Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Monday - Batman, 1949

Yeah, I know. Frazier's got no time for Out of the Vault, but this he's got time for?

Yes, sadly. Continuing our exhaustive and exhausting review of Batman in the movies, we move on to "Batman and Robin," the 1949 Columbia serial. Coming six years after the first, and four years after the end of the war, 1949's "Batman and Robin" is a completely different experience than 1943's "Batman." For one thing, it's more boring. I'm not sure if I'll be going into such detail as I did for the first serial--this one is awfully repetitive--but then again, the fun is all in the details. It's a predicament. What shall I do?

Roll the credits! Batman and Robin (Robert Lowery and John Duncan) appear to be trapped by titles and looking around for a way out of this crappy serial.

They don't find it, alas, for 15 chapters. The theme music is an improvement, though, strident and martial, as befits Batman's war on crime.

Chapter one, "Batman Takes Over," opens with a stock footage montage depicting said war, and even includes a couple of brief shots from the first serial of Batman and Robin fighting thugs in a burning factory. Meanwhile, the narration is talking about these "glamorous figures" who "vanish as suddenly as they appear." That's right, "glamorous figures." Man, they're not giving us any time to settle in before hitting us with the ghey, huh?

But at least the Batcave's more modern this time. Also, Robin as played by John Duncan is a lot older than the previous Robin or his comic-book counterpart. He's more like a grad student/teaching assistant than a teen sidekick. Plus his costume has a dark cape and tights this time around, more like the modern incarnation of Robin than the bare-legged, yellow-caped look of the 40's comics. And check out those guns.

So does this mean the thugs might actually pay attention to Robin this time around? Don't hold your breath.

Some fans prefer this serial to the first one, not just for the lack of racism (other than I guess the passive racism that everybody in Gotham is white - at least nobody goes around yelling, "A Jap!") but for the fact that this just feels more lke the Batman they're familiar with. Like Commissioner Gordon and the Batsignal(!)...

Which Gordon uses to summon Batman after thugs steal a special "remote control" device that can control any moving vehicle (except the Batmobile, because there's still no Batmobile in evidence, but more on that later). The thugs stole the machine using the same armored car as in the 1943 serial.

The new...

The old...

The Columbia prop department apparently wasn't exactly rolling in dough if they couldn't buy a new armored car in six years, eh?

While investigating the robbery, Batman meets Professor Hammil, the wheelchair-bound jerk who invented the device, only to have it taken away by the Electronic Research Council before it was stolen. As a result, Hammil has no love for the men investigating. "Whoever stole it probably has more brains than all of you!" he says. Batman immediately finds Hammil suspicious. Also, the machine apparently uses diamonds to function somehow, so Batman orders Gordon to be on the lookout for diamond robberies.

Later, Hammil seems to confirm Batman's suspicions when he sends his butler away and locks himself in his living room so he can use a special electronic chair to restore himself to youthful vigor and regain the use of his legs.

He exits through a secret panel in his fireplace. I so want one of those. And by, "one of those," I mean a fireplace. And a secret panel. I want both of those. So maybe I should have said, "I so want one each of those." Except I wouldn't turn down more than one secret panel. I mean, the more, the merrier, right?

Where was I (other than not walking through a secret panel in my non-existent giant fireplace)?

Oh yeah. Moments later, we see the Wizard, Masked Man of Mystery, meeting with his henchmen in his secret cave. Cool, a real comic-book-style villain rather than some weak Japanese saboteur. The Wizard is a no-nonsense type of villain. When one of his henchmen apologizes after messing with the machine, the Wizard says, "Being sorry is stupid!" I miss Prince-Doctor Tito Daka already. It's going to be a long 15 chapters with this guy.

The Wizard sends his men out to steal some diamonds to fuel his machine, and by amazing coincidence, Bruce Wayne just happens to be driving by with Vicki Vale and Dick Grayson when the crooks blow the safe. Vicki, the Lois Lane of Gotham City, has Bruce stop the car so she can get out and take some pictures of the robbery. Bruce jumps into the back seat, where his Batman outfit has been conveniently left, apparently unnoticed by Vicki Vale as they were tooling around town. Batman and Robin catch a couple of the thugs and recover the diamonds, but some of the henchmen get away.

