Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Since Charles and I screened all 15 episodes of the 1943 Batman serial in two successive nights, I’ve elevated that (probably unfairly) to the position of the Citizen Kane of serials. It was helped by a topical plot line (Batman and Robin fighting a Japanese Fifth Column operating clandestinely in the U.S.), incisive direction by Lambert Hillyer (an important horror director and not a serial hack), a well-written (by serial standards) and genuinely imaginative script (in only one of the cliffhangers did Our Heroes escape by jumping, a trick the writers of Republic’s serials went to the well with so often I’ve joked that anyone who saw a Republic serial could have written a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went off the cliff, they jumped out of it), the full production infrastructure of a major studio (one especially well-appointed nightclub set was originally built for the 1937 comedy classic The Awful Truth) and a good cast: Lewis Wilson as Batman (not exactly Mr. Universe material but movingly vulnerable, especially after the action scenes when he genuinely looked tired, and more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any screen Batman since), Douglas Croft as Robin, and J. Carrol Naish as the principal villain contributing a rare degree of understatement at a time when most serial bad-guys snarled their way through their parts and left no stick of scenery unchewed.

Alas, for the 1949 version Columbia lowered both their budget and their vision; they cast Robert Lowery as Batman (he was perfectly fine in ordinary juvenile leads but that compact little frame was not to the superhero’s mantle born — according to imdb.com he was a last-minute substitute for the larger Kirk Alyn, whom Columbia had playing Superman but who probably backed out at the last minute because he realized it would be too confusing for audiences to have him playing both, which is why his Batcostume is so baggy) and the offensively awful John Duncan as Robin (he comes off as a refugee from the Bowery Boys and is so out-of-place he makes the miscast Lowery look O.K. by comparison). The plot deals with an industrialist named Norwood (James Craven) whose company is about to market a device that allows cars to be moved by remote control (when he demonstrates this with models in his office it seems quite unimpressive — “Radio-controlled model cars? Been there, seen that!”), only the man who actually invented it, a disabled scientist named Hammil (William Fawcett) got increasingly “eccentric,” we’re told, and left the company.

Hammil crashes the meeting Norwood is having with Batman and Robin, and when next we see him he turns out to be yet another in that long line of Hollywood’s villains who pretended to need wheelchairs to throw people off their scents: he gets out of his chair, sits in something that resembles a D.I.Y. electric chair surrounded by neon tubes, and this apparently cures him of any hint of disability because he’s up, walking around and, when we next see him, he’s in an underground grotto (obviously the same set, re-dressed, as the Batcave) dressed in a baggy and totally unimpressive black outfit, complete with hood, and calling himself “The Wizard,” in which capacity he’s leading a gang of crooks aimed at stealing back his own invention and also grabbing hold of the industrial diamonds needed to make it go. (The writers — George Plympton, Joseph Poland and Robert Cole — evidently intended to “surprise” the audience at the end with the Wizard’s true identity, but they made it so obvious in chapter one that unless they’re going to throw a real curveball at the end and turn him into the mother of all red herrings, they’ve already given away the plot.) Columbia gave the direction to Spencer Gordon Bennet, a serial hack if there ever was one (though they billed him without his middle name), and they also gave Lowery a ridiculous Batsuit with risibly tall ears that make him look more like Black-Rabbitman than Batman.

It also doesn’t help that, as in the 1943 serial, Batman and Robin drive an ordinary car instead of a Batmobile — this time around it’s a convertible and they “cleverly” conceal their changes from street clothes to superhero drag simply by putting the top up. If the 1943 Batman serial was an object lesson in how good a serial could be and how honest it could play with the audience while still delivering on the action that was the genre’s principal appeal, this one is a virtual compendium of what could go wrong with a serial. — 12/8/09


I ran chapters three and four of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Robin’s Wild Ride” and “Batman Trapped!” (the chapter titles have precious little to do with the actual contents), and they proved to be pretty much more of the same: a lot of fooforaw about a secret explosive called “X-90” stolen off a hijacked train by the Wizard’s henchmen, who fail to get the detonators without which the stuff is useless — so the Wizard has them kidnap the stuff’s inventor, Wesley Morton (Marshall Bradford), and take him to a cabin in the woods that looks like the place the titular characters were taken and essentially enslaved in the 1940 Columbia “B” Girls of the Road. Batman and Robin seems to anticipate much of the campy appeal of the TV series from the 1960’s — particularly the stentorian narration used, instead of titles, to bring viewers up to speed on the story so far at the beginning of each episode, and little details like the big block letters reading “X-90 EXPLOSIVE” on the box containing it when it’s thrown off the train (with considerably rougher handling than one would expect from a box containing high explosive — though since it’s supposed to be totally unexplosive unless detonated with the special detonators, maybe that isn’t as silly as it seemed at first).

