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.

Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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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?

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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?

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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.

Sample dialogue:

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.