So there I was, a couple of weeks ago, wandering around Office Max as part of a quest for a laptop table that I could use to save my back from sofa slouch. I did not find what I was looking for, but I did find an apparently innocent DVD titled Batman and Robin and dating from 1949. I’d only been vaguely aware that Batman adaptations existed from that era, and the opportunity to watch them seized me with excitement. Surely my roommate would be also excited to see Batman serials from the 1940s.
And that’s where it hit me: I (and by extension, we) should watch all of the Batman movie and television adaptations from the beginning. There’s no way that could go wrong, right?
So, we started at the beginning.
I’m going to try to not judge the adaptations on the strength of comic adaptations, although obviously my judgement is clouded by what I consider ‘real’ Batman, I’ll try to check it at the door. However, there are a few elements that anyone with any experience of Batman has come to expect, and I’m goign to use as points of comparison: They are, the characters of both Batman and Bruce Wayne; the supporting cast, the villains, Gotham City, and of course the paraphrenalia
Format: Movie serial – 1 half hour and 14 15-minute episodes, originally shown in movie theatres. This is the very first thing of this format I have ever watched, but it’s pretty much just like a TV serial.
[The first eight minutes of the first episode of Batman. YouTube Link]
Batman: A government agent employed by the US Government to fight crime, and to bring down any enemies of democracy who are operating on US soil. That’s right; this was produced and made at the height of the second world war, and don’t you forget it. Batman’s greatest weapon is fear. Fear and punching people. No, his sharp deductive brain. Fear, his sharp deductive brain and punching people. No, his dedication to the cause…
Whatever, the Batman is a mystery, and that’s a key part to the power he has over his enemies. At one point they really do convince themselves there must be multiple Batmans, because there’s no way he could survive all those certain death situations (one for every episode except the last). For the most part, they’re terrified of him.
Bruce Wayne: a lazy, good-for-nothing playboy who loves the good life and his fiancee. This characterisation is straight-up Percy Blakeney – Bruce Wayne is idiotic, lazy, and unreliable, and despite having a lot of connections with the Batman – who solves cases involving Mr Wayne, is often in cahoots with his butler, and is obviously in love with Wayne’s fiancee, any connection between the two is dismissed out of hand because Bruce is an imbecile and Batman a genius. In fact, Bruce’s characterisation is so good, it’s a mystery why his fiancee even stays with him.
Supporting Cast: The one you’ll recognise most is Batman’s “two-fisted young assistant” Robin, a.k.a Dick Grayson, who hangs out around Bruce and no oen ever explains whether they find it odd or not that Bruce has shadow. I think he’s supposed to be a teenager, but he;s so clearly a grown man that it’s embarrassing. Not anywhere near as embarrassing, however, as Robin’s hair.
Douglas Croft as Robin
And then there’s Alfred. Oh, Alfred. I promised I wouldn’t let ‘other’ interpretations interfere, but this isn’t the awesome Alfred I know and love. Alfred the English chauffeur is bumbling, simple and not a little cowardly, frequently requiring rescuing and having the plot explained to him. Still, he knows when to call the police and as the stroy goes on his powers of acting come to the fore, making him an invaluable part of the bat-team.
And he drives his masters around town no matter which costume they’re in, and no one ever wonders why.
Linda Page is Bruce Wayne’s fiancee, although what she sees in this idiot is never fully explained (see above). She appears to have a job of her own, and entriely coincidentally has a scientist uncle who is of interest to the Japanese government. She is kidannped occasionally, otherwise put in a hazardous situation a lot, and spends a disproportionate amount of time fainting. Still, she does it with good hair and she’s still smarter than her fiance, so that’s something.
[An explosion in a mine. WILL THE BATMAN SURVIVE? YouTube Link]
The man to know in Gotham City Police Department is Captain Arnold, who doesn’t do much except answer the phone when the Batman calls, clean up the Batman’s mess, and take sarcastic abuse from the Batman. He jokes a lot about how he’d liek to give the Batman a job, and at one point tells Bruce Wayne that the Batman is his “best detective”. Batman is entirely unappreciative of all the work the police don’t do.
Villains: Yeah, there’s no way of getting away from this – the villain is a stereotyped evil Japanese spymaster played by a white man in what I can only describe as Yellowface. Daka would be a great villain if he wasn’t so painful to watch. Working for his Government in trying to beat the Americans by way of Radium guns and zombie mind control devices, he operates out of a building in Gotham’s Little Tokyo, currently empty because all residents have been shipped off to internment camps. It isn’t a pleasant thing to watch.
Robin, Daca and Batman.
Still, for a Batman, villain, Daca is suitably maniacal, with a hidden lair and mind control and goons and a pit with crocodiles in it. The very best thing of the entire serial is when he drops a box (containg Batma… OR DOES IT) on his crocodile’s head. We paused and rewound and watched it again and again.
Gotham City: not much to write home about, because it’s not a high budget production, and being made in the 1940s, the fact that it has an early-to-mid twentieth century feels shouldn’t surprise anyone, really.
His Wonderful Toys: there’s a nice combination of the low and the high tech, here. For a start, the plot revolves around the quest of a Japanese foreign agent to build a giant radium-powered cannon, and the handgun sized prototype is a key feature of early epsiodes, even after it falls into the hands of the Batman.
[Batman and the ray gun. YouTube Link]
On the other hand, the Batmobile is – well, non existent. Instead Batman and Robin make their way around town in the same chauffeur driven vehicle (forgive me, I’m an ignoramus about cars) that is used by Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Even the same chauffeur, because it’s still Alfred.
But the best thing of all is the Batcave.
Batman in the Batcave
The picture doesn’t really do it justice – the Batcave is pretty much just an empty desk in a small room with crumpled paper on the walls and flying bat shadows going around and aroudn and around. The desk is presumably emtpy because the Batcomputer hasn’t been invented yet, but a tried and proven method of getting criminals to talk is to leave them in the batcave with the bats for compnay. This terrifies them every time.
The best thing of this story: Hands down, the alligator pit. Followed by the convenient recap at the beginning of each episode and the exciting ‘next week’ preview at the end. It meant we got to see a lot of the alligator pit, and all the good people-getting-punched moments.
The least-good thing: The racism. Yes, it’s a product of its time but I wish I could recommend this for the awesome and not have to add a warning. It dates the piece worse than the costumes.
Batman from the Beginning:
Batman (1943) | Batman and Robin (1949)
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