The Great Experimenter
Unfortunately the majority of West's output
has long since vanished, and only recently has The Bat
and The Bat Whispers emerged from obscurity
to join his other surviving works The Monster
(1925) and CORSAIR (1931). Thankfully it seems that these four films represent the
main body of his work which greatly helps to shed some light on the enigmatic Roland West.
Born Roland Van Zimmer in
Cleveland, Ohio in 1887, West was raised into a theatrical family. His mother enjoyed a
successful career as a stage actress and his aunt was a local theatre producer. It was his
aunt's influence that presented West with his first stage opportunity at the tender age of
twelve in a production titled The Volunteers. By 1904 West was already a reknowned
stage performer and he simplified his name to Roland West.
In 1906 he co-wrote and starred in his own vaudeville sketch The Criminal (later to
be called The Underworld) which gave the young actor a taste of the genre to which
he would become familiar. Variety Magazine remarked upon West's performance in no less
than five different roles, each demanding a change of costume, voice and manner. The
play's success enabled West to form a touring company that travelled the length and
breadth of America.
Despite his success as an actor, West decided
his future lay elsewhere and he redirected his career towards film production. His first
credited work was for William Fox with A WOMAN'S HONOR (1916) as producer and
director followed by LOST SOULS the same year and THE SIREN during June,
In May of 1918 West directed and scripted the mildly successful, but unremarkable romantic
melodrama DELUXE ANNIE for Norma Talmadge's own production company. In December of
1920 he moved on to Iroquois Films to produce, direct and script THE SILVER LINING
and then followed this with NOBODY (1921) under the banner of Roland West
The next two years saw West's return to the stage to produce his own play titled The
Unknown Purple co-scripted with Carlyle Moore. The story concerned a scientist who has
been released from prison after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. Using his
invention he calls The Purple Light, the scientist becomes invisible allowing him to hunt
down the real criminals, his wife and his unscrupulous partner.
In May of 1923, West directed and scripted the film version also titled The Unknown Purple for Truart Films starring Henry
B. Walthall, Johnny Arthur and Dorothy Phillips.
Roland West's next venture
finally marked his entrance to the horror genre with The
Monster released in February 1925 by Tec-Art and Roland West Productions.
During the 1920's the public's appetite for comedy mystery thrillers had reached its peak
and even by 1925 this sub-genre was already being parodied.
Based on a play by Crane Wilbur, West produced and directed. Lon Chaney as Dr. Ziska, an insane surgeon with a perpetual grin who
performs bizarre experiments to try and transfer a female soul into a male body. He
provides himself with unwilling subjects by using his manservant to place a mirror on the
road and cause motorists to crash their vehicles.
Despite the moody atmosphere created by West and the stylistic camerawork of Hal Mohr, the
reviews were generally less than enthusiastic. Soon after, MGM announced that they would
distribute the film and in 1927 they purchased the rights.
A few years earlier, West had become
associated with Joseph M. Schenck, then a general manager to Marcus Loew in charge of
theatre bookings. In 1924 Schenck had become the chairman of United Artists and placed
Roland West under contract as a producer, giving him full autonomy on his choices for film
production. With his fondness for suspensful comedy thrillers, West turned his attentions
to The Bat.
The story had first materialised in 1908 as a novel written by Mary Roberts
Rinehart titled "The Circular Staircase" and then as a film in 1915 titled The Bat for William Selig directed by Edward Le Saint
and a cast of unknowns including Eugene Besserer, Stella Razetto and Guy Oliver.
In 1920 Mary Rinehart collaborated with playwright Avery Hopwood to adapt her novel into a
three-act stageplay. In the revision of the story the main character was substituted from
the murderous housekeeper to a master criminal known only as The Bat and the setting
changed to just one night of terror.
Produced by Wagenhals and Kemper, the play made its Broadway debut at the Morosco Theatre
and ran for an impressive 867 performances which doesn't include the numerous road company
presentations. In a shrewd move to add an air of secrecy to the production, Wagenhals and
Kemper purposely witheld Harrison Hunter's name from any publicity surrounding the play
and even kept it a secret for as long as possible from the rest of the cast.
