Sunday, July 27, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 3 (July 30, 1943)

"The Mark of the Zombies"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Last Time: Daka has his men capture Linda Page, believing she has the radium gun. Batman and Robin bust in to rescue her, but as Batman carries Linda out the window along a telephone line, one of the hoods uses an electrical wire to spark a fire along the line, which catches up to Batman, causing Linda and him to fall off... to their inevitable deaths!
Synopsis: Robin throws a rope line, which Batman... catches... while still holding Linda.. and then swings down to ground level on... ? Honestly the way the shots are organized is kind of confusing and it feels like bad editing/movie trickery getting our characters out of this as a bit of a cheat.
Despite being shot at by Foster, our heroes make off with Linda and escape. Foster's men figure Daka won't be pleased with this failure - but Foster says he isn't afraid of any "squint-eye". Yikes. Seeds of dissent among the villains?
Daka indeed declares Foster a fool, and then asks his captive Martin Warren if he still refuses to join the League of the New Order. So he has Warren taken to his laboratory, and in a sequence full of classic 1940s Mad Scientist Gizmos (Tesla coils abound), has Warren transformed into a mindless zombie, controlled by Daka's electronic transmitter.
Meanwhile, Bruce has engaged in a classic "ad in the papers to trap the villains" gambit, and it totally works. Foster reports to Daka a classified ad featuring the radium gun listed as "found", with a time and place to pick it up. But Daka smartly realizes it's an obvious trap by the Batman. The ad has the time for pick up arranged at 10pm, but Daka needs the radium gun in order to blow up a US army supply train at 10pm. So Daka sends the boys to suprised Batman at the meeting place at 9 and take the gun in time to blow up the train (although he gives them some dynamite to use in case they fail to get the gun, because Daka is surprisingly competent.)
The meeting place is in an office in a high rise building, with Alfred playing the role of the placer of the classified ad. For some reason he's wearing a wig and fake beard, y'know, in case the crooks recognize him as Bruce Wayne's butler, I guess? Batman waits outside the window, while Robin plays look-out on street level. 
But the crooks have anticipated the use of a look-out, so one of them knocks Robin unconscious and then climbs up the fire escape to get Batman (a fun game with this serial is counting how many concussions Robin should have).
Foster shows up to meet Alfred, but is having none of the butler's stalling, calling the boys in and pulling a gun on him. Meanwhile, on the roof, the guy who knocked out Robin has a bead on Batman with his gun, but Robin has recovered and followed him to the roof. They struggle for the gun for a bit before crashing through a skylight and into the office.
Batman uses the distraction to crash through the window, and soon it's fistfight time. During the fight Alfred calls the police, then grabs a dropped gun and fires wildly into the air, causing the crooks to run away. They search for some clues and find a map of the railroad, with a circle around the bridge marked "10 pm", and Batman figures what they're up to.
So we end up with our crooks attaching a bomb to the bridge as the train's about to come in, with Batman and Robin close behind them. What happens next is predictable, but fun: a fight on the tracks, the train's a-comin', the crooks scram, Batman goes to try and defuse the bomb - telling Robin to get clear of the bridge, and then one of the escaping crooks throws a wrench at Batman's head, knocking him out just as the train gets there to run him over!!!
Next Time: Daka has pet alligators! The bad guys nab Linda again (for radium reasons, again)!
Thoughts and Review:  Chapter 3 is a bit of a step down from Chapter 2. It's perfunctory and predictable in parts. Also, I don't understand the title. I mean, yeah, Uncle Martin is turned into a zombie, but there's no "mark" on the zombies - they just all wear those little electric transmitters on their heads. 
I do like the use of the classified ads gambit - it's a cliché, but because it's a cliché in the comics it's fun to see it used in the serial. Another good detail is when Robin apologizes for screwing up by getting drawn off look-out duty, and Batman thanks him for saving his life. It really does a good job of cementing their mentor/pupil relationship, and gives him more personality and character beyond just "heroes". Alfred gets some good funny moments too, such as when he phones the police to report that he is "being murdered!"
The train tracks cliffhanger is one of the most tried and true of all cliffhangers, but it's still fun to see and they do a decent job with the fight. Hopefully however Batman gets out of it is less of a cheat than the confusing save at the start of this chapter - that being said it's cool that Robin gets to save Batman, and in fact in general the amount of stuff Robin gets to do is very cool. I think one very positive thing this serial does is have a kid Robin in the traditional costume who is very proactive and very useful - he flings himself into danger and contributes to the fights, he's not whiny or annoying or stupid. 
The weirdest thing about this chapter, at least on first viewing, is the structure. Basically it feels like two halves that meet in the middle. The first half is dealing with the aftermath of last week, with Batman rescuing Linda and Daka wanting the radium gun back. The second half is like "fuck that" with Daka wanting to blow up a train and the Dynamic Duo having to go foil that, which leads into another cliffhanger. But while it's a little weird at first, and also makes the episode feel a bit identity-less on its own, it's gonna become a pretty common structure. It's the same reason old 1960s Marvel comics feel so soap-opera esque, and lead right from one into another instead of having more contained arcs -- because you spend half the story wrapping up last week, and the second half setting up next week. So there aren't any good breaking points, it keeps the audience coming back week after week, which was the whole point of serials.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 2 (July 23, 1943)

