Batman in Theaters Part 1 – The Campy

Batman’s appearance on the silver screen goes back further than you probably realize.  While the 1966 Batman movie staring Adam West was the first feature length movie starring Batman, there were two movie serials that were made in the 1940s featuring Batman and Robin.  For those that don’t know, a movie serial is something that appeared in ye olden times.  It was an episodic feature that would be shown before the main, full-length featured movie.  In the case of the two Batman serials, both were 15 episodes long, with each being roughly 20 minutes per episode.  At the end of each episode, people would be advised to return to this theater next week in order to see the next chapter.

Batman (1943)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser
Starring
Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne
Douglas Croft as Robin/Richard Grayson
J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Daka
Shirley Patterson as Linda Page
William Austin as Alfred Pennyworth

Batman and Robin struggle against Dr. Daka, a Japanese scientist and agent of Hirohito who has invented a device that turns people into pseudo-zombies, and has a base in a Funhouse of horrors, in a Japanese area of the city. Daka makes several attempts to defeat the Dynamic Duo, including turning Bruce Wayne’s love interest into a “zombie,” before finally falling to his death when Robin hits the wrong switch, opening a trapdoor to a pit of crocodiles. 

I bought this serial collection several years ago, but only recently got around to watching it.  And honestly, I’m a bit surprised that it was released unedited.  At least, I assume it was unedited because there is some good ole World War 2 racism in it.  For instance, in the first chapter, there is a line that goes “and the wise government rounded up all the shifty eyed Japs.”  That’s not the only thing tying it to WW2.  In this story, Batman is also an agent for the government, and receives coded messages from Washington.  Not that he ever actually does anything with the messages.  But he gets them, and that shows that he’s a good American.  I will commend how the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic was played.  More so in this story than the follow up, the Bruce Wayne billionaire (well, probably millionaire) playboy persona was really highlighted and done well.

Batman and Robin (1949)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Written by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Royal K. Cole
Starring
Robert Lowery as Batman/Bruce Wayne
John Duncan as Robin/Dick Grayson
Jane Adams as Vicki Vale
Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon
William Fawcett as Prof. Hammil

The Dynamic Duo face off against the Wizard, a hooded villain with an electrical device which controls cars and a desire to set challenges for the Dynamic Duo, whose identity remains a mystery throughout.  While trying to track down who the Wizard is, Batman and Robin must also contend with photograher/reporter Vicki Vale trying to uncover their identities.

I don’t really have anything to specifically comment on that’s specific to this serial.  Only that for someone named The Wizard, he sure doesn’t do a lot of magic. And oh yeah, there are some instances where it’s obvious that a stunt man is playing Robin, because that person’s hair will be slicked back as opposed to the curly hair that the main actor has.

Now, for things that appear in both serials.  First, Batman’s costume is pretty bad.  Well, let’s chalk most of it up to the time period and being in black and white, but the cowl is still terrible.  Gone are the bat ears that stick up from the side of the head, and they are replaced by horns that stick out near the top of his head.  Even Daredevil would say, “dude, that’s a bit much.”  There also wasn’t any work done on Robin’s mask.  The crew didn’t feel like creating the domino mask, so instead they put on a generic mask that anyone could have walked into a costume shop and pick up.

And cliffhangers.  Oh god the cliffhangers.  Every single chapter ends with a cliffhanger.  And by golly, these are some epic cliffhangers.  Epic as in it is possible that Batman is dead with each cliffhanger.  For instance, one chapter ends with Batman being in a plane that crashes.  The next episode began with Batman calmly crawling out of the wreckage and dusting himself off.  There’s also instances where Batman will be in a building that exploded, only for it to be revealed that he actually got out well beforehand.

There is no Batmobile.  Instead, they drive around in one of Bruce Wayne’s convertibles.  But don’t worry, they always put the roof up when they are about to change into their costumes.  At least in the second serial they drive themselves around.  Personally, I’d find it a bit suspicious if I saw Alfred driving Bruce and Dick around, and then moments later driving Batman and Robin around.  That was the case in the first serial.  There was also an attempt to focus on Batman as a detective.  Sure, a lot of the detective work was pretty flimsy, but the effort was there.

Overall, I imagine that these serials weren’t intended to be as campy as they seem now, and were likely about as serious as you could be in the 1940s.  However, they were the influence for the Adam West Batman stuff, or so it is reported.  The serials were shown in their entirety in 1965, and the popularity led to a Batman movie and television show.  Unlike how I view the serials, the movie and show were intentionally campy.

Batman (1966)
Directed by Leslie H. Martinson
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Starring
Adam West as Batman/Bruce Wayne
Burt Ward as Robin/Dick Grayson
Lee Meriwether as Catwoman
Cesar Romero as The Joker
Burgess Meredith at The Penguin
Frank Gorshin as The Riddler

Batman and Robin go up against The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler, who trick Commodore Schmidlapp to develop a dehydration ray that will turn humans into dust.

Now, we are all familiar with how goofy this movie is.  We love to make fun of the Bat Shark repellant, or admit that sometimes there’s no good place to get rid of a bomb.  I enjoy watching this movie as much as any Batman fan, but an article on NBCNews.com earlier this week reminded me of the problem I have with this movie.  The author of that article talks about how incompatible Robin would be in the Nolan films because there is no room for his eye-rolling catchphrases in the movie.

And there you have it.  Robin hasn’t really been a catchphrase machine since the show went off the air.  That gives nearly 40 years of comics (which include several different Robins, the most recent having killed a villain), the animated series of the early 1990s, and even Chris O’Donnell’s portrayal in the two Joel Schumacher films to contradict the memory of Burt Ward’s and the Silver Age’s Robin.  Yet, it continues to live on.  It continues to define how non-comic fans view comics.

Sure, it’s not the makers of the Batman movie’s fault that their version became iconic.  It’s just the way things are.  There’s no telling where Batman would be today without that movie and show.

Next time, we’ll be looking at the Burton/Schumacher movies of the ’90s (and 89), and probably Mask of the Phantasm.

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2 comments

    1. I know, but it’s one line trying to be punny (spoiler alert: it isn’t), and not indicative of the rest of his time in the movies. And if what Robin does have in the Schmacher films is too campy for the Nolan-verse, then Batman is also too campy for the Nolan-verse. But also, maybe I just get overly defensive about Robin.

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