Saturday, July 14, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 0 - Batman Serials

I did a great disservice to the history Batman in film by starting my Batman Movie Batdown in 1966 with "Batman: The Movie".  Because that was in no way the first time Batman had ever appeared on film, Batman's history goes back easily another twenty years, all the way to the middle of the Second World War.  And if we're really going to prepare ourselves for the glory that will be "The Dark Knight Rises", we need to look all the way back, to the very beginning.

Since serials haven't been shown in movies for about sixty years now, I guess I have to explain what they are.  Technically film serials are not really movies, they're just the prototypical form of the modern television shows, but instead playing at your local cinema before a real movie would begin.  Back then, movie theatres were only the kind of motion pictures available, so they would come complete with news reels, Golden Age cartoons, and various other kinds of entertainment, including the serial.  They were almost always adaptation of pulp fiction stories or comics, usually marketed for children.  The most famous serials still beloved today are probably "Buck Rogers", "Flash Gordon", and "Dick Tracy", and the art form was the direct inspiration for George Lucas when he created Star Wars in 1977.  Of course, being low budget, they don't feature a great deal of variety in sets, they often use stock footage and sound effects, their are rarely large casts or very impressive spectacles.

I haven't seen many serials myself, but they were clearly an important part of American culture in the first half of the 20th century.  So that means that the very first adaptation of a superhero comic was in serial form, specifically 1941's "Adventures of Captain Marvel", a show based on the most popular superhero of the time, Captain Marvel.  Since the early Fourties were exactly the peek era of superhero popularity*, film companies like Republic, Columbia, and Universal would produce about a dozen superhero serials based on characters like Superman, Captain America, and eventually, Batman.

There were actually two very different Batman serials produced:  1943's "The Batman"**, and 1949's "Batman and Robin".  These productions were put together when Batman was a very new cultural icon, having only been created by Bob Kane in 1939, only a handful of years prior.  Its as ancient as you could ever get with the Batman mythos.  Obviously being low-budget affairs, neither were in color, but there's a clear variety in quality here.  The 1949 serial shows a great deal of improvement over its predecessor, and is decent for a curiosity's view back to the Golden Age of the Dark Knight.  The 1943 serial is... just entirely terrible, frankly.

The first serial we're looking over for today's special is the 1943 Serial, "The Batman" starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and directed by Lambert Hillyer (not that anybody here as any idea who those people are).  This is remarkable as being the very first adaptation of Batman on the screen... and also for being the very worst adaptation of Batman ever.  "The Batman" is completely unwatchable, hopelessly bad, even for cheesey WWII-era serials, this is crap.  I'll have to try to keep up a historian's air of objectivity for this serial, since its so old that you really cannot get offended at its awfulness, but this was clearly a cheaper production than many of its rivals.  I was only able to survive two Chapters of this thing, because it was so aggressively boring that I doubt anybody would be able to deal with it for very long.  And since these are pulp stories, they fall into a pretty predictable pattern.  Every week Batman would fight the villain a bit, and the show always end on a classic cliffhanger, with Batman seeming to die to get the kids excited for the next Chapter.  I'm not missing much, clearly.

Because the budget was not very large, the Batsuit and Robin suit look ridiculous, but this is just the beginning of the problems here.  Batman and Robin have no Batmobile, instead they drive around in a civilian Cadillac.  Their villains carry around terrible-looking rayguns because I don't think there was a budget for a real gun.  Scenes drag on for five minutes at least at one set, nobody seems to have much interest in getting the plot to move at any kind of reasonable pace, instead it drags on.  I know Fourties B-movies are prone to filler, but "The Batman" is tedious even at that standard.  You can tell by the inert editing that Columbia only gave the director one camera, so scenes are filmed mostly with just one camera angle.  There's just really nothing to recommend here, its all very dry and joyless.  I have to wonder if even 1940s kids were all that entertained by this.  Of course, this means no gadgets, a very simple Bat Cave  - I mean "Bat's Cave".  Do you want music?  Well, forget it, there isn't any.  The only fight scenes are awkward punching matches where Batman and Robin struggle - and lose - against only four crooks.  There's just zero energy in this production, and the entire fifteen chapter serial lasts five hours.

To be more positive, there is something of a classic Fourties charm to the entire thing.  I guess I did just accidentally ruthlessly savage "The Batman", but I'll be more positive.  You do have to realize this was made for a wildly different audience.  The kids who watched this serial back in the day are now in their Seventies or Eigities.  You also have to love the opening narration:

"High atop one of the hills that ring the teeming metropolis of Gotham City, a large house rears its bulk against the dark sky.  Outwardly there is nothing to distinguish this house from any others, but deep within the cavernous basement of this house, in a chamber hune from the living rock of the mountain is the strange dimly-lighted mysteriously secret Bat's Cave, hidden headquarters of America's number one crimefighter, Batman.  Yes Batman, clad in the somber costume that has struck terror in the heart in many a swaggering denizen of the underworld.  Batman, who even now is pondering the plans of a new assault against the forces of crime - a crushing blow against evil in which he will have the valuable aid of his young two-fisted assistant, Robin, the Boy Wonder.  They represent American youth who love their country, and are glad to fight for it.  Where ever crime raises its ugly head to strike with the venom of a maddened rattlesnake, Batman and Robin strike also.  And in this very hour, when the Axis criminals are spreading their evil all over the world, even within our own land, Batman and Robin stand ready to fight them to the death!"

Now that's a goddamn narration right there.  That's how you set up your show.  The thicker the prose, the more glorious your crimefighter, I say.  Beautiful, absolutely.

