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All Day With Batman

Features
by Leonard Maltin
July 30, 2012 1:00 AM
15 Comments
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Batman And Robin-1943 Serial

Now that we’ve all had our close encounter with the Dark Knight, allow me to wax nostalgic about one of my all-time happiest moviegoing experiences. Following the huge success of ABC’s campy Batman TV series, Columbia Pictures reissued the original 15-chapter Batman serial from 1943 to theaters. I was in high school at the time, and one day during Christmas vacation a friend and I went to the 8th Street Playhouse in Manhattan for an unforgettable marathon, four-hour-plus showing. The theater was packed, mostly with kids like us.

As Chapter 1 began, we found ourselves immersed in one of the silliest pieces of tripe ever put on film. Unlike the Republic Pictures serials, which were models of action moviemaking, the Columbia chapter-plays were cheap, third-rate outings and this was no exception. The writing was shoddy, the performances mediocre, and the special effects were nil.

J. Carroll Naish as Dr. Tito in Batman 1943 Columbia Serial

In one scene, as I recall, the bad guy dumped a coffin containing the caped crusader into his alligator pit, and it conked one of his crocs on the head! (No one ever shouted "Take two!" on a Columbia serial.) In another scene, Batman rigged a makeshift device to radio for help via Morse code. Robin decoded the message aloud: "S--E--N--D--HELP!"

When I interviewed Batman creator Bob Kane some years ago he vividly recalled visiting the set of the serial. When he asked where the Batmobile was and someone pointed to an ordinary Oldsmobile, he was understandably discouraged. That's the kind of enterprise this was.

Being a World War II release, the villain, Dr. Daka, was Japanese (played by versatile Irish-American character actor J. Carrol Naish), which allowed the writers to pepper their script with such exclamations as "You're as yellow as your skin!" and "Oh, a slant-eye!" (That inflammatory dialogue was later redubbed for the serial's release on videocassette.)

The Batman serial was so patently awful that the youthful audience that day responded the only way that made sense: with total and utter derision. It became a shared experience the likes of which I've never experienced since.

Each chapter had its own set of credits, and we had to sit through the same names 15 times. About the 6th chapter, someone in the back of the theater booed at the director's name. It got a laugh, so next time around some other people joined him. By the 10th chapter, when poor Lambert Hillyer’s credit appeared on screen, the theater resounded with boos and catcalls. We were kids, and we thought it was hilarious.

Batman and Robin (1949) Robert Lowery was Batman, John Duncan as Robin.
Batman and Robin (1949) Robert Lowery was Batman, John Duncan as Robin.

(Years later I caught up with Columbia’s 1949 follow-up, Batman and Robin, which is indisputably better than the first serial, though it’s still on the tacky side. B-movie stalwart Robert Lowery isn’t bad as Batman, but his costume leaves something to be desired, and the Batmobile is still a bulky looking sedan. The best aspect of this chapter-play is the masked villain, The Wizard, who steals a scientist’s revolutionary remote control device, which allows him to control any vehicle within a fifty-mile radius. You can check it out on DVD.)

I wish I got the same sense of sheer fun from contemporary comic-book movies; The Avengers has come closer than anything I’ve seen in recent years. I’m grateful that Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter-brother Jonathan decided to dial back the nihilism that permeated The Dark Knight in their newest film. Bruce Wayne even comes close to grinning once or twice. Perhaps, in those fleeting moments, he’s having fun.

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15 Comments

  • Thad | August 6, 2012 11:31 AMReply

    I enjoyed the Nolan Trilogy but I'm most definitely hoping for more lighthearted superhero fare in the years to come. (The animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a great callback to the 1950's Dick Sprang era of the comics, and the producers said they never could have done such a light take if people hadn't been yearning for some respite after The Dark Knight.)

    I'm certainly not opposed to Dark Batman, but I love Fun Batman too. Just a couple days after seeing Dark Knight Rises, I popped the 1966 movie in the ol' DVD player.

    One thing that hasn't changed about Batman in 45 years: he still just can't get rid of a bomb.

  • Jim Hanley | August 4, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    One correction has occurred to me, Mr. Maltin. We were both wrong about the venue. Batman played at the old Art Cinema on 8th Street, not the 8th Street Playhouse, during that run. The Playhouse is just East of Sixth Avenue. The Art was just East of Fifth. If this helps jog the memory, the Playhouse's screen faces North towards 8th Street, while the Art's faced West, parallel to 8th Street. It was subsumed into the beast that is NYU, some years ago, and the last time I looked was no longer a theater open to the public. It also seems worth noting that one or more of Bob Kane's Batman ghosts lived on 8th Street adjacent to that theater, in the early forties, while working on stories that Kane put his name on. (I originally intended to say that he signed them, but he probably had who did that, too.)

