The latest (and, if the reviews are to be believed, greatest) Batman film, The Dark Knight, opens in theaters tomorrow. My review will be up sometime on Saturday, and McAsherson and I will spend some time on the next Snark-Gap Transmission discussing it, but in the meantime I wanted to take a few minutes to look back at the earliest Batman movies, the two 15-episode serials produced by Columbia Pictures in the 1940s. The first, Batman, debuted in 1943, just four years after Batman’s first comic book appearance.
It was directed by Lambert Hillyer, a competent but unremarkable hand who horror buffs might recognize as the guy who directed Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray for Universal in the 1930s. Back then horror films were considered B-projects, even at Universal where their box office grosses kept the studio in business through some lean years. Their budgets were low, and their casts never included big-name stars other than those — Boris Karloff, for instance — who had come to prominence in the genre. That was horror cinema in Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s. (Not too different from today, actually.) But you had to descend a few rungs further before you got to the Saturday morning serials. They were the bottom of the barrel. I wonder if Hillyer saw the Batman assignment as a demotion.
Lewis Wilson starred as the screen’s first Batman. He was twenty-three, only six years older than Douglas Croft, the actor who played Robin (and far less experienced — by 1943, 17 year-old Croft had already acted in Kings Row, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Pride of the Yankees). It was Wilson’s first film role. As Bruce Wayne he’s convincing; he looks good in a suit and plays the lazy playboy decently. Unfortunately, in the Batman costume he looks pudgy and awkward — though some of that has to be blamed on the costume itself, which has a short cape that is always flapping and getting tangled around his arms during fight scenes. After Batman he did nothing else of note, and retired from acting within a few years to get a real job in order to support his family. He worked here and there on television in the ‘50s, but his most lasting contribution to film was his son, Michael Wilson, who has been a producer and screenwriter for the James Bond series since 1979.
The villain, played by Oscar-nominated character actor J. Carrol Naish, is Dr. (and Prince?) Tito Daka, a sinister Japanese agent who spends most of the serial’s fifteen episodes concocting and carrying out increasingly desperate schemes to steal radium in order to power a death ray which he hopes will bring the U.S. to its knees and seal an Axis victory in World War II. Daka is the stereotypical evil foreigner — he keeps pet crocodiles, turns those who defy him into mindless zombies, and wears an un-American amount of make-up — and his presence turns the entire proceeding into war propaganda. And some pretty vicious war propaganda, at that. When Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Page encounters Daka the first time, she shrieks, “A Jap!” Daka takes it in stride, gently informing Linda that he prefers the term “Nipponese.”
There’s also a voiceover in the opening episode where the narrator describes Gotham’s Little Tokyo neighborhood as a ghost town now that “a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs” who were running things. When I first saw the serials as a teenager on their Goodtimes Home Video VHS releases, I missed out on the most overtly racist content of Batman; the entire original narration was removed and replaced by a less offensive version, which changed “shifty-eyed Japs” to “amoral hoods” in that particular voiceover. But fret not, lovers of embarassing Americana — the DVD release contains the full, original serial, with all that racism and jingoism right back where it belongs!
Production values are at rock-bottom for a studio project, and the whole thing seems laughably amateurish today. It suffers most of all from its poor screenplay, though, which fails again and again to make the most of the serial format. Audiences, mostly children, only got to see serials about fifteen minutes at a time. Creators of serials devised cliffhanger endings as a way to lure the audiences back week after week to see the continuation of the story. Usually, this involved one or more of the protagonists facing certain doom, only to miraculously escape to fight on at the start of the next episode. It’s a restrictive, repetitive formula, but it could still result in something exciting and fun (look at the Flash Gordon serials, usually cited as the pinnacle of the form).
Too often in Batman, the heroes survive the cliffhangers not through their own cleverness or the last-second intervention of an ally, but through arbitrary good fortune and a lot of cheating from the writers. Batman inexplicably survives a plane crash — the plane slams into the ground, and in the next shot Batman staggers out of the burning wreckage. He’s even in good enough shape to drag one of the bad guys to safety. Batman is thrown to the bottom of an elevator shaft — a fall which should have killed, or at least severely injured him by itself — and the elevator is sent down to crush him. He’s rescued by Robin, who arrives in plenty of time and simply shuts off the power to the elevator. Can you imagine being a twelve year-old kid and waiting a whole week for that? I’d want my nickel back.
Serials were going strong in the early ‘40s when Columbia made Batman. By the time the sequel, Batman and Robin, came along in 1949, they were on their last legs. Studios were spending even less on serials than they had just a few years earlier, and television was poised to take over and make the form obsolete. It was a shame; the writing wasn’t much better in 1949 than in 1943, but judging by Batman and Robin, the producers had mastered how to stretch their budgets. Even though Batman and Robin cost less to produce than its predecessor, it has the look and feel of a much more prestigious production. It’s not The Wizard of Oz; it’s more like an early episode of Dragnet, but that’s still a big improvement in presentation from Batman.
