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Batmaniacs will want this two-disc serial version of the Batman story -- the very first film version of the comic book -- but casual viewers need to be warned of what they're getting into. It's an old-fashioned serial designed to be played one instalment at a time for fifteen weeks to get kids to attend the theater on a habitual basis. The top serial studio was Republic; product from Columbia (like Batman) isn't generally considered very good.
Second, the show is chock-full of howlingly dated and clearly unintentional humor, and considered such a laugh riot that it was revived soon after the hit 1966 TV series as An Evening with Batman and Robin . And finally, becasue it ws made in 1943, Batman takes as its villain a ludicrously stereotyped Japanese. The anti-"Jap" propaganda runs riot. People serious about political correctness are sure to be offended.
The serial's title card starts off with the official logo of the old comic strip, a pair of bat wings crowned by the handsome mug of Batman himself. After that auspicious opening, Columbia's Batman serial looks and plays like something that the producer had to film when the rest of the studio wasn't looking. Cheap isn't the right word ... this being 1943, everybody drives cars as if knocking a dent in one or getting a flat tire would halt the production. The costumes are actually okay, although the capes either hang limply or get in the way of all the fast action, particularly the fights. The admonition in The Incredibles against capes is no joke ... Batman loses his more than once in the pitifully repetitious fistfights that occur at least twice an episode. Of course, continuity is so carefree that the cape just pops back on in the next cut!
Ever smiling and given to empty-headed simple talk, this version of the title character has almost no character. One or two people discount the possibility that wealthy wastrel Bruce Wayne could ever be the dashing crimefighter Batman, and that's all for his identity crisis. Lewis Wilson seems much more interested in his 'ward' Dick Grayson than anything else, as 99% of their dialogue is simply exchanging instructions before fistfights, and thanking each other after close-call rescues. The fact that they come bounding out of their grandfather clock (this version's pathway to the Bat Cave) acting like they share some wicked secret no doubt helped insure the show's reputation as high-camp ... if Bob Kane or whoever didn't see any homoerotic implications in his original conception, he must have been really naïve. Wayne likes to pat Grayson on the back, and touch his giant mop of hair a lot ...
Dick and Bruce drive around in an ordinary sedan driven by their butler Alfred (William Austin), who in this version is a blithering idiot comic relief character. They pull into an alley to change wardrobes, with many shots ending with Bruce and Dick beginning to undress .... yeah, I know. The action is basic but vigorous. Wilson and Croft (or their stunt doubles ... Croft's double looks 40 pounds heavier) climb 1001 roofs and swing down through a lot of windows. The fights are mind-numbingly interchangeable, with everyone throwing haymakers. Since a minimum five guys fight the dynamic duo at any given time, two or three are always inventing some bit of business to keep them from attacking all at once - shaking off the last punch, struggling with some furniture, etc.The cliff-hanger endings are ridiculous cheats. Batman is obviously doomed in the outgoing reel-ends, yet the opening shots of the next chapters invariably show a different sequence of events. In the very first episode, Batman is tossed off a building top and falls, and falls ... but in the re-cap he almost immediately lands safely on a painter's scaffold ... knocking a painter off, presumably to his doom.
J. Carrol Naish is wonderful, and a reason to see the show just by himself. As Dr. Taka he wears exaggerated upper eyelid makeup and black lipstick. He's forever burning incense to Buddha, saying "Banzai!" and swearing loyalty to Hirohito while snickering at the inevitable defeat of America. Unfortunately, neither he nor his bunch of henchmen/traitors can do anything right. Besides letting Batman go more times than can be counted, they lose their radium ray gun as well as a spy submarine. Henchmen and Japanese infiltrators die by the score and Daka laments their loss and moves on as if tomorrow will be another day. It takes him at least three episodes worth of Bat-interference before he decides that the Bat-Man has to be eliminated. Of course, since he's a serial villain, every opportunity to exterminate the hero is badly muffed. Tossing a box into his handy alligator pit, Daka is understandably annoyed when the contents turn out not to be Batman but one of his own men. Gee, sorry about that.
Besides spotting poorly matched doubles (especially Alfred, who changes into a more reliable stunt driver every time he gets behind the wheel) and editing mismatches, one quickly realizes that watching a full serial is exhausting. Without a week between episodes, the repeated material and the sameness of the sets and cookie-cutter action wears one down. I often wondered why these action serials weren't turned into television miniseries, which it seems would be a natural re-purposing.
Of course, there's no mystery as to why Batman hasn't been revived much, except for that 1966 'camp' release which supposedly gave it a new narrator. The WW2-era propagandistic anti-Japanese tone is enough to make one wince. Episode one has a trucking shot down a street of closed Japanese-American businesses while a smug narrator assures us that these 'sons of Nippon' have been wisely put into protective custody. Dr. Taka does most of his dirty work in hiding, and his Quisling American henchmen apparently are willing to sell the USA down the river for a salary. When Batman finally confronts Daka, his first words are a shouted ( I mean shouted), "Why ... YOU'RE A JAP!" Several more "You dirty Jap!" - type oaths follow in quick succession. Batman is so un-PC, it goes right through funny and back to serious again. 1
Charles Middleton is a rancher with a radium mine who figures in a number of episodes. Charles C. Wilson plays a listless police Captain always eager to take credit for Batman's arrests, rather like the fat cop in the Simpsons TV show.
Columbia's two-disc set of Batman - The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection looks okay after a very bad start. The first episode is depressingly grainy and terminally contrasty in some scenes, such as the first establishing shot of Batman sitting at a boring desk amid a bunch of bats in the Bat Cave. The negative for that one must have been lost in some vault shuffle. The rest of the episodes are mostly okay, with solid pictures and good sound. Production values are so low that the endless shots of empty, un-decorated street sets and mix-n match rooms makes the photography look worse than it is. Stock shots proliferate and day-for-night shooting becomes, "day-for-night-but-everyone-forgets-its-night-so-midnight-looks-like-high-noon."
There are no extras to explain the show to the newbies who will think the whole thing a bad joke. The glitzy packaging has handsome modern art on the cover, and a dynamic Batman looking down over a glass and steel city on the back. Nothing remotely like that, or any kind of visual motif of any kind, ever occurs in the show. Even the Bat-Signal looks like it's projected by a desk lamp.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Batman - The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection rates:
1. In the late 50s, when cereal boxes sold toy machine guns, our favorite game on Hickam Air Force Base (I was 8) was War, and of course we called the Japanese enemy Japs. We had some Japanese-American airman kids who played with us, and they took turns playing the Japs too. Maybe if their parents found out it would make a difference, maybe not. What a different, strange time