  • Joel O'Brien | August 4, 2012 8:55 AMReply

    About the time of the start of the 1966 'Batman' TV program, a small ad appeared in our local newspaper with the bat-logo and a phone number that indicated it was the number of the "Bat Phone." Well, I started calling that number and after what seemed like hundreds of trys I got through. The "Bat Phone" rang a few times and was answered by a gent with a husky voice who identified himself as 'Batman' and proceeded to encourage me to see the "Batman and Robin" movie at our local theater. I recalled this event in my mind years later when I saw the Ovaltine scene in "A Christmas Story" where Ralphie deciphers a secret message from Little Orphan Annie only to find it to be a commercial for the chocolate drink.

  • Graeme Burk | August 4, 2012 7:59 AMReply

    I've only seen 3 or so chapters of it, admittedly, but I kind of liked the 1943 Batman serial. It is cheap and nasty (and perhaps I was inured to that aspect, having already seen the 1949 serial and Columbia's Superman serials). And I think I got off by hitting 3 chapters that were light on Dr. Daka and the racism. But I have to say, I went in fully expecting to hate Lewis Wilson as Batman and I didn't. Quite the opposite. I thought he was great as Batman, playing him as a noirish tough guy. Frank Miller said at one point that he thought Wilson's was one of the best portrayals of the character on screen and thought it underrated. While I disagree with Frank Miller on a great many things, this is not one of them.

    By comparison the 1949 version is so bland and toothless (I saw it as a compilation feature in a theater last year) it's not even actively mockable.

    Now you got me wanting to see The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which is probably my favourite 1940s comic book serial, all over again...

  • Jim Hanley | August 4, 2012 6:54 AMReply

    I also went to see Batman at the 8th Street Playhouse during that run. Only, I was 10 and as I went on the Monday after the New Year. the audience was mostly adults and fairly sparse for the Noon show. The manager wouldn't let me in, so I got two high school kids to take me in. (The manager said, "He has to sit with you." They were happy to oblige, just because he let them in. They'd already been turned away by the Times Square theater showing it.)

    Anyway, for me, it was a delightful experience. I'd been waiting impatiently for the new Batman TV series to start, since I spotted the first mention of it in the TV Teletype column in TV Guide, a few months earlier. It's premiere date is emblazoned on my memory: January 12, 1966. I had seen Edwin Newman review the serial a couple of weeks earlier on the WNBC local news, which was the first I heard that it existed.

    I wouln't get to see Batman and Robin, until I bought copies of both serials from an early dealer in serials on VHS, in 1983. Sadly, it was a really terrible copy, so I returned it for a refund. Still, what I saw didn't inspire my 28 year-old imagination at all like the first had done in 1966.

    Thanks for writing about it, Mr. Maltin.

  • Byron Argiri | August 2, 2012 6:56 AMReply

    Of all the 1940s cliffhanger serials, "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" stood out. How I wish that someone would revive Captain Marvel in 3D . . .

  • Ken Bass | August 1, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    I, too, enjoyed the serial version of Batman and Robin, and introduced it to my 4 and 12-year-old kids just recently, and they got a kick out of it. As a matter of fact, even though I am (barely) too young to have enjoyed the serials when they were playing at the theatres once a week, I do occasionally enjoy catching a few episodes on dvd. Its simplistic fun. They are as important to movie-making history as Melies, Chaplin, and Keaton. Plus, before the recent films, they were the only way us kids could see our comic-book heroes in action! ( i also own vhs copies of Junior G-Men of the Air and The Shadow Strikes. Cool stuff.)

  • Jim Reinecke | July 31, 2012 8:49 PMReply

    Having had a former high school teacher of mine tell me of his experiences viewing the revival of this serial in the 60's, I have no doubt that it IS as patently cheesy as you describe, Leonard (in fact, he told me that by Chapter 7 the audience was chanting "Die, Batman, Die!" in unison every time the Caped Crusader was left in some cliffhanging peril. . .Yikes!). However, it's unfortunate that Lambert Hillyer was consigned to being a target for the boobirds who obviously weren't familiar with his superior early work. As you know, Mr. Hillyer directed the great William S. Hart in some memorable Westerns of the silent era (THE TOLL GATE comes immediately to mind) and also helmed the last two entries in Universal's 1930's horror cycle, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (a very good and underrated movie) and Karloff and Lugosi in THE INVISIBLE RAY (not quite as good but still worth a peek and Hillyer admirably tones down Lugosi's customary hamminess). His versatility as well as his overall legacy certainly outshines cheapjack junk such as this serial.

