1943 Columbia Pictures
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, J. Carrol Naish
15 Chapters. Released July 20th, 1943
Running 15 weeks and starting late July this meant Batman was on the screen in its various theaters well into the Halloween season of 1943.
Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) are secretly the crime fighting duo Batman and Robin. Their secret is known only by their faithful butler Alfred (William Austin) and apparently the US Government who has employed Wayne as a secret agent who are assigned to bring down a fifth column Axis Powers spy ring led by the insidious Japanese Prince Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish).
Daka kidnaps Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire), who happens to be the uncle of Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), he transforms him into one of his mindless zombie slaves after his refusal to aid his subversive fifth column activities.
Missing from the serial is Police Commissioner Gordon who is replaced by the surly Captain Arnold who seems both to admire Batman’s results as he vows to hunt the vigilante down and capture him.
Over the course of fifteen chapters Batman and Robin interfere with Daka’s plans and try to help Linda find her missing Uncle Warren.
Complete with rayguns, alligator pits and the aforementioned zombies THE BATMAN is one of Columbia’s best serial efforts.
Wilson was 23 when he was contracted to play Batman making him not only the first actor to assume the role but the youngest to date. He brings a good natured charm to the character and incorporates elements of Zorro’s Don Diego disguise complete with foppish and lazy attitudes to keep anyone from suspecting his true identity. His clipped New England Accent adds a great deal to his performance. Wilson was a 1939 graduate of the prestigious Worcester Academy. His background was on Broadway and Batman was one of his first films and is his first lead role. His son is currently the producer of the James Bond series.
Croft at 14 or 16 years old (depending on the source) is also the youngest actor to play Robin the Boy Wonder and brings a charm to the role that makes him a nice complement to Wilson’s more serious Batman. Croft had an extensive acting background in film including playing the young James Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY.
Shirley Patterson brings sincerity of emotion to the role of Linda Page who seems to genuinely care about the other characters and the dire situations they all find themselves in. Patterson was a contract player for Columbia and was fresh off filming with The Three Stooges when she did BATMAN. She would go on to star in such films as IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.
William Austin is so good as Alfred the Butler that his physical appearance as well as his slightly bumbling efforts were adopted by the comic book character after this serial was released. Alfred is a quasi third member of the Batman team and offers mixed results when he’s called in to help with a level of humor that never gets obnoxious. A comedy relief character who adds just the right amount of laughs.
The serial is often criticized for not having a Batmobile, but since the character was only four years old at the time of filming we need look only to the very earliest Batmobile’s to see that Batman was often driving a regular roadster.
Equally unfair are the complaints about the costumes, while its true some of the angles are less than flattering, in some shots it looks spot on and offers a good representation of the suit worn in the comic books of the time.
The devil ears offer a slightly sinister look to the cowl which works. The utility belt, although it's used only to hold his rope, is still more than just a standard belt. A lot of the criticism of its lack of equipment is seen through the prism of the Adam West TV show where he seemed to pull whatever he needed out of that belt on a weekly basis. The show was still 23 years away.
Movie serials were shown weekly often at Matinees as many of them were designed for kiddie shows, but at this period of the genre they were sometimes shown in first run theaters and the fact that THE BATMAN premiered on July 20, 1943 (which was a Tuesday) leads us to believe that the serial was treated as an A-Production, at least by serial standards.
When the serial was first announced the villain of the series was set to be The Joker and this is backed up by early posters for it.
That’s clearly The Joker that Batman is punching out and when you look at Daka’s costume and makeup it’s not hard to imagine the connection to The Joker. National Comics objected to their villain being a spy for the Axis powers so he was changed to the Japanese spy.
Add to it that Daka’s secret headquarters is set deep within a carnival sideshow and you have further evidence to back this theory up.
One of the things that strikes me about halfway through the first episode is the appearance of a paperboy who offers Bruce Wayne a newspaper detailing Batman’s latest adventure.
The camera is strangely focused on the Paperboy as he approaches and there’s something to his swagger that makes him stand out.
Is this possibly a cameo by Batman creator Bob Kane?
Here’s a screen shot of the paperboy as he walks away set beside one of Kane at the time. Looks like it very well could be.
Why would this not be noted anywhere else? It’s a tough question to answer especially if one knows the level of Bob Kane’s ego, which is to say it’s doubtful he’d have forgotten such a monumental screen appearance— surely the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences must have considered a special Cameo Oscar? Certainly Kane would think so.
There’s just something about the Newsboy scene that makes me think it is Kane. In his autobiography he notes that he was in Los Angeles while they filmed the serial, although his memory is faulty as he states the car used was a simple Mercury (which was used in the second serial in 1949). Kane also states he first met Marilyn Monroe at this time which is highly unlikely but right in line for the legend of Kane’s bravado.
It seems more likely to me that Kane simply forgot his cameo, as hard as that is to believe, because he sure looks and acts like Kane to me. If its not Kane then it's clearly some other VIP such as a screenwriter or copy boy who's hamming up his big scene.
The serial is notable not only for being the first DC Comics character to make it to the big screen and for remaking Alfred into more of a comic foil, but also as the source that introduced The Bat Cave, although in the serial its called the slightly more awkward "The Bat's Cave" as Batman's hidden headquarters. In the comics up to this point Batman used a barn behind Wayne Manor. The serial also introduced the grandfather clock in Wayne's Study which leads to the secret staircase down to the cave (the poles wouldn't come along until 1966).
In all, THE BATMAN is a fine serial from Columbia Pictures and ranks among its top ten both in terms of box office and critical reception.
So congratulations on your screen debut 75 years ago today!