Serial Superhero

Discover how Batman really began on the big screen (Originally printed in Film review Special #57, June 2005).

On the big screen, the story of Batman begins in 1943, four years after his first Detective Comics appearance. Columbia bought the rights to the character in order to feature him in a fifteen part serial entitled The Batman, which was to be produced for no more than $150,000 - the top end of the average serial budget. Serials were low down on the list of executives’ priorities in the old Hollywood studio system and were normally churned out to satisfy the Saturday matinee audience, the majority of which were children. Cheaply filmed and peppered with reused footage and clips from bigger budget productions, each episode or ‘chapter’ would run for approximately twenty minutes and end on a cliff-hanger, placing the hero in considerable jeopardy and enticing the viewer to return the following week to find out what would happen next.

The Batman is an unremarkable but interesting example of the format with a plot that centres on the nefarious operations of a wartime espionage group ran by Japanese master criminal Dr Daka. In a piece of post Pearl Harbour propaganda, Daka, a non-comic book villain played by white actor J Carroll Naish, is set on turning Americans into mind-controlled zombies and developing plans for an atom disintegrator (many commentators have noted the irony of this considering it was America who finally ended the war in the Pacific with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). After a series of close calls, the caped crusader finally wins out when he uncovers the criminals’ lair and Daka falls to a bloody end in an alligator pit.

Director Lambert Hillyer had bats in his belfry seven years earlier when he helmed the warmly received Dracula’s Daughter. He could be sure any vampire style bloodletting or pseudo-sexual symbolism would be vetoed on this occasion though; The Batman was to be a strictly non-horrifying action yarn. Due to the stringent serial regulations of the time, Batman and Robin were not even to be depicted as vigilantes and instead went into battle as FBI agents. Lewis Wilson (the father of Michael. G Wilson, executive producer of the Bond films) played the role of Batman or ‘The Batman’ as everyone strains to call him and, along with the script, contributed to making the character eminently unlikeable.

In the serial, Bruce Wayne is portrayed as an arrogant, lazy slob who pretends he’d rather have a cup of tea than help fight crime and then tardily gets his costume out for a bit of a laugh. On several occasions when duty calls, the cherubic Robin sums up the duo’s juvenile approach succinctly when he bursts out ‘swell, lets get into our outfits’. Criminally, Wayne even forces his faithful butler Alfred (the only character to transfer from the serial to the comic book) into battle, placing the poor old man’s life in serious danger. Only the fact that Alfred himself is unsympathetically portrayed as a bumbling idiot makes this just about bearable.

Subtlety in characterisation is hardly something to look out for in serials though and Batman and Robin, like so many other heroes of the genre, are frequently reduced to the role of ciphers to expound plot developments. Whenever Batman discovers some tentative, ostensibly unconnected clues for instance, he is often heard to list them and then mutter ‘that means’ before deducing from them an uncannily accurate account of what has taken place. Intentional or not, this serves to strengthen the parallels between Batman and Sherlock Holmes. Certainly the writers seem keen to exploit the connection in other respects, using Wayne as a very Holmesian master of disguise when he dresses up as mercurial mobster Chuck White.

Primarily, serials were all about pace and brevity and The Batman is no exception. Every episode speeds along, toiling to ensure a free-for-all fight between Batman and Daka’s henchmen to go out on - always played to the same orchestral score and climaxing in inevitable, if temporary, defeat for the masked one. The resultant cliffhangers remain interesting precursors to those adopted in the sixties television series, but many of them rely on uninspired cheats to resolve matters. In the case of Batman’s car dropping off a cliff and exploding into a ball of flames, as it does in one instalment, the crucial shot of Batman bailing out just beforehand is conspicuously missing the first time we see it. In another episode, a roof caves in on our hero but he miraculously defies death, according to Robin, because ‘the overhead beams formed an arch and protected him’.

Unsurprisingly, the use of Batman and Robin as stock, somewhat lucky, serial heroes leaves little to analyse in regards to any meaningful interpretation of the characters. Scant attention is given to their origins and what attempts there are to create the Batman universe are half-hearted and clumsy at best.

Creator Bob Kane was quoted as saying that the Batman serials were ‘knocked out in about ten days’, which almost certainly would include the preparation of the egregious costumes. Batman’s suit is unforgiving to the tubby Wilson, looks ridiculously tatty and includes a utility belt so high up even Simon Cowell would cringe at the thought of wearing it there.

The batcave is slightly better - a small and eerie hovel that, judging by the shadows on the walls, actually homes some of the winged creatures - but gadget-wise, Bruce Wayne is obviously not as rich as his latter-day screen counterparts. Apart from general scientific equipment in his laboratory, a very cheap bat torch is the sole piece of paraphernalia he has to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. And forget the batmobile - it’s a bog standard car.

The 1943 serial was not a roaring success but was popular enough to encourage Columbia to try their hand again in 1949 with another fifteen-part effort entitled Batman and Robin. The actors were changed but the format remained much the same. Robert Lowery took on the role of Batman and did a fair job in repairing some of the damage caused by Wilson’s bodged job – at least his Batman appears to care about what he is doing. This time, the villain (a far less controversial figure answering to the name of the Wizard) has his heart set on using an omnipotent remote control machine to instigate a spate of ambitious robberies. No reason is given for his magical moniker (he hadn’t appeared in the comics so it’s no use referencing those) but his appearance – clad in black cape and full head mask - is certainly striking.

The budget was still paltry but the scripts, cliffhangers included, were marginally improved. The story includes a subplot involving Vicki Vale’s brother Jimmy, some speculation by others as to Batman and Bruce Wayne being the same person and an element of mystery surrounding the identity of the Wizard (much effort is made to implicate a wheelchair bound eccentric called Hammil). Robin is given a bit more to do, which is a bad thing given the wooden performance of gap-toothed Johnny Duncan in the role, but generally the episodes are lucid and fairly enjoyable to watch.

Despite these improvements, Batman doesn’t look any better sartorially. His costume is darker and more frightening but the bat symbol on the chest has developed horribly thick lines to indicate folds of the wings and the tights have gone all bobbly - like pyjamas which have been through the wash a few too many times. In contrast, enormous progress had obviously been made on the utility belt – at one point Batman brandishes a two-foot long blowtorch from it!

The 1949 serial was one of the last to be produced by Columbia or any company before television stole the genre’s target audience. Whilst the two Batman serials were mediocre examples of a format that few took seriously, they are rather curious relics, eschewing the sombre side of the character yet not quite having the gumption to put tongue-in-cheek and position themselves firmly in the camp category.

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