Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
First At Bat – How A Batman Serial Started It All…
Batman’s mighty leap from page to screen – The 1943 Serial.
Following America’s entry into WWII, catalysed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, all of the major U.S film studios were on the lookout for suitable material to feed the public’s voracious appetite for pro-American propaganda. Batman was an obvious choice. Since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939 he’d become established as one of America’s most popular crime fighters, warranting his own title a year later. When the solo vigilante became part of a duo with the arrival of Robin in 1940 that popularity increased still further (sales of Batman doubled with The Boy Wonder’s introduction).
It was Columbia Pictures that secured the rights to bring Batman to the screen for the first time, choosing to make a weekly serial (a well-established and popular format derived from radio, where short 15-20 minute ‘chapters’ were shown at cinemas each week, normally with a cliff-hanger ending for each chapter). So it was that Batman made his big screen debut on July 16 1943. Directed by Lambert Hillyer with a screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker and Harry Fraser, the serial starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. The villain of the piece was one Prince Daka, aka Doctor Tito Daka, an original character who had never appeared in the comics. William Austin played Alfred the butler, and Batman was given a love interest in the form of Shirley Patterson as Linda Page. Columbia tagged Batman as a ‘Super Serial’ – it was their biggest serial production to date at 15 chapters totalling around 260 minutes – and gave it a significant publicity push on a par with a feature film.
Comparison with the comic.
As one might expect for a WWII propaganda piece, the villain of the first Batman serial is one Dr. Daka, an evil Japanese scientist and spymaster, and an agent of Hirohito (though played by American actor J.Carrol Naish, who would later reprise the ‘wily oriental’ role as Charlie Chan in the 1950s TV series The New Adventures of Charlie Chan). At the time Batman was released, it was U.S Government policy to inter all Japanese Americans, and this is referenced early in the narration with the line “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.” To better push the message of how hard the government was working in the fight against the invading foreigners, this big screen Batman was a government agent rather than a crime fighting vigilante. That also meant the serial didn’t fall foul of the censors, who would not have allowed a character to have been seen to be taking the law into his own hands. Apart from that fairly significant change, the serial remains reasonably true to its source material, though budgetary constraints meant that this Batman was without a Batmobile (both Bruce Wayne and Batman share the same black Cadillac, chauffeured by Alfred in both instances). Batman’s iconic utility belt appears, but is never actually used for anything. The rest of Batman’s costume was passable though the cowl was saggy and unconvincing and nobody much liked the ‘devil ears’. There were also negative comments on its release about the casting of Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as the leads. Facially, Wilson did resemble Bruce Wayne as he appeared in the comics, but his physique was bulky rather than athletic, and he was described by one critic as “thick about the middle”. Croft looked to be on the old side to play Robin, more obviously so when he was being portrayed by his rather hairy-legged stunt double, though he was only 16 when Batman was filmed.
Batman was fairly standard episodic serial fare. Dr. Daka has the ability turn people into subservient pseudo-zombies by use of his ‘Electrical Brain’ device, that both controls the victim’s mind by remote voice commands and also transmit video signals back to Dr, Daka’s ‘electronic lab’. Daka plans to use this zombie army to steal America’s radium for use in deadly radium guns. As with most serials of that era, each individual chapter would reveal one or two plot points to progress the story, albeit painfully slowly, padded out by car chases, fist fights and explosions until that week’s cliff hanger ending drew the chapter to a close. Amongst other randomly perilous moments, Batman is almost, but not quite, crushed by an elevator, devoured by alligators, burned to death in a fiery car crash and splattered over the sidewalk after falling from a skyscraper. Between each of these near-death experiences, Batman and Robin would round up a few of Daka’s henchmen and leave them trussed up with helpful notes attached for when the police find them. Linda Page serves as both a damsel to be in distress and a vocal objector to Bruce Wayne’s dilatory playboy lifestyle. The low budget didn’t allow for much beyond these basic elements, and the lack of Batmobile or other Bat-gadgets meant that there was little beyond the cape to distinguish the Batman serial from the other cheap actioners of the time, though Wilson’s portrayal of Wayne has a humour which these serials often lacked. Interestingly, Batman and Robin have very little direct contact with any of the Japanese characters in the story, and they don’t actually meet Daka face to face until the last of the 15 chapters “The Doom of the Rising Sun”, and it is Robin who accidentally kills him by pulling the wrong lever and dropping him into his own pit of alligators. Batman’s references to ‘Japs’ in this final chapter sounds contrived and ‘spooned in’ in a way that suggests Batman was never originally intended as a patriotic propaganda piece and may have been reworked during production in line with events in the real world. The portrayal of the Japanese characters is undoubtedly racist, but there was a lot worse going on, both on film and on the streets outside the cinemas. It may look and sound horrific to a modern audience, but it has to be remembered that the U.S was at war with Japan at the time and Pearl Harbour was an open wound showing no signs of healing.