The success of this production was the catalyst towards a trend for mystery thrillers
beginning with John Willard's The Cat and the Canary of 1922, Crane Wilbur's The
Monster and a slew of other "old-dark-house" productions including The
Charlatan, Drums of Jeopardy, The Return of Peter Grimm and a revival of
Trilby. Even the masterful D.W. Griffith dabbled in the genre with One Exciting Night (1922) that was publicised as "the
first genuinely up-to-date mystery ever filmed!" Griffith had also attempted to
obtain the rights to The Bat, but was unsuccessful.
In 1926 Mary Rinehart wrote a novel of the play and Roland West managed
to secure the rights to mount a film adaptation. Using his own money and that of Jewel
Carmen, his wife, in addition to backing from Joseph Schenck at United Artists, West began
work on a lavish production that firmly established the genre in the cinemas.
Living high above the streets in a skyscraper,
Gideon Bell, (Andre de Beranger), a collector of rare jewels watches anxiously as his
clock approaches midnight, for this is when a master criminal known as The Bat has
promised to relieve Bell's collection of the famous Favre Emeralds. Soon enough a winged,
dark figure descends on a rope through Bell's window, strangles him and leaves his calling
card to announce to the police that he had sprung their trap and escaped with the valuable
The following night The Bat climbs to the roof of the Oakdale Bank with the intention of
stealing the contents of the vault, but peering into the skylight, The Bat sees that
another looter has beaten him to it. He pursues the thief to the estate of Courtland
Fleming, the bank's president whose nephew Richard, (Arthur Houseman), has leased the
property to Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, (Emily Fitzroy), and her skittish maid Lizzie Allen,
(Louise Fazenda), who haved moved there for some peace and quiet. Soon the house is filled
with characters who are suspected of the robbery including Van Gorder's niece Dale, (Jewel
Carmen) and her fiancee Brooks Bailey, (Jack Pickford), who is high on the list of
suspects because he works at the bank as a cashier.
The eerie events that follow into the night include faces at windows and strange noises
plus the appearance of a peculiar butler, (Sojin
Kamiyama). Realising that The Bat is in their vicinty, the gathering reasons that the
missing money from the bank must be hidden somewhere on the estate. Purely by accident,
and after some detectives arrive, Dale discovers a secret room behind a fireplace where
she encounters the cloaked figure of The Bat. In an attempt to ensnare the criminal,
Lizzie prepares a bear trap in the grounds, but suddenly the garage catches fire to force
the house's occupants out and allow The Bat to retrieve the loot stashed there.
Momentarily captured, The Bat breaks free and makes a run for it with the money into the
grounds only to be snared by the trap prepared by Lizzie. The Bat is finally unmasked and
revealed to be.....Well, that would be telling!
In the words of the opening title-card, "Can you keep a secret? Don't reveal the
identity of The Bat. Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find
out for themselves."
Bolstered by a thumping music score and Arthur Edeson's photography, The Bat became the prototype for all the "spooky house"
thrillers that were soon to follow. The film features an inventive use of miniatures and
striking set designs created by one of the best in the business, William Cameron Menzies who is reknowned for his work on ROBIN HOOD
(1922), Things To Come (1936) and GONE WITH THE
Notable amongst The Bat's cast is Tullio Carminati de Brambilla, a descendant of Italian
nobility who had succeeded as a romantic leading man in his own
country before appearing in American, British and European films, the most notable being
Rene Clair's delightful La Beaute du Diable
Emily Fitzroy was a London born theatrical actress who entered films in America during
Born in 1895, Louise Fazenda began her film career as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty and
later appeared in the first all-talkie horror film The
Japanese born Sojin Kamiyama found fame after
his appearance in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and
went on to portray a whole host of scheming Oriental villains. This got him into trouble
with his fellow countrymen who believed he was poorly misrepresenting his people to the
rest of the world. After the advent of sound, Kamiyama returned to Japan where he
continued to work until his death in 1954, at the age of 63.
Also in the cast is Mary Pickford's younger brother, Jack Pickford, Arthur Houseman who
usually portrayed tottering drunks even though Houseman rarely touched a drop and Jewel
Carmen, a former beauty queen who became West's wife, portraying Dale Ogden.
As a point of interest, cartoonist Bob Kane was so impressed with the film when he saw it
as a young boy that the images he remembered formed the basis for his greatest cartoon
By 1930 virtually all of Hollywood's
major studios had experimented with the new sound medium. Those companies that did not
adopt the process, soon found their box office receipts taking a turn for the worse.
