Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 5, 2015
BATMAN is coming to Turner Classic Movies! The revered DC superhero is making his network debut on Saturday, March 7th and viewers will able to tune into TCM every morning (7AM PST – 10Am EST) for the next few months to catch an episode of Columbia Picture’s original 1943 film serial. Serials or “Chapter Plays” were often cheaply produced shorts that were typically shown with cartoons and newsreels before feature films. This format came into prominence during the silent film era and remained viable until the 1950s but fell out fashion due to the development of home television. While many believe that the popularity of superheroes and comic books adaptations are a relatively new phenomenon, the truth is that they’ve been an accepted form of entertainment for decades although until recently they were mostly regulated to short format serials and television. Columbia adapted many well-regarded comic books and strips for the screen including SUPERMAN (1948), TERRY AND THE PIRATES (1940), MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN (1938), THE PHANTOM (1943), BLACKHAWK (1952) and BRENDA STARR, REPORTER (1945). BATMAN was one of the studio’s most popular productions and it’s earned an important place in comic book history for a number of reasons, which make it a particularly fascinating footnote in the Caped Crusader’s ongoing fight against crime and corruption.
In this unique wartime take on the DC Comics’ hero, Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Lewis Wilson) is more than just a crime fighting superhero; he’s also a special agent working for the U.S. government. Along with his “young, two-fisted assistant” Dick Grayson aka Robin (Douglas Croft), Batman sets out to defeat a sinister Japanese scientist named Daka (J. Carrol Naish) who resides in a secret lair in Little Tokyo. His lair is hidden beneath a bizarre carnival ride called the “Cave of Horrors” that depicts gruesome Japanese war crimes against American soldiers. Evil Dr. Daka has the ability to turn people into zombies and he’s invented a radium powered gun that can cause massive destruction. If that isn’t scary enough, he also maintains a pit of hungry alligators! The rest of the cast includes Bruce Wayne’s love interest, a socialite turned philanthropist named Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) and his loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (William Austin).
Columbia’s BATMAN serial made its debut in July of 1943. At the time America was engaged in a World War and 17 months earlier Japan had killed over 2,400 American citizens during a violent attack on Pearl Harbor. Naturally tensions ran high and Americans began to fear their Japanese neighbors. The U.S. Government made the cruel and unusual decision to imprison Japanese Americans and relocated them to large camps while distributing propaganda that crudely depicted all Japanese as cartoonish monsters. This race-based approach to war was regularly employed by America as well as Germany, Italy and Japan who used similar tactics by creating propaganda depicting Americans, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as bloodthirsty brutes. During this particularly contentious period comic books and Hollywood movies also regularly engaged in these race-baiting tactics so it’s not surprising that Columbia’s BATMAN serial suffers from being produced during the height of WW2. The ugly term “Jap” is used frequently and like many films made during this unfortunate period, it’s marred by racial prejudice and ill-informed misconceptions.
Despite its flaws, the BATMAN serial is also great fun and contains some terrific action sequences. But its real contribution to popular culture is its creation of the illustrious Batcave and the introduction of Alfred Pennyworth. Before Columbia’s 1943 serial, Batman and Robin operated without a top-secret crime lab but that all changed when Bob Kane (Batman’s creator) was on set during the filming of the second chapter of the serial titled “The Bat’s Cave.” Kane was so impressed with the concept that he told writer Bill Finger to include it in one of the Batman comic strips or “dallies” that regularly ran in newspapers at the time. Kane was also forced to rethink his original design for Batman’s butler. In the comic books, Alfred was depicted as a rotund gentleman without a mustache but the thin British actor William Austin sported carefully coiffed facial hair and made the character of Alfred Pennyworth so popular that Kane redesigned Batman’s butler to resemble him. Both changes transformed Batman’s world and today it’s hard to imagine the Caped Crusader without an underground lair and a mustachioed manservant.
All 15 episodes of the BATMAN serial were directed by Lambert Hillyer who had recently shot two of the more unique and stylish Universal monster movies, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936) and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936). He took a somewhat similar approach to directing BATMAN and managed to create some moody set pieces and a threatening atmosphere at times despite the limited budget he was working with. The handsome and affable actor Lewis Wilson (SAILOR’S HOLIDAY; 1944, WILD WOMEN; 1951, NAKED ALIBI; 1954, ETC.) makes a formidable Batman and his partner Robin is well portrayed by the 16-year-old actor Douglas Croft (KING’s ROW; 1942, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY; 1942, THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES; 1942, ETC.). Batman’s foe throughout the serial is played by the Oscar nominated Irish actor J. Carrol Naish (IT; 1927, THINK FAST MR. MOTO; 1937, SAHARA; 1943, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; 1944, A MEDAL FOR BENNY; 1945, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS; 1945, HUMORESQUE; 1946, ETC.). Naish is a good actor but his awkward attempt at a Japanese accent isn’t convincing and his makeup makes him look ridiculous but he plays his character with gusto and his hammy interpretation of the material keeps things entertaining.
Batman fans often point out the differences between the original comic books and Columbia’s 1943 serial but the two also share much in common. During the war Batman supported American troops and fought Nazis in stories such as “Swastika Over The White House.” And while the evil villain Daka may have been pure invention by the serial’s writers (Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker & Harry L. Fraser), he does bear some resemblance to DC comic book villains at the time such as Sin Fang and Batman’s many foes including Doctor Death, Hugo Strange and Professor Radium. Modern audiences may have trouble with the 1940s setting but as a longtime comic book reader myself, I love seeing Batman in the period he originated from.
If you’re a parent the BATMAN serial would be a great way to introduce youngsters to classic movies. Just make sure you’re on hand to discuss the racial implications and troubling aspects of WW2 such as the Japanese treatment of war prisoners and the distribution of racially charged propaganda that they might be unfamiliar with. In other words, it could provide families with a “teachable moment” if they’re willing to accept the challenge. And if you’re already a fan of the various Batman comics and movies the 1943 serial is an absolute must see due its original screen depiction of the Dark Knight, the introduction of the Batcave and a new interpretation of Batman’s beloved Butler, Alfred. It makes for some fascinating viewing alongside GOTHAM, the latest TV series from DC Comics featuring a young Bruce Wayne, as well as the campy pop art inspired Batman series from the 1960s starring Adam West that was recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
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