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Batman Week Day 2: Adam West in Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman 1966Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith,  Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Reginald Denny

Plot: On a peaceful afternoon, Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are summoned to save a yacht carrying an important scientific innovation to Gotham City. In their other identities as Batman and Robin, the two board their Batcopter (conveniently held and prepared for them by the employees of the Gotham airport) and fly off to investigate the disturbance. After a tussle with a shark (yep), the yacht vanishes. Batman later denies the yacht’s disappearance in a press conference, during which a young Russian reporter named Kitka asks him to take off his mask for a picture. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) both rebuke the woman, but Batman is more understanding… while still refusing her request.

As the press leave, Batman and the police review known super-criminals at large who could be behind the current unrest. As it turns out there are four: the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Through a thought process too ridiculous to even attempt to replicate, our heroes determine the four villains are working together and set off to look for clues.

Kitka goes to the Gotham docks, where we discover she’s really Catwoman in disguise. She joins the other villains in their “United Underworld” organization, where they reveal their plan is the disruption of the United World conference in Gotham using a secret invention developed by a man on the yacht, the daft Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny). Batman and Robin determine the yacht that vanished was, in fact, an illusion, and the real yacht was stolen some point prior. As they take to sea in the Batboat, they cruise the ocean above the Penguin’s highly-themed submarine. (How in the hell does he afford a penguin-themed submarine? He never successfully commits a crime, Batman always stops him on this show. Did he win a contest?) The Penguin traps the dynamic duo on a buoy and fires a series of torpedoes at them. When the third hits its target the villains celebrate, but we quickly cut to Batman and Robin in their boat, mourning an (unseen) heroic porpoise that swam in front of the torpedo, giving its life for theirs, and I seriously cannot believe I just typed the preceding sentence.

Back in her “Kitka” disguise, Catwoman makes a date with Bruce Wayne, planning to kidnap him as bait for a trap for Batman. Batman orders Robin and Alfred (Alan Napier) to tail him on the date in case the villains make a move. That night, after a dinner at the sort of restaurant that only exists in movies (with wandering violinists and no other customers), she takes Bruce to her apartment, and Robin turns off his monitor after seeing the two of them engage in the most awkward kiss in movie history. Unfortunately, this means he isn’t watching seconds later as the villains and their henchmen burst in and kidnap Bruce, who still thinks Kitka is their real target.

The next day the villains are confused as to why Batman hasn’t followed the clues they left and come stumbling into their trap, now baited with Bruce Wayne. A furious Bruce demands to see Kitka, so they blindfold him and toss him into a room with her after Catwoman switches identities. While trying to “comfort” her, asks Kitka to help him retrieve a hidden radio in his coat, but the villains remove him from the room and untie him to retrieve the radio. With his hands free, Bruce springs into action, battling all four villains and their henchmen at once, escaping into the bay.

Growing desperate, the Penguin hatches a new plan. Selecting five henchmen as guinea pigs, he activates Commodore Schmidlapp’s invention, a “total dehydrator” which reduces the henchmen to powder, extracting all moisture from their bodies. Batman and Robin return to the villains’ hideout which is now deserted, but sports a sparkling bomb. After a series of (frankly legendary) misadventures, Batman concludes that on some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. They encounter the Penguin disguised as the Commodore and see through the ruse immediately (making you wonder why Batman can’t tell Kitka is Catwoman without her mask). Having been taken to the Batcave, the Penguin rehydrates the five thugs, but uses heavy water from Batman’s nuclear reactor. All five are reduced to anti-matter with the slightest impact. Because science.

Batman pretends to think the Commodore was brainwashed and takes him back to the city, allowing him to escape. The villains dehydrate the United World Security Council (who can’t even stop arguing with each other long enough to notice they’re being dehydrated) and place them in vials to hold them for ransom.  The heroes track them to their submarine and force it to surface, boarding and engaging in a battle royale during which nobody actually lands a punch but everybody pretends like they’ve been hit anyway. Catwoman stumbles and loses her mask, revealing to Batman and Robin that she is, in fact, Kitka, and simultaneously taking away any rights either of them would ever have to make fun of Lois Lane. Although the vials containing the security council members have miraculously escaped unscathed, Commodore Schmidlapp stumbles in and smashes them, mixing the powders. Batman and Robin use their super molecular dust separator (of course they have a super molecular dust separator) to extract the representatives from one another and rehydrate them, but the procedure is imperfect. The arguing representatives are now weird, mishmashed amalgams of each other, speaking the wrong languages and having each others’ personalities. Batman tells Robin this may be “the single greatest service ever performed for mankind,” then the heroes sneak the hell out of there.

