Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Batman: The Movie (20th Century-Fox, William Dozier Productions, Greenlawn Productions, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Batman: The Movie, the 1966 film with the TV-show cast (and a thoroughly stupid plot involving a scheme to take over the world by turning the members of the U.N. Security Council into a glittery powder with the sinister “dehydration machine,” then rehydrating them). The campy conceits of this plot line were better done on the TV show, where you only had to watch them for half an hour at a time (at that length, they were funny!). Over feature-film length,the gags got a bit wearing after a while, and Adam West and Burt Ward looked merely tired through much of the film (West in particular seemed exhausted by the sheer effort involved in the attempt to pronounce this drivel as if it were meaningful dialogue), but on the whole, it was at least an entertaining movie, and the guys I screened it for seemed to like it. — 2/3/96


I went through the DVD backlog and brought out my copy of the 2001 DVD reissue of the 1966 film Batman: The Movie, thinking it would make an interesting comparison/contrast with the 1989 Batman I had screened us last Sunday. It certainly did: as the reviewer from whose post came up with I downloaded their page on the film (with the oddly appropriate screen name “spikeopath”) said, “Remember when Batman was fun? Not a serious scene in sight, no tales of revenge or personal demons to burst from the screen in a day glow burst of thunder. For many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s this was the only Batman that mattered, pure unadulterated fun, all campy veneer and skin-tight Technicolor suits.” I’ve seen Batman: The Movie several times, first on TV in black-and-white (which is how I first saw the TV series as well, since I didn’t regularly have access to a color set until the early 1970’s), then on the VHS release (which, pack rat that I am, I still have) and now on this beautifully transferred, luminous DVD release. (It was put out when the DVD format itself was just three years old and it has a humorous promo at the beginning with the “suits” at 20th Century-Fox hailing the state-of-the-art excellence of the DVD format, which has since been displaced in the relentless pace of planned ultra-obsolescence of anything involving computer technology for consumers by Blu-Ray and now “4D UHD Blu-Ray”). The original plan of Batman: The Movie’s producer, William Dozier (who earlier had been the final studio head at RKO in its dog days in the mid-1950’s, during the three years between Howard Hughes’ sale of the company in 1955 and its going out of business in 1958, during which — as I’ve commented before — RKO seemed to be going through a sort of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder: maybe corporations are people after all!), was to release the property first as a feature film and then spin it off on TV. But the plans got changed when ABC, then the last and weakest of the three major TV networks, asked for the series to start as a mid-season replacement in January 1966. 

ABC, sucking hind tit with show producers and studios generally — so many shows on the network had such short runs the joke around Hollywood was, “You want to know how to end the Viet Nam War? Put it on ABC and it will be canceled in 13 weeks” — liked Dozier’s idea that each show would be run in two half-hour parts, with an old-style serial “cliffhanger” ending part one on Wednesday night and the second part shown the following Thursday. Batman debuted in January 1966 and became an immediate sensation; I remember watching the first episode with my mom, and about midway through episode one she suddenly declared, “It’s camp!” I’d never heard the term before — to me “camp” meant an outdoor facility to which parents sent their kids in the summer (not me, though; I never went to summer camp, just as I never joined the Boy Scouts) — but it was in the air: two years earlier Susan Sontag had published her famous essay, “Notes on Camp,” and while she’s been criticized for not acknowledging camp’s birth in the Queer community she did set the intellectual standard for defining and recognizing camp as something that at once exploited the cliché bank of a popular entertainment genre and spoofed it. Film historian William K. Everson argued that you couldn’t consciously create camp — he said the only real “camp” came from artifacts like “B” movies from studios like PRC and Monogram that were intended seriously but over the years acquired an unintended patina of humor through their ineptitude, both in physical production and the sheer manipulativeness with which their writers exploited the clichés — but that didn’t stop people from trying. 

Dozier actually hired competent people: to write the script for this movie and also for the TV show’s pilot he brought in Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (according to, Semple wrote the first four episodes and also authored the “bible” given to the series’ later writers as a guide), a writer with previous credits on “serious” TV shows like Burke’s Law and The Rogues. As director he brought in Leslie Martinson, a serviceable hack who got the job done though without the élan Tim Burton would bring to his two Batmovies in 1989 and 1992. What made the 1960’s Batman TV show and this movie derived from it (which was made in 1966 after the first season of the TV show, released on June 30 and then put out in other countries ahead of the TV show so Dozier and his backers at Fox could sell other nations’ broadcasters on the concept) so much fun was precisely the element of ridicule: instead of looking for drama, social comment and even tragedy in superhero stories Dozier and Semple grabbed hold of the preposterousness of the whole concept of the masked, caped superhero and ran with it. Their camp approach extended to the villains as well — though the comic-book Batman fought conventional criminals as well as flamboyant super-villains, Dozier’s TV Batman went up against super-villains exclusively and became a prestigious guest opportunity for actors who wanted a chance to spoof their usual images on TV and reach a large audience doing so. Dozier perfectly cast Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin — in the comics Robin was originally a pre-pubescent boy (he was billed in his early appearances as “The Sensational New Character Find of 1940”!) who later grew up to be a teenager, but Ward played him as a young adult (he was depicted as a high-school student but was visibly in his early 20’s). 

