Archive for May, 2015


THE JEFFREY LYNN TYPE

 

 

Hollywood was and still is filled with types – be they on the screen or not.  In fact, it was often remarked that you can expect anything to happen on Hollywood Blvd.  I remember making an inquiry in a bookshop only to have a person dressed in a red wool suit with Elvis side burns and glasses standing to my left near the till in over 80 degree heat. There are those that have unmistakable quality of “it,” who can carry a film and enthrall the audience.  Then there are those that, for some reason, are known only to a few.  They somehow do not have that star quality, yet deliver performance after performance, never quite getting there.  I speak of the Lyle Talbots of the world, or, in this case, Mr. Jeffery Lynn.

Jeffrey Lynn was born Ragnar Lynn in 1909 in Auburn, Massachusetts.  He had a BA degree from Bates College in Maine.  The stage beckoned.   He toured in a stage stock company production of the military farce BROTHER RAT that, was a curious foreshadowing of what to come in his life of having stardom allude him. The play BROTHER RAT was brought to Hollywood to be filmed by Warner Brothers without Lynn who was given a role in another short film.

I first saw Jeffrey Lynn in the role of Lloyd Hart in the James Cagney gangster picture THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).  Lynn played the college man soon to be lawyer who eventually woos Jean Sherman played by blonde, smiley Priscilla Lane away from James Cagney’s character Eddie Barlett, who has been waiting for her to grow older than in the film’s beginning.  Lynn’s role was good solid work for an actor who gets to play a younger version of himself as he grows from a soldier in the trenches to a polished man of the law.

 

The one that really showed his skill in my opinion was the 1939 Lloyd Bacon directed Warner Brothers picture ‘A CHILD IS BORN’.  I have always enjoyed pictures about occupations such as the medical profession, MEN IN WHITE (1934), NIGHT NURSE (1931), steel workers, MEN OF IRON (1935), truck drivers, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) and THE VIOLENT ROAD (1958).   Jeffrey Lynn’s role as Jed Sutton, the husband of convicted murderer Grace Sutton (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who is about to give birth is interesting to watch as he fights frustration of not being able to see his pregnant wife.  It was a role that was similar of some early Clark Gable performances, particularly in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934).     While Lynn’s Jed Sutton is on the right side of the law and Gable’s Blackie Gallagher is a grinning rogue, both show texturing and humor in their brushes with the law with different resolutions.  You could argue that it was a variation on the ‘good guy’ roles Lynn played so well and I would agree. Yet he carried it off so well. He was ably supported by Fitzgerald as his wife and the long neglected Gladys George as a show business dancer whose career in stalled because of a baby.

Lynn did go on to bigger roles in FOUR WIVES (1939)  and  FOUR MOTHERS (1941) which featured  expanded part of Felix Dietz that he had  done in the previous  FOUR  DAUGHTERS (1938).  Lynn went on to a huge career ending in 1990 with an appearance on the TV show KNOTS LANDING.  Lynn also has writing credits, music credits and hosting credits, just not the full stardom of having his name above the title which to me is a shame. The lucky actors who don’t mind playing typecast roles could make whole careers out of playing policemen, bankers, henchman, and doctors.  There are those that dislike it, fight the system for what they think are different roles; unfortunately, most do not gain that all important public acceptance.   Boris Karloff once remarked when asked later in his life if he ever tired of playing monsters and madmen to which he replied no that he was blessed to be an always working actor.

Such were the Lyle Talbots, Jeffrey Lynns and the David Manners the Golden Age. They had the looks, the voice, the stories, the directors and careers in supporting others. Some were happy about it. Others may have carried a secret bitterness that is forever silent. John Garfield’s cynical character of the chain smoking, unshaven piano playing Mickey Bordon articulated it so well in a towards the end of this clip from FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938); ironically with Jeffrey Lynn in the cast. He talks of God rolling the dice, life’s choice and in the best part not seen here remarks of “having just enough talent to make someone else look good but not yourself.”

 

 

Window dressing for people to play off of, perhaps yes, always capable of course. Whatever their feelings, we shall never know. It is still wonderful to see them on the screen. For that we thank them.


Outside the lonely foreboding mansion, thunder booms and lightning flashes in the sky. The approaching storm illuminates the large, time-worn building where inside the heroine is about to enter a secret staircase. The door slides ominously open, revealing a staircase down into the neither regions of the house. She steps forward toward the opening-only to have a hand reach out and slam the door closed. The house is not ready to reveal its secrets quite yet. Such is a moment of dread from THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), directed by Roland West, which set the stage for all the haunted house horrors to come.

Pictures made in the style of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE CONJURING, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or THE SHINING have been a staple of the horror film since Charles Ogle first shuffled forth as the creature in FRANKENSTEIN (1910). House based ghoulish goings on have been around longer than that in the theatre. Its heyday was during the 1920’s and continued up to what some would say the zenith in the play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. The source material for THE BAT WHISPERS was the very successful stage play THE BAT written by Mary Roberta Rinehart, a mystery writer and Avery Hopwood, whose forte was farce. The result was a mixture of thrills, red herrings, murders, inept policemen and witty dialogue all with a dash of slapstick comedy to relieve the tension. Moments of horror punctuated with lighter scenes is still a cardinal writing rule in horror film today as you build to the next shock.

