(1943) ** 1/2 Unrated
260 min. Columbia Pictures.

The superheroic Batman made it to the silver screen for the first time in 1943, four years after the character's comic-book debut in the pages of Detective Comics (and five years before Superman's first live-action film). Like most serial adventures, Lambert Hillyer's 15-chapter Batman, was essentially run-of-the-mill, cheaply produced (by Rudolph C. Flothow) and flatly filmed with "B" talent. Since it was also a wartime serial, Batman is marred by "patriotic" racism levelled against the Japanese, personified by evil spy Dr. Daka. On balance, however, Columbia Pictures' Batman is just about as good as the next serial, which spells plenty of two-fisted fun.

The serial's opening moments embody the whole production. The requisite portentous serial music (here, by Lee Zahler) underscores credits followed by a cheesy narration that introduces Gotham City's much-needed vigilantes Batman and Robin: "They represent American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it. Wherever crime raises its ugly head to strike with the venom of a maddened rattlesnake, Batman and Robin strike also." The first sight of Batman on film depicts the caped and cowled crime-fighter brooding behind a desk in a cave shadowed by fluttering bats. The subterranean "Bat's Cave," as it's called in the serial, was adopted in the comics as a refinement of the hero's headquarters; ever since, the Batcave has been a part of the Batman mythos.

Quickly, though, this surprisingly forward-thinking conception yields to a more light-hearted, kid-friendly aesthetic, as Robin the Boy Wonder bounds into frame, and Batman—now grinning ear-to-ear—leaps into action. Lewis Wilson gives a sturdy performance as Batman, though the character's masked crimefighting comes off as generic serial heroism. Wilson strikes good notes as supposedly idle-rich Bruce Wayne, an avuncular, vacuous, and self-deprecating wisecracker, in counterpoint to his secret identity: the no-nonsense Batman. Better yet, Douglas Croft's Robin/Dick Grayson marks the only time a boy actor has ever played Robin the Boy Wonder on screen. Sixteen-year-old Croft looks and sounds the part, lending an authentic "gee whiz" manner to the stock teen sidekick character (he actually chirps, at one point, "Swell! Let's get into our outfits!").

It's best not to ask too many questions, or expect too much, of the simplistic plot. Wayne's gal pal Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) goes to meet her Uncle Martin in Chapter 1, but he's already been kidnapped by "the League of the New Order," disgraced businessman and underground underminers of American democracy (Linda's wooden response to Martin's disappearing act: "I can't understand his actions"). Dr. Daka (J. Carroll Naish) commands the conspirators, serving the Emperor by converting people into zombies with electrical brains, stealing radium to power an atom-smashing gun, and plotting to rid Gotham of the meddling Batman.

Serials are known for their unhurried pace and poor editing, and Batman is no exception, but each chapter ends dutifully with a nail-biting "cliffhanger," many of them fiery or explosive. Chapter One ends with Batman plummeting from the top floor of an office building ("Will Robin have to carry on the struggle alone?"), but of course, surely Batman will be back in "Chapter 2 of Batman at this theatre next week!" (it wouldn't do to keep calling the serial Batman without him, now would it?). In demonstration of the "cliffhanger"'s namesake, one chapter climaxes with Batman leaping from the Batmobile, clambering around, an armored car, and letting himself in by the passenger door; as he and the driver struggle, the car plunges over a cliffside. You've got to love the chapter that ends with a deathtrap perennial: walls, festooned with metal spikes, closing in on our hero.

Batman is no great shakes in the production design department (Wayne lives in a suburban house, and the "Batmobile" is a factory-stock 1939 Cadillac Series 61 Convertible), but some elements of the Batman universe appear and advance in the serial. As in the comics, Batman attaches to captured criminals notes to the police, signed with a Bat-symbol. The Bat-signal appears, sort of, in the form of a portable device used to scare crooks; other gadgetry includes pocket radios for Bruce and Dick. The secret Batcave door, disguised as a grandfather clock, became a staple image for Batman.

