Thursday, January 8, 2009
Batman: The 1943 movie serial
You haven't really seen Batman in film until you've seen his VERY FIRST film appearance, now available on DVD. Believe it or not, Batman appeared in live-action film before Superman did (though Superman's first film appearance was in the far superior and absolutely gorgeous Max Fleischer cartoons). Batman's first appearance, in glorious black-and-white, was in a 1943 movie serial, consisting of 15 half-hour chapters originally shown one at a time, weekly, in World War II-era movie theaters. The film copies that have made it onto DVD are of decent quality, well worth viewing for anyone interested in this sort of thing. The 2-disk DVD set lacks juicy extras (no documentaries, no trailors, nothing), but it's fine if you just want the films.
In the story, Batman and Robin go up against the villainous Dr. Daka, who is enslaving people and turning them into voice-controlled zombies forced to carry out his dastardly plans. Unfortunately, it's the villain that presents modern audiences with the single biggest obstacle toward fully enjoying this film series. More about that later.
In the lead role as Batman/Bruce Wayne, actor Lewis Wilson is surprisingly likable. In fact, believe it or not, I'd have to say that of all the live-action Bruce Waynes I've seen (and I believe I've seen ALL of them), I think he's the best. Wilson does a great job of portraying the 1940s-era handsome, lazy, and laid-back playboy Bruce Wayne. He also has a great deal of fun taking on the various disguises that Batman adopts during the course of the film. Unfortunately, Wilson suffers greatly from having to wear the worst Batman costume I've ever seen. It's cheap and baggy, and not only does it change color (light or dark) to fit the various background changes in the film, his CAPE (obviously unintentionally) actually falls off in one scene. It's totally unbelievable that anyone could go out in public in this thing to fight crime and be taken even remotely seriously. It's a real shame.
As Robin/Dick Grayson, Douglas Croft is fine, and his suit (the old-fashioned Robin suit) looks pretty much spot-on, except for having the wrong type of mask. A minor quibble, really, especially when compared to the Batman suit. Also, throughout the film, it becomes clear that it's a darn good thing Batman DOES have Robin around, because Robin rescues him from 99.9% of the cliffhangers that appear in the episodes.
There's no Commissioner Gordon in this film. Instead, we're presented with Captain Arnold, whose police force seems utterly useless without Batman's help. And the love interest is Linda Page -- the second girl to appear as Bruce Wayne's girlfriend in the comics, after Julie Madison. Linda's job, of course, is to constantly get into trouble and be the damsel in distress -- a pretty typical comic book/movie serial job for a woman in those days.
There are decent interiors of Wayne Manor, and true to the 1940s comics, Bruce and Dick do access the Batcave via a large grandfather clock in Bruce's study. The Batcave is a bit laughable (Batman sits at a LARGE executive desk), and there's no real Batmobile -- just a nice, big sedan that may or may not be chauffeured by Alfred depending on the film segment.
Alfred! Alfred, played by actor William Austin, is absolutely wonderful, easily the best thing about this film series. This is the original, pre-snarky Alfred from the comics, more manservant than father-figure, who loves detective stories and is slightly cowardly, though willing to help out Batman and Robin whenever possible. (Rumor has it that the comic-book Alfred, who was originally rather portly, was redesigned to resemble the lean-and-lanky Austin -- a design the character has retained ever since.) The serial really comes alive whenever Austin is on the screen. He ALMOST makes up for the films' rather serious faults:
Fault #1 -- and it's a HUGE one: This film suffers GREATLY from being a product of its era -- namely World War II. The villain, played by J. Carrol Naish, is supposed to be a Japanese spy, and he's depicted as the worst kind of Hollywood Japanese stereotype. Ethnic and racial slurs aimed at the Japanese permeate the film (in addition to uncomfortable slurs aimed at a Native American character and at a "swami"), making the film hard for modern viewers to fully appreciate. (Really, it's hard to respect a Batman who yells things like "You Jap devil" at the villain.)
Fault #2: The films that make up this serial were NEVER intended to be viewed in one sitting. Taken together, they're very long and tedious, and they repeat each other a great deal. The repetition was necessary for 1943 audiences, who saw the films only once a week and had to be brought up to speed on what happened in previous segments. A modern viewer needs to have a great deal of patience to sit through the whole series.
Still, for anyone interested in checking out this bit of Batman film history, this DVD set is worth picking up.