Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up. Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her. But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka. Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions. In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up. Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?
There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information. In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed). None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.
Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist. As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain). But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.” That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back. “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling. Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him. Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)
The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers. In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure. (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands. Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)
After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more. The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.
The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities. Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!” It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!” Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed. It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy. Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.
The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical. Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed. Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.” The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers. (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)
The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such. It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.
So what works? For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity. Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue. The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.
I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip. He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth? When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”
What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)
Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have. If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).
Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device. However will they escape?
Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle. If any of those are cheats, then they all are. However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.
Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit. At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box. You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.
Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave. It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”
Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much. If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”
(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)
What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators
What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.