"The Bat's Cave"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Last Time: Daka tried to steal radium from the Gotham Foundation, but Batman and Robin show up to stop them! While fighting on the rooftop, two of Daka's thugs grab Batman and toss him off the roof!
Synopsis: Our hero's surely deadly fall is broken by landing on a window washer's platform! How convenient! He climbs back up to the roof as the cops show up. Foster and his accomplice try to beat feet, but when said accomplice stops to grab the radium gun that was dropped in the scuffle, Robin tackles him!
Foster makes it out and escapes but Batman and Robin take the other guy captive, along with the radium gun, and take him to the Bat's Cave!
"The Bat's Cave" in this, it's first major appearance, is very simple. Apparently candlelit, it features a big wooden desk for Batman, a ton of rubber bats on fishing lines flying around, a big Bat-logo on one of the cave walls, and... well, that's it. Batman sits his captive down and basically threatens to feed him to the bats, and that's enough to break him down and spill his guts.
The hoodlum says they were going to deliver the radium to "The House of the Open Door" - a "fluff joint" (which I assume is 1940s slang for a house of ill repute? Someone wanna take a stab at this?). He says he was working for a man named "Smith", describing Foster. Batman believes most of the story, although he figures "Smith" is a phoney name, then the Dynamic Duo head upstairs and leave the poor guy alone, locked in the cave.
Coming up through the secret entrance in the grandfather clock in Wayne Manor (another invention of this serial), Bruce and Dick use the radium gun to explode a vase and scare the shit out of Alfred - because fuck servants, we're rich, I guess? 
Alfred, of course, has been reading his pulp magazines and detective novels again, but is interrupted so he can drive the Batman's captive to a police station and dump him on the curb.
Some patrol boys bring him in to Captain Arnold, with a note explaining that Linda Page can identify him and charge him in connection with the "radium robbery and hospital murder" -- hospital murder? Who was murdered? Is that referring to the zombie that Daka had walk off the roof to his death for no reason last week??
Back at Dr. Daka's Secret Giant Buddha Spy Headquarters, Daka admonishes his men for losing the radium gun. Daka figures since it was left behind at the Gotham Foundation that one of the employees might have it. Of course he might have had a better idea what had happened if he hadn't ordered his remote control zombie to off himself, but I guess hindsight is 20/20 after all. Daka figures that since Martin Warren's niece worked in the office where the radium was, it's likely either she has the gun or knows who does.
So Foster calls Linda, pretending to be Warren, and tells her to meet him at The Blue Parrot (in Casablanca?)... and come alone! Linda calls Bruce to tell him what's up, but also not to come. So of course Bruce and Dick are gonna pay a visit to the Blue Parrot as well to keep an eye on Linda!
At the club, Linda is called away to the telephone booth and Bruce sends Dick to keep an eye on her. Dick goes over, sees that yep she's on the phone, and reports back to Bruce, who's all "I told you to keep an eye on her, stupid!", and when they rush over to see what's up, she's gone! Because the phone booth was rigged with gas and a trick door, so Foster has kidnapped Linda.
So Bruce and Dick use their only clue and head to the House of the Open Door, with Bruce putting on a sort've prototype Matches Malone disguise, and Dick dressing up like a "Daily Record" newspaperboy, complete with accurate outfit, t-shirt, newspapers, etc. Dick serves as a lookout in front of the building as Bruce goes in, each wearing 2-way radios to communicate with each other. Very smart.
Foster comes into the building, and Bruce shadows him upstairs, keeping note of which room he goes into. There's a trick door in the back of the room, leading to another room filled with radio equipment and hazardous chemicals (??) where some hoodlums are interrogating Linda. She doesn't tell them anything, because she doesn't know anything, but the hoods aren't buying it.
As Batman and Robin (with Batman wearing a much improved costume), the Dynamic Duo climb up to the window by throwing their grappling hook up onto a power line and then walking across the power line to the windowsill. Now, I'm no electrician, but I figure that at least sometime in there they should've been fried.