Thoughts: I must confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Adam West’s Batman. Although as a child I watched the reruns of this series and found it enjoyable, as I got older I started to grow disenchanted with it. You see, as I got more and more into examining comic books as an art form, I started to get angry about the way the mainstream media so often depicts comic book culture – childish, immature, lacking real artistic merit. The fact that for decades you couldn’t get a single news story about comics without including “Biff! Pow!” in the title eventually led me to realize how much the cultural perception of superheroes and comic books was formed by this goofy Batman TV show, and I grew to resent it. (This was during a period of my life in which I tended to take everything way the hell too seriously, a time many of us identify as “being a teenager”.) Eventually I learned to lighten up, learned to accept that some characters are big enough to allow for multiple interpretations, and learned that Adam West and company essentially saved Batman from extinction during a time when interest in the character was dying away. So I’ve made my peace with it. But it’s still not my favorite version of the Batman.

People who remember the Batman TV show may not always be aware of this movie, filmed and released in theaters between the first and second seasons of the series. As a result, it has the feel and tone of the series after it gained its footing, rather than the awkward feeling you get from early episodes of many classic TV shows after you go back and watch them years later. The performances of the actors and the film as a whole carry a sense of barely-contained insanity, starting right from the beginning where a spotlight features a dedication to “lovers of adventure… pure escapism… unadulterated entertainment… the ridiculous and the bizarre,” then rolls over a couple making out and apologizes for any other groups of lovers they may have missed.

“This,” I say to myself, “is Batman?”

My spine starts to crinkle a bit in the first few minutes, as they approach the yacht in the Batcopter, drop the Bat-ladder (the labeled Bat-Ladder) and I anticipate what’s coming next… the Bat-Shark Repellant. It’s things like this that really made me hate this incarnation of Batman for a few years, and even now, still bug me a little bit. Having seen the 1943 movie serial, it’s clear that a lot of the inspiration for this version came from taking the campier bits of that to the extreme. Then I think about the other extreme, when the dreaded Joel Schumaker 30 years later would take over the Batman film franchise and go to an extreme version of this Batman… the stilted puns, the bizarre non sequiturs, the thrice-damned “Bat Credit Card,” and I’ve got to take a breath or two to calm down.

The heroes here (all the characters, really, but let’s focus on the heroes) are caricatures. West’s Batman speaks in short, stilted passages, frequently lapsing into speeches that have bizarrely inappropriate and ill-timed morality lessons and making leaps of logic that are quite simply ludicrous. The only reason this Batman ever solves any crime is because his foes are as insane as he is, and their respective brands of madness overlap. The entire universe of this series, in fact, is quite crazy. This incarnation of Bruce Wayne pretends to be the straight man, attempts to appear as an oasis of sanity in the midst of it all, but it’s an act in and of itself. The only way to accept Ward and West’s Batman and Robin is by giving in to a world of lunacy.

As ridiculous as Batman and Robin themselves are, I find myself much more entertained by the antics of the villains. Romero, Gorshin, Meriwether and Meredith are at their scene-chewing best here, grinding up film with performances so incredibly over-the-top you can only admire their skill. The first scene with the four of them features snippets of dialogue as quick and rapid-fire as Joss Whedon or Alan Sorkin would turn out decades later. I could watch them go back and forth for hours, either having the time of their lives in their silliest roles or doing a great impression of it. By contrast, West and Ward have the unenviable task of trying to pretend they’re taking things seriously while surrounded by colors that would give Jackson Pollock eyestrain and keeping a straight face when they conclude that the crime took place at sea, which means Catwoman must be the culprit, because her name begins with the letter “C”. (That’s not even a joke, that’s an example of the actual logic used in this film.) The villains aren’t the same kind of crazy we would see in later years, with Heath Ledger’s Joker, but they’re a brand of crazy that can actually be a lot of fun to watch in small doses.

The movie deals heavily in parody, which is fair enough, but at times it gets so ridiculous it’s hard to swallow, such as when we meet a Naval Admiral stupid enough to sell a preatomic submarine (complete with missiles, apparently) to a fellow named “P.N. Guinn” who had no credentials other than a post office box. The film actually taps into the anti-establishment vibe of the 60s, making the military and police into buffoons, with only Batman there to save their hides. It’s easy to see how it became so popular at the time, but the leaps in logic required for it to make any sense go too far for me at times. At most times, actually.

