|"But... you have begun. Remember? You started with the 1966 Batman movie?"|
Well, yes, I did. That was the first stand-alone Batman film. Which, depending on your definition, isn't even "stand-alone," since it tied in to the TV show.
But this is something entirely different, which many people don't even know about.
The 1943 Batman film serial.
|"Good Lord, you found it...."|
And let's not get into the fact that a sudden snowstorm snowed me in away from my computer for a few days, preventing me from posting this yesterday as I'd originally planned. I swear, this thing is cursed or something.
|"Oh, there's more of us than that. The Multiverse, you understand."|
|"Wait, he's not watching what I think he's watching, is he?"|
|"I'm afraid so, old chums."|
|"I thought we tracked down every copy of that!"|
|"Looks like we missed one."|
But... "tracked down every copy"? Why? Is it that bad?
|"No... and yes."|
|"And... yes and no."|
|"Let's just say that this wasn't Batman's finest hour."|
|"Just... know that we're sorry. We're so very sorry."|
|"We won't keep you."|
Let's take a look at the very first big-screen Batman adaptation and see exactly why the world has apparently forgotten about it.
|This can only go well.|
|...and by God, that's what you get. No more, no less.|
...I don't know if I should say "You're welcome" or "I'm sorry."
And I'm not making this up for the sake of a joke, and I don't have a faulty DVD player, or anything. There are no subtitles for this. I swear to Batman.
|"Please don't drag me into this."|
Actually, I take that back. Because even Roger Corman's unreleased Fantastic Four, an actual bootlegged film, had better film quality than this.
Well, that's not entirely fair. Many parts of the film have clearly degraded over the years, but other parts are relatively crisp and clean. So it looks like this release was cobbled together from whatever original reels were the least decayed, with little (if any) attention paid to remastering it. Or possibly cleaning it.
But despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a bootleg.
|Here's the DVD and the case to prove it.|
But the only company that would dare to touch this film long enough to release it was the infamous creator of Disney knockoffs known as GoodTimes Entertainment. And they didn't add subtitles because they released it on VHS in the 90s.
The farther I go down this rabbit hole, the more it seems like everybody involved is ashamed of this. Columbia. DC. Sony. Batman.
I'm getting very suspicious. Is somebody about to casually drop the N-word like that old Doctor Who episode?
|Which, coincidentally enough, featured the Burton/Schumacher Alfred.|
|"Not the N-word, no...."|
Anyway, after the opening titles, the story begins with Chapter 1: The ELECTRICAL BRAIN.
Right off the bat, I've gotta say, I'm very excited, since that sounds like something out of an old pulp adventure serial. Which technically speaking, this is. Makes sense.
In fact, this serial was released, as I mentioned, in 1943, only four years after the debut of Batman in Detective Comics. So this was actually created when Batman still was a pulp adventurer for the most part.
At the very least, this is going to be a fascinating peek back into history.
|"You have no idea...."|
Not to be confused with the teeming gotham of Metropolis.
Narrator: "A large house rears its bulk against the dark sky! Outwardly, there's nothing to distinguish this house from many others."
Except for the fact that it's a mansion, but whatever. Semantics.
Narrator: "But deep in the cavernous basement of this house, in a chamber hewn from the living rock of the mountain, is the strange, dimly lighted, mysteriously secret Bat's Cave."
Trivia time! This is the origin of the Batcave. Or rather, the "Bat's Cave." And I don't mean that this was simply the first time it was shown onscreen, but the first time it was ever part of the Batman mythos. Just like the Superman radio show introduced the idea of "Kryptonite," so too did this serial introduce Batman's iconic lair.
Without this serial, my blog would have some other name. That's weird to think about.
Now, this serial was made during World War II. Film budgets in general were smaller back then, and WWII was primetime when it came to trying to save money. So the Bat's Cave is a spartan set, making up for its lack of decoration with an attempt at atmosphere. Atmosphere on a budget, that is. Which mostly consists of a couple of stagehands projecting the shadows of bat puppets on strings onto the wall.
As for the decorations... well, the torches and bat-emblem match the decor. The fancy mahogany desk, as much as I like it, does not.
|A fancy mahogany desk with a surprising absence of guano stains.|
Narrator: "Yes, Batman, clad in the somber costume..."
"Somber costume" is basically a contradiction in terms, especially when that's the costume in question. Even Adam West wore a more "somber" costume than that.
I look at this out-of-shape guy in a floppy costume, and I don't see "winged avenger of the night."
|I see somebody whose main superpower is "come ober da house."|
Narrator: "...which has struck terror to the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld."
The superstitious, swaggering lot.
