Sunday, June 17, 2018

Batman: Three 1960’s TV Episodes (Greenway Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I headed out to the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill ( for a program of six episodes from the first season of the sensationally successful 1966-1968 TV series Batman. I have vivid memories of this one, mainly because I was 12 when it made its on-air debut and my mom, my brother and I watched the first episode together — and midway through it my mom explained, “It’s camp!,” an expression I never heard (I’d always thought “camp” was a place where parents better-heeled than mine sent their kids to the summer to suffer outdoors while they enjoyed a time rid of them). The show became a nationwide sensation and some phrases from it, like “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel,” still linger on as slang in the language. It also introduced me to superhero stories, which I’d been aware of before that but not terribly interested in; for the next few years I read a lot of superhero comics even though I didn’t get as obsessed with them as some people did, and I remember some of the ancillary merchandise sold as part of this show, including a series of 45 rpm records whose covers were head-shot portraits of the various Batcharacters and whose contents were rather silly songs about them — “It’s the Batman,” “Look Out for the Batman,” “There Goes Robin,” “The Joker Gets Trumped” and “Ho, Ho, Ho, the Joker’s Wild.” The series also became known because for its first two seasons ABC, desperate for programming, ran it two nights in a row each week and put in a serial-style cliffhanger at the end of every Wednesday night’s episode that was then resolved at the start of Thursday’s.

One of the quirkier aspects of the show was that each episode featured a “Special Guest Villain,” and some of them were played by actors with genuinely major reputations — notably my favorite, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, who alas was not represented in the episodes shown last night. (Meredith recalled having families visit him at his home; he’d show the children through his wall of stills representing his acting roles, and they’d be totally uninterested in shots from his serious movies like Winterset and Of Mice and Men but they’d light up when they saw the Batman stills and go, “You were the Penguin?”) Alas, of the major villains on the show — the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin, the Joker (César Romero — who wore heavy makeup above his upper lip because he refused to shave off his trademark moustache to play the clean-shaven Joker) and the Catwoman — only the Catwoman was represented last night. The screener wisely chose the episodes that introduced her, “The Purr-fect Crime” and “Better Luck Next Time,” with the marvelous Julie Newmar as the Catwoman. (Later, when she was shooting another film during the time allotted for a feature-film production based on the series, Newmar was replaced in the role by the much less effective Lee Meriwether — and still later the marvelous Eartha Kitt showed up as the series’ third, and arguably best, Catwoman.) The other two special guest villains represented last night were False Face (wearing an obviously fake rubber mask and billed only as “?” in the opening credits — much the way Boris Karloff is billed as “?” in the opening credits of the 1931 Frankenstein and only listed by name in the closing “A Great Cast Is Worth Repeating” credits — it took until the closing credits of the second episode featuring him before he was revealed as veteran character actor Malachi Throne) and the Bookworm (a marvelously eccentric performance by Roddy MacDowall even though the character himself isn’t particularly interesting — he’s shown as a failed novelist who can’t write anything on his own because he’s read so much every plot he thinks of has been used before, which hasn’t stopped some people who’ve made quite a lot of money writing pop potboilers, so he decides to dramatize his fictional crime schemes in real life).

While other writers were credited with these specific scripts, it was Lorenzo Semple, Jr. as the series’ head writer who set the tone for it and in particular the outrageous lampooning of the superhero story conventions — I remember one famous scene in the opening episode in which Batman and Robin crash a disco party in full regalia and Batman says to Robin, “Try not to be conspicuous” — and producer William Dozier who hired the special guest villains and in some cases also brought in guest stars for cameo appearances as people looking out their windows in the tall buildings Batman and Robin scaled with their Batrope (hooked at the top of the building with the Batarang — the tendency of this show, copied from the original Batman comics by Bob Kane and Bill Finger but ramped up to the nth degree, to preface just about every object Batman and Robin used with the prefix “Bat-“ itself got lampooned a lot, notably in the song “Goodbat Nightman” by the Scaffold, a British rock band that was sort of the Beatles meet Monty Python and was led by Roger McGough and Michael McGear — “McGear” was really Paul McCartney’s brother Michael, using a different last name to avoid coasting to fame on his brother’s coattails — in “Goodbat Nightman” Batman oratorically announces to Robin that nature is calling; “Where are you going, Batman?” Robin asks, and Batman says, “To the Batroom!”). In the Bookworm episode the cameo was by Jerry Lewis — and I was astounded enough that I asked, “Was that the real Jerry Lewis?,” thinking they might have used an impostor. The principal cast was also excellent: as I noted in these pages when Charles and I watched the 1967 Batman movie with this cast, Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this conception of Batman (though I still think the very best on-screen Batman was Lewis Wilson, who played him in the first Batman movie, the 1943 serial from Columbia; Wilson looked more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any Batman since and he was in good but not obstreperously muscular shape; he genuinely looked weary after each fight scene, reminding us that Batman was not a super-powerful being but an ordinary human who willed himself to be a superhero and trained both physically and mentally for the job): oracular, sometimes prissily self-righteous (when he insists that Robin put on his seat belt in the Batmobile even though they’re just driving two blocks, the scene plays very differently in the modern age of legal requirements for seat-belt use than it did in 1966, when seat belts were a novelty), and every inch the pure 100 percent hero without any of the thuggish behaviors of the Kane-Finger Batman (especially in the very earliest comics) or the self-doubt of the later “Dark Knight” version of the character in the comics and the Christopher Nolan films with Christian Bale as a Robin-less Batman. (Bale actually said he wouldn’t play the character in any script that included Robin.)

Though on balance the best Batman movie as a movie is the 1989 Tim Burton masterpiece with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the very best Joker (alas, Burton blew it in the sequel, Batman Returns, by casting Danny DeVito as an almost totally charmless Penguin: ah, if only Nicholson’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin had got to appear in the same movie!) — a film which was my all-time favorite comic-book superhero movie until I recently saw Black Panther and it zoomed to the top — the performances of Adam West and Burt Ward are perfect for this conception of their characters, utterly serious in the world of camp around them — and so were veteran character actors Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon (Hamilton had been pushed as a romantic leading man in the early days of the talkie era, usually as the ne’er-do-well rich playboy redeemed by the love of a poor but honest woman, but his performances were as boring as the stereotype itself, while the elderly Hamilton brought just the right gravitas to this role — incidentally he had played Nick Carraway in the 1926 now-lost silent version of The Great Gatsby and Sam Waterston, who played the part in the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby, also went on to a career as a TV law enforcer, as assistant district attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order), Alan Napier as Batman’s butler Alfred (the only character privy to Bruce Wayne’s and Dick Grayson’s secret identities as Batman and Robin — Napier reached his career height as the Holy Father in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth, his depth in the 1956 Universal horror, in both senses, The Mole People, and this was in the middle) and Madge Blake (probably best known otherwise as the gossip columnist who introduces the various characters at the opening of Singin’ in the Rain) as the annoying character Aunt Harriet, who lives in Wayne Manor and whom Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson have to keep unaware that they’re really Batman and Robin. It’s also a sign of the (old) times that both False Face and the Bookworm have bimbo girlfriends in tight costumes who try to seduce Batman into letting them go (while Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is denied the hints of genuine sexual interest between her and Batman her successors got to play), but otherwise Batman still seems fresh and decidedly undated, well produced technically for the time (even though some of the wires attaching the supposedly breakaway objects are all too visible and it’s also obvious the Batmobile is being shot with fast-motion photography since the real one had so much lead in the body, put there by veteran car customizer George Barris to resculpt its appearance, it could only go 40 miles an hour) and marvelously entertaining in the ways its producers originally intended.