In truth, while I certainly understand the people who are big fans of the Adam West-era Batman, I still can’t really count myself among them anymore. I prefer a Batman who is shrewd, villains who are actually threatening, a Commissioner Gordon who is a hero in his own right rather than the head of the clown college that is the GCPD. For people who appreciate this Batman, it’s here, and it’s a cult classic. For me, though, I really can only enjoy it when I’m sitting around with my friends, cracking jokes about how ridiculous it is.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Batman Week Day 1: Lewis Wilson in Batman (1943)

Batman 1943Welcome, friends to Batman Week, the first in the ongoing Reel to Reel: Icons series. Each week in this series we’re going to take a look at a different character and five different actors who have brought him or her to life. We begin today, in 1943, with the first ever on-screen appearance of the Caped Crusader himself, Batman.

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Writer: Victor McCleod, Leslie Swabaker, Harry L. Fraser

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, Sam Flint, Robert Fiske, Charles Middleton

Plot: In this version, Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are America’s premiere government-sanctioned crimefighters. They round up a gang of criminals who warn them he’s crossing “Dr. Daka,” but Batman has no time to investigate… he’s got a date coming up with Linda Page (Shirley Patterson).  Linda is concerned about her uncle Martin (Gus Glassmire), and as it turns out, she has good reason. Martin is kidnapped by thugs and brought before Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who introduces himself as a servant of Hirohito, sent to destroy the United States government and enslave the people of America. Daka drugs Martin and forces him to reveal the location of a radium supply, which he plans to use to power a new secret weapon: a ray capable creating reducing even the hardest substance to powder.

I’m going to get heavily abbreviated with the plot synopsis here: for the next 15 chapters, Daka comes up with one scheme after another to get some radium – stealing it, kidnapping the owner of a radium mine, intercepting a supply being airlifted from a plane, etc. Each time, Batman and Robin stumble upon the plot and thwart it, only surviving by the skin of their teeth, because in the 1940s superheroes were either thrown from a precipice or caught in an explosion every 15 to 20 minutes.  Fortunately, there was always a convenient scaffold or rope beneath them or a convenient archway above them to protect them from falling debris.

Eventually, Daka manages to get his hands on some radium and make a larger, more powerful radium gun. He captures Linda (this is the third or fourth time), and brings her to his lab where he subjects her to a machine that transforms people into brainwashed zombies that will do his bidding.  Batman rushes to the rescue, but is overwhelmed by the zombies and strapped into the machine. Before Daka can unmask him or activate the device, Robin arrives and captures the villain. With Batman free, he makes Daka show him how to reverse Linda’s brainwashing. Daka makes a play to escape, but tumbles into his own open alligator pit, because what’s a supervillain lair without an open alligator pit? When the police arrive, Batman allows them to take the credit for the bust. At the end, Bruce Wayne walks off with Linda, sad that he once again missed seeing the world-famous Batman.

Thoughts: Made only four years after Batman’s first comic book appearance, this early film shows a version of the character that’s still somewhat unformed. While director Lambert Hillyer attempts to bring in a sort of dark warrior approach, comic book characters at the time (and for a long time to come) always seemed to invite a sort of camp element. The first image of Batman in the movie, even, shows him sitting in the Batcave behind a desk that looks like Bruce Wayne had it taken out of an unused office in his corporate headquarters, washed out by too much light with bat-shaped shadows dancing across his face. This lasts long enough for Robin to show up, complete with a curly-topped white ‘fro, and Batman beams like grandpa seeing his children coming over for a visit in the nursing home. All I can do at this point is cross my fingers and hope it’s at least better than anything Joel Schumacher ever did.

Fortunately for us all, it is.

Lewis Wilson’s Batman is far more flippant than the character he would become, and there’s little sign of most of the elements that would make him so popular in the future. There’s no Commissioner Gordon (even though he appeared in the very first Batman comic), no familiar foes, not even a Batmobile. The only things that mark this as a Batman film, in the eyes of a modern fan, are Batman and Robin themselves, Alfred, and the “Bat’s Cave” headquarters. (Ironically, this film actually created the Batcave concept – the cave set was left over from another film, re-used as Batman’s headquarters to save on production costs, and made so much sense they imported the headquarters into the comic books as well.)

Wilson’s version of Batman is also less driven than other versions… the sheer obsession that motivates the character in most other incarnations isn’t present at all… in fact, his origin (including the death of his parents) is never mentioned throughout the course of the story. What’s more, this is a Batman who is uncomfortably comfortable with the deaths of his adversaries, casually allowing Daka’s men to die when their vehicle goes off a cliff and not batting an eye as Alfred fires a pistol at them (although this could potentially be justified as him knowing there’s little chance of Alfred actually hitting anything). The filmmakers do manage to work in a least a few familiar tropes, including an amusing scene where one of the henchmen suggests that Batman may actually be this “Bruce Wayne” fella who keeps turning up, but Daka dismisses the idea that such a fool could be the Batman. We more often see this particular cliché applied to Clark Kent, but over the years the Bruce Wayne masquerade has left Batman open to it from time to time as well. There’s also a rather amusing bit towards the end where the villains decide they’ve killed Batman so many times that there must be multiple men wearing the costume… and maybe Wayne really is one of them after all (another conceit which later stories have explored from time to time).

