Fates Worse Than Death: Batman and Robin (1949)

Welcome back to Fates Worse Than Death (#summerserials on Twitter). I’ll be exploring the legacy of the motion picture serial every week this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day (which, yes, is more ambitious than last year’s biweekly schedule, so wish me luck). You can read the introduction to last year’s series here to see what this is all about, and you can access the complete list of last year’s entries by visiting the Series page.

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“Crime, stalking our city by night and day, is on the increase! Our undermanned police force is helpless to cope with the situation. But they have an ally: Batman, who, with the faithful Robin, wages unending war against all criminals!” The stentorian voice-over is accompanied by a montage of the Dynamic Duo fighting it out with a variety of gangsters and henchmen interspersed with spinning headlines describing their victories. Batman and Robin are already established crimefighters with a reputation for cleaning up the streets. However, their greatest threat looms before them: will they have what it takes to wrest Gotham City from the remote-control terror of the masked villain known only as the Wizard?

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After I reviewed 1943’s Batman serial last summer, a friend warned me that the 1949 follow-up Batman and Robin was “less racist but somehow more terrible.” Batman and Robin is much less offensive: unlike the wartime Batman, Batman and Robin has no need to demonize the Japanese or anyone else, and is purely cops-and-robbers. It’s unfortunately deficient in energy and suspense, however, so my friend’s warning proved sadly apt.

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The problems start with leads Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne/Batman and John Duncan as Dick Grayson/Robin, who are not very convincing as either superheroes or their civilian alter egos. (Duncan in particular is cursed with marble-mouthed line delivery and is just plain too old to be the “Boy” Wonder.) They continue with a plot that, in true serial fashion, is at once baldly simple—a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Wizard has stolen a high-tech gizmo that allows him to take control of any vehicle at a distance, bringing Gotham City to its knees—and at the same time confusingly roundabout, with a boatload of characters and each chapter featuring its own distinctive crisis or mission.

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It’s not all bad, however (and Batman and Robin is far from the worst serial I’ve seen). For fans of the comics, Batman and Robin gets closer to the character’s essence than Batman, and includes such familiar characters as faithful butler Alfred (who has much more presence here, and participates by wearing some disguises and driving the car) and Commissioner Gordon, and such essential props as the Bat Signal (there’s still no Batmobile as such, however: at least once the villains wonder why Batman showed up driving Bruce Wayne’s car). There are no criminals left for the police with the “sign of the bat” stamped on their foreheads, nor is Batman presented as a government agent secretly working with Uncle Sam. One new character, photographer Vicki Vale, would prove popular enough to appear in Batman’s comic book adventures, where she is now an established part of his mythos (just as the Bat Cave was introduced in the ’43 serial and has become a constant fixture of Batman’s adventures).

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The biggest change for comics readers is the villain: the Wizard himself, a hooded, cloaked figure of scientific genius and unshakeable confidence (“I always have a plan!” he states more than once), is a type frequently found in contemporary pulp magazines and in other serials. Unlike the themed villains that were already facing off against Batman in the comics, the Wizard is fairly generic, using superscience to project his image at great distances, extract secrets by hypnotic suggestion, controlling his henchmen from a secret lair accessible only by submarine, and even making himself invisible for brief stretches.

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As is often the case, his identity is unknown until the final chapter, but several candidates are presented to the audience: is the Wizard actually radio newsman Barry Brown, whose broadcasts always seem to include information that the Wizard’s gang needs to commit their crimes? Or is it wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil, the inventor of the remote control device, who regularly visits a secret laboratory and rejuvenates himself so that he can stand and walk for periods of time? Or perhaps it is the private detective Dunne, who always seems to turn up after the Wizard’s crimes have been committed, and claims to be on the trail of the stolen device?

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From one perspective, the problems with Batman and Robin are problems with serialized stories in general, and they are the same problems that comic books, serialized TV shows, and the interconnected feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all had to deal with. To wit, it’s necessary that each installment tell a complete (or nearly complete) story while contributing to the larger arc and teasing a cliffhanger or loose thread that will intrigue audiences enough to return for the next episode. Furthermore, while self-contained stories generally feature change, the classic superheroes are largely static: if one villain is defeated, another will simply arise to take their place.