There’s a clever visual trick by which the Wizard, clad in his stupid-looking black gown and hood, mysteriously appears in his associates’ hideout; they’re instructed to dim the lights in preparation for his arrival — and it turns out he’s literally doing it with mirrors; when someone takes a shot at his image, the mirror shatters in a scene that suggests either director Spencer ex-Gordon Bennet or someone on the writing committee had seen Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, released by the same studio one year earlier. Batman and Robin is an engaging enough serial, beset by the problematic casting of the heroes, and though it’s hardly anywhere near as good as the 1943 Columbia Batman it’s a decent if overly impoverished serial that fulfills the action requirements of the genre. — 12/14/09


Charles and I got a little movie-watching in last night, including the fifth episode of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Robin Rescues Batman!” (a chapter title at least more indicative of its contents than most of them, since in the opening Robin rescues Batman from an encounter with an electronic gadget that would have fried him on the spot if he hadn’t happened to be holding an iron bar at the time, which served as a ground and drew away the current from his body — it’s an awfully far-fetched resolution of the episode four cliffhanger and it’s the sort of plot twist people who write about serials make fun of, but after watching some of the Republic serials I still feel a sort of relief every time a serial writer manages to get the hero or heroes out of danger without having them jump!), a bit better than the norm for this production mainly because of the interesting character of Jimmy Vale, brother of Batman’s friend (and sort-of girlfriend), photographer Vicki Vale, who turns out to be a getaway driver for the gang led by “The Wizard” — and though the idea of a black-sheep relative wasn’t exactly fresh serial (or gangster-movie) plotting, at least it gives this episode more of a dramatic issue to be about even though the resolution is preposterous.

Jimmy induces Vicki to meet her in the park by Grant’s tomb — it is, of course, a setup for the Wizard’s gang to ambush her and grab the photo she took of them speeding away from the scene of their latest crime — and though Batman and Robin learn of the rendezvous in time (Vicki tells Batman in his Bruce Wayne identity), the photo is blown into a convenient campfire and burned to a crisp. No matter: Batman simply picks up the pieces, puts them in an evidence kit, and then subjects them to a remolecularizer — a treatment that enables him to reconstitute the photo in its original form, rephotograph it from the suitably rearranged ashes and thereby identify the people within it. In some ways the extension of Batman’s (and the villain’s) capabilities far beyond what the science of 1949 (or 2009, for that matter) could do is annoying, but it’s also fun in a campy way. — 12/27/09


We ran a couple more episodes of the 1949 Batman and Robin — which, somewhat to my surprise, seems to be getting better as it goes along: the action sequences are more exciting and the exposition between them somewhat less pachydermous and dull — even though the way they got out of the cliffhanger from episode five at the start of episode six (the villains trapped Batman and Robin off a pier and lit a flame so gasoline floating on top of the water would burn and they would be killed — only they simply swam under it) seemed to be a cheat. This one had Batman disguise himself as one of the Wizard’s henchmen to crash their hideout and find out what they were planning next — only he’s “outed” when the very interesting character of Barry Brown, radio newscaster who keeps spilling crucial information about the police efforts against the Wizard (to the point where by the end of episode seven, “The Fatal Blast,” he’s being presented as suspect number one in the hunt for the Wizard’s identity), says that the real crook Batman is impersonating is still in police custody. (Robert Lowery’s years of playing small-time gangsters stood him in good stead in these scenes.) — 1/1/10


We ran episodes eight and nine of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial — which hasn’t got an especially good reputation (especially by comparison with the marvelous first Batman serial Columbia made in 1943, with J. Carrol Naish refreshingly understated by serial-villain standards, a handsome production and Lewis Wilson as one of the best screen Batmen ever — indeed, better in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity than any of his successors) but is getting better and better as it unwinds. The action scenes (the real “meat” of a serial) are snappy and well staged (Republic is usually considered the ultimate serial studio for the staging of their action scenes, but in Batman and Robin serial veteran director Spencer Gordon Bennet proves as adept as his Republic colleagues in staging entertaining, high-tension action), the exposition is terse and to-the-point, and the physical production is quite convincing (the fire that supposedly consumes Batman at the end of episode eight is utterly believable even though the resolution of the cliffhanger isn’t).

