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I suppose people turned out to see an early talkie which not only had lots of outdoor footage but also underwater photography. THE SEA BAT is a good film but I think it would have been better had they made it about 5 years earlier as a silent as the characterisations and plot complications come directly from the silent days. The giant manta ray (a Sea Bat) is making life rough for the sponge divers on the island of Portuga (where everyone claims to be of Spanish descent but talks with French accents). This would have been enough for a plot but throw in a minister (Charles Bickford) who won't preach any sermons and stumbles through a funeral service picking passages from the Bible at random. It is not revealing too much to say that this fellow is an eccaped convict who stole a ministers outfit to get off Devil's Island. Now about this being a silent style film? Well the idea that a former pirate who broke jail and is hiding behind a ministers collar reforming just because he reads a few verses from the Old Testament is something you'd expect from D.W. Griffith, circa 1920, yet that is just what happens. Also the scene where the latest victim of the Manta (Nils Asther, best remembered from OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS, 1928) is brought back to port is staged exactly as if this were a silent film. The cast is a joy to see. Watch for Gibson Gowland (GREED) as a Cockney seaman, former Charlie Chaplin comic foil Mack Swain as a bartender, and look fast for a still-unknown Boris Karloff in 3 scenes as a sailor referred to as "The Corsican". The damsel in distress is Raquel Torres, best remembered from F.W. Murnau's docu-drama WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS (1928). The scenes of the giant manta are well done and convincing.
Wesley Ruggles began directing THE SEA BAT but Lionel Barrymore
completed it. This would account for the contrast between the outdoor
scenes, shot on Mexican locations, and the interiors, particularly a
sponge-diving episode, filmed in the studio tank, and some dialog
between Charles Bickford and Raquel Torres.
The exteriors bear all the hallmarks of Ruggles - in particular a long tracking shot following Torres through the ramshackle village to the dock, where the sponge fishing boat is about to leave with her brother Asther aboard. The hand of Ruggles is also evident in the scene of Torres fending off potential rape on the rocky seashore, the star pulling a knife and snarling defiance at John Miljan and cronies as spray soaks her flimsy blouse (revealing a pre-code absence of lingerie.)
On the other hand, one is inclined to lay at Barrymore's door an embarrassing voodoo sequence, with Torres performing an unconvincing dance, and also the scene where she tries to vamp Bickford as he stolidly studies the Bible.
The casting, as often in early sound films, mixes talents on the way up with once-eminent silent performers working out the end of their contracts; Charles Bickford and Boris Karloff among the former, Gibson Gowland (GREED), Nils Asther (WILD ORCHIDS)and Mack Swain (Keystone) the latter. George F. Marion parades another of his excruciating accents, a serious rival to his performance in ANNA Christie as Garbo's father.
Considerable effort has gone into creating the manta ray "bat",a towed semi-submersible on the order of "Bruce", the shark in JAWS. More whale than ray, it spouts, and overturns boats. This impressive piece of physical special effects, as usual with early studio productions, is uncredited.
The lives of sponge divers are disrupted by the arrival of a tough
cleric and the deprivations of THE SEA BAT.
It is unfortunate that this splendid little film from MGM has become so obscure as it has much to offer in the way of ambiance and good acting from an interesting cast. The production values are high and the location shooting (on Mexico's Mazatlán coast) with its glimpses of pseudo West Indies island culture add to the film's atmosphere. Director Lionel Barrymore keeps the action moving right along, with just enough requisite romance, suspenseful encounters with the hideous sea bat and a dandy fist fight near the end to keep the viewers happy.
Mexican actress Raquel Torres plays the fiery island miss who wants to escape the tragedy which has attacked her family. Silent screen star Nils Asther is her gentle, loving brother, a sponge diver. His departure from the story early on is poignant & regrettable. Disheveled George F. Marion steals most of his scenes as their disreputable father. Sturdy Charles Bickford is the no-nonsense pastor with a secret who arrives on the Island of Portuga and is quickly confronted by danger. All four give excellent performances.
Other crew members of the sponge boat are played by lecherous John Miljan, who acted the villain in many early MGM talkies; blustering Gibson Gowland, who only five years earlier had starred in von Stroheim's masterpiece GREED; and, in a tiny role, pre-celeb Boris Karloff. Silent movie comic Mack Swain portrays the owner of the island grog shop.