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Superheroes are often described as “timeless,” and even compared to the gods and heroes of mythology; surely their simple, stylized appearance and highly formulaic (ritualized, one might say) storylines contribute to this feeling, but could their “timelessness” not also be a side effect of the sliding timeline that has made these characters contemporary–and roughly the same age–for over three quarters of a century? A few literary characters have been reinvented in contemporary fashion, their adventures updated so that Sherlock Holmes, for example, has exercised his powers of deduction during both World War II and the War on Terror, and Dracula has awoken to terrorize horror audiences in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s (he’s already immortal, though, so perhaps he doesn’t count). That’s different from, say, Indiana Jones, who is inseparable from both a milieu and a definite timeline.

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Timeless, iconic characters, while attractive from the perspective of intellectual property and merchandising, however, must still be able to take part in actual stories–stories where the setting and action are sharpened from the vague dreamtime of the iconic to the specific here and now of this time, this place–if they are to remain current and alive, lest they become only a brand.

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Batman, in particular, is a character that has been interpreted in many different ways, from the kid-friendly “happy warrior” of the Adam West-starring TV show and the Super Friends cartoons to the wounded child of Tim Burton’s films and the Arthurian scion of Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and that’s only looking at film and television portrayals. Of those, only Burton and Nolan are interested in exploring Batman’s origins and asking (as comics did, post-Watchmen and post-The Dark Knight Returns) why an orphaned millionaire might choose this particular form of costumed vigilantism instead of, say, investing in social programs; and only Nolan chose to bring the Batman myth-cycle to its conclusion, asking what specific act of justice would heal Bruce Wayne sufficiently that he could hang up the cape and cowl for good.

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Although neither serial addresses Batman’s origins, it’s likely that viewers familiar with the comics would at least be aware of his adventures in the comics, and possibly the earlier serial as well, so it doesn’t seem unfair to compare the 1949 serial to other portrayals of the character. All adaptations carry the baggage of already-familiar characters, even if fans in the 1940s wouldn’t have expected their voices to carry like they do now. It’s useful to ask, at least rhetorically, what does this specific version bring to the table, and why was this interpretation resonant at the time it was made? (It’s not necessary for the filmmakers to be conscious of such questions, of course: it wasn’t a given that costumed heroes had anything to say about their cultures in those days, and writers weren’t churning out “thinkpieces” about either the comics or the movies.)

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In this context, the 1943 Batman serial is the wartime Batman: its excesses are those of a nation throwing all of its resources into existential war, and while that doesn’t excuse the racist caricature of Dr. Daka it gives the serial a definite identity, a context in which Batman, like all other costumed heroes of the time, were on the side of good, which meant fighting America’s foes. The 1949 serial has no such purpose, and has no dramatic vision to replace it; like many of the later serials, it is primarily aimed at children, and even within that context it’s mostly going through the motions.

What I watched: Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)

Where I watched it: Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2-disc Gotham City Serials, which also includes 1943’s Batman

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “The Wizard’s Challenge” (chapter 13)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of chapter 14 (“Batman vs. Wizard”), the Wizard, turned invisible by the combination of the remote control device and a “neutralizing ray” designed to counter it (just go with it), attempts to kill Commissioner Gordon (as he has previously threatened to do) by hanging from a rope and shooting Gordon through his office window while Batman and Vicki Vale stand by. The Wizard is invisible, but the rope and gun aren’t, so Gordon appears to be shot by a gun floating in mid-air. (Fortunately, Vicki is able to take a picture of the unmasked Wizard using a special infra-red flash bulb devised by Batman. Whew!)

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Best character: The only person who looks like he’s having any fun in Batman and Robin is William Fawcett, who plays the wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil. An actual Ph.D. and professor of theater with hundreds of credits to his name (mostly in Westerns and television programs), Fawcett would have been an obvious choice to play Captain Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana if he had ever been portrayed onscreen. (There was a Captain Marvel serial, but it had a tenuous connection to the comic book, and Sivana is nowhere to be found in it).

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The wiry and cantankerous Professor Hammil steals just about every scene he’s in. Right off the bat, as the inventor of the remote control device everyone is searching for, Hammil demands to be driven to the research plant just to insult everyone when the device is stolen. (“You’re a pack of careless idiots! Whoever stole it probably has more brains than all of you!”) For another thing, Hammil’s house is nicer than Bruce Wayne’s (the Bruce Wayne I know wouldn’t live in the suburbs!), and even includes a secret laboratory like the Bat Cave (see Matt Singer’s comments below). Hammil actually is known to the public as an inventor, of course, so security is presumably a bigger concern than secrecy, but still: both Hammil and Wayne know that no mansion is complete without a secret passageway to a hidden lair. I’m not going to say whether Hammil is the Wizard or not, but he is nonetheless not a person to be tangled with.

