Wednesday, July 01, 2015

BATMAN (1943)

In this serial, the first big screen appearance of the iconic superhero, wealthy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his teenage ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) fight crime in the identities of the mysterious Batman and Robin. Here, they spend fifteen chapters (roughly 15 minutes each) fighting the evil Japanese Prince Daka (J. Carrol Naish, pictured at right with his thugs holding Batman) as he plots to take over the world from his headquarters behind a "Japanese House of Horrors" attraction. Daka has used a machine that can turn people into his unthinking, obeying zombies to trap Dr. Warren into helping him with his radium-powered ray gun. Warren's niece Linda (Shirley Patterson) goes to her friend Bruce Wayne for help, but he's an indolent playboy who always disappoints her. Of course, we see that in his secret identity of Batman, he's on the case. As in all serials of the era, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger of Batman and/or Robin in mortal danger, and each chapter begins showing how they get out of their predicament and continue to search for Dr. Warren.

As serials go, this is not bad, though there are several obstacles to current-day audiences' full enjoyment: Batman's costume is ill-fitting and a little shoddy at times (not to mention the occasional sweat stains); there is no Batmobile, just a plain old sedan; the Batcave is very small and its atmosphere consists mostly of small bats flitting around; being issued during WWII, its treatment of Daka is unapologetically racist. But there are positives for folks who are already serials fans: the cliffhangers are fun, as are the fisticuffs; there's a alligator pit; the "Japanese House of Horrors" is a nifty concoction, though not used as much as it could be; Wilson makes for a particularly shallow Bruce Wayne, much to the irritation of Linda; the thickly wavy-haired Croft makes for an athletic Robin; William Austin plays Alfred the butler as goofy comic relief, which is different from the usual approach; the scuba-head zombie invention (see picture at left with Shirley Patterson becoming zombified) is fun. For a couple of chapters, in an unusual development for a serial, Bruce Wayne takes on the identity of Chuck White, a small-time thug who comes looking for a job with Daka’s men. There’s also a backwoods prospector who enlivens a chapter. Generally, I’d say this is not the serial to start with if you’ve never seen one, but if you’re already a fan, it’s a must-see. In the mid-60s, at the dawn of the camp era and just before the Batman TV show began airing, all 15 chapters were shown theatrically in one showing as "An Evening with Batman and Robin" for audiences to laugh and heckle at. [TCM]

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