Narrator: "Batman, who even now is pondering a plan of a new assault against the forces of crime."
I'll bet ten bucks that his plan boils down to "punch people."
Narrator: "A crushing blow against evil in which he will have the valuable aid of his young, two-fisted assistant, Robin the Boy Wonder."
That is the standard number of fists, yes.
As the narrator continues, we get a montage of Batman and Robin (Douglas Croft) going around punching fedora-clad mooks.
Narrator: "They represent American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it."
Um... okay? I kind of thought Batman fought crime to rid Gotham of the corruption that led to his parents' death at the hands of a mugger?
|Also, Batman is jumping from car to car to punch more people. No joke here; it's just an impressive stunt.|
Ah, yes, the "Axis of Evil."
During World War II, this is how America referred to its enemies, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. So I assume that Batman and Robin are going to punch some Nazis? Sounds good to me! Bonus points if they punch Hitler in the face!
The montage ends as Batman and Robin exit their car to phone the cops up from a convenient police telephone on the street corner.
|Wait, we had those in America? I thought those things only
existed in the UK.|
And to a greater extent, Doctor Who.
As much as I'd love to imagine that Batman's calling up the future Mr. Freeze, this is just Wilson's thick Boston accent. Remember, the idea of doing a "Batman voice" wasn't really a thing before Michael Keaton came along. And he wouldn't even be born for about eight years, yet.
Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson) answers the phone, and Batman informs him that there's a "nice little package" waiting for the cops at the corner of First and Maple. As the police get themselves around, Batman ties up a couple of thugs around a lamppost while one of the thugs tries to threaten the Caped Crusader.
Thug: "I'm warning you. Dr. Daka will make you regret this."
Thug 2: "Shut up!"
Batman: "Dr. Daka? Who's that?"
Thug: "Never mind. You'll find out."
Robin can't wait to see the look on Captain Arnold's face, but Batman's in a hurry to get going.
Batman: "Don't forget, I've got a date."
As Robin drives off, the cops arrive to find the two thugs cuffed together. And on their foreheads, the thugs carry the mark of the Batman.
|Drawn in the finest Bat-Sharpie because you couldn't brand people in movies.|
Linda: "You've had your usual busy day, I suppose."
Bruce Wayne: "Yep. Up at the crack of noon, a brisk walk to the corner, and then to the club for a rugged afternoon of gin rummy."
|"And that's why the club is now out of gin and rum."|
|"That's not how you play gin rummy."|
|"That's not how you play gin rummy."|
Who the heck is Uncle Martin?
|Could be, for all we know so far.|
Linda: "It'll mean so much to him to know that he still has his friends despite all that trouble he was in."
Who? What trouble?
Bruce Wayne: "Only do me a favor, let's not start too early. I'm always tired in the morning."
Okay, this is all a little confusing, since these two are being a bit vague with the details. I mean, yeah, I can get the gist, but the character dynamics are going over my head. But I went ahead and looked up a synopsis, so here you go: Linda's uncle, Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire), is scheduled to be released from prison (for as-of-yet-undisclosed crimes) tomorrow, and Linda's going to go with Bruce and Dick to pick him up from the joint.
I've got to say, I have a new appreciation for characters telling each other things they already know. Sure, it's a cheap narrative device when you have them say "As you know...", but it beats wondering what in the heck the characters are talking about.
Anyway, as Linda heads into the other room, Dick tells Bruce that he's being a little heavy-handed with his millionaire playboy act. Clearly, he hasn't seen Christian Bale swimming around in a decorative pool.
Dick: "Why don't you let her know who you really are instead of letting her think you're just a good-for-nothing playboy?"
Bruce Wayne: "Well, if she knew I was the Batman, she might worry. Not that she cares anything about me."
So... is she your girlfriend? Or is she just your secretary that you routinely sexually harass because it's the 1940s?
Bruce Wayne: "Besides, on account of our special assignment from Uncle Sam, our success depends on keeping our identities a secret."
Yes, Batman is a federal agent in this serial because... well, a couple of reasons.
The 1960s Batman TV show officially deputized Batman as an officer of the law because "vigilante" clashed with his squeaky-clean image there. Here, Batman has become a federal agent so they can turn him into a more... well, patriotic hero. Making Batman a federal agent eliminates any ambiguity and places him firmly on the side of the angels. Or at least, Uncle Sam.
Dick: "And suppose she asks you against your status in the army?"
Bruce Wayne: "Well, I can always tell her I'm a 4-F."
Didn't stop Captain America.
Anyway, Linda comes out with her hat and coat, so they all head outside to find paperboys on the street yelling at people to READ ALL ABOUT IT since the Batman captured the Collins gang. Bruce buys one, and they all read about his exploits while Linda gushes over the vigilante for a bit.
