Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: the BATMAN serials

Being a life-long Batman fan, and since I recently posted a column on the 1966 TV show, I thought I'd give my review of the two Batman serials produced in the 1940s by Columbia Pictures.

First was Batman (often referred to as The Batman) released in 1943, starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, and J. Caroll Naish, produced by Rudolph C. Flothow and directed by Lambert Hillyer.

Despite a non existent budget and Trick-or-Treat costumes, this serial is very entertaining and faithful to the early comics. Lewis Wilson plays a definitive Bruce Wayne, bringing the character to life for the first time on film as a bored and somewhat shiftless playboy. His Batman is dark and grim, yet fun, able to shoot off one-liners with Robin. But when he threatens a thug he's holding hostage in the Bat-Cave, Batman means business. His Chuck White disguise is the forerunner of Matches Malone. The design for Batman's costume is far superior to the Adam West TV show costume, however the tailor did not have the proper materials or measurements to make it fulfill its potential. The utility belt is perfect, though.

A twist in the legend has Bruce a government agent, predating Marvel Comics' SHIELD concept by decades. As such, he is assigned to capture the Japanese terrorist Prince Tito Daka, played by J. Caroll Naish, in an over the top performance that could be the blueprint for the villains of the TV series, and virtually all live action comic book villains that followed.

Douglas Croft plays Dick Grayson as a carefree teenager who still has sense enough to warn Bruce not to take his playboy masquerade too far. His Robin is a wisecracking daredevil who seems both younger and far more capable than the TV show counterpart.

Beautiful Shirley Patterson plays Linda Page, Bruce's love interest with some real emotion. William Austin makes such a perfect Alfred, that DC redesigned the comic book character to resemble Austin (previously, Alfred was drawn to look like Alfred Hitchcock).

The serial introduces the Bat-Cave and its grandfather clock entrance, which would be added to the comics, but Bruce's limo doubles as a nondescript Batmobile. There are some good gimmicks, such as a car that repaints itself and has revolving license plates, and Daka's alligator pit. Another thing I really like is, even in costume, Batman and Robin still call each other Bruce and Dick. Its a subtle touch of sophistication.

Even the musical score is good, with a dark and somber theme that hints at the theme Danny Elfman would compose for the Tim Burton movies.

Sadly, there are some racist moments against the Japanese, but this serial must be watched in the context of World War II. The narration does mention how FDR and the US government put many Asian-American citizens into detention camps (just as Hitler was putting Jews into concentration camps), a fact ignored by most modern history accounts for fear of FDR's legacy being tainted.

The racism notwithstanding, this is a very fun serial and one can easily imagine kids in the 1940s cheering and applauding Batman and Robin, and booing and hissing Daka and his henchmen, and probably cheering the one henchman who turns on Daka, in a moment of patriotism.

Six years later, Columbia released Batman And Robin in 1949, starring Robert Lowery, John Duncan (who did a short stint with the East Side Kids), and Lyle Talbot, produced by Sam Katzman and directed by Spencer Bennet.  Curiously, there is no continuity with the 1943 serial.  It is, what we call today, a "reboot".

This serial is essentially the prototype for the Adam West TV series. Robert Lowery plays a nondescript Bruce Wayne and a business like Batman who is a deputized officer of the law, and pulls some of the most unlikely things out of his cheap looking, plain belt, such as a gas mask that looks like it was made out of a drinking straw, and a full size blow torch. Ironically, Adam West, in his autobiography, said plans were made to bring Lowery on the show as Bruce's often mentioned (but never seen) uncle, but the concept never came to pass.

John Duncan's Dick Grayson and Robin are both far more mature that either Burt Ward or Douglas Croft, and he's also a lot more dull. Lyle Talbot's Commissioner Gordon is flat and one-dimensional. Jane Adams plays a very forgettable Vicki Vale, and Eric Wilton plays an Alfred who looks very much like the TV show's Alan Napier, but has little to do except wear a spare Batman costume when required to, much like a few episodes of the TV series.

The villain is a masked mystery man called the Wizard who has some outlandish scientific devices. Presumably, the plot is a mystery to figure out who the Wizard is, but the detective work leaves a lot to be desired.

The costumes and budget are worse than the 1943 serial, with Batman's cowl looking like a Halloween devil mask, but it is cool to see that huge bat across Batman's shirt a la "Batman Year One". The only advantage either serials' Robin costume has over the TV series is the longer (and in John Duncan's case, dark - presumably green) cape vs. Burt Ward's short, almost feminine cape, and the boots vs. Ward's elf shoes.

There is no Batmobile, as both Bruce and Batman drive the same plain gray Mercury convertible, and the Bat-Signal appears to be the size of a portable TV set. However, this serial did improve over the 1943 production in some regards: the fight scenes are better choreographed and the cliffhangers are a little more inventive.

The serial has some good moments, and you can really see how the TV series was a camped up version of it, but its just not nearly as fun or entertaining as the superior 1943 serial.

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