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J. Searle Dawley
She might not have been a critic's darling, but the reading public loved author Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1957.) Her 1907 novel THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE was among her most popular works, and in 1917 Rinehart joined forces with playwright Avery Hopwood to adapt it to the stage. After three years of work and much revision, THE BAT's combination of eccentric characters, spooky effects, slapstick humor and mystery took the New York stage by storm. And in 1926 it became one of the most popular films of the late silent era.
The plot was clichéd even in 1920, and considerably more so by 1926--but this is actually part of the film's charm. New York is beset by a vicious killer and brilliant thief called "The Bat," whose crime spree has left police baffled. Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) and her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen) have leased a mansion in the countryside, but it soon transpires that their choice has been unfortunate: the owner has died, his bank has been robbed, the money is concealed in the house... and The Bat wants it! Before you can say "It's the BAT!" there are secret passages, suspicious characters, screaming maids, and shots in the dark. According to film lore, THE BAT was actually filmed at night, the better to emphasize the gloomy atmosphere; if so, director Roland West (husband of actress Jewel Carmen) made a good decision here, for the film is memorable for its shadowy look. The miniatures of the opening scenes have been widely praised and the sets are elaborate and extremely well photographed (Cedric Gibbons, no less, was the art director of note); the costume for the elusive Bat is lots of 1920s fun; and the cast is quite good besides.
The cast is particularly noteworthy for its inclusion of Jack Pickford, the wild and scandal plagued brother of silent star Mary Pickford. The combination of sound, drugs, alcohol, and sex would destroy his career before the decade ended, and although Mary Pickford certainly promoted his career he shows that his talents warranted her support. He's quite good. Most memorable, however, is actress Louise Fazenda, who chews scenery as the comically hysterical maid Lizzie--but indeed the entire cast is very fine and you find little of the broad acting style that troubles many silent films.
For many years THE BAT was considered a "lost" film, but not only did a single copy survive, it proves in extremely good condition as well, and the transfer on the Alpha Video DVD release is quite good. What isn't good is the original score, credited to Paul David Bergel. Not only is it utter atrocious in terms of music, it actually works against the film, making the action feel a great deal slower than it really is. Even so, this is the long-thought-lost THE BAT, it's quite good, and you can always turn the sound off! While it isn't quite as stylish as the slight later THE CAT AND THE CANARY, to which it is often compared, THE BAT was quite an influential film in its own right and will likely charm fans of silent film. It also had a long life: not only would receive at least one major remake, author Mary Roberts Rinehart would actually rewrite the play into yet another novel--and no less than Agatha Christie would borrow a bit of the plot for the legendary play THE MOUSETRAP. Thoroughly enjoyable for fans of silent cinema.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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