Anyways, they burst into the window as is their custom, and we get an all out brawl, which feels just as uncoordinated as the one last week, just guys throwing haymakers left and right (at one point, Batman's cape falls off, but it's back after the next cut). So of course those hazardous chemicals (acid, apparently) that are in there are spilled and so there's deadly gas spewing everywhere. Foster and the boys escape and lock Batman and Robin in the room. Robin heads out the window and across the power line, Batman following while carrying Linda.
But Foster has them spotted from the roof, and grabs some wire from another power line and swings it down to the line Batman is standing on, short-circuiting it.
Now, again, I'm no electrician, but I'm pretty sure the dangerous electrical fire wouldn't just slowly make it's way up the line behind Batman like a lit bomb fuse or something - but that's what happens here. Robin makes it down to ground level, but the electrical fire catches up to Batman just as he reaches the grappling line, and he and Linda fall off the line.... to their inevitable deaths!
Thoughts and Review: Chapter 2 of Batman is a big improvement over Chapter 1. Part of this is that it doesn't have to set up the story and characters, so the pacing is much better. Even with a shorter running time it balances story, action, and character quite nicely. But mostly I think it just has the best mix of elements. It might be my favourite chapter in the serial overall, which yes, means we're peaking quite early.
For one thing, you've got Batman and Robin being a lot more competent and awesome then they were in the last chapter. First, capturing and interrogating that guy in the Batcave - and I love Lewis Wilson's performance in this scene, a kind of gleeful meaness. Then, tailing Linda from the Blue Parrot to the House of the Open Door, and again Wilson does a great job of switching personas from Bruce to Batman to his disguise and back again. The bit with the radios and the newspaperboy lookout feels like a regular routine, like they've been doing this a while and have certain favoured maneuvers, which increases the feeling that we're seeing the comic book characters with their history, translated onto the silver screen. Scaling the building with their grappling hook, smashing through the window, fighting off thugs, carrying Linda out of there -- our heroes do a lot of fun, cool things in this chapter, things that feel like what Batman and Robin do in their comic book adventures.
Significantly, this chapter gives us our first good looks at the two additions the serial made to the Bat mythos: the Batcave, and Alfred. The Batcave is very prototype, just a simple one room affair. It seems connected to another room, a secret crime laboratory which had already been featured in the comics, but the two are definitely seperate locations rather than unified under the "cave" stylings. But what's really cool is the entrance to the Batcave is through a grandfather clock in Wayne Manor - which, once the Batcave made it's migration to the comics, is where the secret entrance would be depicted as well. In the comics they will add the detail that the door is opened by changing the time on the clock to the time Bruce's parents were killed - but oddly, other than the Bruce Timm animated series, no other Bat-adaptation would use the grandfather clock entrance - the '66 show used the Shakespeare bust and sliding poles, Burton's films had an Iron Maiden trapdoor, the Schumacher films had a hidden door in the silver closet, and the Nolan films had it activated by a trick piano.
Alfred, meanwhile, is fantastic. I mean, yeah, this isn't the super competant dry wit Alfred of the modern day, but William Austin is giving a great comic performance here. While he's much the same character as the comic book Alfred - a little bumbling, but eager to help - it somehow work's a lot better with Austin's performance. He's thin, high-strung, very upper crust -- it's a little reminescent of what Anthony Daniel's would do with C-3PO for Star Wars! Austin's performance was such a popular element of this serial that Alfred's character would be reworked to resemble Austin more, especially physically, which is why in the comics for 70 years afterwords Alfred would be thin, balding, and with a moustache!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the grandfather clock entrance to the Batcave

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 1 (July 16, 1943)

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.
Too soon?

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,