Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Batman On TV: What Might Have Been

Since January marks the 45th anniversary of the ABC-20th Century Fox Batman TV series, I thought I'd speculate on what might have been.  When one thinks of the 1966-1968 TV series, the comic book Bat-fan thinks "what a terrible way to go-go". To them, the show was ultimately a waste and a damaging insult.  But is that really the case?  Many Bat-fans, myself included, became Bat-fans by watching reruns of the series.  And admit it, we all loved it... that is, while we were young enough to take it seriously.  It was when we turned 12 or 13, when suddenly, the show we enjoyed so much just weeks earlier, all of a sudden looked different. Batman and Robin didn't seem heroic, just buffoonish.  The adventures and gadgets suddenly seemed dopey.  It was at that moment most of us rejected the show and proclaimed hatred for it.

But did it have to be that way?  What if Batman was produced just a little bit differently, more of a pop art adventure show: fun, yet serious?  It could have very well been like that. In 1964, Ed Graham Productions optioned the TV rights to Batman, and was trying to sell the show to CBS as a Saturday morning juvenile adventure show.  The end result would have been a Batman show similar to The Lone Ranger or The Adventures of Superman.  During this same period, DC Comics commissioned publicity photos of former football player Mike Henry, who would later go on to play Tarzan, and Jackie Gleason's dipstick son in the Smokey & The Bandit movies, in a Batman costume.  As it turned out, ABC expressed interest in Batman due to the popularity of the two Batman serials from the 1940s being screened at the Playboy Club in Chicago.  DC quickly reeled the rights back from Graham, and made a deal with ABC, who had the intent of turning the property into their version of NBC's The Man From UNCLE, a serious, yet fun pop art adventure show.

Now this is where things get messed up from the comic book fan's point of view. ABC farmed the rights out to 20th Century Fox to produce the show.  Fox, in turn, assigned the show to William Dozier and his Greenway Productions.  Dozier had little to no respect for comic books (although he did think highly of newspaper comic strips and radio adventure heroes), and decided the only way the show would work is to camp it up.  Dozier may have adopted the idea from Andy Warhol, who made the first deliberately campy version in a 1964 film Batman Dracula, made without DC's approval and screened only at Warhol's art exhibits.

But suppose Fox didn't assign Dozier for the job.  What if Fox got someone in line with ABC's original vision?  How different would the show have been?  It was still the 1960s, so it would be pop art and fun, but it wouldn't have been so demeaningly campy.  The screen test costumes Adam West and Burt Ward wore were better than the actual costumes for the series.  Batman's ears on the cowl were longer, as was his cape, and his boots were larger.  As for his chest emblem, gone was the pathetic little bat in the yellow circle resting on his gut.  Instead, there was a black bat spread across his shirt.  In this early screen test, West looked more like David Mazzuchelli's Batman Year One artwork come to life.  The screen tests were also done in a more serious tone, proving both West and Ward were perfectly cast as Batman and Robin.  It was the way the show was produced, dictated by Dozier to be a comedy, that ruined it.  Likewise Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith were perfect in their respective roles of the Riddler and the Penguin.  But suppose Cesar Romero, who played the Joker a little too childish, upon refusing to shave his mustache, was replaced with a young and deadly Jack Palance as the Joker? Or Frank Sinatra, who reportedly wanted the role?  Suppose Julie Newmar was able to play Catwoman for the entire run, making the character more consistent, and lame villains like Archer, Minstrel, and Marsha Queen of Diamonds were non-existent, while comic book villains like Two-Face, the Scarecrow, and Hugo Strange were utilized.

Sure, the show would still be as colorful, with pop art gimmicks like tilted camera angles, the twice a week cliffhanger format, and even the animated sound effects in the fight scenes (but perhaps more subtly done, like in the movie), but gone would be the bat-poles, the ridiculous bat-gadgets, and Batgirl.  Instead of Batman and Robin constantly depending on the all knowing Bat-Computer and the miraculous "Universal Drug Antidote" to get them out of trouble, suppose they used more detective work and had to be more clever. Instead of Robin's predictable and repetitive "holy" exclamations, suppose he quipped puns more in line with the character of the comic books, and suppose the show dealt with his circus history?  Imagine  the deaths of Bruce and Dick's parents being part of the series and their characterizations, making the show sombre at times.  Or the character of Aunt Harriet played for reality with her being concerned and suspicious of her nephew showing up with bruises and cuts day after day, perhaps even leading to believe Bruce, their benefactor, is a child abuser. Instead of the theme song used with a vocal of "Batman" sung repeatedly to campy effect, what if the much cooler instrumental version by Al Hirt was used?

