Between 1928-1930, the major Hollywood studios developed various wide film formats that were used for a handful of feature-length and short films, only to have the whole lot mothballed when complaining theatre owners were still dealing with the financial costs of sound conversion, wide film exhibition was curtailed by poor marketing, and screenings restricted to ten major U.S. cities with large populations by the film producer's organization.
For "The Bat Whispers" DVD (originally produced and released by United Artists), Milestone includes the 35mm 'flat' version, photographed simultaneously by Ray June, and the original 70mm format, filmed by Robert Planck in 65mm. Developed as Vitascope by Warner Bros, UA re-christened the format as Magnifilm for their own productions, and like rival studios, westerns and popular stage dramas were often hand-picked for wide film lensing.
Filmed in a ratio of 2.00:1, "The Bat Whispers" makes for a fascinating experience as two technologies literally converge on the sound stage.
With larger screen area, Magnifilm looks grand as the camera swoops through ingenious models, through tree-lined paths and doorways, and swoops over the hedges that surround the large mansion where the film's core mystery occurs. A sequel t
the director's 1926 silent classic "The Bat," Roland West's update includes plenty of door slams, blackouts, screams and assorted hokum that have since become beloved cliches of 'old dark house' mysteries involving a murder, some loot, and a shocking unmasking at the end.
Dialogue scenes reveal the challenges of microphoning the actors with a 65mm blimped camera in play, and there's several amusing moments where the performers miss their marks, wandering a few feet beyond positioned microphones. Being an early sound film, there's also an unusual emphasis on sound effects, with thunder rumbling way above the already faint dialogue levels.
Of the two versions, the Magnifilm print looks gorgeous, revealing the beauty of the format, and the custom sets that were designed to attractively fill unused areas of the frame. The 35mm version recomposes the Main Titles, and crops some of the elaborate tracking shots. Whereas the 65mm version was taken from a near pristine archival print, the 'flat' version is well-worn from sufficient showings, though it's worth peeking at some scenes to compare not only the lost information, but the differing attempts to capture close-ups and medium shots of the actors and key objects.
Both prints also contain the original epilogue, where an actor steps onto a film stage - ironically transforming the film to an unintentional novelty act - and pleads with the audience not to reveal the film's villain. A creaky classic in the best sense.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan