Old Movies: pre-code films that inspired Batman

Share this Article:

In this weeks’ old movies column, we take a look at some silent and pre-code films that inspired the Batman stories of today.

If you haven’t noticed, this past weekend saw the release of a brand-new spanking Batman film. Director Matt Reeves brings bats to the big screen once more as Robert Pattinson dons the cowl and hunts down Paul Dano’s The Riddler in a film that has been called exhilarating and brilliant. Of course, I’m not here to talk about this new caped crusader film. Instead, I’m here to take you back decades – to a time before Gotham City, black spandex, and The Batman.

This week, I’m looking at classic silent and pre-code films (from the 1920 and 30s) that, if you are fan of Batman or superheroes in general, you’ll find interesting. Plus, some of these films actually inspired your favourite comic book characters.

Honourable Mentions: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931) has clearly inspired many a hero/villain in our current comic book world, including Green Goblin, The Incredible Hulk, and quite possibly Two Face. However, seeing as my last column was an extensive look at Dr J and Mr H, it’s best I don’t ramble on too much.

Metropolis (1927)
Dir. Fritz Lang

The latest Batman movie sees yet another version of Gotham City in the film. Though Matt Reeves returns to Chicago as a basis of Bruce Wayne’s home, the set design and world of Batman is incredibly Gothic inspired. Especially Wayne Manor. 

While I can’t say for certain that there’s a direct correlation, Metropolis is still a visual masterpiece set in an immensely visually striking and futuristic city. The film revolves around wealthy industrialists and business magnates who reign over a city filled with lowly, underground dwelling workers. The class divide is a striking motif in Metropolis which echoes on the streets of Gotham. Even transforming some into monsters.

Metropolis, and subsequently, the Maschienenmensch has also influenced the likes of Star Wars, Doctor Who, and even a Madonna video.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dir. Paul Leni

“Wanna know how I got these scars?”

The visuals for The Man Who Laughs may seem horrific, but the film is more of a melodramatic romance. Starring Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt, and based on a book by Victor Hugo, the film revolves around a surgically deformed man who has a permanent, grotesque smile.

Despite not being a horror itself, The Man Who Laughs had considerable influence on the Universal Classic Monsters film, blending Gothic and Expressionist features of the silent era. Brian De Palma’s 2006 movie The Black Dahlia also includes footage of the film.

However, if you look up any pictures of the film itself, particularly Gwynplaine, you can definitely see how it inspired Batman’s historic arch-nemesis The Joker. There’s even a 2005 gothic novel called Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Dir. Fred Niblo

Silent movie megastar Douglas Fairbanks leads and also writes this immortal and stunning depiction of Zorro. based on The Curse Of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley.

Pretty much defining swashbuckling adventure films, it sees wealthy fop Don Diego Vega turn into a vigilant hero and defender of the people in order to stop the corrupt Governor Alvarado.

The mythology has changed throughout the course of the comics and the film, but originally, Fairbanks’ version of Zorro was the film Bruce Wayne went to watch with his parents – Thomas and Martha – the night they were unfortunately killed. Some versions have updated this to the 1940 film version with Tyrone Powers.

However, the idea of a rich playboy using his wealth to help the people of his town most definitely encouraged a young master Bruce to do the same.

the city in metropolis (1927)

Metropolis (1927)

The General (1926)
Dirs. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Perhaps the most tenuous link to Batman but bear with me on this one. Batman films attract a whole swathe of people. Some come to help unravel the mystery and stop the villain. Some come for the many emotional arcs of Bruce Wayne. Some, however, come for some mind-blowing action pieces. There’s a certain car chase sequence in The Batman, which is particularly memorable.

So why not enjoy an action sequence from nearly 100 years ago? Buster Keaton is a legendary silent movie star and stuntman. The film finds a hapless railroad engineer facing off against Union soldiers during the American Civil War.

Keaton is an absolute treasure to watch – his slapstick, comedic timing will produce a ruckus. But his stunts. Oh boy. There are some death-defying leaps and locomotive jumps that’ll have you holding your breath in exhilaration.

If you like your action, then Keaton’s the man for you. Though they aren’t related, and this is even more tenuous, the 1989 Batman shares the same last name with the genius silent star – Michael Keaton!

The Bat Whispers (1930)
Dir. Roland West

The Bat Whispers is the second adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the first being West’s 1926 silent version. It revolves around a criminal named The Bat who has eluded police for some time. After announcing his retirement, The Bat seemingly plagues a country house and its occupant searching for a banker’s fortune.

In his autobiography, comic-book creator Bob Kane stated that the main antagonist of The Bat Whispers was an inspiration for his character Batman. Side note: nowadays there are many filmmakers who urge their audiences not to spoil the ending by revealing who the killer is. This isn’t entirely a new phenomenon. Back in 1930, actor Chester Morris ends the film by telling the audience to, similarly, keep the secrets of The Bat – lest they become the villain’s new victim!

Cat People (1942)
Dir. Jacques Tourneur.

This year’s The Batman sees the return of the enigmatic and vivacious Catwoman. The femme fatale and notorious cat burglar is an often-flirtatious soul, using her femininity to manipulate Bats and the other men of Gotham.

Slinking, stalking cats are used to represent sexuality in 1942’s Cat People. The film revolves around a young woman who, once sexually awakened, turns into a monstrous panther-like cat and murders anyone in their path.

Cat People is one of the first films to use the much-used jump scare horror technique with its famous The Lewton Bus sequence. It’s also inspired many sequels as well as an erotic thriller remake by Paul Schrader in 1982.

It’s certainly interesting to see how pre-code and silent films have influenced what is now among the biggest franchises in modern cinema. How many of these movies have you seen? And what others would you recommend?

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

Related Stories

More like this