BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION

(SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA PICTURES; 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

BATMAN 1943 cover

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.

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

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.

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

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.

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

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!

BATMAN Serial Poster

BATMAN Serial Poster

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.


THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1

(Universal Studios Home Entertainment; 2012)

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When I was a kid, Friday night television was filled with THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the late night “chiller theater,” an old (usually black and white), cheaply produced and horribly acted horror or sci-fi movie. Saturday and Sunday afternoon television was filled with old movie series (such things would be called “franchises” today) from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s: The Bowery Boys (the third incarnation of the Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall act, we were also gifted with earlier versions the Dead End Kids and the East Side Kids), Tarzan (of the Johnny Weissmuller variety, though we would occasionally get a Ron Ely or some other latter day Ape Man), Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule and – of course – Abbott and Costello.

Recently, I’ve been revisiting my youth by procuring (and spending way too much time watching) DVD collections of some of my favorite comedies. The horror and sci-fi fix comes from two places: those DVD collections of 50 movies for super cheap prices (mostly dubious prints of even more dubious titles) and my friend, Cap’n Willard over at www.willardswormholes.com, who somehow finds (for the most part) superior prints of those same schlocky, crappy movies I loved as a kid and offers a weekly dose of “Friday Night Drive-In Movies.” Check it out… you’ll love it! Anyway, those comedies (and sometimes the Japanese monster movies) had me rolling when I was a kid and they have the same affect on me now. No vulgarities, no pretensions, no color… just good, clean yucks.

So, apparently, THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 has actually been around for a few years, but the version I have is a reissued set. Everything is the same, movie and bonus feature-wise, but I guess the packaging is a little different and, rather than two discs with 2 movies on each side, we have four one-sided discs with 2 movies apiece.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (publicity photo)

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (publicity photo)

The collection starts – as it should – at the beginning, with Bud and Lou’s first film appearance in 1940’s ON NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. The Vaudevillians are not the “stars” of this film; they are billed third, below Allen Jones and Nancy Kelly, though fourth-billed Robert Cummings actually has more screen time and is more integral to the actual story than the comedians. That story involves impending nuptials, a jealous former lover, an insurance policy and a pair of “adjusters” charged with getting the groom to the church on time. A weird premise, to be sure, but one that works in that loopy 1940s Hollywood way. I understand that some 20 minutes of the story was cut to give more onscreen time for Abbott and Costello to perform some of their more famous Vaudeville bits (including “Who’s On First”). That, obviously, leaves some gaping holes in the plot that gives the flick a disjointed, unfinished feel. My question is, “Why, for Heaven’s sake, didn’t they cut a musical number or two or that incredibly strange production number at the end of the movie instead?” Studio thinking back then was that a lighthearted comedic script, no matter how well written, couldn’t carry a feature film alone and – even with musical diversions – definitely couldn’t hold an audience’s interest for more than 90 minutes (ONE NIGHT… clocks in at a whopping 82 minutes!). Read on and you’ll find, as I did, that those annoying musical numbers were there for a reason beyond studio incompetence.

Abbott and Costello with the Andrews Sisters (BUCK PRIVATES publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello with the Andrew Sisters (BUCK PRIVATES publicity photo)

The first star vehicle for Bud and Lou came via 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES, the first of three military themed flicks by the boys. Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou) are a couple of small-time swindlers, selling fake (or maybe stolen) silk ties on the streets. To avoid the cop who busted them, the pair duck into what they think is a line for a movie and end up enlisting in the miliary. When they get to boot camp, they meet up with the police officer again, this time as their no-nonsense drill instructor. This is a plot that worked more than once for the Three Stooges and it works just as well here. Of course, there’s still plenty of music, provided by the Andrew Sisters (the first of three appearances in Abbott and Costello features). The film may be most famous for premiering the Sisters’ biggest hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Once and future Stooge Shemp Howard makes the first of several appearances with our duo, as an Army cook. The movie was the second highest grossing movie of the year (behind only SERGEANT YORK), causing Universal to stop production on the duo’s next film, HOLD THAT GHOST in favor of another military film, IN THE NAVY. Having conquered Vaudeville, Abbott and Costello had now conquered Hollywood and had become the biggest comedy stars of the day!

Abbott and Costello with Shemp Howard (IN THE NAVY still)

Abbott and Costello with Shemp Howard (IN THE NAVY still)

IN THE NAVY finds our heroes protecting the identity of America’s heartthrob crooner, Russ Raymond (Dick Powell), who just wants to be left alone for awhile. When Raymond joins the Navy to travel as far away from his fans as he can get, the boys follow. So does a journalist (played by Claire Dodd) who has promised her editor to find and photograph the singer for the tabloid she works for. Lou’s character, Pomeroy Watson, has a huge crush on Patty Andrews of the singing sister act and writes her to tell her that he’s a big shot in the Navy. With Smokey Adams’ (that’d be Bud) help, Pomeroy convinces Patty and her sisters that he is the captain of a ship heading to Hawaii and – of course – hilarity ensues. As improbable as the entire sequence appeared, the United States Navy wasn’t amused and the whole thing had to be presented as a dream after Pomeroy gives himself the mickey planned for the real captain. More songs, more dance, more Shemp (this time a Navy cook) and more bits from Bud and Lou’s Vaudeville routines, including the hilarious 7×13=28 sequence. Not the pair’s best, but still fun.

