixated on knitting is always one step ahead of everyone else. The acting is uniformly solid and the characters properly distinct. Louise Fazenda puts in an over-the-top but entertaining performance as the jittery maid. By the time she retired from Hollywood in 1939 she had nearly 300 film appearances to her name.
West chose to shoot the entire film at night, which was no small feat at the time, and the cinematography that results is exceptional. The lighting cuts through the darkness but never overpowers it. The sets show Expressionist influence with huge empty spaces and towering doors. The actors look ant-like as they scurry through the geometric architecture.
There are few moments which date the film, but the most obvious one is the treatment of the Japanese butler. He is addressed with racist contempt and, though played by an actual Japanese actor named Sōjin Kamiyama, the filmmakers still took the extra step in giving him sinister though ridiculous-looking makeup to make him appear even more exotically “Other”. Regardless of this the film can still be enjoyed and most definitely should be.
The Bat would be the last film appearance of Jewel Carmen, who plays Miss Dale Ogden. Carmen was Roland West’s wife at the time, and they both would be implicated by conspiracy theorists in the 1935 death of actress Thelma Todd, with whom West had been having a long affair. Todd was found dead in a garage attached to the home of Carmen’s parents, authorities naming carbon monoxide as the accidental slayer. Nevertheless, Carmen never again entered the limelight.
Jack Pickford, the brother of Mary Pickford, plays Brooks Bailey, an innocent bank clerk accused of robbery. After being abandoned by their father the Pickford siblings entered Hollywood in order to support themselves. Mary, of course, went on to super-stardom and was co-founder of United Artists and one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though she supported her brother, Jack never reached the level of his sister, relegated to playing the boy-next-door in B-movies, partly because his life was repeatedly racked by scandals. He suffered from syphilis and alcoholism and died at the age of 36 in 1933.
The Bat has certainly lost its ability to scare viewers, but it undoubtedly had an effect on contemporary audiences. The New York Daily News even wrote that film-goers would “be tempted to clutch the fellow in the next seat and scream.” Most of all, critics appeared to appreciate the injection of humor as a means to relieve the tension of the experience. The combination was a winning one. Roland West described his own picture as offering “the three key ingredients which spell the best entertainment in the world – thrills, laughs and a touch of romance.” True to his word, the film remains steadfastly entertaining and technically impressive.
Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Press, 2003).
Phillips, Kendall R. A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018).