As you might have guessed, WWII will factor into "The Batman".   The villain is Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese spymaster who is building an army of android zombies in Gotham City for Emperor Showa.  Tito Daka is played by a poor Irish actor who is forced to squint his eyes during every scene and obviously had never met a single East Asian in his life, because he speaks with a strange Southern(???) accent, and dresses like Colonel Sanders.  To accompany this, the narrator praises the government for Japanese internment and... ugg, its hard to write when your back is crawling.  Let's say Daka is horribly racist and move on.  I mean, there was a war to win but, we can all agree America acted like dicks during WWII to the Japanese, and this is just another sorry example.  So not only is "The Batman" the worst filmmaking ever to be featured at Planet Blue, its also pretty evil.  Let's move on to a serial that's more watchable.

Six years later, Columbia produced a sequel serial, called "Batman and Robin"***, this time starring Robert Lowery as Batman.  It was produced by Sam Katzman, a prolific Hollywood producer for some forty years, though from what I've heard, not really the best creator of serials.  Probably due to how ineffectual "The Batman" was, essentially the entire cast and crew was replaced.  "Batma and Robin" is considerably more advanced than its predecessor, in that it doesn't get unwatchably boring until the third episode.  But still, this was a lot more akin to what I was expecting out of a Batman serial, terrible effects, lazy writing, hammy acting, and at least minimum competency at filmmaking.  For example, this time scenes have obvious traces of editing, the fight scenes actually have an attempt at chirography, and there's MUSIC, what an idea??  I mean, the show is still barely watchable (I could only get through five Chapters), but its at least at a level of the typical cheesey "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode.

This time the supervillain is The Wizard, a mad scientist who dresses like a Spanish Inquisition member.  The Wizard has stolen a machine that can move any machine at will using science.  Later on he'll steal another machine that counters that machine, and somehow when you mix those two tastes of science together, you can turn invisible.  Frankly, the Wizard isn't much better than Dr. Daka, he's not very scary, but at least he isn't an avatar in one of the least glorious chapters of American racial insensitivity.  Even better, "Batman and Robin" leaves it a mystery as to who the Wizard is.  It might be the wheelchair-bound scientist who can walk using electricity, it might be his butler, or it could be the radio newscaster with seemingly psychic powers.  Actually, its the scientist, the butlers are just henchmen, and nobody ever can explain why the newscaster has the gift of prophecy.  Hilariously, neither Batman or the Wizard would be able to function at all without their radio news source.  Because this all pretty basic.

Essentially what you're dealing with here is the Adam West "Batman" show, only not as colorful.  I mean that both literately and in that the serials are a lot less fun than Adam West's show.  The villains are pretty dry, just shouting orders and never once saying a single bad pun.  The Chapters slowly all blend together as the heroes keep on fighting the Wizard over and over again.  The serial keeps getting duller as time goes by, I haven't seen enough serials to know if this is a usual trend in the genre, but definitely the most exciting episode is the first one.  The Wizard is just really boring as a villain, I'm sorry to say it.  Without gadgets, silly action, or humor, the Adam West "Batman" is made a Hell of a lot worse.

Of course, they always end on a cheap cliffhanger.  Usually the cliffhangers end as a fake-out, like when Batman and Robin get blown up in a plane.  The next Chapter, you see they ran out of the plane just in the nick of time.  Well, I wasn't cheering for Batman when that happened.  This isn't what happened last Chapter!  Has everybody got amnesia??  They just cheated us!  This isn't fair!  THEY DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODLE PLANE!!  And honestly, the ending isn't even worth it, the serial just ends on a lame between Batman and Vicky Vale.  Vicky Vale deduces that her boyfriend, Bruce Wayne, who treats her pretty terribly, is Batman.  But Batman manages to use science to fake a call to her while he's in the room, so Vicky Vale leaves the issue there.

The real problem with these serials is that they really do not translate well to a modern audience.  They're the cheap kid's programing of seventy years ago.  Imagine living a hundred years from now, living in a completely different world of fashions and standards, and then watching "Batman & Robin".  You won't really know what the Hell you're seeing..  Honestly, for a shoestring budget, and with very little interest in doing anything else but keeping the kiddies coming back for fifteen Chapters, this is probably the best the Fourties could have done.  It would take decades until superheroes would gain enough respect to warrant a real film adaptation, until the kids who watched these serials would grow up, and using those fond memories, create "Batman: The Movie" or the Seventies "Superman".  And from there, the kids who watched those movies are the ones creating the Batman films of today.  One day a kid who grew up Master Nolan's movies will make his own Batman tale.  Its an endless cycle.  Still, even noting that, these Batman serials are nothing more than a curiosity.  Totally dry history now, which requires very specific tastes to even appreciate, let along enjoy.

And then people still doubt me when I tell them that "Batman & Robin" honestly is a lot of fun.  Whatever.  More Batman stuff is coming.

* Today a massively successful comic book would sell a couple hundred thousand issues.  Back in 1944, Captain Marvel would sell 1.3 million issues every two weeks, and that's back when the US population was roughly a third what it is today.

** Not to be confused with the 2000s Batman cartoon, "The Batman".

*** Not to be confused with the 1997 George Clooney movie.  That's much better.


  1. I love reading these blog posts Blue. Keep at it. The reference to Misery is great too, goes with the entire theme.

    Do one on Batman Beyond! Assuming you've seen it. Or Batman: The Animated Series?

    1. I second everything this dood/doodette said!

      But yeah these 40's mimi-movies all suck. They got away with these pieces of crap, because these where the first media products of sci-fi or whatever that didn't involve using your imagination or a book. The only ones that I found watchable are the Flash Gordan movies. Mind you not because there good, they are FAR from it, but because they're super cheesy and easy to make fun of.