Abbott and Costello (HOLD THAT GHOST publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (HOLD THAT GHOST publicity photo)

HOLD THAT GHOST (the third Abbott and Costello feature of 1941!), along with WHO DONE IT?, are my personal favorites on this collection. While the guys were making IN THE NAVY, an earlier version of this film (then called OH! CHARLIE!) was screened for test audiences. It didn’t fare too well, apparently, as most of the audience members asked, “Where are the Andrew Sisters?” Once IN THE NAVY wrapped, Abbott and Costello re-shot parts of the film and added wrap around nightclub scenes, featuring the Andrew Sisters and monotone vocalist/band leader Ted Lewis. I guess good things happen when you listen to your audience… the film just missed the top 10 that year, finishing as the 11th highest money-maker. The plot revolves around the boys’ inheritance of an old speakeasy owned by a mobster. Lou’s scenes with comedienne Joan Davis (including a dance routine to “The Blue Danube Waltz”) are great and we are introduced to Costello’s famous “Oh, Chuck!” bit. A classic, with or without the musical numbers. By the way, in case you’re curious, Shemp’s back – this time as a soda jerk.

Universal again pushed back production of another film (RIDE ‘EM COWBOY) to further capitalize on the military-themed success of BUCK PRIVATES and IN THE NAVY, opting instead to go with the weakest of Bud and Lou’s early output (again, released in 1941), KEEP ‘EM FLYING. The plot’s fairly thin and the story’s weak as the pair follow their barnstorming stunt pilot buddy into the Army Air Corps (the United States Air Force didn’t split from the Army until 1947). Both Shemp Howard and the Andrew Sisters are gone, but Martha Raye, playing twin waitresses in a USO-run diner, has several funny scenes with Costello.

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

With RIDE ‘EM COWBOY, the team are once again in trouble with their boss and decide to hide out at a dude ranch. Lou has a local Indian after him to marry his daughter and a scene with the Indian in the bunkhouse is pretty funny. Less music this time but, thankfully, some of that music is provided by Ella Fitzgerald, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Five movies in little over a year has obviously taken a toll; while not as bad as KEEP ‘EM FLYING, this one sure ain’t no HOLD THAT GHOST!

The pair were “loaned out” to MGM Studios for their next film, RIO RITA and, since this collection comes to us from Universal Studios, it isn’t included. Their next Universal movie, PARDON MY SARONG, finds Bud and Lou as Chicago bus drivers who get in trouble when they drive a playboy yachtsman (played by Robert Paige) and his lady friends across country to an event in California. The Chicago Transit Authority don’t usually take to kindly to those sorts of things and this is no exception. A warrant is issued and Detective Kendall (William Demarest at his exasperated best) tracks the boys down. Kendall arrests the pair, which leads to a great bit on a ferry… the hilarious “Go ahead and back up” routine. Bud, Lou and the playboy (and his antagonistic love interest) end up on an island with native girls, a jealous suitor and a villainous doctor (exquisitely portrayed by Lionel Atwill). The Ink Spots appear in a nightclub scene, as do a dance troupe called Tip, Tap and Toe. The trio do a gravity defying slip and slide routine that, while it adds nothing to the story, is fun to watch. Later, on the island, the natives perform a ceremonial dance that looks (and sounds) more like a Busby Berkeley production number. Still… all in all, PARDON MY SARONG is a definite step up from the last two films.

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

This collection ends with WHO DONE IT?, the first Abbott and Costello movie to not feature musical numbers. The pair are wannabe mystery writers, working as soda jerks in a broadcasting company building. There’s a real murder during the broadcast of a radio show called “Murder At Midnight” and Bud and Lou set out to solve the crime, thinking that doing so will prove that they can write believable murder mysteries. Mary Wickes is funny as a secretary wooed by Costello’s character, Mervin Q Milgrim; William Gargan is a no-nonsense police detective and William Bendix plays his bumbling assistant. There are a lot of funny bits involving Lou and an elevator operator, played by Walter Tetley. The roof-top scene that ends the flick is one of the more clever wrap-ups of any of these early Abbott and Costello vehicles. WHO DONE IT? Is the duo’s best film since HOLD THAT GHOST and it is these two that get the most play around my house.

