In the spirit of “Batman Movie Month” on this blog, I decided to give these serials a look. I have never actually watched them before; I’ve only seen pictures in books and clips here and there. Frankly, I’ve just never been interested because archaic films and TV shows have always bored me (except for the true classics).
This premise is rather interesting in that it’s a combination of science fiction and action, rather than pulp-style crime and mystery stories like in the comics. Though Batman is still millionaire Bruce Wayne, complete with Robin, Alfred, Wayne Manor (with a secret entrance to the Batcave), Gotham City (which is clearly set in California), and a Batmobile (of sorts), he’s also a wholly different character since he’s not a vigilante fighting crime but a secret agent working for the government. He’s been assigned to foil the nefarious plots (and I do mean plots) of “Dr. Daka” – a Japanese mad scientist who has a small army of Caucasian goons to do his bidding (how and why he convinced them to work for him is never explained).
Batman is probably even more cartoonish than the comic book was at the time. At least it comes across that way since it transplants the character from the page to the screen verbatim without accounting for any difference in the mediums. The central plot involves Daka’s schemes to sabotage the United States from within. He’s able to turn anyone into a brain dead “zombie” through a Frankenstein-like contraption. He also built a gun that’s powered by radium that can destroy pretty much any form of matter. But Batman and Robin never actually fight Daka directly; rather, they encounter his goons time and time again and manage to somehow win out despite always being outnumbered. Much like cartoons, the goons tell their boss that this time they killed the Batman for sure, but when he appears again, Daka is annoyed by his henchmen’s incompetence.
But is it fun to watch? Is this a quality film? Yes and no. It’s the kind of work that we watch today as a way of looking at a pop culture artifact. The same could be said of any comparable serial such as one featuring Zorro or Superman or Flash Gordon. It’s cute what passed for entertainment in the early days of cinema. When viewed in the small, episodic format, Batman is easily watchable; but more than two chapters at a time is a little grating. There’s a lot of repetitiveness, predictable stories, bad acting, cheap sets, and the fight scenes are hilarious because they’re so uncoordinated. Additionally, the costumes are hideous; though they demonstrate that what is totally plausible within the context of a comic book would look foolish in reality.
The Batman Chronicles trade paperback series, and for the serials I recommend “Gotham City Serials” which collects the 1943 and 1949 films on two DVDs.
Some random observations and trivia:
- At age 23 and 13, Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft were by far the youngest actors ever to play Batman and Robin, respectively. Though neither looks their age. Wilson appears to be about 44 and Croft looks closer to 18 (he also bears a striking resemblance to David Faustino).
- For whatever reason, Batman has 13-year-old Robin drive the car most of the time!
- Wilson definitely has the face of Bruce Wayne, but does not have the physique of Batman. In his skin-tight costume, his lack of muscle definition is clearly visible (see photos above).
- Bruce Wayne’s sweetheart, Linda Page, is kidnapped no less than three times throughout the series! Imagine the trauma she must’ve suffered from constantly being accosted by criminals. In reality, she would probably have a nervous breakdown after the second kidnapping.
- When Dick asks Bruce why he doesn’t just tell Linda he’s Batman, Bruce responds with “I don’t want her to worry.”
- Some of the sci-fi technology back then is real technology today. For example, Daka’s lair is rigged with CCTV security cameras he can monitor from a central hub. Additionally, all the goons have some kind of biometric security device Daka scans with an x-ray whenever they buzz into the lab.
- The serial was clearly shot in California and little attempt is made to skirt this issue. In fact, at one point Bruce Wayne receives a letter bearing an address of Los Angeles!
- Bruce is shown doing actual forensics work – silly sci-fi forensics – but forensics nonetheless.
- Alfred is constantly chauffeuring around Batman and Robin, even going undercover a few times, and more often than not he finds himself getting clobbered by the goons. Bruce apparently has no qualms about putting his surrogate father into jeopardy. For that matter, he has no problem with putting 13-year-old Robin into these situations either (doesn’t this kid ever go to school?).
- Nearly every fight or chase scene ends with Batman getting knocked out only to revive at the last minute and escape danger. Robin rescues Batman many times throughout the serial, yet Batman never has to rescue Robin once! I think Robin might actually be the superior crime fighter.
- This Batman serial introduced the Batcave (just a dark room with a table and chairs); Alfred as a tall thin butler (he had been a short, fat butler in the comics, previously); the secret entrance to the Batcave through the grandfather clock in Wayne Manor;
- Every villain has a pencil mustache.There are so many cliches I’ve seen in cartoons from Looney Tunes to Family Guy over the years that I never thought were real, but they are here, including:
- Alligator pits
- Boys hawking newspapers with "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
- eyes in the painting
- goons sitting around playing cards all the time
- the villain’s refusal to believe that Bruce Wayne could be Batman: “That simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”
- Indiana Jones-like elaborate death traps
- “Fast Talking High Trousers” with quips like “you mugs!” and “so long, suckers!”