Summer of the Bat, Part 1

Those of you who are even infrequent readers of this space must certainly be aware that I possess a large (and borderline creepy) love of Batman.  This started in some primitive, dimly-remembered portion of my childhood and has remained unshakable ever since.  Whether the vision of Batman is light and campy or dark and brooding, I pretty much love everything about the character.  (Well, the brutal murder of your parents right in front of your eyes is something I could live without, but there was a moment or two in my teen years when even THAT didn’t seem like a deal-breaker.)  The cool costume, the gadgets, the car (chicks dig the car), the dual identity, the secret hideout; it all appealed to me.  (In fact, my close friends know that if I am ever able to build my dream home, my work room will only be accessed by a secret knob concealed in a bust of Shakespeare, a sliding bookcase and a pole.)

So you can imagine my excitement when my parents gave me the complete 1960’s Batman TV series for Christmas this past year.  It immediately took an honored position among the menagerie of films and TV series in the Batshrine I keep near my DVD collection.  With this addition, I felt I could finally do my long-planned Summer of the Bat; in which I spent my copious free time watching and re-watching the contents of the Batshrine.  And here, dear readers, are some observations on what I beheld.

BATMAN (1943)

This is the 15 part serial that represented the first version of Batman on screen.  In this, Bats is a government agent tangling with Daka, a Japanese mad scientist working in the United States.  Daka uses a device of some sort to turn people into living zombies, all to hinder the U.S. war effort through various means of sabotage.  Or something like that.  (One thing you discover watching these old serials: they’re not so much a continuously unfolding story as they are a series of excuses to get to a cliffhanger.)  Batman is played by Lewis Wilson, who brought a Boston accent, child-bearing hips and a little face-punchable smugness to the role. Robin was played by Douglas Croft, who I assume was an orphan owned by the studio.  Daka is played with comical faux-Asian accent by J. Carrol Naish, a decent actor who appears to be trying to get in on that Charlie Chan money.  Shirley Patterson plays the obligatory Useless Damsel in Distress, Linda Page, and William Austin plays Alfred the Butler, apparently 10 minutes after his failed audition for the next Thin Man film.

Snarkiness aside, there’s a lot of good clean fun here. The enjoyment of stepping back into a bygone era and imagining yourself at the movies on a Saturday morning is kind of irresistible.  (Serials were, after all, Saturday morning kids shows before television came along.)  This serial is important in the Batman mythos, as the whole notion of a Batcave and a secret entrance to such originated here.  And despite the obviously limited budget, it’s impossible to watch a series of cliffhangers involving explosions, runaway trains and plane crashes and not feel like you’ve been through something epic.

On the other hand, the bygone era doesn’t always work in its favor.  Obviously, making a serial involving Japanese spies at the height of World War II isn’t going to create the most, um, unbiased view of things.  None of the Japanese characters are played by actual Japanese actors (a practice that would continue for another 30 f’n years!)  Batman’s first words upon seeing Daka are, “A Jap!”  (The sort of thing one would expect from Donald Trump these days.)  Daka’s status as a mad scientist, of course, paints the picture that all Japanese are hopelessly evil (and, in hindsight, becomes cruelly ironic when confronted with the fact that hundreds of thousands of Japanese were eventually killed by a creation from OUR mad scientists.)  And then there’s this gem, as the narrator talks about a section of the city called Little Tokyo, “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.”  Seriously, even Trump might cringe at that.  (I said, Might.)

And while I applaud the creators’ innovative use of stock footage, it’s clear that the studio wasn’t exactly breaking the bank on this.  There is no Batmobile.  Instead, the Dynamic Duo is chauffeured around by Alfred in what appears to be a car Alfred borrowed from his uncle Eugene. Robin’s mask is literally a Lone Ranger Halloween mask.  The ears on Batman’s cowl look like a third grader trying to do bunny shadows.  (And that’s the HIGHLIGHT of the costume.)  And the climax features Robin accidentally tripping a switch and causing Daka to fall into a pool of rubber alligators.  So not exactly the finish to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Still, a lot of fun to be had.  Assuming, of course, you can overlook the, um, old timey racism.

BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949)

This is the second serial, featuring a totally new cast and story.  In this, Batman and Robin battle The Wizard, a mysterious villain with a demented plan to control traffic.  Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.  Controlling traffic in the late 40’s was apparently a bigger deal.  Judging by the road construction I’ve faced this summer, if someone came along with a plan to control traffic these days, super villain or no, I’d be willing to hear him out.

Robert Lowery offers a less paunchy take on Batman. While Lowery is perfectly acceptable in the role, he does seem to be cut from the same Reliable, Upstanding, Completely Charisma-Free cloth that produced most B-movie leading men in the 40’s.  Robin is played by Johnny Duncan, who, as Dick Grayson, sports the kind of hip, lapels from coast to coast jacket that all studs wore back in the day. It’s not hard to imagine Robin later giving up crime fighting and becoming Dobie Gillis.  The rest of the cast is largely undistinguished, with the exceptions of Lyle Talbott (a classic That Guy from 50’s and 60’s TV) as Commissioner Gordon and William Fawcett, another That Guy, as the possibly-villainous Professor Hammil.  Fawcett appears to have walked right out of the Cranky Old Man Department of Central Casting.