One of the show's  biggest handicaps was that most episodes followed the same formula.  Imagine if the producers took some chances with the story telling, did episodes from different points of view.  What if writer-directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Webb, and Rod Serling were invited to contribute episodes? Suppose Jack Webb did an episode focusing on Gordon and the GCPD where a pair of detectives or squad officers were on a case where Batman ended up saving the night, causing bitterness or jealousy, while a pair of self-righteous night shift paramedics spend their shift cleaning up the bruised and battered criminals Batman leaves in his wake, feeling Batman has no respect for the criminal's civil rights.  Or Hitchcock's episode, a suspenseful view of the Riddler.   Or Rod Serling, looking into the twisted mind of The Joker.  Mystery novelist Eric Ambler was originally linked to the project briefly before backing out upon learning of Dozier's camp-comedy premise.  Imagine if he and other mystery writers worked on scripts.
I feel the show could have been similar to Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers' celebrated run on Detective Comics in the late 1970s.  As it was, Englehart took the grim, serious, yet somewhat pedestrian Batman Denny O'Neil developed a few years earlier, and gave the comic a distinctive pop art flavor that spiced up the series without sacrificing any of the darkness or melodrama.  Englehart found the perfect balance.  With a better production team, the TV series could have found the same balance.  Had all this come to pass, I think the series could have lasted five or six seasons, instead of the two and a half it did.

Even so, a fact of life is, DC Comics was being driven to bankruptcy by the Marvel Comics Group in the 1960s.  Fox, Dozier, ABC and Adam West, via the success of Batman, saved DC from going out of business.  And truth be told, although I went through the phase where I loathed the show, in recent years I've come to appreciate it for what it is. Many of the first season episodes are, in fact, very good pop-art adventure shows where the campy humor is more of a by-product rather than the whole focus of the show as it would become in the inferior second and third seasons. The pilot episode, "Hi Diddle Riddle...Smack In The Middle", is a little darker than the rest of the series, well paced with some suspense. It has wonderful dialogue that subsequent episodes never matched.

Other first season gems are "The Joker Is Wild...Batman Is Riled" (featuring a rather deadly Joker), "Instant Freeze...Rats Like Cheese" (George Sanders superb performance as Mr Freeze elevates the drama in this episode), "Zelda The Great...A Death Worse Than Fate" (the only episode to go against the traditional formula: there are no fight scenes, and someone other than Batman or Robin is in the cliffhanger death trap), "The Joker Goes To School...He Meets His Match The Grisly Ghoul" (great episode that focuses on Dick Grayson's character), "The Purrfect Crime...Better Luck Next Time" (the best Catwoman episode), "The Penguin Goes Straight...Not Yet He Ain't", and "Ring Of Wax...Give 'Em The Ax".  Also of note is the feature film, produced at the end of the first season. It has a bit of a James Bond feel due to the excellent Bruce Wayne scenes, and I kind of think Lee Meriwether made a better Catwoman than Julie Newmar. It's the series' last highpoint, with the second season episode "The Penguin's Nest...The Bird's Last Jest" the only one to match the first season's excellence.

The Tim Burton-Michael Keaton Batman movies are my favorites, but in all honesty, I'd rather watch reruns of the TV show than the Joel Schumacher movies, or even the current Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale movies.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Keaton is Batman period! The Dark Knight Rises next year hopefully will end Bale/Nolan. Agree with your assessment of Adam West as I have grown older. But Batman ended on screen in 1991 with the grossly under-rated and under appreciated Batman Returns which I think Keaton out did himself in the 1989 first movie. Returns remains my favorite to this day.

As for Cap, give the role to The Rock with an Elvis Presley soundtrack and just a simple title, CAPTAIN MARVEL. But it has to have a cameo appearance by THE Marvel himself, Jackson Bostwick!

davis said...

Anon,
agree with you 99% about Batman and Captain Marvel. The only thing I don't agree with is the Rock. Keep him, and all wrestlers, away from the SHAZAM! movie. Let the Rock star as Sub-Mariner, or better yet, just go do "Tooth Fairy II".