On the down side is the acting — Robert Lowery as Batman is a decent enough hero but he suffers from long years of typecasting as a crook (which made him unexpectedly convincing in the episode in which he disguised himself as one of the Wizard’s men to crash their meeting and find out what they were going to do next), and John Duncan is too chipper, too much the comic-relief player to make him believable as Robin. (It also doesn’t help that Batman’s costume is awfully ill-fitting and baggy; according to imdb.com, it’s because the part of Batman was originally planned for Kirk Alyn, who had just played Superman in another Columbia serial, and when Alyn withdrew at the last minute Lowery, a much smaller man, literally stepped into his Batsuit.) The overall show is engaging, and the Wizard is a genuinely imposing serial villain even though, like most of them, he tends to overact — especially when he’s in full “Wizard gear” (a black robe and matching hood that covers up everything except his eyes) — though conceits like the secret, remote-controlled submarine that takes the Wizard’s men to him without letting them know where they are going are a lot of fun and the sort of thing for which one watches old-time serials. — 1/3/10


I ran Charles episodes 10 and 11 of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Batman’s Last Chance!” and “Robin’s Ruse!” (Every chapter title in this serial has an exclamation point at the end, at least in the original credits, though on the DVD menu the exclamation points have been jettisoned as serial overkill.) This is one serial that’s getting better as it goes along — I’m somewhat surprised that I’m liking it better this time around than I did when I bought the VHS pre-records of it in the early 1990’s — even though it’s hardly the equal of the 1943 Batman serial, which had a better pair of actors as Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft vs. Robert Lowery and the terminally nerdy Johnny Duncan), a bigger production budget and a better director (Lambert Hillyer vs. Spencer Gordon Bennet), as well as a more interesting villain: the 1943 Batman’s villain was Dr. (or sometimes Prince) Daka (J. Carrol Naish), a Japanese agent who was portrayed as a black-hearted monster but also a courtly character whom Naish actually underacted, while in 1949 the principal bad guy is the Wizard, a generic dark-cloaked, dark-hooded serial villain whose secret identity is supposed to be a whodunit-style surprise.

Nonetheless, director Bennet was an old serial hand with a flair for staging effective action scenes on a small budget, and screenwriters George H. Plympton (note the “y” in his name that sets him apart from the later journalist and socialite), Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole came up with some clever exposition scenes and some unusually creative cliffhangers: while the one between episodes nine and 10 is a pretty conventional they-jumped-out-of-danger in time (the Wizard used his remote control gizmo to take control of the car Batman and Robin commandeered from a passer-by and drive it off a cliff, but, you guessed it, they jumped out in time), the one between 10 and 11 is genuinely surprising: Jimmy Vale, brother of heroine Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), finds the unconscious Batman in the Wizard’s hideout and is shown lifting the cowl on Batman’s costume and recognizing its occupant as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Then the scene cuts to a fight in the hallway of building in which the crooks take on Batman and one of them shoves him out the window to certain death below — only at the beginning of the next episode it turns out that the person in the Batsuit who took the header out the window was not the real Batman but Jimmy Vale, who stripped Batman and put on the costume himself, only to be attacked and killed by the criminals who thought he was the real Batdeal.

Bruce Wayne escapes in mufti, driven away in a van by Robin — which leads the crooks seeing them together to reach the obvious conclusion that Bruce Wayne is Batman and forces him to stage a meeting between Bruce Wayne and Batman with butler Alfred Pennyworth (Eric Wilton) in the Batsuit — a gimmick that startled Charles, who remembered it from the 1960’s TV show but hadn’t realized they’d used that early (and they did it fairly often in the comic books as well). Though episode 11 ends with yet another scene of Batman’s car going out of control and hurtling him towards a (presumably) fatal accident, for the most part these two chapters are quite creatively and engagingly done, and overall the Batman and Robin serial is proving quite appealing and genuinely exciting as it enters the home stretch. It’s only a pity that they killed off the character of Jimmy Vale, the most multidimensional character in the piece whose moral dilemma and divided loyalties between the Wizard’s gang and his sister displayed a sort of emotional complexity one doesn’t expect to see in a serial. — 1/10/10