Certain film genres emerged with renewed vigor and many studios checked their back
catalogues to supply sound remakes of their past successes. Sound breathed new life into
the horror comedy infusing the visuals with the sounds of creaking doors, thunderclaps and
screams. In retrospect it seems inevitable that Roland West would make a sound version of
his earlier success. As well as scripting and directing The Bat Whispers, West took it upon himself to instruct his team of
technicians with an idea of what he wanted to achieve. Utilising two sound stages, teams
worked on 110 different backgrounds headed by former chief draughtsman Paul Roe Crawley
now elevated to the position of art director. Thomas Lawless contributed artistic replicas
of famous paintings to adorn the mansion set while Harvey Meyers nicknamed "The
Shadow Man" was hired to paint shadows on the walls, ceilings and floors of the sets
in collusion with William McClelland who was in charge of lighting. Complimenting this
massive human endeavor were the cinematographers Ray June, Robert Planck and Charles Cline
who devised a system of steel cables and tracks to allow fluid camera takes through the
maze of sets. Photographic technician Charles Cline also developed a camera dolly capable
of zooming the camera 18 feet in a fraction of a second. Although the idea only cost $400
to create, the results are highly effective, particularly with the use of miniature sets.
Of special note is the use of this contraption in the opening sequence and the shot of a
clocktower. The camera pulls back, tilts and then tears down the face of the building to
the busy streets below and remains so memorable that the remainder of the film never quite
matches its impact.
In addition to the standard 35mm format, West decided to make a seperate wide-screen
version in 65mm and touted the process as "Magnifilm". West had
personally purchased the wide-film camera after three weeks of exhaustive testing before
"The 65mm motion picture camera has the same range of vision as the human eye"
A 38 foot screen was constructed on one of the lots at United
Artists with a specially made wide-screen projector. "Wide-film shown on giant
screens is the answer to a public demand for progress in motion picture entertainment.
Larger theatres are being built, requiring larger screens. We have reached the last
magnitude of the old 35mm film. If theatres enlarge the narrow film, it loses its
sharpness. The new 65mm film on the huge screen gives full detail. It also enhances the
stereoscopic effect so that there is no distortion of the players to patrons sitting at
the extreme sides of the theatre".
Unfortunately critics and theatre exhibitors alike rejected the innovation with theatre
owners in particular objecting to the extra expense that would be needed to install the
new equipment. Therefore the wide-screen version of The
Bat Whispers was seldom seen and proved to be a commercial failure. In November of
1930 the Hays Office stepped in and banned the use of the wide-film guage in an attempt to
quell the rising uneasiness amongst theatre owners.
In 1988 the 65mm version received its first public screening for more than fifty years at
UCLA and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
To provide the necessary mood and atmosphere, West chose to
shoot most of the scenes at night, working from dusk to dawn with a break at midnight for
dinner. Again secrecy was maintained during the filming of the finale, even to the extent
of not allowing the scene to be written down in the working script or in any pre-release
synopsis. In addition, the film ended with an epilogue featuring Chester Morris advising
the audience not to divulge The Bat's identity.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to appeal to you on behalf of a very dear friend
of mine...The Bat. If people guess his identity, he's heartbroken. Yes indeed, and he goes
around for days killing people without the slightest zest for his work. Now you dear
folks, you've found him out. You've torn the mask from his face and he's really quite
angry about it. So in order to keep him happy and contented, I want you all to promise me
that you won't divulge his identity. Let him try to fool your friends as he hopes he's
fooled you, and in return for your consideration, he promises not to haunt your homes,
steal your money or frighten your little children. Is it a bargain? Thank you."
Only a few other minor changes were made to the original film: Dr. Wells was renamed
Dr. Venrees, the role of Detective Moletti became Detective Anderson and the comedy relief
of the other detective became the job of W.D. Jones of Oakdale County. The most obvious
deviation was the appearance of The Bat himself. Instead of the winged cloak and bat
masked entity of 1926, for The Bat Whispers he
was garbed in a simple, but equally effective hooded cloak.
West also took a hand in the cast selection. Grayce Hampton replaced Emily Fitzroy as Van
Gorder; William Bakewell became Brooks Bailey; Hugh Huntley portrayed Richard Fleming and
Ben Bard became "The Unknown". Supporting roles went to Maude Eburne as Lizzie Allen who interpreted her part as a
hypochondriac, a mantle she would play again as Gussie Schnappman for Majestic's The Vampire Bat (1933). Also present is Una Merkel, a
comedienne who played at one time or another with such comedy greats as Harold Lloyd, W.C.