Batman is played this time by Robert Lowery, an older and more experienced actor than Lewis Wilson had been. His Bruce Wayne is stiffer, and his Batman has an unfortunate tendency to lecture while looking down his nose at people — which seems to be the only way he can see through the eye holes of his cowl — but the seriousness Lowery brings to the role is a welcome change from Wilson’s lightweight, grinning, joking Batman who was always getting punched in the face and thrown off of rooftops. Lowery, the poor bastard, also deserves extra credit points for having to wear a much more ridiculous Batman costume than Wilson. The stuffed ears and short, flappy cape made it very hard to take Lewis Wilson seriously in his costume, but he’s something out of a goddamn Neal Adams panel compared to the suit Lowery sports in Batman and Robin. The colors are better — black on gray instead of gray on grayer — the cape is longer, but the ears are still stuffed and now jut off either side of his head at odd angles, like horns on a devil costume, and the bat emblem on his chest has rounded ears that probably don’t strike terror in the hearts of too many swaggering denizens of the criminal underworld.
Johnny Duncan plays an older, even more earnest Robin. He’s an improvement over Douglas Croft visually; at least his mask doesn’t cover 85% of his face. Duncan’s career had been busy but not extraordinary; his IMDb page shows a long list of uncredited appearances. There were other film veterans in the cast, notably William Fawcett as Professor Hammil, and Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon (the first appearance of that character outside of the comics). Talbot would star in the second Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, a year later: he was also the first actor to portray Lex Luthor.
The writing isn’t a great leap forward from Batman, but there are little improvements I notice. The cliffhangers aren’t much better, but there are attempts to acknowledge and explain a few of the oddities required by the tiny budget. For instance, there’s no Batmobile, just a convertible driven by both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Vicki Vale notices this and asks Batman suspiciously, “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?” Batman smiles and says, “Of course!” It ain’t Oscar Wilde, but at least they’re trying. Also, there is a noticeable lack of anti-Japanese racial slurs. The war was over and most Japanese Americans were still too dumbfounded by the whole being-put-into-internment-camps thing to complain too much, so why bother? It was almost the ‘50s! We were one great big happy American family.
The director of Batman and Robin was Spencer Gordon Bennet, the King of Serial Directors. Bennet directed more serials than anyone else, for every major studio that produced them throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, including the last two American serials ever made, in 1956. In addition to Batman and Robin, Bennet also directed both serials featuring Superman — 1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.
Bennet obviously knew where to spend what little money he had. He scales down Wayne Manor from a sprawling estate to a decently sized rich man’s house, and stages interiors on a set that looks like a suburban living room, not the great, high-ceilinged space you’d expect a millionaire to use to entertain his guests. The major set is the Batcave, which was just a rocky alcove with a desk and an overhead light in the prior serial, and is expanded into something more familiar to modern Batman fans, with electrical gizmos and a chemistry set and everything. The set here must have been an influence on the design of the Batcave in the 1960s Batman TV series. That cave is a lot bigger, equipped with more computers and a nuclear reactor, and a place to park the Batmobile, but the idea is the same — a great big open space with rocky walls and a flat floor, filled with stuff Batman might need. Crude, sure, but it worked. And was the cave in Batman Begins any different?
The heavy this time is the Wizard, a generic serial bad guy whose true identity is a great mystery. Instead of stealing radium to power a death ray, this guy pilfers diamonds (also the M.O. of Mr. Freeze in a more recent, much shittier film entitled Batman & Robin) in order to operate a machine which can move automobiles by remote control. Not too terribly interesting, but once again, at least he wasn’t a caricature of an evil Japanese spy.
The serials had their influence on the comics. Before Batman in 1943, Alfred was drawn in the comics as a short, pudgy, comical fellow. In the first serial he was played by William Austin as an easily rattled buffoon, but a tall, thin, balding easily rattled buffoon. Soon enough, that’s how the artists working on Batman and Detective Comics were drawing him. In terms of appearance, the first serial was the origin of the Alfred we all know and love today. That 1943 serial is also the first time we see any mention of the Batcave. As I mentioned before, it was just a hole in the ground with a desk, and it was referred to as “Batman’s Cave” or “The Bat’s Cave,” but the people who made the comics took it from there. Finally, the serials introduced the Bat-Signal — it was created for the first installment of Batman and Robin, though it was just a light box in Commissioner Gordon’s office, and wouldn’t become the sky-filling rooftop spotlight we modern readers are familiar with for a few more years.
So if neither of these are very good, is there any reason for audiences today to watch them? Both Batman and Batman and Robin are available on DVD, released by Sony in 2005 to capitalize on the success of Batman Begins, so they’re out there if you want them. How quick you are to add them to your Netflix queue depends on how much you enjoy watching shitty movies. I own them, and like to watch them from time to time because, as a Batman fan, I get a kick out of them. These mostly mediocre actors, writers and directors, with no money, did the best they could, and the parade of movie stars and highly touted filmmakers who followed them decades later, with enormous budgets and full studio support, couldn’t do any better. I don’t get such a kick out of that.