Batman (1943) poster

Batman (1943)

Rating:

USA. 1943.

Crew

Director – Lambert Hillyer, Screenplay – Harry Fraser, Victor McLeod & Leslie Swabacker, Based on the Comic Book Created by Bob Kane, Producer – Rudolph C. Flothow, Photography (b&w) – James S. Brown Jr, Music – Lee Zahler. Production Company – Columbia.

Cast

Lewis Wilson (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin/Dick Grayson), J. Carrol Naish (Prince Tito Daka), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred), Gus Glassmire (Martin Warren)


Plot

Millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, in their secret identities as the masked crimefighting duo Batman and Robin, take on Prince Tito Daka, a Japanese spy who is planning to subjugate the USA under Japanese rule. From his lair beneath an amusement park, Prince Tito unleashes his mind-controlled zombies.


This was the first of Columbia’s two Batman serials and was followed by the slightly better Batman and Robin (1949). Bob Kane’s Batman comic had only appeared a few years earlier (May 1939) but was brought to the screen for the first time here. For the substantial cinematic legacy that Batman has subsequently developed, this serial is an inauspicious screen debut.

The film is a dull and uninspired adaptation of the comic-book. It has a low-budget that is painfully evident and at times verges on the laughable – the Batcave, for example, consists of an unconvincing plaster cave wall and an old wooden office desk, while overhead the shadow of a bat flops about replete with the visible shadow of a wire. [In an interesting trivia note, it was this serial that introduced The Batcave, which of course subsequently became a regular fixture of the comic-book, albeit far more elaborated in design]. The film’s Batman, with his baggy overstuffed trunks and loosely flapping cape who drives about in an ordinary open-topped saloon car, is a far cry from the comic-book’s masked, caped figure whose image is designed to drive terror into the hearts of evil-doers. (Although, if anything, in comparison to the dark and gritty realism of the Batman films, a Batman with a loosely flapping and unsupported cape and crinkled hose is probably the far more realistic one).

Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) in Batman (1943)
Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft)

The cheapness of the exercise lends to many unintentional howlers – in one fight scene, Batman’s cape falls off but is back on in the next shot and then off again in a subsequent one; the action is mentioned several times as taking place in Gotham City yet a closeup on a letter addressed to Bruce Wayne clearly shows the city it is addressed to is Los Angeles. The sheer cheapness of this serial had it revived in the 1960s and marketed as a deliberate laugh-fest called An Evening with Batman and Robin – and this in turn inspired producer William Dozier to launch the Batman (1966-8) tv series and play the po-facedness of the character for laughs.

Batman is too dull a film to be entertainingly bad. The plot consists entirely of the perpetual McGuffin dramas that fill out serials – endless schemes to steal supplies of radium, obtain maps, kidnap the heroine who may have some piece of information, obtain vital devices and so on. Some episodes are wholly uneventful in terms of managing to advance the plot in any significant way. The cliffhangers are thoroughly routine – one of them where Batman appears to be thrown into a pit of alligators, takes nearly half the subsequent episode to explain how he survived. As Batman, Lewis Wilson manages to be sufficiently curt and decisive, but as Bruce Wayne he comes across as lazily smug. Douglas Croft plays Dick/Robin with a deadly intent seriousness that gives the impression he has no mind of his own.

The film’s greatest interest is perhaps as a time capsule. Being made during World War II, it reflects a great deal of the typical US attitudes towards the Japanese. For example, Batman and Robin are no longer vigilante crimefighters, as in the comic-book, but spy-fighters in the service of the US government, and the villain of the piece is part of a Japanese fifth column. The Japanese are characterized with a racism that quite takes one aback – lines like “… since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs,” or “your twisted Oriental brain”. As the twisted Oriental brain himself, J. Carrol Naish certainly gets into the Yellow Peril villainy with considerable relish, presenting an evil cackling intelligence.

Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) flank Prince Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish) in Batman (1943)
Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) flank the evil Oriental mastermind Prince Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish)

Lambert Hillyer was an enormously prolific director – he made more than 150 films from the silent era until his retirement in the 1950s. More than sixty of these were B Westerns. He did venture into genre territory upon a handful of occasions – Before Midnight (1933), a murder mystery with supernatural overtones; Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the first of Universal’s Dracula sequels; and the mad scientist film The Invisible Ray (1936).

Other Batman appearances on screen are:-


Trailer here

Full serial available online here:-


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