Bruce Wayne: "Oh, I think he's a showoff."
Linda: "Oh, everybody that does anything is a showoff to you."
Bruce Wayne: "I can do things too. I'll show you. I'll call for you tomorrow and take you to meet your uncle no matter how early you want to leave. Even if it's before noon."
But the next day, it seems as though Bruce and Linda aren't there quite early enough to see Uncle Martin's release. But there are a few mobsters in a car by the prison gates who are more than willing to give him a ride. Especially the one named Foster, who recognizes Martin as his old cellmate.
The mobsters make their offer, but Martin tells them that he's waiting for his niece. So they quickly lie that she couldn't make it and claim to have came along to take Martin to her. Martin, who decides not to ask why Linda has apparently fallen in with a gang, goes along willingly with them as they pass Bruce Wayne's 1939 Cadillac.
Martin: "That looked like my niece in that car!"
But the mobsters make it very clear that Martin ain't going nowhere. As they take him to an undisclosed location, the guards back at the prison inform Linda that her uncle left already. So she tells Bruce that Martin must have left in that sedan they just passed on the way here. So they decide to follow after it.
Alfred (William Austin) takes the car around to follow after the mobsters' black sedan, which doesn't go unnoticed. So the mobsters speed up until they're out of sight before executing a pretty slick maneuver. The car has a switch on the dash that not only flips around the license plate to have a different number, but it also releases a gas that changes the color of the car from black to white.
|In all honesty, this is a pretty amazing effect. Especially for the time.|
Alfred puts his foot down on the gas, but he can't seem to catch up to the car after losing sight of it. And since there are no side roads, it seems as though the car has simply vanished.
Linda: "Well, I guess the only thing to do is to go back to the hospital and wait for him to phone me."
Hospital? The Gotham City Foundation is a hospital? Then what's Bruce Wayne doing there? Is Linda his girlfriend? Or does Bruce Wayne work at a hospital? Is Bruce Wayne a doctor?
I can follow along with the plot so far, but some of these plot points could use a bit more setup.
Maybe the narrator in the next scene can clear some stuff up for me. Lay your wisdom on me, narrator!
Narrator: "This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs...."
|Excuse me one moment, I seem to have spat my drink on the screen.|
It's bad enough that you had to refer to Japanese-Americans by a slur, narrator, but you went out of your way to praise the internment camps?
What the Hell, Batman? What the actual Hell is going on?
|"It was a different..."|
Don't give me that crap. "Different time" my foot. You didn't see Casablanca or Citizen Kane cramming in praise for the internment camps. And Casablanca even dealt with World War II! And you're one to talk, seeing as how the network added Batgirl to your show in Season 3 because they didn't want you to flirt with a black Catwoman.
|"Hey, if they would have let me flirt with her, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Eartha Kitt. Rowr."|
|"You have a point. But allow me to say three words that should put things in perspective."|
|"Holy Terror, Batman."|
|"Now do your thing."|
|"No. Ramble on."|
Just in case, this is your official trigger warning. Just scroll down until you see a picture of a cat.
Now, world history is as fascinating as it is complex, so forgive me if I gloss over a few things in the interest of staying on topic.
The Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 made America understandably upset, to say the least. It was the largest single attack against American soil at the time, and it completely shattered the illusion that America could isolate itself from the conflicts of the rest of the world. As much as America loves Army Knives, we're not Switzerland.
But once the attack jumpstarted America's involvement in the second World War, America's propaganda machine started getting the country fired up for war by demonizing the Germans and Japanese. And to a bit of a lesser extent, the Italians.
This demonization unfortunately led to one of America's most infamous and regrettable acts since the guy on the twenty-dollar bill gave us the Trail of Tears: the establishment of America's own internment camps. Yes, that thing that Nazis also did. Basically, it was done to ensure that if any of them had any loyalty to Japan over America, they wouldn't be able to do anything to betray the U.S. of A.
Today, the camps are seen as a stain on American history, and were even questioned back then. But that's the power of fear and hate at work. And the hate, fear, and Anti-Japanese sentiment spread everywhere. Including Batman serials, it would seem.
Sure, the narrator's casual racism seems shocking... but it wasn't the last time racism and Batman were going to go hand-in-hand.
After the 9/11 attacks (which also shattered America's illusions of inherent safety), anti-Muslim sentiment began to fester within the United States the same way that anti-Japanese sentiment did decades prior. So infamous misogynist, racist, and occasional writer/artist Frank "Sin City" Miller decided to write a comic where Batman "kicks al Qaeda's ass," in his own words.
