75 years ago this month Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27. The success of Superman led to editorial calls for more superheroes, and writer Bob Kane came up with a character named Bat-Man. Despite Kane finagling his way into sole credit for creating Batman, having his name pop up as the mind behind one of popular culture’s best loved characters on all his comics, in the credits for all the films, and even on his own, preposterously self-aggrandising tombstone, Kane’s character bears little resemblance to the Dark Knight we know today and was pretty bland. His collaborator Bill Finger, a man whose contribution to Batman remains undersold to this day, tweaked the character into something more interesting, coming up with the colour scheme, the costume, the cape, the cowl, the lack of superpowers, the detective skills, the origin story, the billionaire playboy, the name “Bruce Wayne”, the words “Batmobile” and “Gotham City,” Robin, the Joker, Catwoman etc, etc, etc. These darker elements, inspired by pulp characters like the Shadow and the Phantom, helped Batman to stand out and he very quickly caught popular imagination.
Right from the very beginning, Batman was the kind of character that would give you a license to print money at the box office, and so just a few years after the character’s conception, he made his first appearance on the big screen, in a 15 part serial released by Columbia Pictures. In honour of Batman’s 75th anniversary and to give myself some perspective that things could always be even worse for superhero movies than neck-snapping and Jesse Eisenberging, I’m going to spend the next few weeks watching this serial and evaluating whether a 15 chapter, 4 and a half hour long feature will end up feeling shorter than The Dark Knight Rises.
Now the first thing to be noted before getting into the first serial (Chapter 1: The Electrical Brain!) is that at this time, rather than using superheroes to shill lunchboxes, schoolbags, ice lollies and various other tat to children, they were instead used to get those same children to buy…war bonds.
|"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. Also they hate bullets. Keep em coming, old chum!"|
With that mind the Batman serial is an awkward mix of comic books and blatant propaganda, making it probably the hardest on-screen Batman media to get through. I would say it could use Arnold Schwarzenegger and his amazing ice puns from Batman and Robin, but as a no-good Austrian I can’t imagine him getting anything other than a frosty reception. There would have been a cool reaction to his jokes. Ice. Anyway, here Batman and his “two-fisted assistant Robin” are reimagined as ‘American heroes’, fighting the axis on a special assignment from Uncle Sam. You would think with the official government backing they could get costumes that actually fit, but I suppose America had bigger problems.
Apart from the characters of Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) the serial didn’t bring much over from the comics at the time. Rather than a Batmobile, Batman instead cruises around Gotham in a convertible Cadillac (A fine, AMERICAN car! Buy American and help our boys!). Rather than any of the iconic members of the rogues gallery, Batman battles Dr. Daka, who is Japanese and therefore evil. Bruce Wayne and his ward spend most of their time hanging around in the office of nurse Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), engaging her in playful banter/preventing her from getting any work done. With Wilson’s dopey demeanour and Boston accent, it’s a little like watching Mark Wahlberg play Batman, that is, it’s a little like walking into the Nefarious Nightmare Zone Where Bad Things Happen. As far as this films place in history goes, although Batman’s status as a Good American Soldier was thankfully abandoned, two aspects of this film did carry over permanently into the comics: Alfred and the Batcave. Or, as it appears here, the Bat-Poorly-Decorated-Office.
|Next week, Batman spruces up the office with a "World's Greatest Detective" mug|
Bruce and Dick agree to help Linda Page collect her Uncle Warren from his release from prison (he’s a wrongly convicted engineer or something). However, they’re beaten to the punch by a gang of toughs, who bundle Warren into their own car and give Bruce and company the slip. With the push of a button, the goons’ car changes licence plate and releases a gas that changes its colour from black to white, at which point they just do a U-Turn and pass right by the World’s Greatest Detective, who can’t suss out what happened despite there being no other cars on the road. Also, somebody has a tricked-out car in this and it isn’t the Batman, who doesn’t even bother to drive himself around, getting his butler to do it for him. The goons take Warren to Dr. Daka’s secret hideout. So you know how in the comics, the Joker will have a secret hideout at the abandoned fairground, or the Penguin will be shacked up in the abandoned aviary? Well, Dr. Daka hides out in abandoned Little Tokyo, which tells you everything you need to know about his character. If you have questions as to why Gotham’s Little Tokyo district is abandoned, the narration is delighted to inform you: “Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it’s become virtually a ghost street!”
