(SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA PICTURES; 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT
The 1943 Columbia Serial Release of BATMAN is given the DVD treatment in celebration of the DVD release of the highly successful Christopher Nolan reboot, BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, it’s more like a monetary feeding frenzy, with every company with anything even remotely related to Batman throwing it against the commercial wall to see what sticks. Thus, the tag-line for this two-disc set is, “See how Batman really began.” Which, I suppose, is an accurate assertion if you’re speaking about filmed versions. While the character debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS in 1939, this cheaply made serial was the first film to feature the Batman and his young protoge, Robin.
“Cheaply made,” did you say? So, we should probably avoid it like the plague, right? Nope… not at all! Cheap doesn’t always mean bad. In the case of BATMAN, while there are some dubious directorial decisions and some cringe-worthy dialogue that definitely wouldn’t pass any kind of censor in this day and age, overall it is a fun ride and a look back at a movie Batman that’s more in line with what creator Bob Kane had envisioned in his early comic book appearances. If you’re far too politically correct to take it as a piece with some historical significance, realizing that it is very much of a different time, you may want to give BATMAN a pass. If you look at it as a period piece, the racial references may not sting as much… doesn’t make ’em any more right then than it does now, but it was quite a different world 60 years ago. The most blatantly egregious comment comes from the narrator beginning at about the halfway mark of Episode 1: “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… “ There is so much wrong with those lines but, again, we have to remember that Japan was one of the Axis powers that the United States and its allies were fighting then. The “rounding up” that is referred to is our government’s solution to the hysteria that gripped most of the country: They forced approximately 110,000 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent (mostly on the West Coast) into “War Relocation Camps,” as possible saboteurs or enemy combatants. Anyway… history lesson over. We all understand how bad this stuff was.
Aside from the obvious “rah-rah, we’re the good guys” war mentality, the 15-part BATMAN serial did feature some cool sci-fi elements, some over-the-top action sequences and the first appearance anywhere of the Batcave (herein called the “Bat’s Cave”). Batman is working for the government as a secret agent while, as Bruce Wayne, he affects the lazy, disinterested attitude of the filthy rich. Lewis Wilson looks the part, rather it be Bruce or alter ego, Batman. The costume is pretty good, even if the cape and cowl are a bit problematic, particularly in the fight scenes. Likewise, 17-year old Douglas Croft is solid as Wayne’s ward, Dick Grayson, and his masked crime-fighting persona, Robin. The two work off each other quite well, the odd changing in and out of costume together in the back seat of a car aside. Shirley Patterson, her high hair and big hats play Bruce’s love interest, Linda Page. She’s pretty hot except for the fact that she’s something like 85 years old and has been dead for 10 years. But, I digress, as is my wont regarding such things.
J Carroll Naish, as the evil Doctor (or Prince, depending on the episode) Daka, is as inscrutable as most “occidentals” seem to think all Asian master criminals or detectives are. Of course, you couldn’t use a real-live Japanese actor for the role, seeing as how they couldn’t be trusted. Before I start getting hate mail from the humorless politically correct among you, that was sarcasm! Anyway, the one remaining business in “Little Tokyo” is a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” which purports to show scenes of Japanese atrocities heaped upon the world and their own people. It’s really a front for the good… uh… the not-so-good doctor’s spy organization, his “League of the New Order.” This League is populated by a bunch of felons and wrongly accused parolees (’cause they’re mad at the justice system for putting them in prison, naturally) to undermine several key US industries. If the innocent (or a patriotic crook) refuses to join the cause, Daka turns them into electronically controlled living zombies (and everybody knows that those are the best kind). Except in the case of interchangeable stooge number three who, after one screw-up too many, decides that patriotism is the way to go and stands up to the mad doctor. After a couple of racial slurs and a guarantee that the good ol’ US of… will prevail, he turns his back on the evil… well, maybe ornery is more apt… cabal and ends up alligator food. Such is life (or death)! Speaking of “interchangeable,” that’s as apt a term as any, because I couldn’t tell them apart if my life depended on it: dark hair under a hat, thin little Erroll Flynn moustache, the standard hood-speak of every crime movie of the time. If so many of them didn’t have to be in one room at the same time, I’d swear that they were all played by the same guy. By the way, the maniacal little giggle that emanates from from Daka when the guy drops in on the ‘gators is awesome!
So, we’ve got radium-powered ray guns, remote control zombies, a trap door with alligators on the other side, a self-painting car and a public phone booth with a secret door and a poison gas nozzle. Those are the least of the Batman’s worries, though, as he’s tossed off a skyscraper, dropped down an elevator shaft, has a mine collapse on his head, is trapped in a burning building, sealed alive in a casket and is generally ill-treated at the end of every cliff-hanging episode. This ain’t rocket surgery, kids, but it is fun!
Now, a couple of oddities that you may enjoy watching out for: Wilson and Croft use the other’s character names rather randomly. In the span of less than a minute, Batman calls Robin, “Dick” and Bruce calls Dick, “Robin”; Robin hardly ever uses “Batman,” it’s almost always “Bruce.” Alfred is a putz, used for comic relief. He is, nonetheless, very involved in the Dynamic Duo’s escapades, usually as chauffeur (the Batman uses the same ride that Bruce Wayne does, so I guess it just makes sense that they should also have the same driver, huh?), but occasionally as bait. Batman loses his cape more than once in the fight scenes, only to have it reappear when the camera angle changes; it also causes him trouble by wrapping around his arm or head while he’s throwing a punch. That’s probably why there are so few Marvel super-heroes who actually wear capes (I can think of Thor, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Storm of the X-Men and, occasionally, the Black Panther). Also, while the costume is really fairly accurate and looks good (most of the time), it isn’t exactly form fitting and tends to droop and sag in areas. Probably the weirdest thing about the Batman suit is the Underoos – they start right under the bat insignia, making our hero look like a 90 year old with his pants hiked up to his chest. The entrance (and exit) of the “Bat’s Cave” is a grandfather clock. Bruce and Dick use it often to sneak up on Alfred and make his life miserable. Bruce appears to be not only lazy, but shiftless,as well. Even so, his attractive, hard-working girlfriend sticks around and seems to generally like the guy. Must be the money (or whatever he’s packing in them giant-size Underoos). You’ll also notice that a lot of the stunts (I’m assuming they used actual stuntmen) look awfully painful! Remember, kids, they didn’t have CGI back then – that wall that Robin slammed into was a real, solid wall. I bet they had a gopher on set just to pass out aspirin after a fight scene.
Like I said before, this ain’t rocket surgery, so disengage your brain for a little while and enjoy a trip back to a simpler (if less tolerant) time with BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION.