Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Overlooked Films: Batman (1943)
I've seen stills from this serial ever since I was a kid (beginning, no doubt, with the Warren mag Screen Thrills Illlustrated), but never got around to seeing the film until now. Well, hey. It was worth the wait.
The stills make it look pretty cheesy, due primarily to Batman's floppy-eared cowl and high-waisted trunks. But the surprising thing is - the cowl and trunks are the most serious flaws in the whole 15-chapter serial.
To begin with, our hero is consistently referred to as The Batman, which is fitting and proper for 1943. There are no Academy Award performances here, but the acting is perfectly acceptable, and the dialogue is several notches above the comic book norm. Best of all, there's nothing campy going on here. Batman and Robin are portrayed as seriously as any other screen heroes, which is the way it should be. While Lewis Wilson is only passable as The Batman, he's a fine Bruce Wayne, while 16-year-old Douglas Croft is equally competent as Robin and Dick Grayson.
Being 1943, it's not surprising the plot revolves around a Japanese scheme to help them win the war. The number one villain is a Japanese agent/evil mastermind called Dr. Daka, played by the very un-Japanese J. Carrol Naish with artificially slanted eyes. Among his inventions are a gas that can change the color of a moving automobile, a radium gun, and a gadget that turns good loyal Americans into slavish zombies. And just for fun, he keeps a bunch of hungry crocodiles in a pit beneath the trapdoor in his office floor.
One cool note: The first time we see Alfred, he's reading a detective pulp. Hard to be sure, but it looks to me like an issue of Private Detective Stories, maybe even one I possess.
One peculiar note: Batman's cape and cowl assembly keeps changing color, often within a single scene. Sometimes it appears black, sometimes medium gray, and sometimes a pale gray. The black looks best, of course, but maybe they figured it wouldn't always photograph well.
The cliffhangers are pretty standard stuff. Batman gets caught in burning buildings, goes over a cliff in a car, gets caught between moving walls with sword blades sticking out of them, etc., and each time the bad guys are certain he's been killed. After about the twelfth chapter, though, they come up with the novel theory that there must be a whole gang of Batmen, and can only hope the next one they kill will be the last.
Over the course of watching these 15 chapters, I also watched - for the first time in 20 years - the Tim Burton Batman flick starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Surprise! The 1943 cheapie beat the 1989 big-budget version all to hell.
Overlooked Film Fans are advised, as always, to look for more at SWEET FREEDOM.
The following six panels comprised a comic strip ad for the serial, and offer a surprisingly accurate representation of some of the action. The most inaccurate element is that Batman actually looks like Batman.