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) was a remake of the silent version by the same director. Why would you remake a three year old film? The answer is the same today as yesterday because there is different technology and you already own the property. The main difference is that THE BAT WHISPERS was on the cutting edge of technology for its time. Roland West filmed THE BAT WHISPERS in not one but three different versions. The first was the standard 35 mm version aka flat screen. This was the dawn of talking pictures. Many directors as well as actors were finding their way through the new systems. Actors could not move around frantically as much as they could in the silent days, and directors were discovering camera movement such as ‘tracking shots’ on dollies. You no longer had to have the camera locked in one position yet the early cameras were still cumbersome. It was exciting times as experimentation was the vogue.


THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) Enjoy some silent moments as the use of sound was not fully discovered in storytelling.

The second version of THE BAT WHISPERS was photographed in widescreen 65 mm format, shot by a separate camera person, Robert Planck. The picture also featured innovative use of miniatures which may seem trite today but in 1930 they were used spectacularly; particularly the opening dive down the face of skyscraper to the street below only to pull up at the last moment to the front door of a building. Later on there is the quintessential shot of the corridors of the house featuring the wind billowing curtains, dark rooms on either side as the camera passes by, establishing what would become one of the fundamental images of the language of horror -the old house where evil deeds are done. This was essential as it was the first time the camera traveled down the corridors by itself showing the atmosphere of dread.

The third most effective piece of camera work was a moving shot from the garden to the front door of the mansion at night from the outside. The same angle can be seen in the odious Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula (which had no relation to Bram Stoker’s novel)
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) is also landmark in that it has no opening music. In fact, there is very little music heard at all as the film makers were not yet using music as a tool. It is also a monetary consideration in that you did not have to pay someone to use their music or compose an original piece. Todd Browning’s 1931 DRACULA, with Bela Lugosi, featured a movement from SWAN LAKE as its opening theme for dramatic purposes. This piece of music was in the public domain plus the audience would recognize it.
Another landmark moment in THE BAT WHISPERS is really a non-moment in that the on screen shriek of a menaced heroine is not heard. This is not because it was deemed too frightening for a 1930s audience but that it was not part of the horror lexicon. Sound was a new tool to tell a story. The heroine in this case when menaced lets out a muffled sound and runs, pounding her fists into a door. Once again Todd Browning’s DRACULA features the famous Lugosi muffled sound as he is staked. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) featured an original music score plus Mae Clarke’s and other people’s shrieks. This follows the horror axiom of the 30s and some of the best examples today that the most terrifying scenes are played in silence. Interesting to note that both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are produced one year ahead of THE BAT WHISPERS.

The third version of THE BAT WHISPERS was a special edition for the foreign market, said to be made of alternate takes of scenes. All were directed and produced by one Roland West.
The 65 mm format version is important in that it foreshadowed the coming of Cinemascope, later Cinerama and Todd O formats which were so strong in the fifties and sixties as the motion picture industry was seeking a way to combat the monster of television. THE BAT WHISPERS had limited distribution in its large format as it required special projectors and screens in a theatre which in many cases had just paid for the conversion to sound. The early John Wayne picture THE BIG TRAIL (1930) by Raoul Walsh was another example of a film made in large format and flat screen that also suffered from distribution problems.

The plot of THE BAT WHISPERS in not important plus it would detract if some would like to view it on their own. The ending features an epilogue by one of the film stars Chester Morris speaking directly to the audience, asking the patrons not to reveal the ending to their friends after leaving the theatre. This is similar to the Lugosi audience speech at the end of the performance of the play Dracula (1927) and Edward Van Sloan’s prologue to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN.

Urban Legend says that fellow named Bob Kane attended a screening of this film. Kane was thrilled with the imagery of the mysterious Bat in human form that he went on to create The Batman for Detective Comics Issue number 27.

Director Roland West made a number of pictures in a similar style such as THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), later remade with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939. THE BAT WHISPERS was remade in 1959 with Vincent Price, Agnes Moorhead, and Darla Hood (Darla from the Our Gang Comedies). West only made 13 films in total, yet his fame (infamy?) comes from being the lover of popular film comedienne, party girl Thelma Todd who was found slumped over dead in her car.


Todd had bruises, a broken nose, chipped teeth and three cracked ribs yet her death was ruled a suicide by LAPD due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The real life crime was one of Hollywood’s great mysteries. Other suspects included Todd’s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, Charles Smith, treasurer of a restaurant co-owned by Todd and West and none other than Charles “Lucky” Luciano. West remained a prime suspect for fifty years. On his deathbed, delirious, he “confessed” to murdering Thelma Todd.

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) set the pattern for all the coming horrors in a house. Everything has to have a beginning and with daring technical innovations, an eye to experiment, to push the envelope of the medium of film ….the language of the horror film is that much richer.