Old dark house done right (mostly)

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The Bat, released 14 March 1926, is a classic of the old dark house genre. It was based on a 1920 Broadway play, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart (known as the American Agatha Christie) and Avery Hopwood (the most successful playwright of the Jazz Age). The play in turn was based on Mrs. Rinehart’s 1908 mystery novel The Circular Staircase.

Mrs. Rinehart was a born lefty, but like too many lefties of that era, she was forcibly switched and shamed out of her natural inclination.

The clichéd phrase “The butler did it” comes from her 1930 novel The Door.

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The Bat stars Jack Pickford (Mary’s little brother) as good boy Brooks Bailey; comedian Louise Fazenda as maid Lizzie Allen; Emily Fitzroy as feisty spinster Cornelia van Gorder; Jewel Carmen (wife of director Roland West) as Cornelia’s niece Dale Ogden and Brooks’s fiancée; Robert McKim as Dr. Wells; George Beranger as Gideon Bell; Charles Herzinger as Courtleigh Fleming; Arthur Houseman as Richard Fleming; Tullio Carminati as Detective Moletti; Eddie Gribbon as Detective Anderson; Sojin Kamiyama as butler Billy; and Lee Shumway as The Unknown.

As much as I enjoyed this film, the bloated cast is a definite shortcoming. I love ensemble casts, but you can’t just throw characters at us fast and furious and expect us to remember exactly who everyone is and what purpose they serve. Either introduce a large cast gradually, bit by bit, or introduce everyone around the same time without immediately giving each person an important role.

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After millionaire Gideon Bell receives this threatening letter, he sets out to try to defend himself and his property. Alas, his attempts are most unsuccessful, and The Bat makes off with the emeralds, even with a bunch of cops nearby.

The Bat leaves a note for the chief of police (on a piece of paper shaped like a bat), announcing he’s going to the country for a short vacation. The chief sends for Detective Moletti, swearing he’ll send The Bat to the chair if it’s the last thing he does.

During his getaway, The Bat lands on the roof of Oakdale Bank and witnesses a robbery.

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We then shift to the dark old house where the rest of the film transpires. Courtleigh Fleming, Oakdale Bank’s president, designed and built this lonely mansion. It’s currently being leased by Miss Cornelia van Gorder of New York, who wants peace and quiet. She and her maid, Lizzie Allen, are hands-down the best characters.

Cornelia gets a lot of the best lines, like:

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Lizzie is terrified of The Bat, so much so she sets up a bear trap outside. She sees The Bat lurking outside a window, and is convinced he’s in the house (which, of course, he is). Through the course of the night, Lizzie becomes more and more terrified, and suspects everyone is The Bat, including the Japanese butler whom the Flemings included with the lease.

We then see a front page of the local newspaper, announcing the police are searching for Brooks Bailey, a clerk at Oakdale Bank. They think he stole the $200,000.

The person reading the paper is Richard Fleming, the spendthrift nephew of the bank president and designer of the old dark house. Dr. Wells takes him to task for leasing his uncle’s house almost as soon as he kicked the bucket, and accused of grabbing money any way possible to square his gambling debts.

Dr. Wells tells him the house can’t be occupied now, and says they’ll have to scare away Cornelia and Lizzie.

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We then meet Cornelia’s niece, Dale, and her fiancé Brooks Bailey. Brooks has come to the house to try to find the stolen money and clear his name. Since he can’t be recognized, Dale makes him take off his glasses, though he protests he can’t see without them.

Dale brings him in under the pretense of being a gardener from the Employment Agency, though her aunt knows they’re both lying.

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A note is thrown through the window, warning them to leave the house at once. Presently, Dr. Wells and Detective Moletti arrive. While they search for The Bat, Brooks tries to find the money and keep away from the detectives. I won’t give away any of the twists and turns from this point on!

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It’s got a great script, great intertitles, some great characters, beautiful cinematography, great settings, and a great mystery. I wish the print were sharper and the soundtrack better, but neither was unbearable.

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In 1930, the film was remade as The Bat Whispers, also directed by Roland West. In 1959, the film was remade again, once more titled The Bat. Altogether, the costumed villain of these films served as inspiration for the character of Batman.

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3 comments on “Old dark house done right (mostly)

  1. Olga Godim says:

    Now I want to see it. Or read the novel.

    Like

  2. Arlee Bird says:

    I often get confused when I see a film with a lot of characters thrown at me. I thought maybe it was just me until I started making a joke of it to my wife. I’d tell her that I couldn’t tell who was who because everyone looked alike. When she agreed that it was the same for her then I realized it wasn’t just me.

    I can understand the importance of using actors that are highly distinguishable from each other to eliminate confusion for the viewers.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Like

  3. I agree with Arlee–I find it very frustrating. I remember my mother saying that all the young actors and actresses looked alike. I thought she was nuts but now I’m the same way!!!

    Like

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