While Batman and Robin offers plenty of the same fun as its predecessor and contains less old-timey racism, it is, unfortunately, rather forgettable.  It has the novelty of not revealing the villain’s actual identity until the final episode, but otherwise, it’s a string of runaway train, runaway plane, building blowing up cliffhangers drawn from the same tired playbook.  And the production values haven’t improved much.  There’s still no Batmobile, the Batman costume is still comically bad (so much so that Lowery constantly tips his head back because the mask keeps dropping over his eyes) and the exterior of stately Wayne Manor appears to be the same stock footage used for Ozzie and Harriet’s place.  So not exactly the lap of luxury.

But again, if you can overlook all that…

BATMAN (TV Series, 1966)

Obviously, at 120 episodes, this formed the bulk of my Summer of the Bat viewing. It’s a classic melange of pop art, super hero parody, demented comedy and genuine daring do, When I was kid, a TV station in my hometown would run these every summer.  Eventually, Nick at Nite and TV Land picked up the slack and now other off-brand channels like ME TV gleefully air repeats.  In my younger days, much of the humor flew over my head, so I took a lot of the super hero stuff at face value.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to delight in the show’s earnest goofiness; no more so than this summer.

To those who love the dark and brooding side of the character, it’s something of a Bat-infamnia to enjoy a show that so steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously. The difficulty arises when you try to reconcile this vision of Batman with the more accepted Dark Knight version. The best advice I can give is: don’t try.

First, this version of Batman needs to be placed in its proper context.  It’s a piece of pop art from one of the goofiest periods in TV history. Seriously, as Out There as TV gets from time to time (Cop Rock, anyone?), when, other than the mid-60’s, could you cruise around the dial and find the likes of The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family, Green Acres, My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, Wild Wild West and The Monkees? To say nothing of My Mother The Car (and let’s keep it that way.) Even Star Trek didn’t look much like anything that preceded it and it would be years before another series came along to resemble it. If Batman was decidedly goofy and odd, it was merely keeping up with the Joneses.

And when you accept the series in that context, you’ve unlocked the secret to enjoying it. Why bother comparing this vision of Batman with Burton’s or Nolan’s?  (We’ll get to Schumacher.) It’s as if they exist on different planets. But when you realize you’re dealing with something that’s as much a send up of superheroes as a superhero story, you suddenly realize how beautifully Adam West embodies both. And sure, Cesar Romero’s take on The Joker would never work in the Dark Knight, but neither would Heath Ledger’s take work here. Enjoy this version of Gotham City and just how much do the actors that clearly got it (West, Romero, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Frank Gorshin [although I would argue that Gorshin’s work would hold up in ANY version of Batman]) shine in those roles? Couple that with old pros like Alan Napier, Stafford Repp and Neil Hamilton forming the bulk of the supporting cast and you were always in for some pretty damn good viewing.

Binge watching it this summer (if taking three months to get through the whole series can truly be termed “binge watching”) revealed some unexpected pleasures and largely expected downsides. To the good: as mentioned, Adam West’s pitch perfect take on Bruce Wayne/Batman (equal parts charisma, machismo and comic earnestness), Alan Napier’s dutiful Alfred, not only the perfect manservant, but one who could occasionally jump into the action (and appearances of the Alfcycle never failed to crack me up), Julie Newmar’s multi-layered Catwoman; by turns cold, commanding, sexy and vulnerable; the perfect foil for Batman, Burgess Meredith adding a rough side that always undercut The Penguin’s pretensions to respectability and Gorshin’s turning The Riddler into a demented man-child (suck it, Jim Carrey.)  Additional props to Victor Buono and Vincent Price for doing more than what was deserved with ridiculous characters like King Tut and Egghead.

On the down side: the relentlessly formulaic approach in seasons one and two becomes that much more tiresome when binge-watching (more than just about any other series, if you’ve seen one episode of Batman, you really have seen them all), the Guest Villain of the Week simply didn’t work with some guests (witness Art Carney as The Archer), the “window cameos”, cut from the syndicated versions, really did feel as tacked on and awkward as I imagined they would, budget cutbacks in the third season resulted in sets that were little more than cheap flats thrown in front of a black curtain, it’s hard to tell if Burt Ward was a terrible actor or truly in on the joke (I’m going with the former) and, finally, I have never been able to figure out what Aunt Harriet brought to the show. Certainly, Madge Blake did very little to justify her presence. She was barely involved in the third season and the show didn’t skip a beat.

Speaking of the third season, I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. When I was a kid, I was always disdainful of that season’s switch to single half-hour episodes and it’s inclusion of Batgirl. This time out, I was grateful for the change in formats, as it broke the show out of it’s formulaic approach and allowed it to attack the stories in a more interesting manner. The inclusion of Batgirl, though, is still a mixed bag. While I realize that many of you had a childhood crush on Yvonne Craig and I certainly don’t wish to be disrespectful to her memory, I just don’t see the appeal. She was wooden and uninteresting, both as Barbara Gordon and as Batgirl. I suggest the attraction was more the costume than the actress IN the costume. Still, it’s worth noting that action-adventure series in the 60’s were strictly a boy’s club (it hasn’t changed much since), so to see a female character that didn’t need the boys to rescue her (in fact, she pulled THEM out of danger often as not) was a pretty cool thing. That alone makes Batgirl alright in my book.

COMING IN PART TWO: I take a look at the Bat movies.  Join me here, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!  (Um, whenever and wherever that is, uh, exactly.)

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