The henchmen ride a remote-controled submarine to the Wizard's secret cave, where they show up empty-handed. The Wizard plans to rob a diamond shipment on a plane the next day. Later that afternoon, radio broadcaster Barry Brown mentions the Wizard's plan on his newscast, so Batman decides to pilot the plane. How did Barry Brown know about the plan? Could he be...The Wizard?

The next day, Batman and Robin are sitting in the cabin of the cargo plane when Robin looks over his shoulder at the back wall of the cockpit and says, "We're being followed." But actually, he's right. The Wizard's men are in another plane, pursuing them. Batman hits the throttle and the cargo plane begins to pull away (cargo planes being built for speed after all), so the henchman puts in a call to the Wizard, who uses the remote control to bring the plane down.

The thugs get out and hold Batman and Robin at gunpoint before taking the diamonds (which are in a pouch small enough to be tucked into Batman's utility belt--they needed a cargo plane for that?). Instead of shooting the Dynamic Duo, they just order them back into the plane, which the Wizard then remotely blows up.

But of course, in chapter two, "Tunnel of Terror," we see that Batman and Robin escape just before the plane blows up. And here we get our first really obvious evidence of the one main comment everybody makes who has ever written about the serial: Batman can't see for shit out of his mask.

It's otherwise not a terrible costume. The cape and cowl look like felt, while the gloves appear to be suede work gloves with extensions added for gauntlets. But Robert Lowery's always having to hold his head back and look down his nose at things, while cowl adjustments are also a frequent feature of the fight scenes.

Anyway, somehow Batman and Robin manage to run around and get into the gangsters' plane before the thugs themselves do. During the flight, Batman sneaks out and switches the packet of diamonds in the thug's pocket for a duplicate packet he just happens to be carrying. When the plane lands, the thugs head for the hidden entrance to the submarine grotto while Batman jumps the airplane's mechanics. Batman and Robin follow the path the crooks took, but all they discover is the Lone Cypress.

I'm pretty sure this shot was taken on 17 Mile Drive in Monterey, California. I used to live close by when I attended Defense Language Institute in 1993.

The Wizard discovers that the packet of "diamonds" is actually a packet of pebbles that also contains a calling card with the symbol of the bat! Meanwhile, as Batman and Robin are driving home in an apparently stolen car (its not the same Mercury they drive throughout the rest of the serial, and they were stranded by the Wizard's plane in the last scene), they hear a scream coming from Professor Hammil's place, which Batman notes is strangely near the place where the thugs disappeared.

The scream came from Vicki Vale, whose foot is caught in a man-trap installed outside the window of Professor Hammil's house. That Professor Hammil really loves his privacy. Also, what a coincidence that they just happened to be passing by at that moment. But there will be a whole hell of a lot of those coming up, so many that I may need a special shorthand just to keep calling them out, because "coincidence" has too many letters. How about Co-yay?

So Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are on their way to meet Barry Brown, the newscaster who predicted the diamond robbery, when they just happen to see private detective Dunne leaving Brown's apartment. Co-yay! Already! Suspicious, they follow Dunne while listening to Brown's broadcast. Brown reports that the Wizard is going to rob a shipment from a train that afternoon, and Dunne just happens to be pulling into a trainyard at that moment. Proof! Bruce follows Dunne and loses him, but sees two more men fleeing at that very moment. Co-yay! Bruce finds a beaten-up railroad employee, who tells him that the thugs are after a shipment of X-90 explosive.

The Wizard uses his remote control device to slow the train down so his thugs can climb aboard (why doesn't he just stop it? because then there wouldn't be a cool fight aboard a moving train, numbnuts). Then Batman leaps from his car to the train and the fight is on! But the train is approaching a tunnel fast! A Tunnel... of Terror! Also, this is the first example of the serial trying to build tension by intimating that Robin's going to have to go it alone from here on. The original serial also did this trick to an extent, showing only footage of Robin in the previews when it seemed as if Batman alone had been killed. "Batman and Robin" ups the ante a bit by also using Robin's name in the title of the next chapter.

