— by CHAS BLANKENSHIP —
Batman and Robin battle Japanese spymaster Tito Daka as he operates a covert espionage organization in Gotham City’s now-deserted Little Tokyo that turns American scientists into pliable zombies for the Third Reich.
1943…A period of immense patriotic resolve within the bowels of America. Following the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the fray of World War II with gusto to spare…both on and off movie screens.
As the Allies continued their struggle over seas, both Hollywood and the Comic book Industry saw fit to cheer them on with exploits of Strong-Armed Patriots and American Idealists. By now, Timely Comics’ Captain America was blazing newsstands as director Michael Curtiz weaved a stirring tale of honor and love with “Casablanca.”
Provided as an outlet for younger audiences to delve into national fervor, Columbia Pictures (along with a handful of fellow studios) crafted 12 to 15 chapter Movie Serials; short films that would run at the head of a film each week to appeal to children in the audience.
As these serials paved the way for Science Fiction and Action/Adventure as we know it today with tales like “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon,” they also provided the perfect vernacular for material based on comic book superheroes.
And the first prominent example of these Super-Serials appeared in theatres across the country in the form of 1943’s wartime relic…“BATMAN.”
Enlisted by Uncle Sam and the United States Government, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) keeps up his disguise as a lethargic, good for nothing playboy along with young ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) while, under cover of darkness, they take to the streets of Gotham City as Batman and Robin…fighting both crime and dreaded Axis saboteurs who operate in secret within our borders.
But issue has now risen in the form of Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Nash), a sinister Japanese scientist and agent in service to the Third Reich.
Equipped with a Radium powered Ray Gun, a deadly Alligator Pit and a device that can render men to do his bidding as Electronic Zombies, Daka sees fit to use Gotham as a staging area for Axis domination…with Batman and Robin standing alone as the only deterrent against this force of fascist evil.
Meant to inspire patriotism in audiences, “BATMAN” does seem like it would succeed in that regard.
Having been born in the late ’80s, it’s quite a treat to see how the character was being handled closer to his inception…albeit with mixed results.
Ultimately, I love the serial. It’s just so cool to see Batman being handled in the pulp comic atmosphere that 1940s genre filmmaking prescribed to. Since the character’s world is usually made up of urban decay, mobsters and the whims of the criminal underbelly…it’s logical that Batman would work in this time frame in a similar fashion to the comics of the day.
In hindsight, I actually find “BATMAN” to be quite enjoyable when watching a chapter or so per viewing. I’d never attempt to watch all 15 chapters in one sitting and that’s probably for the best.
The action of the piece overall, thanks in large part to Lambert Hillyer’s direction, is quite impressive for the time as it would feature Batman and robin in some pretty audacious circumstances (for example, the opening of “A Nipponese Trap” follows the aftermath of Batman being caught in a plane crash…only to simply stagger out of the wreckage mostly unphased!).
But action aside, the thing can actually drag in some areas. I pin this more towards the fact that I was watching the serial post-Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher/Christopher Nolan…I’m sure had I been born into the 40s and been the right age, it would’ve blown me away as Burton’s film did.
The cliffhangers are great…a true staple of any movie serial meant to keep kids coming back for more. What attempts to edge out the effectiveness of the cliffhangers, however, are the ways they’d be resolved in the next chapter.
At the end of “The Electrical Brain,” Batman is caught in free fall after being hurled off a building…
…Only to wind up crashing safely onto a convenient window-washer rig.
Couldn’t they at least have let Batman save himself with acrobatics or a Batarang/De-Cel line combo? Oh well.
The aspect of the serial that makes it the most interesting and lends itself to frequent eyebrow-raising is the mere fact that it was produced in wartime.
While it’s cool to see Batman and Robin take on the Axis, it’s simultaneously off-putting to hear the apparent…often rampant…racial slurs that are thrown around as Batman is commented to be facing the ‘slanty-eyed Japs.’
One colorful comment is delivered in the first chapter by character Martin Warren to Dr. Daka.
“I’m an American first and always…and no amount of torture conceived by your twisted oriental brain will make me change my mind.”
The cast is fairly tame here…no huge standouts.
Lewis Wilson, providing us with our first flesh and blood Dark Knight, DOES manage to have a commanding presence…as Bruce Wayne.
But seriously…the costume is downright laughable. There’s no way around that. Although there is a cool moment in “The Bats Cave” where Batman interrogates a crook in his lair…accusing him of lying and threatening to sick the bats that roost there upon him.
Or in “The Living Corpse,” when Batman wields Daka’s own Radium Gun on top of a speeding truck (!)
But it’s a real shame that Wilson is more enjoyable to watch as Wayne. I just love his nonchalant approach to the character and the almost borderline obnoxious swagger he has about him.
Douglas Croft makes little to no impression as Robin.
Shirley Patterson fairs better as semi-love interest Linda Paige. She brings quite an air of sophistication to the ‘boys club’ cast and injects a much needed dose of feminine charm.
Aside from our heroes, the standout however clearly has to be J. Carrol Nash, who’s turn as Daka is packed with enough sufficient malaise to make him memorable. That accent is pretty strange though.
The effects, costuming and overall production is modest to say the least…but the atmosphere, as a priority, was pulled off successfully. There’s even some inventive camera work here and there.
Although there’s a ton of repetition throughout serial as a whole and the score material is pretty routine for matinee serials, Lee Zahler’s use of pensive high strings works well for the piece…with traces of both mystery and heroism to fuel the chapters.
On a whole and, if nothing else, “BATMAN” represents a great throwback to the days of comic book heroism during the 2nd World War…clearly indicating the longevity of Batman’s career while making a story that is, in the long run, quite enjoyable.
A definite must to see the character in the earliest film roots possible.
1: The Electrical Brain
2: The Bat’s Cave
3: The Mark of the Zombies
4: Slaves of the Rising Sun
5: The Living Corpse
6: Poison Peril
7: The Phoney Doctor
8: Lured by Radium
9: The Sign of the Sphinx
10: Flying Spies
11: A Nipponese Trap
12: Embers of Evil
13: Eight Steps Down
14: The Executioner Strikes
15: The Doom of the Rising Sun
Directed by … Lambert Hillyer
Screenplay by … Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker and Harry L. Fraser
Based on the DC Comics Character Created by … Bob Kane and Bill Finger
Produced by … Rudolph C. Flothow
Cinematography by … James S. Brown Jr.
Stunts by … George DeNormand, George Mabrill, Eddie Parker and George Robotham
Editing by … Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner
Original Score by … Lee Zahler
Lewis Wilson … Bruce Wayne/Batman
Douglas Croft … Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson/Robin
J. Carrol Naish … Dr. Tito Daka
Shirley Patterson … Linda Paige
William Austin … Alfred Pennyworth
George Chesebro … Brennan
Jack ingram … Klein
Gus Glassmire … Martin Warren
Karl Hackett … Wallace
Charles C. Wilson … Police Captain Arnold
Sam Flint … Dr. G.H. Borden
Frank Shannon … Dr. Hayden
John Maxwell … Sam Fletcher
Charles Middleton … Ken Colton
Knox Manning … Narrator (voice)
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