Sample dialogue: “Batman gets entirely too much credit as it is, Vicki. . . . I get tired just hearing about it.” –Bruce Wayne in Chapter 1 (“Batman Takes Over”)

What Others Have Said: “The notion of an evil version of Batman is an intriguing one. . . . Hammil is a near-perfect doppelganger for Bruce Wayne: He lives in an enormous estate on a hill with his own butler to attend to all his needs (along with that hidden, high-tech cave beneath his house). He’s an ideal antagonist and dark mirror image for our hero.” —Matt Singer, whose “Complete History of Comic-Book Movies” at Screencrush is well worth checking out. Singer is, if anything, harder on Batman and Robin than I am.

What’s Next: Join me next week as I explore Atlantis in Undersea Kingdom, starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

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Guardian of the Gods: A Tribute to Nathan Rabin

This article was written as a tribute to Nathan Rabin, whose many columns on such diverse subjects as cinematic flops, Insane Clown Posse, and the ranking of the International Movie Database’s user-generated Top 250 have inspired me and other readers of The A.V. Club and The Dissolve over the last ten years. My look at Guardian of the Gods is inspired by Rabin’s long-running “Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club.” I wish “Nabin” good luck, wherever he lands next.

Andre Augustine with Kiss' Gene Simmons (Simmons is on the right)

Andre Augustine with Kiss’ Gene Simmons (Simmons is on the right)

How silly is Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers’ 1999 profile of rock-star security director/road manager Andre Augustine? Most of it isn’t that silly at all, actually. The silliest thing about it is its bombastic title (which actually appears in the text as the breathless answer to a bystander’s question, “who’s he?”), and a cover blurb that promises a book-length description of Augustine wrecking fools who dare to breach the security perimeter around the stars he’s sworn to protect. There are also a few passages that walk the fine line between PR puffery and ardent fanfic, like this description of Kiss in concert:

Gene prowled the stage as though looking for victims. Paul danced like a gazelle. Ace, his human form merely a vehicle for some cosmic musical force, played flawlessly. And Peter looked like he was driving the world’s most powerful Mack truck. The moment was truly surreal.

Most of the book, however, which outlines Augustine’s career from his early athletic experience (he had a stint as a linebacker for the New York Jets) to handling security for rap acts like Run-DMC and N.W.A. before transitioning to working with rockers Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Kiss (among others), is a sober-minded account from a music-industry insider. Rodgers promises up-front that the book is not a tell-all: although there are numerous anecdotes about Augustine’s famous clients, the emphasis is on the competence and professionalism of Augustine and his fellow “road warriors.”

In many ways, Guardian of the Gods is a business card in the form of a book: as Augustine was (and continues to be) active in the industry, it tells potential clients, “I take your safety and success seriously; I am discreet; you can trust me not to do or say anything that will make you look bad in public (unless your name is Ace Frehley, or you are a member of Nelson).” Augustine emphasizes his hatred of drugs and they are, for the most part, mentioned only as something in the artists’ past or a bad influence brought to the venue by crowds. Although the phrases “rock ‘n’ roll circus” and “rock ‘n’ roll zoo” are used more than once, the unspoken message is, “I am one of the grown-ups.”

The feeling that the intended audience for this book is fellow professionals rather than starry-eyed fans or gossip hounds extends to the clinical distance with which Rodgers treats the rap phenomenon: Augustine got in on the ground floor of rap’s conquest of the American musical scene, accompanying Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys on their first US and international tours. However, while Augustine is African-American, his middle-class upbringing didn’t include the street experiences that shaped his first clients, and in addition to explaining African-American culture in the nerdiest way possible (“Artists on the Dope Jam tour participated in the daily game of ‘dozens,’ the verbal art of put-downs and a common practice with many of today’s urban youth,” reads a typical passage), Rodgers takes pains to let his (presumably white) readers know that rappers are really just regular guys and the reports of violence that trailed Run-DMC’s early concerts were completely exaggerated and misinterpreted. (It is interesting to see the lengths Rush Productions went to reassure skittish promoters that security would be tight, including press releases and news reports from the time: Rodgers’ use of multiple sources to provide context to Augustine’s story is a strong point of the book.)

