The theatrical serial is an extinct, almost forgotten form of film entertainment, but one with an unmistakable influence on the past seventy years of pop culture media.
Serials were, in some respects, more like the predecessors of television than short films. Divided into multiple chapters of two reels in length (with an introductory three reel chapter), a serial would tell a continous story across it's chapters but each "episode" would also have it's own story, almost invariably ending with a "cliffhanger" in which the heroes were left to almost certainly die, only to miraculously escape in the opening minutes of the next chapter.
Formulaic to a fault, and often very low-budgeted, serial chapters were shown once a week at a theatre, often as part of a Saturday matinee. Sometimes considered mere children's fare, many serials adapted pulp magazine characters and were also popular with adults. While they aren't very sophisticated in their storytelling style from today's perspective, they are nonetheless an intrinsic influence on filmmakers like George Lucas, with both Star Wars and Indiana Jones having their precedents in movie serials. And of course today's weekly episodic television, with its serialized storytelling, owes a debt to its simplistic forebears.
By 1943 only three movie studios were producing serials - Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures and Republic Pictures, the latter of which produced serials exclusively and was generally considered the best of the three. Columbia serials were often made to be "cost effective", while Universal serials were often more lavish and approaching feature film quality, such as its famous 1936 Flash Gordan adaptation, and Republic serials being the most exciting and expensive.
Many serials of the golden age were adaptations from other media, often comic strips and pulp magazine characters like Dick Tracy and The Shadow. Captain Marvel became the first comic book superhero to get a live action serial in 1941 from Republic, and it featured some amazing special effects. The rights to Captain Marvel's biggest rival, Superman, were tied up with Paramount Pictures, who were producing the famous animated shorts at this time and considered a live-action Superman impractical. So it was in April of 1942 that Columbia announced it would be adapting Batman to the big screen in a fifteen-part serial.
"The Electrical Brain"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Synopsis: A somber, sonorous narrator introduces us to our setting in Gotham City, and outside it Wayne Manor, and deep beneath it - The Bat's Cave, secret underground headquarters of Batman and Robin. Their origins and motivations are left unexplained, but it's clear they are heroes, and that they are patriots - "they represent American youth who love their country, and are glad to fight for it". Did I mention it was 1943?
Our story proper begins with Batman and Robin pulling up to a streetside policebox in their 1939 Cadillac convertible (no Batmobile, that would cost money). Batman picks the lock and puts a call through to Captain Arnold of the GCPD, alerting him of a little "package" being left for him.
The implication is that Arnold has been suffering with the Batman for some time, and has a kind've easy antagonism with him (a far cry from the deputized Batman of the comics, but not so far off from the vigilante Batman of the 39-41 era).
The crooks Batman is dropping off are the "last of the Collins gang", but they warn him that "Dr. Daka" will make him regret his actions, the first mention of this name. The Dynamic Duo drive off (with Robin driving!) before the cops arrive so that Bruce can make a date with Linda Page.
Linda is depicted as working at the vague "Gotham City Foundation". She seems more like a secretary than a nurse, but she still works for an MD, Dr. Borden. Bruce and Dick show up and Bruce makes a big show about what lazy good-for-nothing playboy he is, and Dick later suggests that he's perhaps laying it on a little thick. They discuss plans for heading to the prison to pick up Linda's uncle, Martin Warren, who is being released. In private, Dick asks why Bruce doesn't just tell Linda that he's the Batman, and Bruce's reasoning is that a) she might worry, and b) that their special assignment from Uncle Sam requires secret identities. So Batman and Robin don't work with the police, but they are working as G-Men? (Bruce's cover for not having been drafted is that he's a 4-F - hey at least that's better than a Section 8!)
So they go to pick up Warren, but a bunch of his old cellmate buddies have shown up to pick him up (read: kidnap him) first, led by a guy named Foster who has the best "stereotypical 1940s gangster" voice ever. Bruce and Linda arrive just as the crooks are driving out with Warren, so Bruce orders Alfred to turn around their 1939 Cadillac convertible that's exactly like Batman's and follow that car! (Apparently putting the top up is enough to change "Bruce Wayne's car" into "Batman's car")
They give chase at great speed, but the bad guys pull far enough ahead to get out of sight and "make the change" - the license plate rotates to a different one, and an aerosol spray repaints their black sedan white! They turn around and pass Bruce and the gang, who are perplexed at having lost sight of their pursuit.
