It’s hard to imagine a Batman show before the famous, campy portrayal of the caped crusader in 1966, starring Adam West in the titular role of Batman, but believe it or not, there was at least two film serials about Batman before the popular 60’s show.
The first of these serials was ‘The Batman’ in 1943 with Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, which ran for 15 chapters (episodes) and saw the crime fighting duo wrangle with an original villain only seen in the serial known as Dr. Daka, a secret agent of the Japanese Imperial government.
The second serial was ‘Batman and Robin’ in 1949 which also ran with 15 chapters, but had a new cast to take on the characters. In this serial, Batman, along with his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, is portrayed by Robert Lowery, with his ward and sidekick Robin being portrayed by John Duncan.
The success of these two serials paved the way for the more famous adaptation of Batman in 1966, so it was certainly something I wanted to check out.
Similar to it’s predecessor, this serial doesn’t give us Batman and Robin fighting anyone from their usual rogue gallery, and instead gives us a completely unique villain made just for this story. In 1943 we had Dr. Daka, and in 1949 we have ‘The Wizard’, along with all of his goons.
Instead of the usual Wayne Manor we’re used to in these stories, it seems that Batman, or rather Bruce Wayne, lives in a suburban neighbourhood in Gotham, which is less of a city and more of a suburban countryside, with plenty of open roads, cliffs and lots of buildings in the middle of nowhere to hide out. However, one thing that remains the same, is that Bruce hides a secret Bat-Cave beneath his home, where he carries out his investigations.
The Wizard, as he’s known, is a mysterious masked villain who has stolen a piece of machinery that is deadly in the wrong hands. Though there are multiple suspects, Batman and Robin, with the help of Commissioner Gordon and reporter Vicki Vale will unveil the truth.
The good, the bad and the cheesy:
As you may suspect from a serial from the 40’s/50’s, this show is rather cheesy and over the top by today’s standards. Though it is without a doubt, entertaining. Clearly filmed with a low budget, there are few sets and costumes that don’t exactly fit our heroes.
The action is certainly a sight to behold with the hilarious acting of throwing punches away from faces and rolling around pretending to be thrown to the ground. You can’t help but laugh at this show these days, but you have to remember, this was somewhat revolutionary back in the day, but if you watch this show now, be prepared to see a very different version of the crime fighting duo than you’re used to. There are no gadgets in the utility belts, not even bat-shark-repellent! There’s also no grappling hooks or walking up the side of buildings. The majority of the scenes take place on solid ground, either in a car or on foot.
Speaking of cars, where would Batman be without his trusty Batmobile? Well, in this serial, it’s not so much a Batmobile, because it’s simply an average 1949 Mercury Convertible, which they even use whilst in the guises of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, with the only difference being the roof. Whilst driving as the crime fighting duo, the roof is up, but if they’re driving as their alter-ego’s the roof is down.
This show, as many were at the time, is very male heavy with it’s casting, since Jane Adams is the only female in the entirety of the 15 chapters. Jane portrays photographer and reporter Vicki Vale, who we see investigate the case as well as eventually getting kidnapped, because the female of the show must be a damsel in distress despite her otherwise empowering role, proving that she is brave enough to go after the story on her own, without the need of male help at first.
You can tell this show is low budget as there are very few ‘special effects’. I’m not saying there should be loads of special effects but even the Superman serial (1948) had the protagonist evolve into a cartoon when they wanted to portray him flying, which at the time I assume was ground-breaking effects. In Batman and Robin however, the most you’ll get from effects are faded overlays such as the Bat-signal, which apparently works in broad daylight, as well as a few drawn on bolts to show an electric current or shock, as seen in the image below.
The Bat-signal as mentioned, works in broad daylight, but also instead of being a large light on the roof of the GCPD headquarters, it is in fact a small light on projector with wheels, that Commissioner Gordon can wheel over to the window to set up and signal the crime fighting duo of trouble.
Whilst it is cheesy, over the top and some may even find it hard to watch these days, if you have no appreciation for the classics, this serial is certainly an interesting watch for anyone wanting to take a look back at some of the earlier portrayals of the famous Batman!
It’s got the usual narration at the beginning and end of each chapter that says “Last time…this happened” in the beginning of the chapter or “Will they get out of this? Find out next time!” at the end of the chapters.
If you have an appreciation for the classics and what to see how it all began with Batman on television, then I would actually recommend you watch this along with the previous serial that I mentioned in the intro. It’s certainly interesting.
Batman and Robin is available to watch on Amazon Prime UK