In character terms, Batman is mostly a benign do-gooder, but toughens up for the regular fisticuffs and an interrogation scene in which he threatens a thug with "our little pets" in the Bat's Cave. Batman's fearful image is supported by Daka's assertion that the skilled escape-artist must be "a magician or a devil!" Perhaps the most striking moment in all fifteen chapters comes when Batman, surrounded by flames, yells out for the presumably endangered Linda; his genuine concern betrays rare emotion for a serial, however unearned by Wilson and Patterson elsewhere in the story. Writers Victor McLeod & Leslie Swabacker & Harry Fraser are careful never to threaten the Boy Wonder in the cliffhangers, though he does get punched out in one scene and briefly brandishes a gun!

More of a chauffeur here than a butler, trusty Alfred (William Austin) has a leaner appearance than in the comics of the time; when the serial hit, the comic-book Alfred got a makeover to more closely resemble Austin in appearance and mien. Alfred anchors the serial's comic relief: in one scene, he's jumpy as he nervously reads a detective novel (in a bit of unintentional humor borne of the one-take nature of serials, Austin has trouble getting the car to start in one scene). The serial pays service to Master Bruce's mastery of disguise, and even Alfred gets to don a fake beard for one episode. No Commissioner Gordon yet: just Police Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson), who heads up an inept bunch that's ineffectual at trapping crooks or the spirited vigilantes.

The strongest impression is left by Naish, who wears a Colonel Sanders outfit and speaks in a dialect that's "Japanese" by way of Brooklyn. The barefaced racism includes Daka's hideout (hidden behind a "Japanese Cave of Horrors" amusement ride), references to "shifty-eyed Japs" and "the squint eye," and Daka's stereotypical catch-phrase "So sorry." Batman has his own unfortunate moments, exclaiming "Ah—a Jap!" and "Why, you Jap devil!" Naish's performance, though racist, lends color (pardon the pun) to the generally bland scenes between bursts of action. One scene is constructed of dueling propaganda between Daka ("You might as well try to stop the tides and the winds") and a patriotic resistor ("You underestimate the American will to fight, Daka!"). Another chapter depicts a Kamikaze-style sacrifice ("His mission is completed," says Daka. "He is very happy to die.") For the record, one chapter also includes a stereotypical "Indian" (Native American).

Overall, the two-plus hours make up a straight adventure story with laboratories, exotic technology, secret doors, spies, and fillips of humor (how can you not love Alfred saying to Bruce, "Splendid, sir! May I say that now you're cooking with gas!"). However thinly conceived, it is a detective story, and die-hard Batman fans will certainly get a kick out of it. Though stereotyping is unpleasant, the villainous Daka of 1943 can be mitigated by placement in his historical context. In its pulpy way, Batman is quite entertaining.

Chapter Titles: Chapter One: "The Electrical Brain"; Chapter Two: "The Bat's Cave"; Chapter Three: "Mark of the Zombies"; Chapter Four: "Slaves of the Rising Sun"; Chapter Five: "The Living Corpse"; Chapter Six: "Poison Peril"; Chapter Seven: "The Phony Doctor"; Chapter Eight: "Lured by Radium"; Chapter Nine: "The Sign of the Sphinx"; Chapter Ten: "Flying Spies"; Chapter Eleven: "A Nipponese Trap"; Chapter Twelve: "Embers of Evil"; Chapter Thirteen: "8 Steps Down"; Chapter Fourteen: "The Executioner Strikes"; Chapter Fifteen: "Doom of the Rising Sun".

NOTE: In 1965, Columbia re-released Batman to theatres, uncut, under the title An Evening with Batman and Robin.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1 Full Screen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono

Street date: 10/18/2005

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Batman's first-ever film appearance has never looked better on home video than it does in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's unexpurgated new DVD edition: Batman and Robin: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection. Chapters One through Seven reside on disc one, chapters Eight through Fifteen on disc two. Sony understandably decided against extras, but also boldly eschewed any contextualization of the racist WWII propaganda (congratulations are in order for this first official home video release that presents the complete film, but a warning is warranted for inattentive parents).

Given the film's age, the transfer is adequate, but variable by chapter (Chapter One looks the worst, with little contrast or detail, but the image improves significantly with the next chapter). Expect dirt and scratches, but short of a frame-by-frame digital touch-up, this is as good as it gets, with the helpful additions of close-captioning and conveniently encoded chapters to skip past the repeated title sequence for marathon viewing. The handsome keep-case packaging should appeal to fans of the brooding Dark Knight of today; hopefully, they'll know what they're in for with this genially heroic tale of yesteryear.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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