Thing is, while Frank Miller has written a couple iconic Batman tales, the man's work has declined in quality over the years. Even if you agreed with his politics, the fact remained that his art and storytelling wasn't what it once was.
The good news is that other writers and artists stated in no uncertain terms that Miller's idea seemed less like supporting the War on Terror and more like torture porn demonizing an entire ethnicity. Mainly because all Frank Miller seemed to want to discuss was how many Muslims Batman was going to beat up. And hoo boy, it was going to be a lot of them. Grant Morrison in particular went on record stating that if Frank Miller really wanted to fight for his beliefs, then he should join the army, rather than write his little uber-violent fantasy.
Frank Miller did not end up completing Holy Terror, Batman. Technically. He claims that it was because he realized it wasn't a story that would fit Batman's character. And yet, he went on to create thinly-disguised versions of the Batman characters and release it as simply Holy Terror. So more likely, DC stepped in and decided not to go ahead with the story.
In the end, while this serial's casual racism is undeniably horrible, it wouldn't really be the last time this sort of thing happened. The difference now is that, generally speaking, the people at DC Comics now know better than to sprinkle Batman's adventures with racially-motivated hate, leaving it to the pages of independently-created works.
And at the very least, I'm thankful that the narrator won't be praising the internment camps after this point on. Seriously, what the Hell?
|And now, here's a picture of a cat to cheer us all up.|
Carny: "Plus one cent tax for Uncle Sam."
God, I'm really starting to wish that they'd just shut up about America.
Don't get me wrong, though. I like living in America. I don't take my luxuries for granted, like clean water, the ability to exercise free speech with this blog, my right to refuse to quarter soldiers in my home, et cetera. It's just that the internment camp reference really rubbed me the wrong way and I'm getting sick of this 1940s jingoism.
Mainly, it's not even well-written jingoism. And even that wouldn't be so bad if it were cheesy and overdone to the point of being unintentionally funny. But the way they cram it in, they might as well just replace the background music with chants of "USA! USA!"
Anyway, the mobsters from earlier drive up and take Martin on a little ride into the Cave of Horrors, past a bunch of wax dummies dressed up as Japanese soldiers keeping American soldiers in cages, and aiming bayonets at wax dummies of white women, just so this serial can further demonize Asians.
|...You see what I mean when I say they're just cramming it in?|
I'm really starting to hate this serial. God, I feel like I should be wearing a safety pin just to watch this.
The mobsters exit the ride when they get to the wax dummy that's really a real man in disguise, guarding a secret door.
|"It's a living."|
Voice: "Come in, Mr. Warren."
Oh, crap, that's an attempt at a Japanese accent.
Yes, this is the aforementioned Dr. Tito Daka, played by J. Carroll Naish.
Though the character is supposed to be Japanese (and a Fu Manchu ripoff), "Tito Daka" is in no way a Japanese name. Neither is J. Carroll Naish, for that matter. J. Carroll Naish is a white guy in Asian makeup doing his best Charlie Chan impression.
|Which was originally just a joke before I discovered that Naish later made a living by playing Charlie Chan on TV.|
So this means that this serial does have something in common with the Doctor Who episode that used the N-word. Michael Gough played the titular "Celestial Toymaker." "Celestial" was an old euphemism for "Asian," and he wore an Asian-inspired getup.
|Thankfully, he did not perform in yellowface makeup.|
|That would have to wait until "The Talons of Weng-Chiang."|
Dr. Daka: "The League of the New Order extends a cordial welcome to an honored guest."
Well, at least he's a polite Fu Manchu ripoff.
Dr. Daka: "A group of men all dishonah'd like yoahself."
Dr. Daka spent some time in Brooklyn, by the sound of things.
Martin: "But I'm not a criminal. I was convicted, yes, and sent to prison. But if the truth were known...."
Dr. Daka: "Da fact remains that you have been dishonah'd. Exactly like our friend Mr. Fletcheh here. An excellent architect, brilliant engineer, except that some of his buildings did not quite come up to... specifications."
So... he's actually a terrible architect, then.
Dr. Daka introduces the other mustachioed villains real quick, but Martin just wants to know why they want him.
Dr. Daka: "I am Dr. Daka, humble servant of His Majesty Hirohito, Heavenly Ruler and Prince of the Rising Sun."
Enough with the resume; answer his question.
Dr. Daka: "By divine destiny, my country shall destroy the democratic forces of evil in the United States to make way for the New Order."
Hey, you know what? Point to this serial for having Dr. Daka see himself as the hero of the story, as opposed to having him refer to himself as an evil Japanese mastermind who hates freedom and eats puppies.