The 1943 Batman serial may have been low budget and at times cheesy in the extreme, but it was also important, both for being the first big screen appearance of the caped crusader and for its lasting impact on the Batman canon. It introduced us to “The Bat’s Cave”, a cavern (with actual bats aplenty) below Bruce Wayne’s house (not called Wayne Manor at this point). This plot element found its way back into the comic as “The Batcave”, and for a time used the same secret entrance through a grandfather clock. The portrayal of Alfred also influenced the character in the comic. Up until this point he had been portrayed as a slightly overweight, clean shaven, bumbling comedy sidekick, trying to do his own sleuthing alongside his employers. William Austin’s thin frame and pencil moustache made for a very different Alfred in Batman, and this was soon to be echoed in the comic after Alfred spent some time at a health farm, where he trimmed down alarmingly and grew a moustache. But it wasn’t to be until 1965, 22 years after its original release, that Batman was to make its biggest impact on the dynamic duo’s live action history. It was in that year that Batman was given a theatrical re-release as An Evening with Batman and Robin, a mammoth single movie edited together from all 15 chapters of the original serial. It was hugely popular, particularly with the 1960s student community who loved its unintentionally campy style, and that popularity is often cited as the reason that a year later a more deliberately campy TV series appeared, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin.
Back to the Batcave – The 1949 series.
Despite the very mixed critical reaction to Batman, it was popular enough to warrant giving the Dynamic Duo another outing, and Columbia returned to the Batcave in 1949. Batman and Robin, another 15 chapter Batman serial, was officially a sequel though both of the leads were recast (Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan replacing Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft), and other more familiar characters from the comics were drafted in, including Jane Adams as photographer Vicki Vale and Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon. Directing duties were passed to Spencer Bennet, and the team of George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole handled screenwriting duties. This complete change of personnel, both onscreen and off, resulted in a ‘sequel’ that felt very different to its predecessor. Some attempts were made to address the criticisms levelled at the 1943 serial – Lowery was chosen over Wilson because of negative comments about Wilson’s paunch, though the cowl didn’t fit Lowery any better than it had Wilson, and Robin now sported tights to disguise his and his stuntman’s hairy legs – but the new serial had an even lower budget than Batman, and frankly it showed (notably in the obvious reuse of sets and props from the 1943 serial, including a distinctive armoured car that appears in several scenes in both serials). There’s still no Batmobile (the Cadillac has now been replaced by a 1949 Mercury), and this time even the utility belts were regularly absent, though in one bizarre scene Batman manages to produce a full sized oxyacetylene torch and its hose from a non-existent pouch on a utility belt he isn’t wearing. Where the tanks for the torch are supposed to be is never touched on. Continuity problems are rife in Batman and Robin, and this time around the script isn’t strong enough to paper over the gaping plot holes. On a more positive note, as well as bringing Vicki Vale (in best damsel-in-distress mode) and Commissioner Gordon to the big screen, Batman and Robin does also mark the appearance of a more impressive Batcave and a Bat-Signal of sorts, although in one famously derided scene it is operated successfully in broad daylight.