I’ve blown hot and cold on who was the best movie Batman of all time — indeed I’ve made a case for Lewis Wilson, who played the Caped Crusader in the very first live-action Batmovie, the 1943 Columbia serial Batman (arguably the best serial ever made — the only serious competitors are 1934’s The Return of Chandu with Bela Lugosi in an unusually sympathetic role, and arguably the first Flash Gordon from 1936 — and directed by Lambert Hillyer, next to Burton the best director Batman’s ever had on screen), who looked more credible than anyone else has in the character’s alternate identity as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and who also acted visibly weary after the big fight scenes, reminding the audience that Batman wasn’t a super-powered being but an ordinary human who had willed himself to be a superhero and had trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job. But Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this version of Batman, bringing a stuffy self-righteousness to his portrayal — at one point he and Ward stop the action dead in its tracks to give a lecture on the need to support your local police, at a time when “Support Your Local Police” was one of the rallying cries of the ultra-Right John Birch Society, and in accordance with the series’ camp agenda you can read this either seriously or as a lampoon of the idea of supporting your local police whatever they do, including treating the Black community as if they were occupying hostile territory and thus sparking race riots. He and Ward have an infectious on-screen chemistry that makes up for the deficiencies in Dozier’s casting of the villains, on which he was batting .500. Burgess Meredith is unforgettable and absolutely brilliant as the Penguin, and Frank Gorshin (who’d previously been best known as a comic impressionist) surprisingly mobile and effective as the Riddler, but César Romero as the Joker is so offensively unfunny and stupid one wants to strangle him (in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns from 1992 Danny DeVito was similarly annoying as the Penguin and one of the great cultural tragedies of our time is that Meredith’s Penguin and Jack Nicholson’s definitive Joker never appeared in the same movie) and Lee Meriwether (whom, intriguingly, Adam West called “Lee Ann” in the interview he and Ward gave as a bonus item for the DVD) as the Catwoman is certainly good-looking enough for the role but doesn’t have the charisma of Dozier’s other two TV Catwomen, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt. (West explains during the interview bonus that Newmar was off shooting the movie McKenna’s Gold and was thus unavailable for the Catwoman role in this film.) 

The plot of Batman: The Movie, in case you cared, was purely pretextual: Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) of the Big Ben Distilleries in London has sailed his yacht across the Atlantic to offer a fearsome new invention to the authorities in Gotham City, only on his way over his yacht was waylaid and mysteriously made to disappear (Semple doesn’t stop the action long enough to tell us how) by the villains, who call themselves the “United Underworld” and plan to use the invention — a machine that sucks every bit of water out of the human body and leaves the person it’s used on a pile of colored sand — to take over the world. The Penguin has bought a submarine to stage this assault from, and there are quite a few action scenes as well as something out of a silent comedy, a famous sequence in which West as Batman tries to dispose of a bomb but can’t find a place to throw it without hitting innocent people — a Salvation Army band, a group of nuns, a family with kids and even a few ducks on the water. “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” Batman says in a like Adam West claimed in his interview routinely got quoted back to him by fans; it seems like something Harold Lloyd would have done and is an oddly sophisticated moment in an otherwise pretty lowbrow movie. West agreed to do the role in the film as long as Semple rewrote the script to give him more screen time as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman — the plot features Catwoman disguised as a Russian journalist who attempts to seduce Bruce Wayne and then stage her own kidnapping so Batman will come to rescue her and the villains can capture him, and for some reason Our Hero never cottons to her impersonation even though she drops two big clues: she says the word “perfect” as “purr-fect” both as Russian journalist Kitka and as the Catwoman, and she pronounces the Russian word “steppes” as “steps” instead of the correct “styeppes,” a mistake a real Russian would not have made. Seen today, Batman: The Movie dazzles in its brilliant Technicolor (a reminder of the days when color films were actually colorful instead of shoehorning their color schemes into dank greens and browns the way they do today), unintentionally dated items like the then-high tech and now totally preposterous banks of computer equipment in the Batcave, and the overall insouciance of it all that does indeed bring us back to the days when superhero movies were fun and didn’t try to make their stories into deep, dark, depressing meditations on the human condition. — 11/15/17