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.
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.
(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.