Monday, December 28, 2009

Movie Monday - Batman, 1966

Not so much detail in this one, but lots of pics.

So in 1966, a TV series debuted on ABC featuring Adam West as Batman, with Burt Ward as Robin. Featuring a campy, tongue-in-cheek tone, energetic performances by a host of celebrity guests as villains, and a kick-ass mind-worm of a theme song, the show was an instant hit. And while the show was in summer hiatus after its first season, they filmed a quickie theatrical feature with the same cast.

According to Adam West on the DVD commentary, they had actually intended to make the movie first as a way to sell the series (many series of the 60' and 70's started life as TV movies--The Six Million Dollar Man, for one). But the TV series sold without the movie. So the movie was filmed the next summer, both to cash in on the series's popularity here in the U.S. and to help sell the series in syndication overseas.

The movie opens with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson racing to stately Wayne Manor in answer to a distress call. Alfred the butler and Aunt Harriet (a new comedy relief character invented for the TV series) wave at the boys as they dash into the house. That's all we see of Aunt Harriet in the entire film.

Bruce and Dick perform the ritual so familiar to viewers of the TV series--flipping up the head on the bust of Shakespeare to press the button that opens the secret panel to the Batcave. No chintzy grandfather clock entrance here.

The Batcave is new and improved, a big set with lots of colorful scientific gadgets. Yes, the silly labels are present on everything, but look past that and you see that this is a hell of a set. And right in the center...

YES! Finally! The Batmobile!

And what a Batmobile. George Barris really outdid himself on this car. Unless you're a real hard-core fan, you probably can't name more than five cars Barris customized (off the top of my head, I can name six, but only because I watched Fireball 500 recently), but this one will always top the list.

But since this was a movie, and therefore required to be bigger in scope than the TV show, they decided to add some new elements. We see the first new element within the first five minutes, as Batman and Robin race to the airport to board the Batcopter.

It's not really all that impressive; it was simply an old Bell 47 helicopter with a Bat-paint job and a couple of wings attached (according to this website, the wings made the thing dangerous to fly, but I gotta say they looked pretty cool).

Batman and Robin take the chopper out to sea, where Batman climbs down a rope ladder and attempts to drop onto the deck of Commodore Schmidlap's yacht. But the yacht disappears (!) and Batman is dunked into the ocean, only to emerge with a pissing rubber shark attached to his leg!

And this is where you can separate the audiences for this film. For some folks, the rubber shark is a perfect piece of camp--obviously, laughably, intentionally fake. And given how ridiculous the entire Batman concept is, the shark simply fits right in. For others, for the true fans, the shark is a humiliating reminder that this movie is not laughing with Batman (as if Batman ever laughs), but laughing at him.

So Batman escapes the shark before it explodes (yes, it's an exploding shark), and soon Batman and Robin are consulting with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O-Hara (another character added just for the series) about who may be behind the deathtrap. They discover that not one, but four of Batman's arch-enemies are currently at large.

And finally, we get to see adversaries who originated in the comics--the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, and the Joker. But which one is behind the plot?

Batman figures out from studying photos Robin took of the disappearing yacht that it was actually a sophisticated projection apparently originating from a buoy. So he and Robin take the Batboat (a really cool speedboat custom-made by Glastron) out to the buoy to investigate.

Unfortunately, they are pinned to the buoy by a powerful electromagnet, while Penguin fires torpedos at them from his submarine, a contraption that manages to be simultaneously goofy and super-cool.

The Caped Crusaders barely manage to escape with their lives, and in conference with Gordon and O'Hara, divine that their adversaries are not one, not two, but all four supervillains, leading Gordon to wax all Lovecraftian on us: "The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!"

Preach it, brother.

Meanwhile, the villains devise a plan to kill Batman so he can't foil their ultimate plot, which involves a mysterious device invented by Commodore Schmidlap of Big Ben Distilleries (the owner of the missing yacht), whom they have kidnapped. Catwoman assumes the guise of beautiful Russian reporter Miss Kitka and asks for an interview with Bruce Wayne. The plan is to kidnap Wayne and use him as bait in a trap for Batman.

So Bruce Wayne takes Kitka out on the town, where we finally get to see the millionaire playboy actually acting like a millionaire playboy...

Adam West cuts a suave figure in a tux, and Lee Meriwether is fucking gorgeous in that dress.

Meanwhile, Robin and Alfred (in cunning disguise) follow along in the Batmobile, having been alerted to a threat to Miss Kitka by a Riddler riddle.

But it is all for naught. The villains capture Bruce and spirit him away on flying umbrellas.

Whenever I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this is the image I think of during that early broom scene. The kidnap enables screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. and director Leslie H. Martinson to insert a dirty joke.

I'd like to seize Lee Meriwether's brazen snatch.

Of course, the plot fails to lure Batman into a trap, but Bruce is able to escape on his own. He returns soon after as Batman to rescue the lovely Miss Kitka, only to discover that she is gone and a bomb has been left in her place.