Oh. Good. Even within Little Tokyo he has an even-more-secret-hideout, inside a haunted house ride thing that has wax models of Japanese soldiers keeping American men in cages and chasing women, which…why would this be in the Japanese district of Gotham? Imagine you’re a young Japanese-American looking to take your sweetheart on a nice date before you’re both packed off to the internment camp for being “shifty-eyed”. You can go the fair, wizzing around this cultural kick in the reproductive organs before enjoying, presumably, a hearty game of Wack-A-Jap, or you could take said sweetheart to the cinema and watch the latest hateful superhero picture. Not exactly the most romantic of options. We are then introduced to Dr. Daka, who inevitably is a man in yellowface. The actor, J. Carrol Naish, was a prolific Irish-American actor, twice nominated for an Academy Award. Even back then they always got the biggest names to play the villains. A look on IMDB tells me that Naish, who I cannot stress enough is a Caucasian American, played such illustrious parts in his career as “Sun Yat Ming”, “Arab Slave Dealer”, “Giuseppe” (Just “Giuseppe” which won him his first Oscar nomination) and “Sitting Bull”. His obituary called him “Hollywood's one-man U.N.” I call him “a fucking blight on cultural harmony”. He sounds like Edna Mode from The Incredibles.
Daka tells Uncle Warren of his plan to bring down the evils of democracy by turning hard-working Americans into zombie slaves. He shows Warren one of his old friends who thanks to electricity and a microphone (or something), has been “deprived of his ability to think”. Lucky him. Using truth serum, he finds out from Warren where the Gotham City Foundation is storing a supply of radium (at the office where his niece Linda works of course, because what better place to store radium than in a small safe in a doctor’s office?) Daka plans to use this radium to build a large “atom-smasher gun”, a smaller version of which he gives to his goons to use to retrieve the radium from the safe.
|When Daka gets his labcoat on he looks less like a scientist and more like Racist Colonel Saunders|
At the office, Laura is concerned that her uncle never showed up. When Bruce’s one idea, to call the prison and ask if they recognised the men who took Warren away, somehow ends up a bust, he and Dick leave just as they see the same men arrive with one of Daka’s brainwashed zombies. Changing into their costumes, they very slowly and awkwardly climb up the side of the building, giving the villains enough time to attack Laura, retrieve the radium, stuff it in a bag, throw it down a laundry chute and let the getaway driver head off with it. Batman crashes through a window and chases the remaining men to the roof. And I mean ‘crashes’, he actually stumbles to the ground as he makes his entrance. “Then you’re going to love me” it isn’t. On the roof, outgunned thanks to the explosive atom-smasher gun, Batman and Robin don’t so much lurk in the shadows as they do sneak around like Shaggy and Scooby Doo, before disarming the goons and engaging in a very awkward fight scene. I know it’s hard to expect great fight choreography from the 1940s, but Robin just runs at a guy and pushes him twice and Batman spends most of his time trying to avoid being slowly pushed off the roof like he’s in an over-the-top-rope battle royal. Eventually Daka uses his microphone from his hideout to tell his zombie to leave, which he promptly does by casually walking off the roof. And the goons gain the upper hand enough to push Batman after him, ending this chapter with the cliffhanger/amusing image of Batman plummeting, arms flailing. Will Batman die? NO! Will he become any more competent? ALSO PROBABLY NO!
|GOOD JOB HERO|
On that note we are left with our good friend Racist Narrator teasing next week’s instalment: “Daka the sinister Jap believes Linda knows the whereabouts of the powerful radium gun! And what about Linda? Can she escape his evil clutches? Don’t fail to see ‘The Bat’s Cave’, Chapter Two of Batman, at this theatre next week!”
Hatred aside, I heartily agree. Please do tune in next week for Chapter Two. Same Hack Time, same Hack Channel!
images from Columbia Pictures, Superdickery.com
images from Columbia Pictures, Superdickery.com