Posted by blakemp
Welcome, 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.
The 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.
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Tags: 1943, Batman, Charles Middleton, Daka, Douglas Croft, Gus Glassmire, Harry L. Fraser, J. Carrol Naish, Lambert Hillyer, Leslie Swabaker, Lewis Wilson, Robert Fiske, Robin, Sam Flint, Serial, Shirley Patterson, Victor McCleod, William Austin, World War II, zombies