The Wizard, mysterious black-hooded mastermind, and his henchmen, steal a remote control device which allows them to take control of any motor vehicle within a rather impressive 50 mile radius. They use the device to hold Gotham to ransom, and it’s up to Batman and Robin to prevent The Wizard from getting hold of the diamonds he needs to power the remote, whilst dealing with an assortment of cunning challenges set for them and rescuing Vicki Vale on an unfeasible regular basis. Eventually they are able to locate The Wizard’s secret base, which can only be reached by remote controlled submarine, and defeat and unmask their foe. Again this was standard low budget serial fare, but it did manage to maintain an additional degree of suspense by not revealing the identity of The Wizard until the final chapter, having introduced a host of possible suspects in the preceding episodes (and given us two trick endings; in the first the original designer of the remote control device confesses to being The Wizard whilst being held at gunpoint by the real villain, in the second The Wizard appears to die in a car crash only for it to be revealed later that it was the villain’s twin, acting as a decoy, that perished). Along the way The Wizard finds a way to make himself invisible, though he waits until Chapter 13 to utilize that potentially quite handy ability. He also comes up with a new master strategy (the theft of some super plane plans) at the same time. A more cynical reviewer might wonder if this new found ability and new plot suddenly appearing at Chapter 13 meant that Batman and Robin was originally intended as a 12 chapter serial and three extra chapters were tacked on the end.
Whereas Batman had received some favourable reviews in 1943, Batman and Robin was almost universally dismissed as cheap kiddie-fare of the lowest order, with several critics noting how the production’s inadequate budget was evident in every shot and pointing out the logic failures and inconsistencies to the plot. In fact, for its time Batman and Robin received a critical panning on a par with the one its 1997 namesake suffered. Audience reaction was more positive, but not to the extent it had been with Batman six years earlier. Most viewers seemed to like the new villain, but even with the black hood he was nowhere near as scary as Dr. Daka had been, if only because at the time of Batman’s release a Japanese spy had been a truly credible and genuinely frightening threat. Lowery looked more plausible as The Caped Crusader than Wilson, but whereas Wilson had done a reasonable job of playing the dual personalities of Bruce Wayne and Batman, Lowery’s portrayal of both was flat and one dimensional. As for Robin, at 25 Duncan was considerably older than Croft had been and he looked it. The reduced audience appreciation and poor critical reviews for Batman and Robin put pay to any thoughts Columbia may have had about giving The Caped Crusader a third serial outing.
Both Batman in 1943 and Batman and Robin in 1949 were very much creatures of their time. Wartime paranoia and post-war austerity played their part in the productions, and both were made on budgets that wouldn’t buy 60 seconds of Batmobile CGI on a modern Batman movie. But perhaps the most important thing to remember about these early Batman outings is that The Dark Knight himself was still in his infancy, and much of what we would call ‘classic’ Batman material didn’t exist yet, and wouldn’t until the 1966 TV series brought The Caped Crusader squarely back into the public consciousness. Looking back it’s easier to understand why Batman in 1943 chose a topical wartime villain over the selection available from the comics (The Joker, The Penguin, Two-Face and Catwoman – then simply The Cat – had all appeared by 1943, and The Riddler joined them in 1948), but the exclusion of any form of Batmobile (there had been several versions in the comic by 1943) has impacted on the longevity of both serials, as the lack of Batman’s iconic transport, and virtually all of the other trappings of man-batness apart from the slightly annoying Boy Wonder sidekick, has made it difficult for newer generations of Bat-fans to identify with these early live-action versions of their hero. Both serials have their merits, Batman in particular for giving us The Batcave and the classic interpretation of Alfred Pennyworth, but in the end they are defeated by low budgets, poor production values and screenplays that drew on fairly shallow pots of imagination, leaving it spread too thinly across over 4 hours of screentime.
Both Batman and Batman and Robin are available on DVD and relatively easily tracked down on ebay or Amazon.