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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WeWriWa—Not a born levsha

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, as Igor reassured Violetta his older brother Fedya didn’t share any personal stories about her. Igor then realizes something is different about her now than when he last saw her in childhood.

This has been slightly modified to fit 10 lines.

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My Sennelier soft oil pastels, the same brand Violetta uses. Her pastels are just regular soft pastels, since Sennelier’s oil pastels weren’t created till 1949 (for Picasso). The original soft Sennelier pastels were created in 1900 for Degas.

“Say, I remember sitting at the children’s table with you at my oldest sister Tanya’s wedding. I was so jealous when you talked about how fun summer camp was, since I didn’t get to do that out in farm country.” Igor watches her blending the blues. “I don’t remember you being a levsha then; maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but that’s the kind of thing that’s always stood out to me. Levshi notice their own kind immediately, while right-handed folks usually care less.”

“I wasn’t always a levsha.” Violetta puts down her blender and picks up a nasturtium orange pastel. “I had a very serious injury to my right arm when I was twelve, and after I recovered, I had no choice but to switch my dominant hand. Drawing is what helped me gain strength in my left arm and hand. If I had stayed right-handed, I doubt I’d be an art student today.”

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On Saturday, 4 June, And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth (the long-delayed Volume Two of the story of Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder) will be released. It’s available for pre-order now. I’ll announce more details on Monday’s post. I always like my release dates to be dates important to my characters, and 4 June is the day Jakob and Rachel reunite after 13 months apart. It’s the story of their first proper year of marriage, Jakob’s first year in America, a lot of culture clashes, and Rachel’s search for a midwife.

WeWriWa—Common interests

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes immediately after last week’s, as first-year NYU art student Igor Konev has gone to meet the woman with sexy feet and discovers her hair is just as alluring. He asks if she minds company, and they finally have the first proper meeting of their lives. Igor and Violetta met a few times as children, but they never had a reason to become friends, since they lived in different states.

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She turns around, revealing very large, deep brown eyes and a face without any makeup. “Who are you?  Have we met?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but I noticed you drawing, and I’m an art student.  Maybe we can exchange ideas about subjects and techniques.  I also think it’s really swell how you’re a southpaw.  I am too.  You don’t find very many left-handed women, or at least I don’t.  Please, may I sit down?  I really enjoy meeting other southpaws and art students.”

“Just one more floor!”

(Given the date of this post coinciding with Shabbos, I’ve obviously pre-scheduled it. I never post in real time on Shabbos.)

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Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid are hosting the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” blogathon from 5–7 December, wherein participants post about potential gateway films to entice someone unfamiliar with classics. By the parameters of this blogfest, classic means anything made in or before 1965.

One of these gateway films is Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923)

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Harold Lloyd (20 April 1893–8 March 1971) was the third genius of the silent cinema, but, until relatively recently, his films weren’t widely available. Baruch Hashem (Thank God), all his major films are now on DVD. We’re so lucky so many survived, when silents have such an abysmal survival rate. Sadly, most of his earlier Lonesome Luke shorts were lost in a 1943 fire, but the percent of his surviving films is still excellent.

On a personal level, Harold is not only one of my favorite comedians, but also one of my inspirations. Most silent fans know the story of how he almost died when a prop bomb went off in his hand, near his face, but the story of his recovery and determination to get even better at his craft especially means a lot to me because I’m also a burn survivor. Because of that near-fatal accident, Harold had to learn a new handedness, and it makes me so happy to see him doing things left-handed. Whether you’re a lefty by birth or accident, you’re part of my family.

On to the actual film review!

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The film opens with an awesome sight gag which I won’t spoil the details of. Harold opened several of his films with such sight gags, giving the impression of something much different from what we expected. During this first scene, he heads off to the big city to make good, and his girlfriend Mildred (his real-life future wife, Mildred Davis) promises to join him when he’s made a name.

In the big city, Harold rooms with Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), who recently broke his left leg in real life. They live hand to mouth and have trouble paying rent on time, though Harold paints a much different picture of his finances in his letters to Mildred and buys her gifts far beyond his means.

The only real dated scene is the Jewish pawnbroker shop. I know this was a stock stereotype and not intended to be offensive, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable. (They’re also working on Shabbos!) Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t become much better at creating accurate, well-rounded Jewish characters and storylines over all these decades, but that’s the subject for another post!

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Harold always comes to work super-early, but one morning, he gets stuck in a towel truck by the employees’ entrance and thus is completely rerouted. He faces obstacles including an overflowing streetcar and a would-be chauffeur who gets a parking ticket. The way Harold finally gets to work and cheats the time clock is so ingenious, but again, I won’t spoil anything.

We discover he’s a fabric salesman in the DeVore Department Store, on the ground floor of a 12-story building. We also discover, via a pay stub and misconduct ticket, that his character’s full name is one and the same as his. He always played a Harold, but he used another surname in all his other films.

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During the work scenes, Harold writes and uses scissors with his left hand several times. This makes me so happy and excited, and I can only imagine how proud the lefties in the audience were. This was a time when many lefties were shamed, bullied, and forcibly switched from their natural inclination, yet here was a huge star using his left hand for all to see.

