May 1, 2015

Review: Batman (1943)

In 2015, superhero movies are inescapable. Even that crazy old lady down the street knows who Iron Man is these days. We got Avengers: Age of Ultron as the continuing conglomeration of Marvel's superheroes into one film being released very shortly and next year we'll be getting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice which very obviously includes two of DC's most popular. That's not even counting all the solo movies that we've had like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Man of Steel. Superhero movies are a fact of life now, so just accept it.

We've come so far and superheroes are clearly not just for the "nerds" anymore. Going back in time, Bob Kane and Bill Finger came up with the concept for "the Bat-Man" in 1939 following the success of Superman. Making his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May, Batman eventually got his own solo comic in 1940. It wouldn't be too much longer before he got his first film treatment. It's true, this 15-part Batman serial produced by Columbia Pictures may be more than easy to laugh at now, but it's still a piece of history that would only be the start for a character who has become a cultural icon.

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At a Glance


Genre: action, adventure, crime
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Produced by: Rudolph C. Flothow
Written by: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser
Music by: Lee Zahler
Running time: 260 minutes
Production company: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Columbia Pictures Proprietary, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: N/A
Box office: N/A

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Robert Fiske, Knox Manning, Frank Austin, George Chesebro, Kenne Duncan, Jerry Frank, Gus Glassmire, Karl Hackett, Al Hill, Earle Hodgins, I. Stanford Jolley, Eddie Kane, Charles C. Wilson, Cyril Ring, Harry Tenbrook, Anthony Warde

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Synopsis


In Gotham City, a Japanese scientist named Dr. Tito Daka or Prince Daka (J. Carrol Naish) is fighting a secret war against the United States on behalf of Emperor Hirohito. With advanced weapons like a radium gun that can break through practically anything and a device capable of transforming people in obedient zombies, Daka would appear to be unstoppable. For regular law enforcement that is. Bruce Wayne's alter ego Batman (Lewis Wilson) and his crime-fighting partner Robin (Douglas Croft) aren't regular law enforcement though.

Review


Batman is divided up into 15 "episodes" that run between 15-20 minutes and go like this:  
  1. The Electrical Brain
  2. The Bat's Cave
  3. The Mark of the Zombies
  4. Slaves of the Rising Sun
  5. The Living Corpse
  6. Poison Peril
  7. The Phoney Doctor
  8. Lured by Radium
  9. The Sign of the Sphinx
  10. Flying Spies
  11. A Nipponese Trap
  12. Embers of Evil
  13. Eight Steps Down
  14. The Executioner Strikes
  15. The Doom of the Rising Sun 

Going over the intricacies of each episode would be a little too much I think, so I'll just be giving a general overview of the entire serial. To begin, the format of each part is comically identical besides the final one. Daka comes up with a plan as he's trying to get ahead in the war for his "New Order" and Batman always manages to make things difficult for him. It always ends with a clumsy fight for Batman and Robin versus Daka's henchmen which then leads to a cliffhanger with the narrator (Knox Manning) telling you to tune in next week. It's all pretty ridiculous in this day and age, but I can imagine there being people who looked forward to seeing if Batman would escape his impossible situation.

Let's begin with Batman the character. While it's pretty clear that 23 year-old Lewis Wilson isn't in the best of shape, he looks like Bruce Wayne. I'm not a comic book expert, but I think the way he carries himself as Bruce feels very right. Once he dons the bunny-eared Batman mask though, there's definitely a lack of intimidation there. Wilson's Bostonian accent rears its head up at times which also feels a little strange. Still, this 1943 imagining of Batman is really not as bad as I would've thought. 

Robin the boy wonder is a bit of a joke though. How tiny is Douglas Croft anyway? Well, he's supposed to be young I guess, but it's hard to imagine a character like Robin being all that useful in a tight spot. Robin saves Batman more than you'd expect though. It's still a definite stretch to believe that he's able to fight all of Daka's henchmen without getting so much as a black eye. While he gets beat on no more than Batman does, the fact that he's somehow able to knock over men with his punches is hard to believe. It's just simple physics. I suppose the bad guys all just shocked at being attacked by a little man wearing a weird costume.

While you might think that having Robin around would be a handicap for Batman, it somehow isn't. Robin is just as involved in the fights Batman gets into as I said and he proves his worth multiple times. He still doesn't pass the eye test though and no way does actor Douglas Croft get away with calling Bruce "Broce" after having stopped an elevator from crushing him either. I also don't understand how Bruce's fiancée Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) doesn't think it strange to have little Dick Grayson hanging around Bruce all the time. It's just really weird.


When it comes to Linda Page, she's pretty much like any other poorly written and outdated female character. She seems frustratingly OK with Bruce Wayne mistreating her by doing things like always showing up late with lame excuses such as spending time with Dick Grayson and forgetting about their date. It's got to be the money taking right? Still, Lewis Wilson gets the playboy act down pretty well I guess.

Linda Page screams, screeches, faints and she forgives. That's pretty much all her character does. Oh, well she also does represent a potential risk to Bruce since Daka intelligently draws a connection between Linda and Batman. When it comes to Alfred Pennyworth (William Austin) though, he provides most of the comedic relief of Batman and there are some legitimately amusing scenes with him actually. Austin's Alfred even inspired the look of the character in later versions of the comic book which is also pretty cool.

The true star of Batman however is J. Carrol Naish's Dr. Daka. Believe me when I say that racism just drips off his skin. Despite that, I can't tell you just how funny it really is unless you actually see him in action. No one should be offended by outdated racism like this anymore, especially given just how ridiculous it is to have a white actor pretend to be Japanese with nothing but makeup and an uneven attempt at a Japanese accent. I couldn't help but laugh at the way characters talk to him either, such as calling him nice things like a "Jap" devil and murderer. This was serious business in 1943 during World War II, but I think that we can laugh at how ridiculous it all was now in 2015.

I will say that it's pretty impressive what Batman's writers are able to pack into 15-20 minutes. The episodes may follow the same recipe every time, but that becomes something of a comfort the more you watch. I can't make any excuses for the action which is pretty poor. Fights come off as clumsy and completely lacking in any kind of choreography or direction. The Phoney Doctor sticks out in my mind as actually having the best fight scene in the film. There's a moment in the climactic fight of the episode where Batman actually blocks a punch and then instantly counters with a punch of his own. Simple right? Once you put it alongside all the rest of the ineptitude though, it's a masterstroke of action perfection. No joke, I literally said "Wow!" to myself when I saw it.

The easiest way to describe Batman is that it's really, really silly. There are all sorts of impossibilities that make the plot advance such as dropping a package out of a plane by breaking the glass of the bathroom window and having Daka's henchmen unfailingly make the mistake of assuming that Batman is dead. You just have to accept this serial for what it is. Its low budget production values and overt racism make it even more entertaining today than it probably ever was. Saying that it's worlds away from the dark, grittiness of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is an understatement. But it's like looking at the first commercially available Android phone and then comparing it to Samsung's newest Galaxy S6. The HTC Dream is just adorable now.

This 1943 Batman serial is not the greatest adaptation of Batman I've ever seen. Far, far from it. I still can't deny that it kept my interest the whole way through despite having such a mind numbingly repetitive formula. The costumes, the special effects, the editing...pretty much everything is underwhelming. Despite trying so hard and failing quite miserably, Batman manages to be funny legitimately, but mostly inadvertently which still counts for something I think. Batman is a relic of superhero movies and it deserves to be treated as such.

Rating

6/10

Related Reviews:

Batman and Robin (1949)
Batman: The Movie (1966) 
Batman (1989) 
Batman Returns (1992)