The Batman

The Batman from David Cairns on Vimeo.

This is from the Robert Florey-directed THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY (1936). At a certain point in the story, we get glimpses of different movies being shot on different stages of a studio which is being targeted by a murderer/terrorist, who turns out to be… well, I won’t spoil it. But we get to see Hank Mann and Snub Pollard as clowns doing crosstalk patter instead of the slapstick they were famed for (Mann plays the drunken millionaire in CITY LIGHTS, among many other roles through a long career beginning at Keystone), but much more interestingly we witness the shooting of an expressionist horror movie, featuring a character called The Batman. He wears a dark cape and is accompanied by a grotesque figure with a painted grin.

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THE BAT WHISPERS

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THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

This is all very interesting as the DC Comics Batman (known as THE Batman in his early appearances) didn’t make his first appearance until 1939. Creators Bill Finger & Bob Kane always credited the movies, though they mentioned THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). And indeed, the Bat and Gwynplaine look a lot more like the comic book characters than these doofuses, with the quaint twist that the Bat was a villain and Gwynplaine a hero, rather than the other way around.

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I’m also slightly amused that The Batman in Florey’s film looks so much like Brandon Lee in THE CROW, a much later descendant of the costumed crime fighter.

Florey, of course, directed for-real horror movie MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and *nearly* got to do FRANKENSTEIN, but for me the more relevant credits are his early shorts, THE LOVE OF ZERO and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. Both are made in a Caligariesque kind of cardboard expressionism, and the latter is even a behind-the-screen story of moviemaking like THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY.

As for the actors — the screen’s first Batman turns out to have been German character player Henry Brandon, best known for playing Scar in THE SEARCHERS. IMDb refers to his sidekick as “the gnome,” and the actor is my hero, John George, from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS. A dynamic duo by anybody’s standards!

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9 Responses to “The Batman”

  1. I do hope you’ve had the opportunity to see Roland West’s “The Bat Whispers” in 70mm. It’s a truly astonishing piece of work.

    Interestingly, I was watching an early “Batman” serial from the late 30’s the other day in which he refers to himself (several times) as “The Batman.”

    It’s the “The” that apparently makes him special.

  2. Batman’s a vegetarian? Well, that *is* oddly appropriate, fitting in with his portrayal in the comics as a complete teetotaller who fakes drinking alcohol to keep up his playboy image.

    Hard not to be reminded of the fake rumor from about a decade ago that Orson Welles was planning a Batman movie in the mid-’40s. The hoax suggested that Gregory Peck was to play the title role, though I’d far rather have seen Burt Lancaster.

  3. Kirk Douglas, if you want Frank Miller style manly angst.

    I’ve seen The Bat Whispers only on the small screen, and would love the opportunity of a 70mm showing. Not that likely in my neck of the woods, though.

  4. Wow! Great post.

  5. Henry Brandon is pretty great in the Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu as well, which I highly recommend. It’s the only Fu film that I’m aware of to feature the sinister Si Fan society from the books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7nRukVaVNc

  6. revelator60 Says:

    If memory serves, “The Batman” was how the character was referred to in the early Batman comics as well. The usage is occasionally used in the modern comics, out of misbegotten belief that it sounds grander.
    My pick for the best Batman movie is the animated Mask of the Phantasm, which is also the best film noir ever made for kids.

    I can only imagine how wonderful the 70mm “The Bat Whispers” would look on the big screen. I’ve never seen the 4:3 version (in any medium) and wonder if it’s a disappointment.

  7. Still to see Mask of the Phantasm. Whenever I’ve caught glimpses of the animated Batman, I’ve been bothered by the lack of anatomical drawing skill underlying the slick visuals.

  8. Nerd note: Harry Myers was the millionaire in “City Lights”; Hank Mann was the deadpan prizefighter who had doubts about Charlie’s pacifist overtures.

  9. Thanks — I’ve had that one wrong for YEARS!

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