The giant Atlantic manta (Manta birostris), sometimes called a sea bat, is a type of devilfish and is characterized by its large flapping fins and two horny protrusions near its mouth, giving it a diabolic appearance. It lives in the warmer waters near both islands and coastlines, where it eats small fish & plankton. The Atlantic manta can grow to 23' from fin tip to fin tip and weigh up to 2,200 pounds. Despite its sinister aspect it is known -contrary to legend- to be gentle and does not attack divers.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
+++SPOILER ALERT+++Colorful Characters, A Cool Sea Beast, And A Horrible Ending, that sums up my impression of the Sea Bat which I watched on Turner Classic Movies. This film, at a mere 75 minutes long, could have been a classic and it may be to many still but the way they ended it is so cornball and 1930'ish that the film doesn't hold up. But until that ending you have some of the most colorful characters you will ever see and there is a "sea bat" that actually looks pretty cool except that it has a blow hole like a whale. I watched this because it has Boris Karloff in it, but his part is very minor, however I am really happy I watched it because I noticed I really enjoyed 2 films staring Charles Bickford, this one and Anna Christie, so I'm going to start to search for more early 1930's Charles Bickford films as they look juicy and hard core. I also had the hots for Raquel Torres, she looks like a real life Betty Boop here, too bad she wasn't in more stuff, she's smoking hot. I was going to rate this lower then a 7 but after thinking about it all even with the cornball ending (he ends the film saying he's going to finish his time at Devil's Island and will leave Raquel Torres, yeah right! How cornball is that?), I was immensely entertained by almost everything in this film so I'm giving it a 7, highly recommended for us early talking film buffs. BTW, I asked my wife, "How do you think he got the preacher outfit?" She said "maybe he bought it at a priest store?" LOL, oh my, too funny. I was thinking more along the lines of he killed a preacher, lol. Another spoiler, they never killed the Sea Bat, hurray for the monster!
After scoring well in Cecil B. DeMille's first talking picture Dynamite
and opposite Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, Charles Bickford's career
might well have taken a bath with Sea Bat. For those who don't know,
The Sea Bat is a jumbo size stingray which can grow to the size of a
great white shark. They're the terror of the sponge divers in the West
Into this tropic paradise otherwise than for the present of those giant creatures in the water comes Charles Bickford pretending to be a man of the cloth, but who is actually a Devil's Island escapee. If he were really a man of the cloth we would have had yet another version of Rain as Bickford fends off the amorous advances of Raquel Torres. But he's not a real minister and in fact has other things on his mind besides a little with nookie with Torres. He wants to get out of the area where he's been in disguise for a few years now.
Raquel Torres has made going after the giant stingray a personal crusade after her brother Nils Asther is killed during a sponge dive. With what she has to offer to the guy who gets the giant a lot of the men are ready and willing.
Bickford also has to worry about a pair of sponge fisherman who recognize him and want to claim the reward from the French. And it's not easy to keep up the pretense when folks are looking for you to preach a sermon or offer up some spiritual guidance like Raquel's father George Marion.
The Sea Bat which probably for its location shooting and special effects wizardry for its time in creating the giant stingray and its encounters with man was really something. It really hasn't aged well and now is one camp hoot.
Half-Maugham, half-Melville and all hooey, this tropical potboiler is
chock full of sin and salvation, with a giant sting ray tossed in as --
I kid you not -- a romantic deus ex machina.
The setting is a West Indies island where a bunch of grimy sponge divers lust after barefoot temptress Raquel Torres, who only has eyes for the beautiful (and, with his thick Swedish accent, virtually unintelligible) Nils Asther. But when he dies in the clutches of the title monster villain, she turns her back on God and offers herself as reward to the man who destroys the beast. It's a decision she quickly comes to regret, and as the body count increases, the guilt-ridden Raquel flails her arms and pounds her breasts with the frenzy of a silent movie diva.
As if this plot weren't febrile enough, Torres begins falling for newly arrived man of the cloth Charles Bickford, who does his damnedest to resist her overtures since he's actually an escaped convict from Devil's Island.
This awesomely wacky nonsense was concocted by the radical left-wing screenwriter John Howard Lawson without a hint of the political agitprop that infused his later screen work. The film, however, is not without interest: the camera work by Ira Morgan is sensuous and inventive (particularly when underwater) and the cast of scurvy Island rats is populated with such compelling character types as John Miljan (in a departure from his usual urban smoothie), Boris Karloff (as the glowering Corsican), and silent film veterans Gibson Gowland and Mack Swain.
Sea Bat, The (1930)
** (out of 4)
Pretty dull action/love story has a man escaping Devil's Island and landing on another island where he pretends to be a priest and falls for the island vamp. The fisherman on the island also struggle with a huge sea bat. The love story stuff is so unbelievable that you can never take it serious and the leads really aren't too interesting. The underwater footage of the sea bat is very well done and there's some nice special effects work with the creature, although I think a few of the scenes were filmed with a real bat. Boris Karloff has a minor role.
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