Director: Lambert Hillyer
Writers: Victor McCleod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser (Based on Characters created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane)
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin
Release Date: July 16, 1943
Let’s kick things off with a retro review (the first of many this year)! In 1943, Columbia Pictures gave the world the screen debut of Batman, setting the stage for so many adaptations to follow. The film is noteworthy for not only being the first filmed appearance of Batman, but for establishing story elements that would become permanent parts of the Batman franchise. At the time in the comics, Alfred was a fat, clean-shaven, bumbling wannabe detective. After William Austin’s portrayal in the serial, Alfred became the thin, mustached butler we all know and love. This film also introduced The Batcave. So, this serial is influential and important in that regard.
However, things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows here, folks. This film was unfortunately crafted as a propagandist anti-Japanese film, praising internment camps for Japanese-Americans, and turning Batman and Robin from vigilante crime-fighters into government sanctioned secret agents fighting Axis saboteurs.
During the course of the film, Batman and Robin struggle against Dr. Daka, a Japanese scientist and agent of the Axis Powers. Dr. Daka has invented a device that turns people into mind-controlled “zombies” as well as a radioactive disintegration gun, and operates out of his hidden base in a fun house of horrors located “where?” you might ask. Why, in the “Little Tokyo” section of Gotham City, of course!
The film serial itself proved popular enough to garner a sequel in 1949, and the 1943 serial was re-released in 1965. The re-released version, called An Evening with Batman and Robin in one complete marathon showing, was exceptionally popular, and its success inspired the intentionally campy Batman television series (and the subsequent 1966 feature film) starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
Despite the overt racism and unintentionally humorous nature of the film serial, it’s not all bad. All of the actors give 100% and portray their roles with sincerity, especially Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft (Batman and Robin respectively). Also, Douglas Croft has the fortune of being the only actor close to the proper age for his character (he was 16 at the time).
An unfortunate downside to the cast is the lack of Commissioner Gordon and Vicki Vale, which is only a notable complaint because of the inclusion of serial-exclusive characters like Captain Arnold and Linda Page. An arbitrary name change kept this film from being slightly better than it could have been.
This film serial was made on a rather limited budget, and the main place it shows is unfortunately the one place it shouldn’t – Batman’s costume. The costumes offer both points of praise as well as contention. The costume for Robin looks great, with the yellow cape and everything. It looks just like the comic book illustrations. However, the costume for Batman is another story entirely, with the Bat-symbol on his chest, and utility belt being the only good looking parts of the outfit. The cape and cowl are awful, just absolutely awful. The cape is so loose that it spins around Batman’s neck when he throws a punch and one could swear that either he has multiple capes throughout the story or Batman’s cape simply changes color drastically from one scene to the next. One could argue that it’s merely the lighting, but there are times in broad daylight where the cape might shift from a supposedly grey/blue to a dark black between scenes. Finally, the cowl just sort of hangs loosely around his face (though it’s much better than the cowl used in this serial’s 1949 follow-up).
Now, it seems as though I’ve been ripping on this movie for the better part of this review. This may very well be true, but one thing to remember to do is to look at the film serial within the confines of when it was made. This was the first time Batman ever appeared on screen. Who knows what the Batman franchise would look like, were it not for the creation of this adaptation? After all, this big-screen debut did give the Batman mythos the modern conceptualization of Alfred and the Batcave. This film serial also paved the way for countless other screen (big and small) adaptations of Batman.
Overall, the film has a rather unintentionally humorous quality to it, and suffers from overt racism, but for the most part, it’s a real treat to watch, and in spite of the few faults, it’s not a bad film. More importantly, it’s an important part of the Batman franchise and I highly recommend that you all check it out.