In chapter three, "Robin's Wild Ride," we see that the tunnel wasn't really all that terrifying after all. Neither Batman nor the three thugs are hurt in the least bit by the tunnel transit. Anti-climax! Climaxicus Interruptus! Meanwhile, a fourth thug following in the car (the Mike Collins of the gangster world) radios the Wizard that Batman is on the train. The Wizard stops the train, and the thugs force the conductor to give them the (obviously empty) box of X-90. Then Batman jumps in. Fistfight! The fourth thug arrives, followed quickly by Robin. And BTW, Batman's Mercury has some kind of bad shocks or something, because the front end bounces violently whenever it comes to a sudden stop.

The thugs win the fight, but once again decide not to shoot anyone despite waving their pistols around. They run for it and take off in their big Lincoln with Batman and Robin in hot pursuit. It's Lincoln vs. Mercury! Irony! But the Wizard uses his remote control to burn out Batman's engine, so the thugs get away.

Back at the Wizard's secret cave, the head thug gloats over how they got away with the X-90. But the Wizard wipes the smile off his face when he asks about "the other box," the one with the detonators. The Wizard needs those detonators! OMG, who knew the Wizard was actually Hans Gruber?

Turns out, the inventor of X-90, Professor Morton, is staying at the Stafford Hotel, according to Barry Brown. Bruce Wayne speculates that private dectective Dunne is giving Brown his tips, and that Brown may also be the Wizard, passing instructions to his men through his broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Vicki Vale is at the Stafford Hotel, looking for Morton. We learn that she is with "Picture Magazine." Not the newspaper. Not even a news magazine like Time or something. Picture Magazine, the generic equivalent of Life or Look, I guess. This lack of imagination in naming things is also something that's going to persist throughout the rest of the serial. You could do a drinking game. Really.

Thugs appear to grab Morton. Vicki disarms one with a swipe of her camera strap, then stands still and lets herself be grabbed. Most futile gesture ever. The thugs take Morton to an isolated cabin, where the Wizard appears in a doorway and hypnotizes him with his blinky eyes.

Morton says the detonators are at the Electronic Research Plant (see what I mean about unimaginative names?), the same place the remote control device was stolen from. Hey, we can re-use a location! Meanwhile, Vicki escapes from the closet where she's been locked and goes to see Bruce. She tells him that Morton was kidnapped. And just then, Alfred spots something in the sky.

The novelty had worn off Alfred by this time, so he doesn't get much play this time around, especially now that Robin's old enough to drive. So Bruce excuses himself to "take his vitamins" and visits the Batcave, where Dick Grayson is working on some kind of science experiment. Maybe Batman assigns homework.

Anyway, Professor Hammil just happens to visit the Electronic Research offices just as the robbery happens (could his be the mysterious hand that hits the switch to open Vault 10?). Crooks arrive in a truck that is supposed to be bringing some kind of shipment for the Electronic Research plant. They take the detonators, escaping on a road that is wet, then dry within seconds. Batman and Robin give chase. The crooks try to stop them by throwing out what appear to be bales of cotton. What the hell kind of delivery were they supposed to be bringing to the Electronic Research Plant?

Anyway, Batman avoids the cottonbale slalom, then stops the car, knowing somehow that the crooks have stopped their truck just around the bend. He climbs the rocks, then jumps down on the crooks, who are not setting up an ambush, but just lighting up cigarettes. Smokus Breakus Interruptus! Fistfight! Batman's winning, so the head thug grabs a crowbar from the truck, intending to club Batman from behind. But Batman turns around....

So the thug turns tail and runs ("Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot").

Batman grabs the crowbar away from him, and the Wizard zaps it with his remote control machine, causing it to levitate and make Batman do a silly dance!

I'm guessing the idea was to make it look like Batman's being pulled backwards without him actually taking a step. Too bad the Moonwalk hadn't been invented yet. That would have been bad-ass. Oh yeah, Batman falls off a cliff!

Next Week: Batman Trapped!

Hey, wait a minute. Wasn't Robin supposed to take a "Wild Ride?" What's up with that?

Read the recap of chapters 4-6 here.

Read the recap of chapters 7-10 here.

And finally, the recap of chapters 11-15 is here.

No comments: