The Batathon Begins – Batman (1943)

A convergence of several recent events put me in the mood to start a Batman marathon. I’m not sure exactly how far I expect to go with this, as DC Comics’ famed Caped Crusader has of course been the subject of numerous movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games, and more over the decades (not to mention countless comic books), and I have neither the time nor the patience to cover them all. Entire web sites have been devoted to that. Yet I am still interested to trace the evolution of the character, and it strikes me that the best way to do that is to start with his first screen appearance in the 1943 movie serial called, simply enough, Batman.

The idea of doing this marathon was inspired by three things: the latest theatrical reboot for the franchise (The Batman starring Robert Pattinson) earlier this year, recent news of parent company Warner Bros. unceremoniously scrapping the nearly-completed Batgirl spinoff film after spending $90 million on it, and a nice sale that allowed me to pick up the 4K Ultra HD box set of the 1989-1997 movie series for half price. Having bought new copies of those movies, I felt I needed an excuse to actually watch them. That led me to think about going back even further to earlier versions of Batman, and here we are, at the very beginning of his screen adventures.

Batman (1943) - Batman's got a ray gun!
Year of Release: 1943
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Watched On: Tubi
Also Available On:DVD

Batman as a character first appeared in Detective Comics in May of 1939 and quickly became a breakout hit, taking over as lead in that title and scoring another under his own name. His young sidekick Robin was added a year later. While early depictions were a bit rudimentary, most of the core components of Batman mythology had been established by the time of his first screen adaptation in 1943.

Comic books were still mainly considered kiddie fare in the 1940s, and the notion of spending a lot of money to make a movie based on one must have seemed absurd to any of the Hollywood studios. Batman’s first big screen outing was not a flashy blockbuster, but rather a budget-conscious movie serial that played to mostly afternoon matinee audiences in 15- to 30-minute segments over the course of 15 weeks. In form, such serials had more in common with later TV shows than with feature films.

Serials eventually fell out of fashion after television caught on, and many of them lapsed into obscurity in the Public Domain. That may not necessarily be the case with the 1943 Batman, originally produced by Columbia Pictures. As far as I can tell, ownership rights still reside with Sony (Columbia’s current owner), which released it on DVD in 2005 and licensed it out to Mill Creek Entertainment for a DVD reissue in 2014.

Given what a cultural icon Batman would become and how relevant (and profitable) the character remains to this day, you might expect that his first live-action adaptation would merit a serious restoration effort and preservation on the highest quality media, at the very least in high-definition. Watching even a few minutes of it, however, may shed some light on why there hasn’t been much enthusiasm to embark on such a project. In addition to all of its other expected flaws – in production value, acting, or storytelling – the 1943 Batman is quite bracingly and unapologetically racist.

Batman (1943) - Dr. Daka

Produced during the height of World War II, the Batman serial positions the Caped Crusader not as a vigilante crimefighter, but as an authorized agent of the U.S. government tasked with combating the intrusion of Axis powers onto American soil. Within moments of the first episode starting, the voiceover narrator drops a strong racial epithet I won’t quote here, and similar language is uttered regularly throughout the film by many characters, including Batman himself.

The villain of the piece doesn’t come from Batman’s comic book Rogues Gallery, but is rather a newly-invented character called Dr. Daka, an evil Japanese mastermind played by white actor J. Carroll Naish in offensive yellowface makeup. He speaks with a caricatured accent that veers loosely between Japanese, Chinese, and other generically Asian stereotypes. A later episode around the middle also features a brief appearance by an allegedly “Indian” (meaning Native American) gas station attendant who recites cringeworthy Tonto-style dialogue such as, “Me Steve. What you want?” and (when asked about a character named Dr. Colton) “Me know Colton. Me no see Colton.”

Sadly, traits like this are common to too many works from the period. In that respect, this Batman is a regrettable artifact of its era. Although I would not ask for it to be censored (early VHS editions cut out or dubbed over some of the more problematic dialogue), a modern viewer will need to make allowances for aspects that have aged poorly and are no longer considered acceptable. I can understand why a studio with a Japanese parent company would hesitate to embrace it.

Batman (1943) - Mind Control Contraption

If you can get past that, the serial sees layabout playboy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) don costumes to become Batman and Robin, the masked heroes who protect Gotham City from threats the regular authorities can’t handle. Mostly, they accomplish this by punching everyone in sight. Both characters are depicted as enthusiastic brawlers who eagerly throw themselves into fights where they would seem outmatched. Sometimes they win, but a lot of times they get knocked down and allow the bad guys to escape.

In this adventure, the nefarious Dr. Daka – working in collusion with American mobsters – uses mind-control technology to turn innocent citizens into zombie slaves. Bruce gets tipped off to this when his girlfriend Linda (Shirley Patterson) repeatedly insists that her uncle has gone missing. Despite his condescending assurances that the woman is being a silly worrywart, Bruce and Dick suit up to investigate, kidnap a mob henchman, and eventually discover that the uncle has become one of those mindless slaves. This leads them to unearth Daka’s plan to steal a supply of radium, which he will use to power a dangerous disintegrator ray gun that could cripple the American war effort.

The details of this plotting are interspersed with the occasional fight scene, car chase, or more ambitious set-piece that may involve military stock footage and a miniature plane model dangling on wires – all of which are sped up with undercranked photography to appear faster and more exciting. Those parts are very endearing. The interminable talking scenes between them, on the other hand, may try a viewer’s patience.