Nevertheless, it’s with an almost audible sigh of relief that Augustine moved from protecting rappers to accompanying the relatively staid arena rock giants of the ’90s. Tensions ran high as Augustine tried to provide security for N.W.A., whose hit song “Fuck Tha Police” made it difficult, if not downright impossible, for him to coordinate his efforts with local law enforcement. The last straw was a threatening message left on manager Jerry Heller’s answering machine around the time Ice Cube left the group. Augustine doesn’t relay the message or name the person who left it, but it’s strongly implied that it was Death Row Records’ notorious founder, Suge Knight (darn it, that’s your problem, Andre: you’re just too dedicated to guarding your employers’ secrets!).

The not-very-sensational facts of Augustine’s experiences are mostly short on the kind of sex-and-drugs stories one might expect from a Silly Show-Biz Book, but Guardian of the Gods does provide copious detail about the procedures and challenges of keeping a touring band safe and on track, as well as portraits of many of the stars Augustine worked with. Augustine stresses that it’s hard for rock stars to have close friends: “It’s almost impossible to have a rock star you work for be your friend. . . . You are never really his peer,” he says, and adds that ego and isolation make it difficult for successful artists to befriend each other. Some of his work included making introductions between stars who were publicly feuding (or were perceived to be), a back-channel process as delicate as establishing diplomatic relations between rival governments. “Their egos won’t allow [friendships]. . . . But they would ask me, ‘What are the Aerosmith guys like?’ or ‘Are the Kiss guys fun to hang out with? What do they like to do?’ Privately, I think they are very curious about each other.”

Still, the long weeks and months of close contact with the artists on their tours and accompanying them as a personal bodyguard meant seeing them in private moments and just hanging out, and Augustine was close enough with many of them that he named his son after Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay and mourned N.W.A.’s Eric “Eazy-E” Wright when he succumbed to AIDS. Friends or not, it’s clear that Augustine’s people skills are as important to his work as his organizing abilities and imposing physique.

In many ways, the stars’ personalities are about what you’d expect from their public personas: George Thorogood liked to spend his free time watching baseball and having a quiet drink in the bar; Jon Bon Jovi and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry spent a lot of time exercising; Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley took five suitcases of computer equipment with him on the Alive tour, possibly to distract himself from the drug and alcohol addictions that still haunted him.

Scouring concert venues for groupies is alluded to but mostly glossed over; although Augustine mentions that he always carried condoms when accompanying Gene Simmons, he says the practice of moving pretty girls to the front row has been overstated, and that finding high-energy fans was the first priority when offering ticket swaps. By the mid-’90s, many of the artists Augustine accompanied were family men, traveling with their wives. (Amusingly, the audiences for the single young rap artists he started off with were often dominated by teenage boys. “Where are the women at?” he says the rappers would ask.) What’s left are quirky but tame tidbits like Run-DMC’s penchant for wearing brand-new underwear and socks, fresh from the package every day, or an anecdote about Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres’ insistence on shopping for antiques in Bogotá, Colombia, even in the face of kidnapping threats (nothing dangerous occurred).

Some of the funnier parts of the book involve Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, who, if Guardians of the Gods is to be believed, may actually be the Joker when not performing: one time backstage, Tyler stormed into his dressing room. Concerned, Augustine followed and asked him if something was wrong.

Steven looked up and his eyes flashed wildly at Andre. “Yeah. As a matter of fact, there is something.” He stood up, turned his back to Andre and started rifling through his gig bag. Andre, rethinking his decision to enter Steven’s dressing room, suddenly felt like disappearing. Steven continued, “There’s something about you that has really been pissing me off lately, that I don’t like. I don’t like it at all.” Andre felt the blood drain from his face. “You don’t smile enough, man!” Steven turned his hand to reveal a gag set of chattering teeth. “Smile, man!”

Although the members of the band like each other, “Steven always has a private dressing room because the rest of Aerosmith prefers not to be in the same room with him prior to curtain.” He’s just too hyperactive: “Steven is supercharged and outgoing. He is constantly trying to make you laugh, messing with your ears and tickling you. Steven is a fun person, but he’s just out there.”

Imagining the soft-spoken “gentle giant” security guard and the flighty, flamboyant lead singer together suggests that any Hollywood producer interested in developing an odd-couple buddy comedy set in the world of rock ‘n’ roll should consider optioning Guardian of the Gods. They wouldn’t even have to cut anything to get a PG-13 rating.