Thursday, March 13, 2008
Only 4 years after the character debuted in comics form BATMAN made the leap to the movie screen. That it was in a 15 chapter serial was natural. Perfect for the format Batman and his sidekick Robin were pressed into duty by Columbia pictures who took their cue from the comics being produced at the time and made the heroes our frontline warriors against foreign saboteurs. This was the first of two Batman serials made in the 1940s and I’ve heard they are far from the best ever made. But I love the old chapter plays and have been able to enjoy some of the worst even if it was hard slogging through things like THE WHISPERING SHADOW just because Bela Lugosi starred.
I’m going to try to blog each chapter of this first screen adaptation of Batman over the next few weeks. I’m not quite sure how long it will take or if I’ll have the will to finish but I’m going to give it a good try. I’ve found most Columbia serials to be impoverished affairs with the usual repetitious structure of the story getting to be very hard to bear. The exceptions to this rule were the two SPIDER efforts which I found to be great so maybe pulp superheroes are what they did best. We’ll see………
Chapter one begins with a voice over telling us about Batman and Robin’s relentless fight against crime. Over a montage of fisticuffs and swashbuckling we’re told of their secret identities and introduced to Wayne Manor, the rather plain looking Bat Mobile and the Bat Cave. (History note- This is the first ever appearance of the cave which afterwards was adopted into the comic books.)Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson go to meet Bruce’s lady love Linda at her place of work. She is to pick up her uncle who is being released from prison that day and the duo accompanies her. But before they can get to the jail Uncle is forcibly picked up by a group of criminals for their own reasons. Spotting Linda's uncle in a car headed away from the prison Bruce tries to follow to no avail.
The men who shanghaied Uncle turn out to be Japanese agents working to undermine the American war effort. Their boss is Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish) who wishes old Unc to join these 5th columnists in taking down the US of A. When he refuses Daka threatens to turn him into a living ‘zombie’ with no will of his own so that he will do as ordered anyway. To show his power the evil (and clearly pleased with himself) Daka demonstrates his Atom Smasher Gun. This nasty weapon can cause walls to disintegrate by turning them to powder! And that’s on its lowest setting!
Daka zombiefies the uncooperative new recruit and sends him and two other henchmen off to use the gun on the safe in Linda’s office. They are to steal radium from the safe to power the gun. But they have to use the gun to open the safe. And the radium inside will power the gun. Whoa! Got caught in a Serial Plot Feedback Loop there! That’ll happen a few times in most serials. I’m just surprised it happens so soon in this one.
Any how—Linda gets tossed into a closet while the Japanese agents crack open the safe. But Bruce and Dick have spotted the men entering the building, changed into their crime fighting outfits and rush in to stop them. During the resultant rooftop battle Daka orders poor old Uncle to jump to his death as a way to distract the heroes long enough for the henchmen to escape. But right after Uncle takes the plunge a dazed Batman is tossed over the side as well! Will the Caped Crusader splat on the pavement below? Will the older man’s corpse somehow cushion his fall? Will Robin weep in grief? Tune in next week for the answers!
Or in this case- tune in when I get around to the next chapter.
This is a lot of fun so far. I’m happy to see this early version of the Dynamic Duo for the similarities and differences to what I grew up reading. The characters are easily identifiable as the standard versions from the first couple of decades of the comics with some slight alterations for the new format. The strangest thing has to be the whispered conversation between Bruce and his Boy Wonder that lets us know that they are somehow on a special assignment for Uncle Sam. I’ve never run across another Batman story in which the Dark Knight worked for the government but I guess everyone was expected to help out on the home front in WWII. And, of course, the plot is pure war propaganda with the evil Japanese doing everything possible to destroy the American way of life. Naish makes for an interesting choice to play the main villain as he looks nothing like a native of Japan. But I guess if I can accept Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto then what the hell.
It should be noted that the superhero costumes are pretty ill-fitting with the Batman suit looking like oversized footie pajamas when they bunch up in the back. There’s just no way to keep from laughing when the Batman Under-roos try to creep off our hero’s butt.