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20th Anniversary of Milestone Films
Remind Me
,The Bat Whispers

The Bat Whispers

In his time, Roland West was one of the most ambitious visual stylists working in Hollywood. Always seeking to break the barriers of convention (being deeply influenced by German Expressionism), he sent the camera floating, falling, and rolling through space via an eclectic mixture of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned special effects.

West's most visually adventurous film is The Bat Whispers (1930), a remake of his own 1926 old dark house thriller The Bat. This new Bat was updated with the recent technology of sound and the absolutely new technology of Magnifilm -- an experimental 65mm widescreen process (23 years before the invention of Cinemascope). Only a handful of films were made in this non-anamorphic widescreen process (also known as Grandeur), including Happy Days (1929), Danger Lights (1930), and The Big Trail (1930).

Based on a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, The Bat Whispers opens as a notorious figure identifying himself as the Bat carries out a fantastic jewel heist in a building surrounded by the police. Immediately after, the Oakdale Bank is burglarized by a shadowy, batlike creature. In a spooky estate in the countryside, not far from Dr. Groom's Sanitarium, a wealthy dowager (Grayce Hampton) discusses the Bat's crimes with her skittish maid (Maude Eburne). Gradually, the plot thickens, as new characters appear on the filmic stage, each bringing with them their own secrets and motives for being involved in the crimes: the dowager's fortune-hunting niece (Una Merkel), her fiancé, an employee of the bank (William Bakewell), a tough-talking detective (Chester Morris), the owner of the property (Hugh Huntley), and a small-town sleuth (Charles Dow Clark). Once the players have been properly introduced, the genre conventions of the old dark house are unleashed: shadows cross the walls, voices whisper behind paintings, shots in the dark are fired, lightning strikes, and hands reach out from the walls.

Detailing the intricacies of the plot would make for a very confusing read and would certainly lessen the entertainment value of the film itself. Suffice it to say that not until every opportunity to thrill is exploited and every bit of comic relief is milked is the Bat unmasked and the merry-go-round of mystery allowed to come to a halt.

The filmmakers hoped viewers would likewise preserve the secrets of the plot, and explicitly asked them to do so in a whimsical curtain speech delivered by Morris at the end of the film.

So intent was West in protecting the film's secret denouement that he withheld the resolution from certain copies of the screenplay. And just in case some moviegoers of the day had long memories, he altered the identity of the culprit from that of the four-year-old silent version of the film. When the project was announced in January 1930, it appeared under the intentionally misleading title Love in Chicago. When it went before the cameras in the summer, it did so under the title Whispers.

West gained a reputation for being mysterious as a result of his preference for shooting only at night, typically from 6 p.m. until 4 a.m. But this was due less to any vampiric tendencies than the director's fear of studio interference. "He didn't want anybody else, anybody connected with the office, coming in and telling him what to do or watching," Una Merkel recalled, "He just didn't want to be bothered with anybody. When he worked at night, there was nobody but him and the company. We all ate together at midnight, everybody at the same table" (quoted in Scott MacQueen's essay on West in the book Between Action and Cut).

Buoyed by the excitement of working in an innovative format, West's crew pulled out all the technological stops, reportedly inventing new lighting equipment, a new style of viewfinder, constructing a dolly-mounted camera crane, and building a 300-foot track in which the camera was suspended by cables from overhead scaffolding. Elaborate miniatures, allowing the camera to swoop through space, were designed by Ned Mann and photographed by Edward Colman and Harry Zech. More than 100 sets were said to have been constructed. The pressbook boasted, "There were cameras on wheels, on elevator rigs, on catapults, cables, rails, trucks, and perambulators. One of the cameras rode a huge tricycle, electrically controlled...designed by Robert Planck."

Because of the increased surface area of the film, the 65mm camera required much more light than a 35mm camera. This required additional lighting hardware and subjected the actors to more rigorous working conditions. Merkel claims to have lost twenty pounds from the heat of the lamps, and Morris suffered a temporary bout of "klieg eyes."

In a press release on the Magnifilm process, West proclaimed that the larger picture palaces being built, "require larger screens because we have reached the last magnitude of the old 35mm film. If theaters enlarge the narrow film it loses its sharpness. The new 65mm film on a huge screen gives full detail. It also enhances the stereoscopic effect so that there is no distortion of the players to patrons sitting at the extreme side of a theater."

Very few cinemas were capable of projecting Magnifilm or Grandeur, so 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 65mm widescreen process, in this original incarnation, was short-lived. Many in the industry believed it would cause financial instability to encourage theaters that had just been wired for sound to now upgrade their projectors and screen size -- in the midst of the Great Depression, no less. To postpone the rise of such expensive new gadgetry, the Hays Office issued a ruling forbidding studios to, "permit the public's curiosity to be aroused about any new invention for at least two years." This effectively killed Magnifilm.

Hollywood returned to widescreen in the mid-1950s, when it needed a larger-than-life method of competing with television (Cinerama, Cinemascope). One widescreen process, Todd-AO, was virtually identical to Magnifilm/Grandeur, in that it was shot on 65mm film. The main difference is the projection prints were 70mm, the additional 5mm of celluloid being devoted to the multi-channel soundtrack.

The widescreen version of The Bat Whispers was previewed in Los Angeles on November 6, 1930, then played engagements in San Francisco and Baltimore, before opening in New York at the Rivoli on January 16.

As remarkably innovative as The Bat Whispers was, it failed to rise above the formulaic conventions of the old dark house thriller. "The Bat Groans with Age," was the headline of one review. The 1920s represented the height of the genre, and even then the films were made tongue-in-cheek; for example, Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927). By the time The Bat Whispers was released, there were already several old dark talkies, including The Gorilla (1930) and The Cat Creeps (1930).

"It is all hectic nonsense, sometimes stale and at other times moderately effective," wrote Mordaunt Hall of The Bat Whispers in The New York Times, "It is a well-directed film, but it seems rather a waste of time for Mr. West, for there is nothing new even in this bigger and better Bat."

Evidence that West was more interested in technical innovation than the machinations of drama is found in a quote by actor Bakewell, who remembered, "He'd call for action, then turn on his heel and walk off into the back of the stage. He'd listen to the dialogue, and call 'cut' at the end of a scene. But he never watched a scene being taken. He was much more concerned with shadows and visual effects than he was with actors" (quoted in George Turner's essay, "The Bat Thrice Told.").

For years, the existence of a widescreen print of The Bat Whispers was little more than a rumor. Likewise, the 1926 silent version was long considered a lost film. Eventually, elements of both films surfaced. A nitrate print of The Bat was discovered in 1987, and The Bat Whispers was found in the archives of the Mary Pickford Estate. During her years as an independent producer, Pickford had purchased rights to the property with the intention of remaking the film (starring Humphrey Bogart and Lillian Gish). In the late 1980s, the UCLA Film and Television Archive restored the 65mm Magnifilm version, utilizing the nearly pristine materials in the Pickford vault. It is from this restoration that the master being aired by TCM was derived.

West treasured his independence and, rather than sign a contract with a major studio like most of his colleagues, he retired from filmmaking in 1931, at the age of 46. He chose instead to travel the world by yacht, and spend time with actress Thelma Todd, who appeared in West's cinematic swan song, Corsair (1931). West also took on the task of designing and running a roadhouse: Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe. Behind this facade lurked Joya's, a speakeasy catering to a select clientele. The club became popular among West Coast mobsters, and by 1936, West and Todd's relationship had cooled. On the morning of Monday, December 16, 1936, Todd was found dead in her car. Carbon monoxide poisoning was the official cause -- though the case has endured as one of the great unsolved murders in Hollywood history.

MacQueen insists that -- while he may not have killed her exactly -- West was the person responsible for Todd's demise. "Through all the shifting evidence and wild extrapolations, only two things seem clear: Thelma Todd was murdered, and Roland West probably murdered her." Through an anonymous source "intimately involved with the personalities and events of the time," MacQueen states that, after a heated argument over Todd's reckless behavior, West locked the actress out of the house. She went to the garage, and climbed into her Lincoln, with the intention of finding a party elsewhere. "To make good his threat and teach her a lesson, West closed and locked the garage. Stubborn Thelma sat, the engine on, waiting for Roland to open the doors. She didn't consider, in her anger, the odorless carbon monoxide filling the garage. Neither did Roland."

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck Director: Roland West Screenplay: Roland West Based on the play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood Cinematography: Robert H. Planck Production Design: Paul Roe Crawley Music: Hugo Riesenfeld Cast: Chester Morris (Detective Anderson), Una Merkel (Dale Van Gorder), Grayce Hampton (Cornelia Van Gorder), William Bakewell (Brook Bailey), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dr. Venrees), Spencer Charters (caretaker), Charles Dow Clark (Detective Jones), Hugh Huntley (Richard Fleming), Maude Eburne (Lizzie).

by Bret Wood