After work ends, Harold runs into his old buddy Jim, who’s also moved to the big city and become a cop. They horse around a bit, and then Harold tells Bill he’s got such pull with the cops he can get away with anything. Unfortunately, the cop they play their prank on turns out to be a different cop (Noah Young), and Bill is the one caught and blamed. To escape, Bill scales the wall of a nearby building. This sets the stage for the film’s famous dramatic climax.

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Mildred’s mother suggests she join Harold in the big city, and Mildred’s unexpected arrival forces Harold into the charade of having a much more important position. He’s eventually roped into impersonating the general manager, and while he’s thinking up a ruse to get back into the office to retrieve Mildred’s purse, he overhears the general manager saying he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can attract a huge crowd.

Harold suggests a mystery man climb the building, which was a huge crowd draw in the Twenties. People loved watching daredevil stunts like flagpole sitting, building climbing, and aerial shows. Unfortunately, the cop is on the prowl at the same time Bill is set to climb the building, and thanks to a drunk (Earl Mohan) showing him the newspaper story, the cop immediately realizes this faceless mystery man is one and the same as the guy who pushed him. Keep in mind, this is pre-Miranda Rights!

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Bill compels Harold into starting to climb in his place, and at the second story, Bill will put on his coat and hat so people will believe Harold’s still the one climbing. However, the cop is hot on Bill’s heels, and Harold is compelled into climbing just one more floor every time. Along the way, he encounters near-disasters including pigeons, hot coffee, a plank, a flagpole, a tennis net, a rope, and, of course, that famous clock.

Over 90 years later, this is still a thrilling sequence. There were several different façades to make it look like the same building getting higher and higher, but he was never that far off the ground. Footage of Bill is used in the long shots. However, had Harold fallen to the right instead of straight down, he would’ve fallen to his death.

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Besides the awesome thrill sequence, and overlooking the dated but essentially harmless stereotype of the Jewish pawnbroker, this is just such a perfect, fun, charming film, on all possible levels. This was all done without CGI, including some rather advanced special effects like Harold using a bald head as a mirror and watching each item of a businessman’s lunch gradually disappearing as he buys a half-off lavaliere for Mildred. Knowing they were a couple in real life makes their scenes together even sweeter.

Harold’s films have been called less timeless than Keaton and Chaplin’s, since they’re such time capsules of the Twenties. However, that’s a reason why I love them. It’s fun to see life as it was, like department stores with soda fountains, old-fashioned streetcars, Brass Age cars, vintage coins, the price of living, and steam locomotives.

Celebrating The Freshman at 90

If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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This handsome, talented gentleman is Harold Lloyd (20 April 1893–8 March 1971), the third great comedian of the silent era. Besides being a brilliant actor and comedian, he also seemed like a really nice, genuine person, and managed his money very well. On a personal level, other reasons I’m such a big fan are because he was a fellow lefty and burn survivor. I’ve also always loved the name Harold.

Harold wasn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, born left-handed, but after a near-fatal accident in August 1919, his right thumb and forefinger had to be amputated, and he had to learn another handedness. It really makes me happy when I see him doing something left-handed in his films, knowing what social and cultural attitudes towards left-handedness were at that time.

Even if you’ve never seen one of Harold’s films or don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen this most iconic image of him:

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I actually gasped out loud many times when I first watched Safety Last! (1923), even knowing he wasn’t going to fall to his death while climbing that building over city traffic. Though he did use a double for some long shots, Harold, like Buster Keaton, did all his stunts himself. It’s even more amazing to think about how he did that with only three fingers on his right hand. He wore a prosthetic glove onscreen, but that doesn’t change the real state of his hand.

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The Freshman, released 20 September 1925, was Harold’s most successful film of the silent era, and created a trend for college-themed films. College life was already very fashionable, something to aspire to, but this film just made it even hotter.

Harold Lamb is on his way to Tate University when he meets Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady from 1923–28) on the train. Naturally, they fall in instalove.

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Harold feels the best way into popularity will be to copy The College Hero, a movie idol of his. This copycatting includes doing a funny jig when meeting someone, and taking the nickname Speedy. Since Harold is such a nice, innocent guy, he doesn’t realize people are making fun of him and his mannerisms. He’s even deceived into believing he’s popular, when in reality everyone is laughing at him behind his trusting back. Peggy, however, is a good egg, and proves to be Harold’s only real friend.

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Harold fails when he tries out for the football team, and is used as the practice tackle dummy because he damaged the real one. In spite of being tackled over and over, Harold’s desire to play football is undeterred. The coach is impressed by his enthusiasm, but still doesn’t want him on the team. Another cruel trick is played on Harold when Chet Trask, the team’s captain and hero, suggests the coach use him as a water boy while letting him think he’s a real part of the team.

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Harold is compelled into hosting the Fall Frolic dance, but there’s a slight problem—his tailor hasn’t finished his suit yet. Ever the optimist, Harold puts on a suit barely held together with basting stitches. All through the party, the tailor tries his best to keep the suit together, but his clothes eventually give way. Harold then sees the College Cad not behaving so appropriately with Peggy, and knocks him down.

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The Cad is furious, and finally informs Harold just what everyone thinks of him. Peggy meanwhile tells Harold to just be himself, and stop pretending to be someone he’s not. Still undeterred, Harold determines to make himself a hero through the next big football game.

The opposing team is so brutal, many of Tate’s players are taken out due to injuries and the substitutes run out. With little choice, the coach finally lets Harold play, and the underdog emerges as a hero.

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