Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Monday - Batman and Robin 1949 Wrap-up

Wrapping up our series on the 1949 serial, "Batman and Robin." So after 15 chapters, what impressions are we left with, overall?

1. The Costume

This is the worst Batman costume of any of the Hollywood adaptations.

I know I said in the recap of the first few episodes that the costume wasn't terrible. But it can be "not terrible" and still be the worst. What makes it the worst?

The weirdly arbitrary gadgets that show up randomly on his utility belt. The gauntlets, which are gloves with extensions attached that don't even match the color properly. The ill-fitting mask. The bat-ears, which don't even rise to the level of the devil-horns on Lewis Wilson's costume in the first Batman serial. They just sort of jut out from his head almost sideways. There were some shots in the first serial in which the costume looked pretty good, pretty comparable to the way it was depicted in the comics. This costume never looks good from any angle.

2. The Characters

On the plus side, we have Commissioner Gordon. On the minus side, we have everyone else.

Vicki Vale is annoying as hell. She's not especially attractive, although that might be a function of her awful wardrobe.

Okay, she doesn't look horrible in this shot. The hat is silly, but the suit is kind of stylish, even though the wide shoulders and long skirt make her look rectangular, like an armoire with a face from the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast." Unfortunately, for most of the serial, she looks more like this:

No part of that outfit looks good. Still, a not-especially-attractive actress can become an object of lust for legions of fans if her performance is especially memorable or spirited - look at Karen Allen in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," or Margot Kidder in "Superman," or Gillian Anderson in The X-Files. But Jane Adams doesn't pull that off with Vicki. Her character is a bargain-basement Lois Lane. We don't so much wonder why Bruce Wayne hides his Batman identity from her as wonder why he hangs out with her at all when he's Bruce Wayne.

In fact, even though she's supposedly his girlfriend, he tends to dump her as fast as he can whenever he gets an opportunity, no matter which identity he's playing. Now part of that is obviously catering to the target audience of young boys who don't want to see that "mushy stuff," but still...

Robert Lowery isn't any better as Bruce Wayne. Wayne is supposedly a flighty playboy, a foppish peacock whom no one could suspect of being the Batman. Yet we see Wayne conferring with Commissioner Gordon on plans against the Wizard, Wayne investigating Professor Hammil, Wayne serving as the confidante for Vicki whenever there's a crisis. For a guy who's supposed to be a useless dandy, they all seem pretty anxious to keep him in the loop when problems arise. And a big part of that is Lowery's fault. He just can't pull off the playboy pose; he's too inherently serious.

I kind of like John Duncan as Robin though, that is, WHEN I NOTICE HIM. It's not his fault the script has him doing so many ridiculous things.

The Wizard is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the masked scientist master villain really brings a comic-bookish flavor to the story, even though he was just as much, if not more, a staple of the serials at the time. He's not a ridiculous racial caricature like Prince-Doctor Tito Daka. He's also not nearly as entertaining. He's stiff and boring and given to delivering stern lectures. He's like your dad as a supervillain, except sometimes your dad will joke around. He's like your chemistry teacher as a supervillain.

Oh, and one other thing: remember I mentioned recognizing one of the thugs as a character actor I'd seen in a lot of stuff? This is him:

John Doucette. Did literally hundreds of parts, mostly on television. If you watched TV in the 50's, 60's, or 70's, you saw this guy a lot. Had a great voice, BTW.

3. The Story

It's both ridiculous and repetitious. I realize that this is a function of the serial format. These things were churned out pretty quickly, and it's not as if they scripted them painstakingly before starting out. They wrote them on the run, probably, like a TV series. You can't blame them if they get lost in their own mythology and start introducing indestructible alien cyborgs and black liquid cancer oil and space babies...

Oh wait, that was a different ridiculous series.

The problem is that none of it ever becomes very involving. The deathtraps are lame, either too easily escaped (the train going through the tunnel, the fire on the water, the out-of-control car lightly bumping a cliff wall), or too unbelievable (the exploding cabin, the exploding safe, the FREAKING ACETYLENE TORCH on Batman's utility belt) or too familiar (the cars going off cliffs in chapters 8, 9, and 12, plus Vicki's interrupted car-cliff plunge in 15, the non-cliff car crash in 11, and Batman going off a cliff sans car in chapter 3). Oh, and since the cliffhanger ending was repeated at the beginning of the next chapter, we also saw cars going off cliffs in chapters 10 and 13, and Batman falling off a cliff without a car again in chapter 4. That's half the chapters involving cliff-related mayhem! I know they were called cliffhangers, but it's just too much.

Speaking of familiar, the repetition in the rest of the story gets really bad, too. Hammil's constant visits to his miracle chair, constant revisiting of the "Who is the Wizard?" question, and the same conversation happening every time someone gets on that damn secret submarine gets on my nerves. Now, I understand that these were not meant to watched the way I watched them, back-to-back-to-back. They were meant to be watched one episode a week, a week during which you might well have forgotten many nuances of the story.And maybe you might not even make it to the theater every week, so you might miss some chapters entirely. So I understand the need to repeat certain pieces of exposition.

But just because these scenes might have been necessary doesn't make them good. And really, since all of these scenes were meant to prolong a mediocre mystery plot, I wouldn't even call them necessary. That time could have been put to a better use.

3. The Story

Did I mention the repetition?

4. The Atmosphere

One thing that the original 1943 serial got right was to have the Batman's activities take place mostly at night. It fit the Batman's original conception, and it fit the modern interpretation of the character as well.

But by the mid 40's, Batman's persona began to shift. He went from being a mysterious avenger of the night to Robin's jolly uncle, giving instructional lectures about science and criminological techniques between merry outings to punch ineffectual crooks in the face.

He was a happy daytime Batman, a guy whose costume didn't so much strike fear into crooks as give confidence to the average citizen.

So it should come as no surprise that the 1949 serial Batman does most of his adventuring during the day, and that no one is much scared of or put off by his costume. Everyone seems to accept him at face value. You've even got a citizen eagerly volunteering to let him take his car. It just doesn't feel much like Batman to me, at least not the modern grim take on the character.

Plus, you'd think if you knew you were going to be disappointing a legion of fans by the absence of the Batmobile, you might try to limit the amount of driving time on-screen, and not, say, base your entire story around a contraption that takes control of cars, therefore ensuring that driving scenes are a central feature.

Oh well. Enough of the 40's for a while. Next week, we get to the Batman that most folks my age and even a little younger think of as the "original" screen Batman, Adam West's take on the character from the mid-60's. We can finally wash the bitter taste of the serials out of our mouths and leave them behind forever, right?

Not so fast...

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