Costing somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars (depending on where and how you buy it), THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 is well worth the investment. You can’t go wrong with these classics… especially at this price! Now, I’m off to find the second volume in this collection. (DT)


THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

(WARNER VIDEO, 2012)

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I have a confession to make: I wasn’t thrilled about BATMAN BEGINS. So much so, in fact, that I never even deemed it worthy of my time to watch it! I think it may have been the title. Maybe, I just didn’t want another BATMAN AND ROBIN (I still have nightmares over George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s costume nipples… and often wonder why Alicia Silverstone’s costume was nipple-free). Could be that the truth lies more with me being more of a Marvel guy. Whatever the reason, I have avoided it until now. And, whatever that reason may be, it has also caused me to avoid – plague-like – SUPERMAN RETURNS (apparently, the only thing that one had going for it was a completely nipple-less costume!).

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

Okay, while I’m feeling confessional, I’ll also tell you that the only reason that I went to see THE DARK KNIGHT (at a real, live drive-in, no less!) was because my niece and nephew wanted to see it and I wanted them to enjoy the drive-in experience at least once in their lives. By then, of course, everyone was talking about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker and Academy Award in the same sentence. Even though Mister Ledger was dead, I knew that even a “pity Oscar” was out of the question for an actor in a “super-hero” flick. A lot of people were even going so far as to say that he absolutely personified the Joker. When friends and acquaintances heard that I’d (finally) seen the film, all I heard was, “What did you think of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Wasn’t he awesome?” To which I replied, “That wasn’t the Joker! Sure, he played a really great psychotic murderer, but that character wasn’t the Joker.” On this point, I was adamant. Why? Comic book tradition and origin stories: The origin story given for this guy wasn’t the origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. It was a story that would make almost anybody criminally insane and homicidal. It simply wasn’t what made the Joker who he was. I didn’t seem to mind that the origin of Two-Face was actually closer to the Joker’s than his true origin. But, I digress!

Next, of course, came the trilogy’s climax, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What can I say? The Bane character never thrilled me and… Anne Hathaway as Catwoman? No thanks! Not interested! Plus… the thing was like 27 hours long or something. But, then along came Christmas in the year of our Lord 2012. With it came THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY COLLECTOR’S GIFT SET and a really sweet price for all three movies. I’m a sucker for a good deal, so…

Anyway, this is where the kicking of my own butt begins! BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t BATMAN AND ROBIN, PART DEUX. Batman’s origin story wasn’t exactly like the comics, but it was close enough. Christian Bale made an okay Batman and a great Bruce Wayne and iconic characters from Batman lore were treated with respect to their importance to the mythos (particularly Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow). Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as the Wayne family butler, Alfred, were almost spot on and both performances were definite highlights. Even at two hours and 20 minutes,I was pleased with the movie overall.

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

Bale’s throaty take on Batman begins to deteriorate in THE DARK KNIGHT and I just wanna give the guy a lozenge! That’s a minor complaint, but one that takes on larger proportions in the final film. Heath Ledger shows up early on and, after much consideration, I must say that – origin story aside – he really does make an excellent Joker! Aaron Eckhardt is dutifully solid as hot-shot District Attorney Harvey Dent and dutifully tragic as Two-Face… an acting job that, unfortunately, gets lost amid the manic performance of Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan gets even darker here than he did in BATMAN BEGINS, a portent of things to come (and a fitting homage to writer/artist Frank Miller, whose 1986 comic book mini-series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is the basis for Nolan’s vision on this trilogy). This movie takes the Batman to a very dark and violent place… and I like it!

Clocking in at just over three hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes place ten years after the last movie and sees Bruce Wayne in retirement (or, more precisely, his alter-ego is in retirement) and a Gotham City in desperate need of a hero. Bane (played by Tom Hardy and almost incomprehensible beneath that mask) is brought in to taunt the Batman out of retirement so he can kill him and assure victory for organized crime. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers (I’m sure that there are still people out there who haven’t seen these movies) but, let’s just say that hilarity DOES NOT ensue! Christian Bale’s Batman is even less understandable than in the last flick, but we muddle through. His Bruce Wayne is still good, though. Caine and Oldman are still rock solid as Alfred and (now) Commissioner Gordon, but… Holy Bat-Crap, Adam West! Anne Hathaway is… oh, just to be nice, I’ll merely call her horrible as Catwoman/Selina Kyle! Her take on this iconic villain even makes that turd with Halle Berry look good! Ra’s Al Ghul is back (and a major part of the storyline), but Ken Watanabe has been replaced in the role by Liam Neeson. Toss a coin to decide who delivered the better Ra’s. This finale definitely ups the violence factor, but also adds more of a comic book feel, which I, as true comic geek, certainly appreciate.

The whole thing is nicely packaged and, at right at eight hours of content (not counting special bonus material), a great value. Plus… the fact that the movies are fantastic doesn’t hurt.