We then cut to Gotham City's "Little Tokyo", a ghost town now that a "wise government had rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs" and oh man, here we go. I'll take a bit later on to unpack that statement, but suffice for now to say that this serial is unabashedly patriotic to the point of jingoism, as well as decidedly racist, and these elements can make it difficult viewing for some folks here in 2014. It never gets quite as mean-spirited again as here, but it does remain (as Tumblr would put it) problematic.
Anyways, the only business left open in Little Tokyo is a "Cave of Horrors", basically a carnival haunted house railcar ride with the spooky monsters replaced by wax Japanese soldiers torturing wax Americans. Foster's gang of crooks get Martin Warren into a car, getting out halfway through by a weird display of a caveman looking guy about to club another caveperson (said caveman is clearly an oiled up living dude working as a human statue sentry - hope he gets paid well because he just stands there motionless and we spend almost the entire serial waiting for that other shoe to drop).
There's a pretty obvious door in the cave wall at this display, Foster opens it by opening a panel and flashing his Super Secret Spy Decoder Ring TM, and soon they are in a Very Oriental Hideout, complete with a Giant statue of Buddha. Warren is here greeted by our villain, Dr. Tito Daka of "The League of the New Order" - a Japanese national, prince (?) and spy played by J. Carrol Naish (a definitely caucasian actor in relatively good "Asian" make-up using an odd accent and wearing a kind of black Colonel Sanders suit - an odd mix of elements). What kind of Japanese name is "Tito Daka" anyway?
The League is a group of "dishonored" American businessmen and scientists and so on who's criminal pasts make it impossible for them to work in their society and thus have joined Daka. There's Fletcher, a rougher Howard Hughes/Cary Grant looking kinda guy who was an architect and engineer who built shoddy buildings. There's also Marshall, Preston and Wallace. Daka wants Warren, an industrialist, to join to round out the group. Anyways, the whole thing is a Japanese fifth column spy ring designed to "liberate the enslaved peoples of America". Hopefully they start by liberating all the Japanese-Americans in the internment camps.
Warren explains that in fact he was falsely accused (because he's a good guy) - although the details of his crime and imprisonment aren't elaborated on. Warren refuses because he's "an American first and always!", so Daka reveals his method of dealing with those who won't join him willingly - he uses a electronic transmitter/receiver wired into the spinal column, turning the wearer into a "zombie" who only obeys the commands Daka gives by microphone. "Bob", Warren's former partner, has been turned into "Number Twelve".
Warren continues to refuse, and thus is taken down into Daka's electronic laboratory. Daka cannot turn Warren into a zombie just yet because he has information Daka needs. So he just pumps him full of truth serum. Daka needs to know where the Gotham City Foundation keeps its store of radium, and Warren knows because he endowed the Foundation (presumably in his pre-convict days). Warren tells him where to find it (Dr. Borden's office) and so Daka sends the goon squad out to retrieve it.
He arms the men with a "radium gun", a miniature "atom smasher". It's a ray gun, for all intents and purposes, and Daka needs more radium so he can build a larger one so that Japan can use it to destroy America. At this point my head is spinning at this plot of the dastardly Japanese creating an all powerful atomic weapon to defeat the US, because they're the villains and that's what villains do and...
Daka gives Foster the gun and sends them on their way to use it to blast the safe and get the radium. Foster and some other crook are sent with a zombie, because Daka can watch them using the headpiece that controls the zombie.
Meanwhile, at the Foundation, Linda is freaking out about her uncle while Bruce tries to play it cool. Linda is not impressed. Bruce and Dick take off to leave Linda to her work just as the goon squad shows up. Bruce recognizes them, and has Alfred pull the car into an alley so they can change into Batman and Robin. The goons grab Linda and Borden, incapacitating them, then use the radium gun on the safe. Batman and Robin climb up the side of the building using a fire escape, then swing down the building and crash through the window using a grappling hook. The crooks dump the stolen radium down the laundry chute, where it's picked up by a waiting van.