Fields and Bob Hope. Character actor Spencer
Charters is delightfully psychotic as the mansion's caretaker who endlessly twitters
on about an infestation of ghosts. Charters had built up a 36 year stage career that
spanned 470 plays and a filmography of around 200 appearances. He died by suicide at the
age of 65 in January of 1943. Lastly Gustav von
Seyffertitz is Dr. Venrees, an
Austrian actor of classical tradition whose most celebrated genre film appearance is in
the unfortunately now lost film The Wizard (1927)
as Dr. Coriolos. Gustav can also be savoured in The
Moonstone (1934); as Mr. Grimes in Mary Pickford's Sparrows (1926) and RKO's She
star of the film, however, is Chester Morris whose performance shines as he grimaces and
pouts under the powerful lights that were used to achieve the sharp shadowy settings.
Morris was later to suffer from scorched retinas due to these powerful arc-lamps and the
condition became known as "Klieg-Eyes"
At this time associate producer for Dracula,
E.M. Asher contacted West for his thoughts on Chester Morris for the role of the Count.
West responded "Don't think I'd care for that part for Chester as we are looking
for romantic roles."
Two other productions were underway at United Artists for which most of the promotional
dollars were being spent, Howard Hughes' aviation epic HELL'S ANGELS and Eddie
Cantor's Technicolor musical WHOOPEE! Both films became big moneyspinners for the
studio while The Bat Whispers barely recouped
its considerable costs.
The Bat would again be revived in 1959
in a film directed and scripted by Crane Wilbur and starring the new King of Horror, Vincent Price.
A few months later Roland West began an
ill-fated relationship with a young comedienne working for Hal Roach named Thelma Todd. He
met her during a yacht cruise to Catalina Island in September of 1930. Still married, West
became infatuated with the attractive strawberry-blonde from Lawrence, Kansas and he tried
to secure a dramatic part for her in HELL'S ANGELS. Hal Roach intervened and forbid
her to take the part while still under contract to his studio. The part of Helen
eventually fell to Jean Harlow. A compromise was found and West was given permission to
cast Thelma in his next production CORSAIR. West produced
and directed the picture that told of a college football hero who turns to crime to
support his wealthy girlfriend in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Thelma
Todd was initially billed as Alison Lloyd in an attempt to disassociate her from her
previous knockabout comedy roles, but alas it was to no avail.
Also in the cast was Chester Morris appearing in his third and final West production.
Morris' career gradually declined after this role and he was soon relegated to B-movies
for fourteen appearances as BOSTON BLACKIE from 1941-1949. In his later years he
suffered from ill-health until in September of 1970, he killed himself with an overdose of
barbiturates when he learned he had a terminal form of stomach cancer.
Released in 1931, CORSAIR made little impact at the box office and had to compete
with a stream of similar gangster pictures around the same time. Tired with the lack
of support from United Artists, Roland West permanently retired from the rigors of film
Away from the movie industry, West decided to
convert his three-tiered Mediterranean style house into a restaurant named Thelma Todd's
Sidewalk Cafe. However, when Thelma died under mysterious circumstances in December of
1935, West became the prime suspect to the authorities and the public alike. Found in her
car, battered bruised and asphyxiated from the effects of carbon monoxide,
rumours persisted that her long time companion Roland West had something to do with her
death. Afterwards, in 1938, West and his estranged wife Jewel Carmen divorced, the cafe
was sold and Roland began a life of seclusion. By 1950 his health was failing, suffering
after a stroke and a nervous breakdown. On his deathbed it has been said that while
delirious, West confessed to Thelma Todd's murder, contradicting his testimony during the
inquest. In a detailed study of Thelma's death, "Hot Toddy" author Andy
Edmonds points out that the elaborate plans that seem to have been made to cover-up her
death suggests that her murderer was probably someone with far greater power and influence
than Roland West would have been able to wield. Edmonds continues that West's deathbed
confession was probably no more than a last bid for immortal fame. In 1952 in Santa
Monica, California at the age of 65, West succumbed to heart failure and died. He is laid
to rest at Forest Lawns Cemetery in Glendale.
It is indeed sad that Roland West's later
entanglements should manage to overshadow his earlier career. From a man who it has been
said was very much aloof and kept to himself, Roland West, the great experimenter, left
behind a great legacy for us to cherish.
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Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of
Ronald V. Borst
and DVD Search