I ran us episodes 12 and 13 of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial — just two episodes to go until we’re finished! — which, as I’ve noted earlier, has proven to be surprisingly good even though there have been a lot of rather lame cliffhangers (a far cry from the creativity with which the writing team of the early 1943 Batman serial approached the cliffhangers), including one in which Batman and Robin lose control of their car (thanks to a smoke device the Wizard has installed on the back of his car — anticipating the James Bond Goldfinger gimmick by 15 years!) and run it off the road into a tree … and emerge at the start of the next episode with both themselves and their car relatively unscathed (indeed, they’re still able to drive the car afterwards). There was also an inevitable one in which Robin escaped from a speeding, out-of-control car (what was the “thing” these writers had for cliffhanger climaxes involving cars?) by, you guessed it, jumping out in time. Columbia’s serial writers didn’t rely on jumping as an escape mechanism as much as their confreres at Republic did, but they did fall back on it a few times. Columbia’s serial crew also relied on some of the same locations as Republic’s, and I wonder if the two studios’ directors didn’t get together and draw straws — “O.K., you got the long straw. You get to film at the narrow gap between those two rocks today!”

Still, the 1949 Batman and Robin is a nicely done serial, with especially well-staged fight scenes and other action highlights, as well as one quite clever gimmick: when the incognito villain “The Wizard” wants his gang members to meet him at his headquarters, he takes them there via an underground river in a small submarine so even his longest-standing associates won’t know where his headquarters are. “The Wizard” also is an interesting villain — though hardly a patch on the quiet, understated performance of J. Carrol Naish as Dr. (or Prince) Daka in the 1943 Batman serial — mainly for his elaborate command of science and technology, even though his supposedly “secret” identity (assuming he does indeed turn out to be who Charles and I think he is) was readily apparent from episode one. I’m certainly looking forward to wrapping this show up with the final two episodes! — 1/15/10


I decided to run the last two episodes of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Batman vs. the Wizard” (which made Charles wonder what they thought all the other episodes had been about!) and “Batman Victorious,” and quite frankly after a serial whose middle chapters had been quite well made, the last three were disappointing. Not only did they decide at the very end of this story to give the Wizard, the super-villain at the heart of the story, the power to be invisible (supposedly the remote-control device and the neutralizing mechanism would turn something invisible if aimed at it at the same time) — though they hardly did the invisibility gags with the same precision or inventiveness as Universal had in their Invisible Man movies (or even their 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, in which Bela Lugosi developed invisibility at least as early as chapter three), and the invisibility gimmick came at a cost: the Wizard was dependent for his continued invisibility on his henchmen back in his cave hideout keeping both gizmos on, and they kept turning them off, worried that the circuits would short out and one or the other device would get fried and be rendered useless.

So the Wizard’s men keep turning off the switches and he keeps returning to visibility at the most awkward imaginable moments. It gets worse: after 13 chapters during which it’s been carefully established that Prof. Hammil (William Fawcett) is carefully concealing the fact that he can walk — publicly he’s in a wheelchair but he’s got a neon-lit chair that enables him, at least for limited times, to get out of the chair and have normal mobility — from everybody, including his manservant Carter (Leonard Penn), in chapter 14 he’s up and around, walking all over his home and neither Carter nor Batman and Robin, who are there to quiz the professor about the case, comment on it or show any signs of noticing. What’s more, in chapter 15 Hammil is back in the wheelchair again, likewise without explanation. In episode 14 Batman recovers a right glove the Wizard lost from his costume, torn on the outside of the hand, and therefore intuits that the Wizard will have an open would on the top of his right hand — and the writers (George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole) go out of their way to give all three of the Wizard suspects — Hammill, private detective Dunne (Michael Whalen) and radio reporter Barry Brown (Rick Vallin) — open wounds on the tops of their right hands.

And to add further to the incredulity, the Wizard turns out to be none of the above, but rather manservant Carter — or, rather, a previously unheard-of identical twin to Carter, who impersonated his brother to steal Hammil’s inventions and set himself up as a scientific criminal mastermind. This plot twist was pretty preposterous in Monogram’s 1944 thriller Phantom Killer (in which the villain was posing as a wealthy philanthropist and in some scenes he was deaf but in others he could hear — and the solution to the mystery was that there were two of them, also identical twins), a remake of an even earlier (1933) Monogram called The Sphinx — and it certainly hadn’t improved with age: a disappointing ending to a serial that started slow but was quite slickly produced and had a lot of good action scenes in the middle. — 1/16/10