And not just any bomb, but the most old-fashioned of cartoon bombs, a big black ball with a hissing fuse.

This sequence is another Rorschach test for fans. If you hate funny Batman, you loathe this sequence just because it is so intentionally funny. If you don't mind funny Batman, you love this sequence, because it is brilliantly constructed. Batman frantically tries to dispose of the bomb, but is sequentially foiled by hippies, gluttonous fat twins, Salvation Army band, woman with baby carriage, nuns, lovers and even ducks. Finally Batman can take no more and busts out with, "Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

The smoke has barely cleared when Penguin appears, claiming to be Commodore Schmidlap. Penguin has used Schmidlap's invention, an instant dehydrator, to convert several thugs to powdered form, which he has secreted upon his person. He convinces Batman and Robin to take him back to the Batcave, where he rehydrates the thugs and sics them on the Dynamic Duo. Unfortunately, he uses unstable heavy water, so it's a short fight as the thugs disintegrate on contact. Ick.

Batman and Robin decide to try the reverse of Penguin's plan. They allow Penguin to gas them and steal the Batmobile (once they've gotten safely out of the Batcave, of course) in order to track him to his hideout. This plan involves them riding another new gadget, the Batcycle. Oh, the toys.

They switch to the Batcopter, which is knocked out of the sky by one of Riddler's skywriting Polaris missiles. Luckily, they survive the crash, and the riddle lets them know where the villains will strike next: the United World headquarters! They race there, but are too late. The villains have dehydrated the members of the security council and made off with them, demanding a huge ransom for the return of the world's top diplomats.

Brilliant plan, right? Except for the part where Batman and Robin track down Penguin's sub and force it to the surface with Bat-depth charges, leading to one of the series's signature BAM! POW! fights on the deck of the sub. The bad guys are rounded up and Batman's heart is broken when he discovers that Miss Kitka is actually his mortal enemy, Catwoman.

There's a goofy final sequence where they have to separate out the spilled diplo-powders into their separate diplomats, and then it's over.

So that's the movie. And a lot of younger fans not only think of the Adam West Batman as the first real live-action Batman, but they also hate him because he's so campy and unserious. And it's true: not only are the movie and series terribly silly, but their campiness was probably a huge influence on Joel Schumacher's approach to the later movies, which I'll discuss in a few weeks. So in their minds, the 60's Batman doubly sucks: it's not only a cheap and campy slap at the GREATEST COMIC BOOK CHARACTER OF ALL TIME, but it also reached out from beyond the grave over twenty years later to kill the first good movie series bearing the character's name.

But here's the deal: yes, it's silly and campy and over-the-top, and yes, the 60's television production values pale in comparison to modern big-budget treatments. But the series and movie are pretty good on their own terms. They were intended as comedy and they succeed as such.

Look past the violence done to the Batman legend and you see a ton of talent on display here. The theme song by Neal Hefti is instantly memorable and hummable, and Nelson Riddle's soundtrack music fits the action perfectly. The scripts at their best are witty and fun. The Batmobile has become a modern icon. Adam West and Burt Ward, smarmy as they may be in real life, play their parts with conviction, and in West's case, with brilliant comic timing. And the costumes looked pretty darn good, very true to their comic book counterparts at the time.

The villains' performances are memorable, too. Say what you will about the greasepaint over Cesar Romero's mustache, but he has great fun as the Joker. Frank Gorshin is brilliantly over-the-top as the Riddler. Burgess Meredith's quacking, waddling performance as Penguin took a nothing-burger of a comic book villain and turned him into a central part of the Batman Rogues Gallery. I'm sad that Julie Newmar didn't make it into the movie as Catwoman, but Lee Meriwether did an excellent job.

The point is, yes, if the Batman series hadn't existed, those awful Schumacher films wouldn't have been made the way they were. But if the Batman series hadn't existed, those Tim Burton films probably wouldn't have been made, either. Batman was a reasonably popular comic book character in his day, but he wasn't an instantly recognizable pop culture icon until the series made him that. And it was that iconic status that got Warner Brothers to put up the huge bucks it cost to make the Burton film I'll talk about next week.

So in a sense, the Batman TV series of the 60's was the true genesis of Batman's pop culture status, and the inferior serials can be forgotten, right?

No. Because if you think about the way the TV series was structured--two episodes a week, the first episode ending on a cliffhanger, with a breathless narrator telling us to tune in for the next thrilling episode--then you realize what inspired the creators of the series. William Dozier, the producer and creator of the TV series, was inspired not by his love of the comic books, but by viewing the old serials and realizing how outrageously silly and laughable they were. His brainstorm was to turn that unintentional hilarity into intentional comedy. And he did an excellent job of it.

So it's a continuum. Batman serials inspire Batman TV series which inspires Batman movies. As we continue to progress down the timeline, we'll see the same elements cropping up over and over again, as each new version both continues elements from the previous version and adds new things as well.

Next week: Mr. Mom versus Jake Gittes.

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