Monday, November 16, 2009

Movie Monday - Batman, 1943 Wrap-Up

So before diving back in to another serial right away, I thought I'd give a few observations about the 1943 Batman serial, just to wrap up.

Number one, as I noted, it bears little resemblance to the Batman of the comics. No murdered parents (I found at least one comment on-line that this was due to the Hays Office - Batman could not be a vigilante, but had to be shown working under government orders and with the government's tacit approval), no Joker, no Batmobile, no Commissioner Gordon. Interestingly enough, though, it turns out that Linda Page had been Batman's girlfriend in the comics. As E. Nelson Bridwell describes her in his introduction to Batman: From the 30's to the 70's, Linda Page was "a society girl who turned to nursing to be of some service to the world." Which seems to describe the Linda in the serial.

But then again, maybe the writers' research on the character came from one or two issues of the comics purchased off the newsstand. Batman's origin might not have been mentioned in those few stories, and Gordon might not have appeared either. Although Gordon was in the very first Batman story, he doesn't seem to be a fixture in the other early Batman stories I have.

Alfred gets a lot of play in the serial, though, and that's interesting, because Alfred had just been introduced in the comics that same year, in a story which described him as a would-be actor and amateur-criminologist-turned-butler (due to a promise extracted by his father, Bruce's father's butler, on his deathbed).

And in the serial, Alfred does a lot more than serve tea and exhort Batman to eat soup or whatever. He chaffeurs Bruce Wayne (and often Batman as well), he dons disguises to fool crooks (like an actor), he reads detective stories (like an amateur criminologist) and even throws himself into a couple of fights, even though he's frightened and inept. He saves Batman's life in chapter three and his quick thinking (quicker than Robin's) enables Batman and Robin to escape the police at the end. Alfred is pretty heroic, when you come right down to it.

And Bridwell's introduction mentioned above clued me in to something pretty cool. As little as it seems to follow the Batman mythos, the "Batman" serial might have had one lasting effect on the comics. You see, this was what Alfred looked like when he was first introduced in the comic in 1943 (the year this serial was produced).

Here's William Austin as Alfred in the serial.

And here's Alfred as he is known and loved in the comics today.

Other than that, though, there are moments when the serial gets the feel of Batman right. Lewis Wilson plays a pretty good Bruce Wayne, and his square jaw enables him to occasionally make even that silly devil-horned costume look good.

He does a pretty good job with Chuck White, too, given how badly those chapters are written. In the comics, Batman would occasionally disguise himself as a crook to infiltrate a den of thieves, but in the serial, Batman seems to enjoy playing Chuck so much that he continues to invent excuses to don the disguise. It's like Batman secretly wants to be a crook or something.

Denny O'Neil would do the same thing with Batman during the 70's when he introduced the recurring character of Matches Malone, a low-life thug who had a thing for lighting matches with his thumbnail, played by Batman in disguise, of course.

Most of the action scenes with Batman take place at night, with Batman skulking around on rooftops. And shots like this moment when Batman leaps out of the smoke to attack a couple of thugs...

Or this moment when he trips on a light in Daka's secret tunnel...

have a dramatic feel to them. It has the dark feeling of the early 40's Batman to it, in other words, at least in places.

Which is not to say that it's good or well-written. There are some good lines here and there, and the requisite number of suspenseful situations and thrilling escapes. I especially like the way that Daka begins to assume that there are several Bat-Men after Batman's death has been confirmed to him so many times.

But major story elements are abandoned left and right. After Batman uses the captured ray gun on the armored car, he never uses it again, even though it would be an awesome tool to have on hand. Likewise, when he gets hold of one of the zombie headpieces, he does nothing with it. And worst of all, after the thugs finally get the radium they need, we see Daka with his nearly finished Atom Disintegrator in chapter 13 AND NEVER HEAR ABOUT IT AGAIN. We've been told since chapter 1 that this is the ultimate goal of his master plan, AND HE NEVER EVEN TRIES TO USE IT IN THE LAST TWO CHAPTERS! Major disappointment.

Well, we can hope that the Batman's next appearance, in 1949's "Batman and Robin," will maintain the first serial's strengths while improving on its weaknesses, can't we?

Don't bet on it.

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