One thing that doesn’t help the film is how little detective work Batman actually does. Even in his early days, he was painted as a crimefighter with a fierce mind, but this Batman doesn’t show much of that at all, stumbling into the information he needs through luck. There’s the occasional moment of trickery, such as when he cons one of Daka’s thugs into calling for help so he can get the phone number and find their hideout, but even then, it doesn’t come off as particularly clever. Instead, the thug looks stupid for falling into the most obvious trap imaginable. It helps Batman crack the case, but it doesn’t do wonders for his reputation.

Batman 1943 DVDThe fight scenes showcase just how far filmmaking has come since the 1940s… the stunts are often more laughable than thrilling. Wilson is particularly unimpressive as he struggles against the crooks, looking more like the fake Batmen who would get caught by the real one over 60 years later in The Dark Knight than the Dark Knight himself. On the other hand, Douglas Croft’s Robin is actually impressive – a whirling dervish of energy that is believably formidable. This is probably due to the serial format, of course – each chapter (effectively every 15-to-20 minutes of the film) has to end with a cliffhanger, most of which require you to place your hero in mortal danger. It’s a staple of the format, but it winds up leaving Batman looking rather ineffective, with Robin (a character who, in other films and media, was sometimes portrayed as being so useless he was called the “boy hostage”) there to consistently save his ass again and again.

William Austin’s Alfred is distinctly different from the comic book depiction of the character at the time – a plump bumbler. This version, though, became iconic, and Alfred’s thin frame and thin mustache in the comics have been based on Austin’s appearance ever since. His frequent propensity to disguise himself would make its way into the comics as well, eventually evolving into a rather complicated backstory where Alfred was both a celebrated actor and a British secret agent before finally following in his father’s footsteps as the Wayne family butler.

As this was a World War II-era film, the propaganda machine is in full force. Bruce Wayne casually mentions a (false) 4-F status to explain why he’s not in the army, and the villain’s hideout is in the Japanese section of town, which has been – and I’m quoting the narrator here – “cleaned out of those shifty-eyed Japs.” Try to picture a movie getting away with a line like that today, even ironically. Then we meet Daka himself, an unflattering Japanese stereotype if ever there were one. He’s sly, cruel, with a “twisted Oriental brain” (that line courtesy of Uncle Martin) bent on destroying the good old US of A. He’s just a pointy beard and kimono away from being Fu Manchu himself. Even when one of his henchmen turns against him (seconds before his death), his betrayal comes with a healthy dose of anti-Japanese racism, referencing his cowardice as matching the color of his skin, among other things. Daka also falls into some generic supervillain stereotypes – the arrogance that comes with the role, for example. He also uses the Bond Villain trope two decades before Bond does – when he finally has Batman captured in his hideout, he gloats instead of killing or even unmasking him, just long enough for Robin to show up and stop him.

As befit the serials of the time, which needed to pad themselves out for a few months, the plot seems unnecessarily complex. The scene where Bruce impersonates a Swami to warn Linda away from the investigation, for example, is pointless. She winds up unconscious (again) anyway, and the whole episode could easily have been sidestepped… there’s almost no plot progression at all, and we roll straight into Batman chasing the thugs to try to save the radium. In fact, the radium angle leads into one mini adventure after another where the goal is always the same: Daka is trying to get his hands on some radium, Batman stumbles into the plot and tries to thwart it, over and over and over again without actually changing anything. One could easily jump from episode four to about thirteen and still have no problem understanding the ending of the series. I’ll give Daka this much – he’s not like some supervillains who give up on a perfectly good scheme the first time it’s thwarted – but watching the entire serial in one sitting displays how repetitive the storytelling was. Daka comes across as foolish, even naive, considering how many times his men promise him, cross their hearts, and pinky swear that they really did kill Batman this time, honest, and he always believes them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This serial is fondly remembered, and for good reason. There’s some silly charm to it, if you can get past the severe culture shock of the way our heroes treat not only the Japanese villain, but the Japanese in general. It may be remembered as just a footnote, however, if not for what came next… a rerelease of this film in the 60s helped stir up support for the then-weakening Batman franchise, and led to 20th Century Fox taking a chance on producing a TV show. That show had more in common with this camp Batman than the dark hero he would later become, but its popularity helped save Batman from going away entirely like many of the other heroes born during World War II. If not for this serial, you see, we may never have had the incarnation of the hero we’re going to talk about tomorrow: Adam West’s Batman.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!