Unlike the later television Batman that would follow in a couple decades, the 1940s serial is not campy or comedic on purpose. Regardless, production values are amusingly low and the acting is stiff. The costumes and sets look cheap. The Batmobile is just an ordinary car, and driving scenes are all obviously photographed in front of rear projection screens. Those aspects have their charms.

Even beyond the brazen racism, the writing is mostly uninteresting. Bruce/Batman is written as a callous jerk who treats both his girlfriend Linda and butler Alfred (here played by William Austin as a doddering buffoon) poorly. The plot moves slowly and is very repetitive, likely designed that way on purpose so that audiences who missed an episode or two could catch up quickly.

None of this is to say that the serial is unwatchable. It still has some modest pleasures and is a fascinating stepping stone in the development of an iconic character. It also has one interesting idea, in that the villain suspects that “Batman” may actually be multiple people working for the same organization, all wearing the same costume. Comics would explore that concept many years later as Batman Incorporated.

In its day, this Batman was popular enough to spawn a sequel in 1949. Inspired by the fandom of Hugh Hefner, of all people, both serials were re-released unedited in 1965 for a marathon screening event called An Evening with Batman and Robin, the surprising success of which convinced 20th Century Fox to greenlight a new Batman series for television the following year.

Nevertheless, I must admit to struggling to get through the 1943 Batman. I often found my attention wandering to my phone. I don’t recommend trying to watch the whole thing in one sitting. Audiences of the time didn’t see it that way. It plays better broken into chunks of whatever size you find manageable.

Batman (1943) Movie Serial DVD

Video Streaming

As mentioned, the Batman serials were released on DVD a couple times, most recently by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2014. I don’t have those discs and, to be blunt, am not inclined to buy them. I can’t comment on their quality, but coming from a budget label like Mill Creek, I wouldn’t expect much.

For me, this is the type of thing where streaming will suffice, preferably free, even if I have to watch it with ads. That’s exactly how I found it on Tubi. I’m not sure if the DVD is the same way, but unfortunately the only streaming option has eliminated the original chapter breaks and credits to consolidate the entire serial into one over-long movie. This often makes it difficult to find a good stopping point. IMDb says that the serial should run 4 hours and 20 minutes, but the version on Tubi is only 3 hours 35 minutes. Either IMDb is wrong or more footage than just the credits is missing. I can’t speak to that, as this was my first viewing and likely my last. What I will say is that scene transitions are often jumpy and it wouldn’t surprise me if this version is incomplete.

That’s not the only problem. The serial is available only in lowly standard-definition resolution and looks like an ancient master. The 4:3 black-and-white image is very soft, transferred from worn-down film elements covered in scratches and other damage. The actors’ faces are often smudgy, and contrasts are frequently blown out.

The mono soundtrack is bright and abrasive. Dialogue is sometimes difficult to discern. Music (what little of it there is) warbles a little. I also experienced issues where the dialogue would lapse way out of sync with the picture. I’m not sure if that was a streaming problem or something endemic to the source. Stopping and restarting the stream didn’t help much.

Serials from this era were rarely well preserved. I couldn’t begin to speculate as to whether any decent source elements (much less the Original Camera Negative) for this one still exist. Even if they did, I doubt Sony has any interest in restoring it. In all, streaming the 1943 Batman on Tubi is watchable, but barely so. As a home theater snob, I wouldn’t want to waste many hours on my projector lamp for it, so I played most of it on a smaller TV instead.

Fans of the Caped Crusader will find this Batman serial of interest primarily as a historical artifact, more so than as a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed on its own merits. Even to that end, the strong racism is pretty hard to stomach. Thankfully, as the character matured, most of his later forms remain more palatable to watch today.

Batman & Robin (1949)

Addendum: Batman & Robin (1949)

I haven’t watched much of it and don’t intend to write a separate review, but I sampled the first episode of the the serial’s 1949 follow-up on Tubi as well. The sequel has the advantage of being presented in its original episodic form with all of the chapter breaks and credits. The video quality also appears to come from better condition source elements with less wear and tear. While still standard-defintion, the picture is a slight bit sharper and has better contrast.

Batman & Robin has a totally new cast and a noticeably lower budget. The actor playing Batman (Robert Lowery) looks comically pudgy in the costume. Wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne has moved out of his mansion in Gotham into a ranch house in the suburbs, and has a new girlfriend in reporter Vicki Vale (a character Tim Burton would bring back in 1989). The plot sees the Dynamic Duo facing off against a mad genius in possession of a device that can remotely control “anything that moves” (even people, we’re told!) from his cave hideaway that coincidentally looks just like the Batcave set. He needs diamonds to power the machine, and Batman must repeatedly foil his henchmen from stealing them.

I didn’t get very far into the serial, but the first episode doesn’t have any overt racism, beyond the unfortunate connotation of a major character who wears a hood and calls himself “The Wizard.” At least he’s clearly a villain!

Otherwise, most of the acting and writing is somehow even worse than the previous Batman, the pacing and story transitions are extremely jumpy, and the whole piece tries to disguise its dullness by smothering a non-stop wallpaper musical score over every scene. By the end of the episode, my patience had worn out and I decided to call it a day on these Batman serials.

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