  • Ron Hall | July 31, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    A couple years older than you, I went to the Batman serial marathon in Madison, Wis. when I was in high school. All primed by a newspaper review of showings elsewhere to see the Jap menace, I was severely disappointed to see the 1949 sequel instead. I'm sure Columbia had a limited number of 35mm vault prints and expected no one would know the difference. That occurred to me at the time but I still felt cheated and did not enjoy it that much. I can't recall the size or reactions of the audience. It must have done well enough since the same theater tried a later Columbia serial soon after with half one Saturday morning and the other half the next. I'm pretty sure it was the 1953 "Lost Planet." Hardly anyone showed up and I did not check out the second week.

  • Norm | July 31, 2012 1:47 AMReply

    I think the most revealing comments were LM's interview with Bob Kane. Anyone with such a Great Imagination(Giant Robots) has got to be worth a lifetime of comics. With the exception of Ditko's "Eternity" character . I did see the Lowry serial version of Batman, albeit not at a marathon,where the derisive comments(verbal gold) should have been included in the story, that would have made for an interesting script. It also tells you allot about the veiwing audience, great insight at any age. You should have heard the comments at the drive-in version of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" No , they were not racist, but hilarious commentary. Maybe someone will write down their experiences and publish them, that would be a hoot. J. Caroll Naish as LM stated was of Irish decent, but almost always cast as some ethnic type , and played extremely well by this underrated Actor. As far as the new Batman,. I'll wait for the DVD, without the input of Bob Kane, the "NEW" interpretation doesn't demand my immediate attention. Thanks LM, being at the show for 4 hour marathons does bring back memories, most of them pretty good.

  • Matthew | July 30, 2012 6:17 PMReply

    While I also thought that The Dark Knight was overrated, and think it's possible that its follow-up is better, it never would have occurred to me that the reason you disliked TDK was that it wasn't patently awful enough. I do like reading your reviews Mr Maltin, mostly because they often have something different to say.

  • will friedwald | July 30, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    we still love the 1960s series! Before 1966, no superhero depicted in film or TV (especially live action) had interesting villains. Am I right? the TV BATMAN was the first to give us costumed bad guys who were usually more interesting than the hero... let the series be remembered for that if nothing else. (Leonard underscores my point by showing that the villain in the 1943 Columbia serial was just a generic Japanese enemy dude - he wasn't The Yellow Claw or something like that, the Red Skull or some sort of enemy super villain .... and likewise all the bad guys in the 1950s SUPERMAN series were also just generic gangsters...) (who "never heard of Cranak") ---

  • DBenson | July 30, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    I have to say I preferred the first serial in all its tasteless, demented glory. The second felt more like early television than a serial (Wayne Manor seemed to be in the same suburban neighborhood as the sitcoms — even the scientist with the neon chair looked alarmingly like Mr. Wilson from "Dennis the Menace"). Born in '55 and raised on the syndicated cop shows and sitcoms that filled local airwaves, I personally find a lot of postwar Bs and serials too close to the stuff that bored me as a child (even though I now appreciate Perry Mason and his ilk far more than I used to). The rougher edges, less frumpy women and pre-suburban world of the older stuff still signify Real Movies.

  • Colin | July 30, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    I went to a similar marathon of this serial decades ago in L.A. I was about the same age, and had a great time, even as I recognized how bad it was, and how cheaply made. Batman and Robin kept their costumes wadded up in a filing cabinet! There was no warning of the wartime context, so I was mighty surprised to hear Batman using racial epithets. But I recognized that for what it was, and it served as a bit of an impromptu history lesson. As much as I like the Nolan Batman films, largely due to their darker, morally complicated elements, I also love some old fashioned, pulpy fun. Which is probably why I really enjoyed both The Avengers, and the nostalgia-tinged Captain America. I think the superhero genre leaves a lot more room for tonal variance than most people think, much as Westerns were once written off as simplistic kids' stuff until John Ford and his ilk proved otherwise. Bright and colorful, dark and grim, or anywhere in between; if the story's well told, I'm on board.

  • Jason | July 30, 2012 11:48 AMReply

    It is interesting (and a little sad) the the darkness and seriousness is what resonates most with people about Batman and just about any other superhero these days. It took a sense of fun to create these characters and franchises and that seems to be what they're most lacking.

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