The crooks make a run up the stairs to the roof for some reason, and the Dynamic Duo pursues. An extremely unchoreographed scuffle breaks out that features some cool use of the radium gun, but also makes our heroes look pretty uncoordinated. Police sirens spur the van to take off, leaving Foster and the others stranded. Batman knocks Foster out, and the zombie has Batman dangling over the edge, but Daka instructs the zombie to "leave the roof" for some reason (?) which the zombie interprets as just walking straight off it to its death!
Robin is knocked out, and Foster and the other guy toss a dazed Batman off the edge of the building to his inevitable death!!!
Next Time: Daka captures Linda because she maybe has the radium gun?!!!
Thoughts and Review: The 1943 Batman serial is often considered a footnote in the 75 year history of the Dark Knight. If it's mentioned, it's usually a short bit that almost invariably goes like this: "first live-action Batman, wartime serial, very cheap, bad costumes, no Batmobile, first Batcave and Alfred, incredibly racist." And while, yes, all those things are true, the serial is far more important than that and deserves some more in depth consideration.
Frankly, if it were not for the serial, it is highly doubtful that Batman would be as popular today as he is. But how is that possible when only a very small handful of Batfans have even heard of the serial, much less sat through the entirety of it multiple times as I have?
Well, for one thing the serial propelled Batman into a medium other than comics, proving he could work in live action and setting the stage for his complete domination of modern pop culture. But the real chain of events here requires us to look forward to the early sixties, when the Batman comics under the editorship of Jack Schiff were on the verge of cancellation, or so the story goes. The comics were handed off to Julie Schwartz in 1964 who instituted the "New Look" Batman, which nowadays would be considered a relaunch. But it might not have been enough if not for the phenomenal, massive success of the 1966 Adam West television series. And that series exists almost solely due to the 1943 serial.
In 1965 the serial was re-released in an edited form as An Evening with Batman and Robin, designed to be shown at college campuses and watched ironically, like how we enjoy The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show today. This print found its way to the Playboy Club, were it was shown regularly and was very popular with the patrons, who laughed at its inate corniness. An ABC executive was there one night and figured a campy, parodic take on Batman, a pop art update of the serial, could be a smash TV show. And he was right. While it took characters and stories from the New Look Batman comics, the show was in many ways more a skewering of the serial, with the campy costumes, overly serious narrator, and of course the cliffhangers and death traps.
The success of the Batman TV show led to a backlash in comics fandom, leading Denny O'Neil to bring back the "dark and serious" Batman of the early (pre-serial) comics. Frank Miller's defining work, The Dark Knight Returns, is almost entirely designed as a rebuttal of the TV show, and remains to this day the most popular Batman comic, influencing everything that came after, up to and including the Christopher Nolan films. The feature film series itself came from Michael Uslan's desire to produce a Batman movie that would wipe memory of the TV show from public consciousness. And of course recently we've seen the pendulum swing back, with the 60s show referenced in the Brave and the Bold cartoon and resurrected by DC in a new comic series.
So, to recap, no serial - no TV show - no Frank Miller comics and Tim Burton movies as a reaction to the TV show - thus no explosion of Batman popularity in the 80s and 90s leading to the Chris Nolan series and Batman's current superstar status.
So yeah, the 1943 serial? Kind of a big deal in Batman's development as a pop culture icon.
But is it any good? Well... kinda. I mean, I love this thing, and I often have a hard time discerning if I love it ironically or whole-heartedly. Frank Miller once said the serial was his favourite live-action Batman because it was so low tech - Batman was just a dude in a costume straight wrecking dudes - and I can see that appeal. It also has that whole 1940s film noir gangster flavour modern Batman stuff pines for more naturally, because duh. And it's the only live-action Batman where Robin is actually played by a kid - Douglas Croft was only 13 during filming and it's frankly awesome to see this kid who just leaps into danger and takes down armed thugs. I think the main reason you can't do kid Robin these days in live action has less to do with the perceived "lameness" of Robin and more to do wth the fact that everyone would freak out about the child endangerment and potential for kids in the audience to "try it at home".
