Batman Before Batman: Bob Kane’s Inspiration – The 1930 Mystery Film “The Bat Whispers”

Batman is a character that has survived in the hearts of fans for decades. More importantly he’s survived as the star of a comic magazine, being one of the few characters to be consistently published since his first appearance in 1939. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as a companion character to mirror the success of the recently created Superman, Bats has had a lasting impression on the world around him. But where did he come from? The groundwork for Batman is clear if you are looking for it, and the creators were never shy about listing their inspiration for the character.

So let’s take a look at the story behind the Bat. The inspiration that led to a fan favorite here at Grizzly Bomb, and across the world. While there are definitely famous inspirations from other media like Zorro and Sherlock Holmes, I want to start with one of Bob Kane’s early inspirations; The Bat Whispers.

Now you may have seen something about this recently here on the interweb. Mashup artist Rob Hebert recently took some clips from the film and threw them together with some trailer music from The Dark Knight Rises. I think it’s important we watch that trailer right now, because if you’re any kind of a bat-fan you will have weird nerd chills running down your spine.

I know, right? Here’s what Hebel had to say about his trailer, courtesy of Uproxx:

The plot, as summarized by Wikipedia, goes something like this. A mysterious criminal by the name of “The Bat” eludes police and then finally announces his retirement to the country, while a wealthy Cornelia Van Gorder takes up residence in the estate of a famous banker. Along with her maid Lizzie, her niece Dale, and a bank teller disguised as a gardener, she is terrorized by a series of strange events seemingly set in motion by the mysterious bat. Possible suspects include a doctor, an elderly police lieutenant, a BUTLER, a handyman, and a big-city cop.

An early talkie, this film is the second film version of the 1920 hit Broadway play “The Bat.” The first film version of the play, “The Bat” (1926), was also directed by Roland West. Just as in the play and the first film, people explore an old mansion looking for a hidden treasure while a caped killer picks them off one by one.

There was a clip from the film on Daily Motion. I watched a few minutes of it and I was knocked backward. I searched on youtube and found the entire film.

Incredible.

Yep, it’s safe to say, if Bob Kane never saw this, we would never have had the Batman. Kane often cited the film a one of the influences for the character. he didn’t seem to shy away from that. But, so many elements of Batman and Gotham City spring from this film. The German expressionist lighting, the double life storyline, the aerial acrobatics, they’re all there. There’s even a Batmobile.

After checking this out and being floored by the beautiful filmmaking of Roland West, I decided to stay up all night and cut together a trailer for the film in the style of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I used clips that I found on youtube and Hans Zimmer’s music from several DKR trailers.

First of all, It’s easy to see Gotham when you look at some of the images of the city. The way it’s filmed and the personality of the city shine through immediately. This is where it begins, because you can’t have Batman without Gotham City. The two are combined like no other hero, with the exception of Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen. The dark moody city besieged by the criminal element, endowed with cases of curiosity and menace. Sounds a lot like Gotham. And the landscapes, dark shadows, and creepy ambiance all look a lot like Gotham. I won’t even be bothered to say the early portrayals of Gotham, because while the look of the city may have grown over the years, it’s always had the same feeling to it. A city to be afraid of, which is clearly represented in The Bat Whispers.

Secondly, The Bat.The masked killer stalking the treasure seekers using the shadows and the element of surprise. Sounds familiar, right? He dresses in black, drops on them from out of nowhere, and wears a cloak resembling bat wings to terrify his victims as he casts the shadow of the bat upon them. This is a method famously implemented by Batman for decades, and an effective one at that. While any animal in nature feels the fear of a shadow crawling over top of them, it’s clear that Kane took some of the iconic moments from the film and implanted them right into Batman’s MO.  It is strange to see the design and methods used to terrify victims about to be murdered as opposed to criminals about to be Batman’d. The way the Bat slowly sneaks behind his victims, or drops down on them from above, or the steely intimidation as he stares them down across the room are all pieces of the Batman puzzle.

Next, this is a mystery movie. A who-dun-it. A detective story, in a way. Not only are the mansion guests searching for loot, but they need to find out who The Bat is before they all end up dead. Clues need to be found, hunches followed, suspects identified. All classic themes from this era, which continues today in the form of film, novels, and even Murder Mystery parties. A crucial element to Batman is his ability to work through these exact themes, and as the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ it’s something he’s very good at. There are more clear inspirations for Batman’s detective skills found in other literature, but this is yet another step in the evolution of the character.

There are a ton of elements from the Batman mythos evident in the film. A Stately Manor. A butler. A mystery. A masked bat-themed character that strikes fear into the treasure hunters, who are a cowardly and superstitious lot. A freaking batmobile (in a way). There’s even a bat signal. Seriously.

Everything about this screams Batman. Now it may seem like I’m reading a bit too much into a 2-minute trailer. You’d be right, except I’ve seen The Bat Whispers, and while it certainly isn’t an early movie about Batman, it most definitely stands as an inspiration to the hero we all know and love. But don’t take my word for it. You can check it out for yourself. As a fan of The Batman you need to check it out for yourself.

Order it on Amazon (it’s more affordable on VHS) to really show off your nerd cred.

Of course, there are a lot of inspirations for not only the character of Batman, but his supporting cast as well. And we’ll take a look at some of these beginnings in future articles, so be sure to keep checking back here on Grizzly Bomb.

Same Bat-Time. Same Bat-Channel.

I couldn’t resist.

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