When I learned that the famed Batman series of the sixties with Adam West was finally getting released to home video on blu ray I was all set to go down and add the special edition release to my library. As I reached for the box set I yanked my hand back when I saw the price. Just a little steep for yours truly. This from a collector who drops the majority of his spare change on films. Talk about price gouging. When I can buy all eleven seasons of MASH for one hundred dollars this just doesn’t seem right. I have a feeling I am not the only collector who will wait for a price drop.
On the plus side this encouraged me to scan my shelf for the 1943 fifteen part serial that I paid a whopping 4.99 for at the local grocery story in a bargain bin of dvds. New and unopened from Columbia.
Lewis Wilson plays the famed crusader with Douglas Croft as his sidekick the Boy Wonder. As Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend we have Shirley Patterson and turning up as the villain we have a real pro, J. Carrol Naish. Truthfully I have never watched a serial in it’s entirety. I have always understood the novelty and the cliff hanger endings involved and got an occasional charge out of this early Batman rendition.
For the first fourteen episodes we get the same number of cliffhanger conclusions that look like “The Bat Man” will meet his certain death only to be somehow rescued or escape tragedy by himself. What I didn’t realize is that this is actually a propaganda piece aimed at the fight against the Japanese during WW2.
Naish is made up to look like he’s an evil variation on Mr. Moto who plans to locate radium mines and use ray guns to help the imperial emperor gain control of the U.S. He’s using an electronic head piece on victims to create zombies that will obey only his commands. He also has a house of horrors that include a pit of alligators and a room with spiked walls that will close and kill those within. WATCH OUT Batman! Also of note is that he employs local gangsters and thugs to do his bidding who continually come up short in trying to dispose of “the Bat Man”. Some patriotic gang this is. Perhaps they need to check out Bogie in All Through the Night to set them straight.
Rather than recite what goes on for fifteen episodes I thought I’d focus on other details like the fact that by the end of this serial I am surprised Robin has any teeth left. Every episode has a fist fight that usually results in Robin getting knocked out. Even “the Bat Man” gets more than his fair share of sleepy time. Like the episode where he gets thrown down an elevator shaft landing face first. Well, at least the mannequin did. Probably the biggest laugh of the serial. That fall would have killed any normal man. Then there are the assorted car crashes, cave ins and fires that threaten to rub out our dynamic duo.
As for the propaganda angle some of the lines within can really jump out at an audience in today’s world. Scenes like when Shirley Patterson is kidnapped and taken to Naish’s underground hideaway she cries out “A Jap.” Better still is when Wilson as our masked hero accuses Naish of being both a “Jap Murderer” and then during their final confrontation hollers “You Jap devil!” One has to take these in the context of the times but they really can come across rather strongly today.
My sons who checked in on the look of the costumes for Batman and Robin got a good laugh at the low budget effort put forth and the fact that the Batmobile looks pretty much like any big black sedan of the era.
The episodes were directed by Lambert Hillyer who had many credits to his name including two films of the Universal horror cycle, Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray.
Our Boy Wonder with the Don King haircut played by Douglas Croft has only a handful of credits to his name. Most interesting is the fact that he played a young James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy and also a young Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees.
Lewis Wilson had a very limited film career as well but will go down as the first actor to portray Batman on screen.
It’s one of my favorites J. Carrol Naish as our villain who had a lengthy career in practically every genre available. From westerns to hunchbacks, he costarred opposite some of the biggest stars of the era like Duke and Bogie. He was even once nominated for Best Supporting Actor in A Medal For Benny. One should never pass up a chance to see J. Carrol do his thing.
Next up for me will have to be the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. Another 4.99 purchase from the same bargain bin. Not unless the Adam West series drops dramatically in price anytime soon.