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
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)
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).
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.
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).
The other Batman films and tv series are:- the campy tv series Batman (1966-8) starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which produced one film spin-off with Batman (1966); the animated tv series The New Adventures of Batman (1977-8); Tim Burton’s superb duo of films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) starring Michael Keaton, and Joel Schumacher’s dismal campy follow-ups Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), featuring respectively Val Kilmer and George Clooney, followed by Christopher Nolan’s fine revival of the franchise with Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) starring Christian Bale, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) with Ben Affleck; the excellent animated series Batman (1992-4) inspired by the Tim Burton films and its follow-up The New Batman Adventures (1997-9), which spawned several film spin-offs with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman and Mr Freeze: SubZero (1998), The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003), as well as the later DC Universe Original Animated Movies Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Batman: Year One (2011), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I (2012), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II (2013), Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), Son of Batman (2014), Batman vs. Robin (2015), Batman: Bad Blood (2016), Batman: The Killing Joke (2016), Batman and Harley Quinn (2017) and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018), as well as Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), a compilation of anime Batman shorts; Batman Beyond/Batman of the Future (1999-2001), the futuristic follow-up series from the same creative team featuring an aging Bruce Wayne and his young apprentice, which also spun off one animated film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000); the animated series The Batman (2004-8), which badly revised the basics of the series and was also spun off into a film with The Batman vs. Dracula (2005); two further animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-11), which placed Batman alongside other DC superheroes, and Beware the Batman (2013-4); the live-action tv series Gotham (2014– ), which tells the origin stories of the familiar characters and villains as Bruce Wayne grows up; Batman turns up as an animated character in The Lego Movie (2014) and gets a whole film to himself in The Lego Batman Movie (2017); the animated films Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (2015) and Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem (2015) spun off from a line of action figures; the animated Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) and Batman vs. Two-Face (2017) featuring a return of Adam West and Burt Ward; and the anime film Batman Ninja (2018). Batman also makes appearances in the line-up of superheroes in various other DC-related animated series such as SuperFriends (1973-7), The All New SuperFriends Hour (1977-9) and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-5), as well as the films Justice League: The New Frontier (2008), Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010), Justice League: Doom (2012), Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), Justice League: War (2014), Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015), Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015), Justice League vs Teen Titans (2016) and Justice League Dark (2017). Other spin-offs include the short-lived live-action tv series Birds of Prey (2002), featuring the women of Batman – a paraplegic Batgirl, Cat Woman’s daughter and Harley Quinn – and the Halle Berry starring Catwoman (2004), while Robin appears as a member of Young Justice (2010-3) and Suicide Squad (2016) features a team-up of DC villains including The Joker and Harley Quinn. The Batman-Robin relationship is also excrutiatingly spoofed in the Superhero Speed Dating segment of Movie 43 (2013). Also of interest is Batman & Bill (2017), a documentary about the unacknowledged co-creator of Batman, Bill Finger.
Full serial available online here:-