Dr. Daka: "An order that will bring about the liberation of de enslaved people of America."
Somebody should probably tell him that he's a little late to be fighting the Civil War.
Dr. Daka: "Each of these men- dishonah'd by yoah corrupt form of government- is a specialist in his line and has been especially selected by me to execute the orders I receive from Tokyo. We need an industrialist to round out our circle."
Gotta catch 'em all!
Dr. Daka: "If you cooperate with us willingly, you shall share in the glorious victory soon to be owahs."
And there's really no choice in the matter, since Dr. Daka claims he can "compel" Martin to join their cause.
Martin: "Listen, Daka... or whatever your name is."
No, you got it right.
Martin: "I owe my allegiance to no country or order but my own. I'm an American first and always! And no amount of torture conceived by your twisted Oriental brain will make me change my mind!"
You had to play the race card.
But instead of torture, Dr. Daka brings out Martin's former partner, who has been reduced to a mindless shell of a man hooked up to some kind of array.
Martin: "What have you done to him?"
Dr. Daka: "Deprived him of his ability to think."
Too many joke opportunities with that line.
Dr. Daka: "I have converted him into a zombie."
This was back when "zombies" referred to people under hypnotic command as opposed to the walking dead.
Dr. Daka: "You will notice the metal headpiece from which a wiah leadsh to da spine."
|"Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but...."|
Dr. Daka: "Mistah Warren, you are one of the men who endowed the Gotham City Foundation, therefore, you should be able to give me the information which I need."
After Dr. Daka squirts the serum into Martin's veins, he shakes the guy's head and smacks him a couple times before asking how much radium the Gotham City Foundation has.
Martin: "Several grams."
Dr. Daka: "Where do they keep it?"
Martin: "In a safe behind a picture in Dr. Borden's dispensary."
Martin doesn't know the combination, so they lock him up while Dr. Daka schemes to steal the radium. As Dr. Daka demonstrates to his partners, the New Order's secret weapon is a radium-powered lightning gun that uses the power of atom-smashing to break even solid blocks of concrete to pieces, with the debris having the consistency of that green foam they put fake plants in.
If they get more radium, they can make an even bigger weapon and use it to take over America. So in order to get that radium, Dr. Daka sends a few thugs to the Foundation to use the lightning gun to break into the safe. I'm just wondering why Japan isn't mining the heck out of their radium hot springs to create a battalion of soldiers armed with these things. How do they expect to stay on par with the stuff HYDRA's been making for Nazi Germany?
But speaking of the Gotham City Foundation, Linda is having a minor freak-out over the fact that Martin hasn't called her phone in the office yet.
Linda: "If you'd gotten up a bit earlier this morning, we would've been there in time to meet him."
Bruce Wayne: "From now on, I'm turning over a new leaf. I'm going to be very dependable."
She doesn't believe his sudden change of heart, but he insists. Even so, she kicks him and Dick out so she can finish her typing before Dr. Borden, her boss, gets back. But before Bruce leaves, he suggests that Linda could call up the prison guards to ask who the men in the car were.
Bruce Wayne: "See? I'm beginning to be dependable already."
Linda starts dialing as two of Daka's men drive over with one of the super-strong zombies riding along in the back as a secret weapon. By the time the camera cuts back to Linda, she's hanging up the phone, having just finished a fruitless conversation with somebody at the prison.
Bruce and Dick leave her to her business as Daka's men arrive. Our heroes spot Daka's men just before they leave, and recognize them as the gangsters that drove off with Uncle Martin. Bruce and Dick hop into the convertible and instruct Alfred to drive into a nearby alleyway and put the top up so they can change. I guess there were no nearby phone booths.
|Of course, that doesn't stop Bruce from getting the cowl out in broad daylight.|
Dr. Borden holds out his hand for an amiable shake, but his zombie buddy grabs him by the neck instead.
|Handshakes, strangling, it's easy to get the two confused.|
Suddenly, Batman awkwardly crashes through the window, setting up the big fight scene to end the episode on. The film speeds up a bit to make things more exciting as a chase ensues through the halls, culminating in a rooftop scuffle between the Caped Crusader and the lightning gun-wielding villains. But it quickly devolves into mere fisticuffs as Linda comes to and calls the cops.
One of Daka's men, disguised as a laundry truck driver, makes off with the radium as Daka sends his zombie a radio signal to make him leap down off the roof. One of Daka's other henchmen apparently thinks that Batman should join him down there, so he gives the Dark Knight a solid shove.
|If only bats could fly, huh?|
And as Batman plummets down from the roof, the episode ends.
See you then! Same Bat-time, same Bat-blog!