Wednesday , June 19 2024
Tonight, on the Theater of the Absurd...

Classic Cliffhanger Serials: Batman (1943) – A Politically Incorrect Romp

One only need view a single chapter from any serial to determine that their parental studios and filmmakers were not trying to create award-winning material (the Oscars didn’t even exist when serials originally hit the screens). They were making this Saturday Matinee fodder solely for the sake of the kiddies. It’s probably a safe bet to say that some parents probably had absolutely no idea what their kids were watching every weekend; although I imagine parents of the Serial Era probably had no qualms over their children watching these moving pictures, either.

Should you take the time to compare these chapter plays to the hoards of talking/singing/dancing animated animal films chock full of blatantly inappropriate innuendo and scatological humor we’re forced to contend with now (to say nothing of the spoiled little child stars destined to become drug addicts), you may find that serials are most definitely easier pills to swallow — after all, they were made to be innocent. Unfortunately, many of the wartime efforts seem much more sinister today than they did when originally released. In fact, some of these classic cliffhangers come off as being blatantly off-color and downright racist by modern audiences. And, for my money, there is no finer example of how an earnest attempt at patriotism from WWII-era Hollywood has malformed into something cruelly evil in today’s politically correct world as Columbia Pictures’ 1943 anti-classic (or classick to B-Movie “scholars” such as myself), Batman.

Batman (1943)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer / 15 Chapters / Available on DVD from Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment

Lewis Wilson. To some, the name might not ring a bell. Actually, I’m being far too generous: the name probably means absolutely nothing to practically everyone. But, whether you’ve heard of the late actor or not, it doesn‘t change the fact that Lewis Wilson was the first man to ever don the famous cape and horned cowl long before anyone else did in this 15-Chapter serial. Batman (or The Batman, as it is sometimes known) marks the first ever appearance of the Caped Crusader on film (the first time a DC Comics character had a serial), in fact. It’s also one of the worst Batman adaptations ever.

“Wait,” you ask, “it’s worse than Joel Schumacher’s movies?” Well, maybe it’s not as bad as that — but it stinks to high heaven nonetheless. Batman has so many goofs, flaws, and politically incorrect remarks throughout its four-hour-plus runtime that it isn’t even funny. No, wait, I take that back: it is funny. It’s damn funny, in fact — and, providing you have the proper disposition (or just a really twisted sense of humor) — Batman may just be the most hysterically unintentional comedy you will ever see in your life. If your disposition is all wrong, however, and you are easily offended by certain remarks, Batman can still serve a purpose to you as a reminder of just how culturally insensitive a patriotic Hollywood can truly be.

Made by Columbia Pictures at a time when they were more of a B-Picture studio (so the term “low budget” should already be implied) and during the height of World War II (which downgrades this one to “really low budget”), our gritty black-and-white tale pits Bruce Wayne aka “The Batman” (Lewis Wilson) and Dick Grayson aka “Robin, The Boy Wonder” (portrayed by a 16-year-old actor Douglas Croft — who also played younger versions of both George M. Cohen in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees) against the nefarious Japanese madman (or, “Jap,” as many of the serial’s characters like to say — seriously, they do), Dr. Daka.

Hiding behind Dr. Daka’s unconvincing yellowface makeup is Irish character actor J. Carrol Naish — whose accent comes off as sounding more Spanish than anything. Naish hams it up to the nth degree as the “Axis stooge” who has come to the States to dissolve America’s “corrupt form of government” so that his Land of the Rising Sun will be able to take over. Interestingly enough, Daka’s mission is so secret that the U.S. Government are aware of his actions. Tracking the elusive villain down, however, isn’t something they seem capable of doing — especially in the seedy underworld of a metropolis like Gotham City — so Uncle Sam assigns their undercover agent Bruce Wayne (alias The Batman) to keep an eye out.

Yes, kiddies, that’s right: Batman isn’t a vigilante Dark Knight in this outing. Instead, he’s Washington’s secret weapon (it was World War II, after all: there was no way in hell the censors were going to allow a citizen to take the law into his own hands — that‘s what the internment camps were for, after all), assigned to weed out and apprehend the evil Axis Power infiltrators in America (or something like that). There is no Commissioner Gordon to be seen, and the completely inept Gotham City police — led by Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson) — are just as anxious to capture The Batman as are the bad guys, since they’re really not quite sure which side of the law he’s on in the first place.

The first great thing about Batman is its atmosphere. The sets are obviously sets. Walls believed to be made out of brick and concrete tend to move when people jump over them. Stucco covers cardboard much in the same way that paper covers water. The lighting has an almost film noir quality about it. Normally, one might expect to see such a thing in a comic book adaptation about a lone hero amongst the underworld, but in the case of Batman, you can’t help but feel the whole look was unintentional — as if somebody who once worked on a noir gangster flick and was assigned to light the sets for a kiddie serial and didn’t quite know what to do. Either way, the moody lighting combined with the obviously phony set pieces gives the piece a very surreal feel.

Of course, no good serial (or comic book adaptation, for that matter) would be without a hidden lair. And Dr. Daka has one of the greatest hideouts ever: a huge fortress hidden away within the confines of a war-themed Cave of Horrors ride. Daka has it all: a laboratory of evil below (labs were pretty much required in all serials, I think), a super-secret back entrance (booby-trapped, of course), a pit full of hungry alligators just waiting for their next meal (or are they crocodiles? I can never tell), and additional rooms that we never actually get to see. Daka’s massive base of operations defies all laws of logic, too! Between all of the secret rooms and the full-length basement (there may possibly be a sub-basement, too), you’d think that his lair stretches out to the other end of the block. It’s almost feasible, too — except for the fact that some of the rooms would technically cut right into the theme ride on the other side of the wall. Perhaps Dr. Daka coerced M.C. Escher himself into designing his massive lair.

A second hideout is also seen in Batman. The Batcave — or, “Bat(man’s) Cave,” as it is refered to — makes its first appearance anywhere here. But, don’t get your hopes up, Adam West fans: this “strange, dimly-lighted, mysteriously secret” cavern is used for little more than intimidating captured thugs. Another famous Bat-product, the iconic Batmobile, does not technically exist in either this or the later Batman serial, Batman and Robin (1949). Instead, Batman and Robin just put the top up on Bruce Wayne’s gigantic black Cadillac and ride around in that, making up excuses whenever anyone inquires about it — often with their faithful manservant Alfred driving!

Speaking of Alfred, he is portrayed by actor William Austin in this Batman, and his is the first “thin” version of the character introduced. The faithful British manservant was much rounder in the comics (and was also clean-shaven whereas Austin’s sports a moustache), but would later lose the extra added pounds in order to resemble the onscreen version. Interestingly enough, Austin’s interpretation of Alfred is also the most fey of any portrayal or depiction seen before or since — which instigate a number of truly head-shaking moments from viewers.

Costume-wise, Batman conjures up another barrelful of unintentional chuckles. Not only does poor Lewis Wilson (who, believe it or not, was father of Michael G. Wilson, the executive producer of the James Bond film franchise) get to run around in baggy pajamas, but he also has a god-awful time trying to see through some poorly-cut eyeholes. His horns tend to sway from side to side with even the slightest breeze, too. Douglas Croft, on the other hand, demonstrates how fun it is to prance around in tights while wearing a plastic Lone Ranger-style mask and a hairstyle that makes one wonder when the soundtrack is going to kick into high gear with some funky ‘70s waka-chi-waka guitar music.