Yeah, the costumes are ill-fitting and look cheap, but there's a charm to them in their attempt to bring the designs and art of Jerry Robinson to three-dimensional life (and they are also far superior to the costumes in the second serial - oy!) Batman's cowl is often accused of having "devil horns" for ears, and my reaction? How cool is that?! My only complaint is that it seems the filmmakers had two cape/cowl sets - a light blue and a dark blue one - and the light blue one shows up nearly white in black and white and looks awful. Luckily the filmmakers seemed to notice that and discarded it in favour of the dark one a few chapters in, but for a little while they're used interchangeably and I just hate the lighter one.
The acting is actually pretty good. Lewis Wilson plays Bruce Wayne/Batman, and I find him pretty cool. He's looks great in the role, and plays both roles convincingly. I love the slothfulness of his Bruce and the dynamite glee of his Batman -- his Dark Knight is serious about his job, but also takes pleasure in it, and that's fun. I've heard people complain that he's trying to cover up a Boston accent, but frankly Gotham's an east coast city analogous to New York so I don't mind it - Christian Bale plays Batman trying to cover up being Welsh after all! Fun Fact: Lewis Wilson is the father of Micheal G. Wilson, the guy who's been producing the James Bond movies since 1979.
Douglas Croft may be my favourite live-action Robin. Granted, that's a list of like, four dudes, but still. His youthful exuberance and hutzpah is so fun and genuine, and he's also got a great wry attitude as well. It's a huge tragedy that he died at the age of 37.
The most notable other great performance in the serial is from William Austin as Alfred, but I'll talk more about that in the next chapter when Alfred's role becomes more prominent. Suffice to say for now, the character was invented for the serial first as comic relief, as writing of the serial began in late 1942, continuing to April of '43. Alfred was introduced in the comics first as DC and Bob Kane were invited to consult on the creative process, and later Alfred's rotund comics appearance would be changed to match the thinner William Austin - who to this day is the model of what Alfred looks like.
The serial's director, Lambert Hillyer, acquits himself well - nothing is overly inspired here but it's also not bad. Hillyer's most interesting credit aside from this one is directing 1935's Dracula's Daughter, which some call the first lesbian vampire movie.
Honestly the biggest dark spot on the serial, this chapter in particular, isn't it's low production values or bad writing - it's the blatant malicious racism. I mean, the film gets a dubious notoriety in that it's one of the few Hollywood productions that even acknowledged the internment of Japanese Americans (the other was a truly odious Three Stooges short where our "heroes" kill some escapees from an internment camp). This internment was ostensibly based in security concerns - Imperial Japanese sympathizers sabotaging the war effort and so on - but really it was based in pure racism. And as was common for wartime serials, Daka's status as an enemy alien means there's a lot of hate thrown his way, but because he's Japanese, and thus not a white European like Nazis are in films of this type, the hate has often more to do with the colour of his skin than the actions of his government. Certainly, the serial lets us know what side it's on, loudly and plainly.
However there is a weird "plot hole" in the serial's depiction of internment, however, in that it was an entirely West Coast phenomenon, as the security justification for the camps didn't make as much sense applied on the East Coast, and Gotham has always been depicted as an East Coast city. So that's.... weird?
The other weird effect of the serial's wartime patriotism is the odd status of Batman and Robin. Apparently it was the censor board that demanded they be made into G-men, as they felt vigilantism was inappropriate to be depicted heroically. Except the Batman and Robin of the comics were no longer vigilantes, so that's just weird.
Almost as weird as the absence of Gordon, or the Batmobile and Bat-signal. Yet it's clear that the writers of the serial had some familiarity with their source material, given the presence of Linda Page - who even by this point was slipping away from the comics. It's odd and interesting what the serial gives and takes from the comic. I mean, the Bat Cave and Alfred are huge additions, but to not have Gordon? The serial is also often criticized for not using any of Batman's illustrious rogues gallery, but that's not surprising. None of the Dick Tracy serials did. However, it's a lesser known fact that the villain and storyline are clearly based to some degree on Detective Comics #55, with German fifth columnist Dr. Deker replaced with Japanese fifth columnist Dr. Daka.
All in all, it's a more faithful translation from the comics than the Captain America serial, and largely has a real feeling of seeing the Golden Age Batman and Robin translated onto the screen.
In short, for all its faults, its a hoot and I love it!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Batcave, first appearance of skinny Alfred, first live-action Batman and Robin, first appearance of Dr. Daka and Captain Arnold,