Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Bat (Robert Saudek Productions; TV, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature,” though it was only 52 minutes long, was a 1960 TV version of The Bat that Charles had downloaded and which I had wanted to see as a counterpoint to the 1926 silent directed by Roland West and the 1959 version from Allied Artists with Crane Wilbur as writer and director and Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead as stars. Though it was hardly at the level of the West silent, this production, from a TV series called The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (indeed it was the first episode, originally aired March 31, 1960), turned out to be quite good, considerably better than the 1959 movie despite the obligation of writer Walter Kerr (adapting the original play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood) to cut the play severely to get it into a one-hour (less commercials) TV time slot. The site said this was a “kinescope,” which means they stuck a film camera in front of a TV set and filmed the output. They usually did this so they could take a TV show that was being aired “live” on the East Coast and fly out filmed prints so the show could be screened on the West Coast in the same time slot — though it meant West Coast viewers got inferior picture and sound (it was for this reason that Desi Arnaz insisted on doing I Love Lucy on film so it could be shown across the country and everyone would get the same image quality no matter where they were in the U.S.), but judging from the sophistication of director Paul Nickell’s staging and the multiplicity of views of the old-dark-house set, I suspect this was an early videotaped show rather than a kinescope of a live broadcast.

The cast was first-rate, with Helen Hayes featured as Cornelia Van Gorder, Margaret Hamilton outpointing her feature-film counterparts as Cornelia’s maid Lizzie Arlen, and Jason Robards (whose actor-father was still well remembered enough in 1960 he was billed as Jason Robards, Jr.) as Detective Anderson, who turns out at the end to have been the master criminal The Bat (he waylaid and incapacitated the real detective, then impersonated him and had to do some quick changes between normal clothes and Bat-drag). Walter Kerr’s script manages to preserve most of the high points of the original — the theft and burning of the blueprints for the house that might reveal the location of the secret room where banker Cortleigh Fleming hid the $1 million he embezzled (though in this, unlike the previous versions, he doesn’t turn up alive at the end after having been thought dead); the murder of his son, Richard Fleming (Karl Light), by the Bat; the romance between Van Gorder’s niece Dale Ogden (Bethel Leslie) and Jack Bailey (Martin Brooks), the bank clerk suspected of the embezzlement who shows up at the house disguising himself as a gardener (this version keeps the marvelous scene from the 1926 film in which Van Gorder “outs” him by asking him about “plants” like rubeola which are actually the names of diseases); the final unmasking of the Bat and the appearance of the real Detective Anderson (Reedy Talton) after he escapes and captures the Bat. Even the Bat’s costume is closer to the 1926 film (and to the appearance of Batman, whose costume and visual iconography were ripped off by his creator, Bob Kane, from the 1926 film), and there’s a marvelous shock moment in which he appears in full regalia at the top of a staircase and shoots down at Richard Fleming, who’s on the ground floor. This version also pushes Dr. Wells (Shepperd Strudwick) back into his proper place as a supporting character instead of a florid villain in his own right, as Crane Wilbur did so Vincent Price could play him in the 1959 version (in which he murders Cortleigh Fleming to get his hands on the $1 million).

For a TV production — even if it was videotaped instead of done live — it’s quite sophisticated, full of oblique camera angles and noir compositions from director Nickell and the camerapeople (the only one credited is Ralph Holmes as lighting director), and production designer Henry May takes full advantages of the opportunities in an old-dark-house setting in ways David Milton did not in the 1959 film. Though Roland West’s silent version remains the winner and still champion (unless it’s eclipsed by his 1930 wide-screen talkie remake, which I haven’t seen), the 1960 Bat is quite an estimable production and worthy of its source. About the only tacky aspect of this program is the person producer Robert Saudek chose as his on-screen host: Joseph Welch, Jr., the attorney who became famous nationwide for standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and five years later got an acting role playing the judge in Otto Preminger’s film Anatomy of a Murder (an example of the sort of “gimmick” casting Preminger loved). Here, watching Welch appear as an out-and-out pitchman for a company as evil as Dow (makers of napalm) Chemical, I couldn’t resist the thought that I’d have wanted to ask him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last,  have you no sense of decency?”