OK, back to the story: Prince Dr. Daka intends to overtake the United States and its “corrupt form of government” (if only he had waited a few decades to see how corrupt it could really become). Since the sight of Japanese soldiers would be far too conspicuous on the street (no matter how occidental the actors portraying them may be — even The Three Stooges were mistaken for the enemy in their 1944 short, No Dough Boys), Dr. Daka is recruiting his henchmen straight from hoosegows and seedy underbelly dens of Gotham City (or, as J. Carrol Naish so clearly calls it once, “Goddam City”). By doing so, Dr. Daka has assembled a committee of villainous traitors, each of whom is a specialist in his field (and who are played by a venerable selection of seasoned serial vets, including Robert Fiske, John Maxwell, Michael Vallon, Anthony Warde, George J. Lewis, The Crimson Ghost’s I. Stanford Jolley, Lestor Dorr, Jack Ingram, George Chesebro, the always-enjoyable Stanley Price, and more).

But, not all of these dishonored U.S. citizens are ready to start batting for the enemy. One such attempted recruit is former industrialist Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire), who has just been released from prison. Daka’s effort to ensnare Warren’s aide is met with an ample amount of good ol’ American patriotism: old man Warren may have been found guilty and sent to prison, but there’s no way he’d sell out his country. But Warren’s stubbornness isn’t about to ruin Daka’s day…and the arch-villain eventually turns him into an electronic zombie (!) via a wild-looking contraption in an even wilder-looking scene.

Warren’s vanishing act does not go unnoticed, though. His niece, Linda Paige (Shirley Patterson), happens to the be friends with millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (they may be more than friends, but this is a serial aimed at young boys, so any such feelings are locked away in an emotional version of Fort Knox). Originally, Linda and Bruce (along with Dick and Alfred) were supposed to meet her Uncle Martin on the day of his release, but Bruce’s good-for-nothing-playboy charade prevented them from arriving at the prison on time (Bruce “slept in” since he’s such a good-for-nothing playboy). Mind you, had Bruce and gang have met Warren at the penitentiary, the whole serial would have taken a different approach. For starters, Warren would not have had the satisfaction of discovering who was behind his false imprisonment. And, while the details as to his incarceration are left a bit sketchy (as are most of the plot points in the serial itself), we do at least learn that Warren was sent up thanks to the bogus testimony of his former colleague, Sam Fletcher (John Maxwell).

As it turns out, Fletcher had been working for Dr. Daka all the time. Interestingly enough, that small bit of trivia is completely useless. Hell, most people won’t even catch on the very fact that Warren and Fletcher so much as know each other (save for a tiny glance) unless they just happen to pay attention to a fleeting line of dialogue in the very final chapter! This can be attributed to the lightning-fast pace in which this serial was edited and written (as were many others), leaving practically nothing in the way of the development of its characters (especially the minor ones); although one has to wonder if the aforementioned editing/writing was part of the traditional serial style (i.e. “Just entertain the damn kiddies, guys!”), or if the editors and writers were either exceedingly inattentive or were still reveling over the fact Prohibition had ended ten years earlier.

Anyway, with Martin Warren missing, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson decide to investigate as Batman and Robin. Every stooge, clue, or lead they run into leads them one step closer to Dr. Daka, who is after as much radium as he can possibly get his hands on in order to perfect his New Order’s secret weapon, the “Atom Smasher” (which, sadly enough, we never get to see constructed — a pity, too, as it sounds really super cool). Locations range from the treacherous inner-city dwellings of Gotham City and into faraway radium mines out in the country. Flash Gordon’s Charles Middleton shows in in a few chapters as Bruce’s prospector pal, Ken Colton, while sporting a long beard.

Throughout the course of the lovable fifteen-chapter monstrosity, a dozen cars or so are hurled off of cliffs (stock footage), a U.S. supply train is wrecked (stock footage), an experimental military plane (piloted by Jack Gardner and future Ed Wood regular Kenne Duncan) is hijacked and subsequently shot down (stock footage), a Japanese submarine gets blown up (stock footage), and Dr. Daka turns several people in zombies (which, for some reason, is not stock footage). And it’s garnished with wacky dialogue, baffling plotholes, grainy photography, recycled music drops, and some truly uninspired moments of inspired lunacy to boot.

