Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Bat Continues: The Lasting Influence of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopewood's "The Bat"

Mary Roberts Rinehart is often called the "American Agatha Christie," although it'd be more chronologically accurate to call Christie the "British Mary Roberts Rinehart." Roberts's first novel, The Man in Lower Ten, was published in 1906 - a full 14 years before Christie's debut. Still, Christie remains Rinehart's superior in terms of sales and influence, although Rinehart, not Christie, is the source of the infamous line: "The butler did it."

While it's easy to characterize Rinehart as a cast-off or lower-tier talent during an exceptionally prolific time for mystery fiction, her importance should not be overlooked or just confined to one great novel (The Spiral Staircase). In fact, Rinehart's most lasting contribution involved the stage first and then the screen. Even today, Rinehart's chief accomplishment hides inside the heart of one of the world's most popular superheroes. 

In 1920, a play written by Rinehart and collaborator Avery Hopwood debuted in New York City. Entitled The Bat, the play involved a disguised master criminal called the Bat who corners a group of people holed up in the mansion of the spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder. A melodramatic mystery, The Bat ran for over eight hundred shows before closing in the fall of 1922. As an artifact from the mystery and crime-obsessed Jazz Age, The Bat has been the subject of numerous revivals in the U.S. and abroad. 

Despite its popularity on and off Broadway, The Bat saw its greatest acclaim in Hollywood, as numerous directors and screenwriters either took the whole story or parts of it in order to craft slightly humorous, slightly scary mystery stories. The end result was a genre known as the "old dark house" - a type of murder mystery involving victims isolated in an decaying, possibly haunted mansion. The reading of a will is usually the reason for their assemblage, and almost always these victims are stalked by some sort of elaborately disguised villain. Rinehart's Bat then spawned a mangy brood who ruled the cinema for two decades. 

The first "old dark house" picture to gain attention was directed by D.W. Griffith, the auteur responsible not only for some of America's earliest films, but also highly controversial masterpieces such as Intolerance and the infamous The Birth of a Nation. In 1922, Griffith, under the spell of Rinehart and Hopwood's play, concocted One Exciting Night - a story about a orphan girl (played by Carol Dempster), her mysterious lover (played by a young Henry Hull of Werewolf of London fame), and a group of bootleggers who are using a family's mansion as a hideout. When one of the bootleggers gets killed, the suspicion first falls on Hull's John Fairfax, but then other strange things start happening. 

Released in the same year s Alfred Green's lost film The Ghost Breaker, One Exciting Night is now largely forgotten, especially in comparison to the likeminded films that followed. After Griffith's picture, a slew of "old dark house" films descended upon moviegoers, and widespread popularity ensued. 

Rinehart and Hopwood's play would finally get screen treatment in 1926. In that year, director Roland West, a early purveyor of proto-film noir and horror comedy, as well as a suspect in the later death of Thelma Todd, ensembled a mostly unknown cast in order to make a moody thriller with some genuinely shocking images. Although not as influential as the later remake The Bat Whispers (more on that film later), The Bat is still one of the best examples of the "old dark house" mystery style before the eventual onslaught of much-needed parodies. 

A year later, two "old dark house" mysteries would be produced, one of which is still currently considered "lost," and therefore a bit of a legend. That film - Tod Browning's London After Midnight - stars Lon Chaney as a police inspector who disguises himself as a top hat-wearing vampire in order to solve a cold case murder that was dressed up like a suicide. According to many who saw the film at the time, London After Midnight was a goof, but that does not stop people from seeking out lost prints. 

The other old dark house in 1927, The Cat and the Canary, did noticeably better than Browning's effort. Directed by the German expat Paul Leni, The Cat and the Canary was based on the popular stage play by John Willard and incorporated many elements from the then avant-garde German Expressionist movement that was particularly fond of horror films. More of a black comedy than anything else, The Cat and the Canary, which concerns the heiress of the wealthy madman Cyrus West, does manage to pull off one shocking reveal along with several bone-chilling moments. 

Finally, the old dark house genre reached its peak of seriousness in 1930. In The Bat Whispers, Roland West once again took the directorial reigns. A remake of The Bat, The Bat Whispers brought sound to Rinehart and Hopwood's near-gothic play. One fan in particular found this version to be inspiring. After seeing the film's black-clad villain, whose calling card is the outline of a bat highlighted by a circle of light, a young Bob Kane began to develop his own Bat character - a masked vigilante who fights crime instead of committing it. This then is how Rinehart and Hopwood's play came to influence the creation of Batman.

After 1930, "old dark house" mysteries were still being produced, but most swung too far towards the farcical to be akin to the earlier examples. James Whale's The Old Dark House paid homage to this genre, all the while maintaining some semblance of terror. A 1959 adaptation of The Bat, which stars Vincent Price, is also adequate, although it noticeably lacks the gothic trappings of the silent films. For the rest, most "old dark house" pictures after the early 1930s were mere vehicles for slapstick comedy, with such talents as the Three Stooges and the Ritz Brothers playing along. 

In an interesting twist, one of the biggest, if least publicized supporters of Rinehart and Hopwood's "old dark house" genre was Christie herself. In one novel (And Then There Were None) and one play (The Mousetrap), Christie shows the influence of The Bat and Rinehart's writing more generally. Again, maybe we shouldn't call Rinehart a Christie, but rather Christie a Rinehart. 

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