Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

BATMAN SERIAL


BATMAN (15 chapter Columbia serial/1943). Director: Lambert Hillyer.

"Don't be absurd! That simpering idiot could never be the Batman!" -- Dr. Daka.

"Another Batman killed, eh? I hope that is the last of them." -- Ditto.

Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) tangle with the members of the League of the New Order, who are after supplies of radium for their special gun -- and worse -- an atom disintegrator. The League consists of American traitors being led by Japanese spy Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who has a brain machine that turns men -- and women -- into slaves, as well as two pet gators [Nojo-nojo and Soko-soko] waiting hungrily beneath a trap door in his interesting headquarters (which is located inside a chamber of horrors). The league has a getaway car that cleverly changes color via the use of a special gas, and at one point Daka employs poisoned cigarettes to off some of his enemies. An amusing scene has a Japanese man in suspended animation arrive in a case to deliver a brief message and then die. Bruce Wayne's friend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) gets involved when her wrongly accused Uncle Marty (Gus Glassmire) gets out of jail and becomes one of Daka's first mind-slaves. The Batman -- the article is always used in classic fashion -- works out of a "Bat's Cave" and leaves a bat insignia on the foreheads of thugs in the manner of pulp [and serial hero] the Spider.

Wilson and Croft are fine as Bruce/Batman and Dick/Robin, and William Austin is excellent and amusing as their plucky butler Alfred. Charles Middleton -- Ming the Merciless himself -- shows up in a sympathetic role of the old miner, Ken Colton, illustrating Middleton's versatility. Shirley Patterson is swell; under the name Shawn Smith she appeared in such nifty items as It, The Terror from Beyond Space, World Without End and The Land Unknown. While it may not be considered his best performance and he is hardly Japanese, J. Carrol Naish is terrific as Daka and seems to be having a lot of fun as well. The fisticuffs in the film don't compare to the well-choreographed fight scenes in Republic's cliffhangers, but they get better as the serial proceeds. There are some nifty cliffhangers, including a descending freight elevator in chapter 7, and closing walls with spikes -- even as Linda faces a mind-blowout -- in chapter 13. Lee Zahler's dramatic theme music is also memorable.

The "Bat's Cave" of this serial was later carried over and put in the comics, as was the secret entrance to it inside a grandfather's clock. Alfred in the comics was made thinner to look more like William Austin.

Verdict: Fast-paced and atmospheric for the most part, this captures some of the flavor of the comics of the period. ***.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good synopsis of the serial and your screen capture shows what for me was one of the best scenes in it: a no nonsense Batman dealing with the underworld!

Lewis Wilson's portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a bored, spoiled rich adult was a good way to express the character, something that subsequent actors have failed to grasp. And, since he was the first, Wilson had no actor to compare the portrayal to.

Also, the Batman's costume was pretty faithful to the comic books of that time. Aside from the ears, the cowl was as they showed it in the comics--it could be drawn back from the head instead of being a helmet. The utility belt was a good attempt to capture what it looked like at that time, too. Wonder why they didn't use this costume for the second serial? The atmospheric theme song and title showed that they were trying to express the mystery of the character.

It's a shame that Lewis Wilson, who was alive at the time the Batman TV series with Adam West was so popular, never did any interviews giving his memories of playing the character. Maybe he was embarrassed by it.

William said...

It could be that he was embarrassed, or even bitter. His portrayal of Batman didn't lead to greater things for him, unfortunately; he only had a few credits. (His son became executive producer of the James Bond movies!) One could say that playing Batman didn't do much for Adam West's subsequent career, either. As for the change in costume, I suppose designers have to put their own stamp on everything.

Thanks for your interesting comments!