Watch closely, and you will see a few of Batman’s cigarettes fall out of his pants pocket — followed by the entire cancer stick pack itself. In the first chapter (The Electronic Brain), Lewis Wilson mutters “Come on, I have an idea The Batman ought to look into this” to which co-star Douglas Croft cries out (in public) “And don’t forget Robin!,” to which he hops into the Caddy to change clothes alongside his much older ward. Creepy? Yes. Funny? Indeed — but not as funny as the man who inexplicably changes into a woman directly behind them during one of the funniest bits of bad editing I’ve ever seen.

As you may imagine, I’ve seen this one a few times. I used to watch it religiously on videocassette with a friend of mine (I still view it on occasion, albeit on DVD, and by myself, since everyone else I know now seems to be offended by it or just can’t hang with the fact that I recite the dialogue along with the actors onscreen). I also used to recreate sets and scenes with Legos (long before such a thing became popular — too bad digital technology didn’t exist yet and we couldn’t afford a camcorder back then). In some way, the embarrassing fact that I was doing this while enrolled in junior high and high school (and possibly beyond that — I did help to define the term “Special Needs,” you know) may help to illustrate my point about 1943’s Batman: there’s just something about it that defies “common sense.” It insults both your intelligence and your ideals mercilessly, but still beckons you to watch it over and over with great admiration.

Much like I facilitated to delineate the expression “Special Needs” (although I prefer the term “Indigo Children,” personally), Lambert Hillyer’s Batman is an utterly astonishing example of what some might call “Tough Love.”

But I’m not the only weirdo that feels that way about it. In 2007, I talked to someone else that I had introduced Batman to nearly two decades prior. Although he was originally outraged (and probably a bit traumatized) over it the first time ‘round, he actually thanked me for presenting it to him, citing that it — along with all of the other bizarre movies I was in the habit of subjecting on unsuspecting people (which I still do, by the way) — helped open his eyes as to how truly hypocritical and ridiculous Hollywood was (well, the whole world, really). It was an odd conversation, needless to say.

Observing and enjoying the hypocrisy was nothing new, though. Back in the early ‘60s, the serial was re-released in its entirety as An Evening with Batman and Robin. This was done at least one full month before the Adam West TV series hit the airwaves (and no doubt inspired it), and became a cult item on the college circuit due to its sheer camp value: an appeal that continues to this day with cliffhanger, superhero, and cinematic oddity aficionados around the world.

In the late ‘80s, when Tim Burton’s big screen adaptation was coming into play, Goodtimes Home Video decided to release a two-cassette VHS version of the serial, which had been forgotten after the TV show had risen above it on the cult ladder. Columbia Pictures, too (which had recently been purchased by Sony), observed the hypocrisy — though they obviously did not enjoy it. Many of the serial’s racist slurs were replaced with awkwardly-different voices by dialogue that didn’t even synch well with the lip movements, and delivered by actors that had not mastered the fine art of speaking into a microphone. Voice-over actor extraordinaire Gary Owens was called in to replace the original narration (and frankly, did a better job with his deliveries than the original narrator, Knox Manning) with some less-offensive commentary.

Amusingly enough, even though the serial had now been made family-friendly for the modern world, the world still wasn’t ready for it — and the VHS version soon found itself out of print (it’s the only way to see the “edited” version). I hang onto my copies to this day, no matter how worn and inferior they are. In 2005, when Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins revived the Gotham Franchise, Sony decided to unveil the original serial in its ugly, unedited form (under the Columbia label) with absolutely no disclaimer whatsoever announcing the oft-bigoted dialogue contained therein.

Go figure, eh? Of course, which ever version you encounter, be prepared to be aghast by what you see. Batman is a truly awful serial, but it’s the pinnacle of involuntary hilarity at the same time. Just like either narrator of the serial says, it’s “eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity seekers” — it has for decades, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Enjoy (if you can, that is).

About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the alter-ego of a feller who loves an eclectic variety of classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) film and television. He currently lives in Northern California with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.

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