BATMAN In the Media, Part 1
This year marks The Batman’s 75th anniversary. Most of you will be aware the Batman character first appeared in Detective Comics Number 27, the May 1939 issue. As comic books then and now tend to be dated three months in advance, it probably hit the newsstands about mid-February or March of that year. The cover depicted The Batman swinging across the rooftops carrying a criminal in a decidedly dangerous looking headlock as his stunned accomplices looked on.
The character looked different in the early days: darker, sinister — more bat-like, with exaggerated ears and a stiff winged cape. He was the product of a young cartoonist from the Bronx named Bob Kane (Robert Kahn), who created the masked avenger with the help of Bill Finger.
Kane had been doing gag cartoons and a Terry and the Pirates inspired adventure feature for Detective and Adventure Comics when one of the editors (usually identified as Vin Sullivan) asked him if thought he could come up with a costumed hero. DC was interested in duplicating the success they were having with Superman. When told he might make as much as $700 dollars a month by doing so, Bob Kane became very interested. It was a Friday, and Kane said he’d have one ready Monday morning. He was not going to miss out on an opportunity like this.
Kane already had a vague idea of what he wanted to do. The editor had suggested the idea after seeing some Flash Gordon sketches Kane had done to hone his talents, which were more naturally inclined to cartooning rather then realistic figure drawing. The Hawkmen character in the Flash Gordon strip had captured Kane’s imagination, and he first thought of the new character as another concept of a winged man. After toying with the idea of calling the character Birdman, Kane recounted in later years that he went through his old notebooks and verified that in his famous ornithopter sketches, Leonardo DaVinci had intended the wings be shaped like a bat’s. The Bat-Man – now that sounded dramatic.
Kane originally depicted the new hero as wearing bright red leotard, a Zorro-like black mask, and mechanical batwings that he would use to swoop down upon criminals. He contacted his friend Milton ‘Bill’ Finger, part-time shoe salesman and an avid pulp magazine reader who Kane had hired as a ghost writer to help plot and write his Rusty and His Pals stories for Adventure Comics. Finger suggested Kane replace the cumbersome mechanical wings with a bat-winged cape, like the villain in the movie The Bat Whispers. He also urged him to make the tights a more somber gray, and to make the mask a cowl that covered the head. The eyes would be left blank like Lee Falk’s Phantom to give The Batman an extra touch of mystery. Kane agreed with Finger’s ideas, and added long pointed ears and a long-nosed mask that suggested the features of a bat. They added a belt that could carry gas vials and other equipment, as well as gloves, so that he would leave no identifying fingerprints.
Despite some misgivings about his sinister appearance, DC decided to try out the character. Some there had originally thought Superman was too outlandish to succeed, but he’d been a tremendous hit. Perhaps lighting would strike twice. So Bob Kane and Bill Finger went to work. As noted, Finger was pulp fan, and the then-inexperienced writer based the first story; The Case of the Chemical Syndicate on a Shadow novel, Partners in Peril (written by Theodore Tinsley under the Maxwell Grant house name).
Elements of pulp Zorro, the Shadow, and the Spider influenced The Batman, as did the origin of the pulp hero The Bat (likely written by Johnston McCulley, creator of Zorro). Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip would also have an influence as the series progressed.
Bruce Wayne’s name supposedly came from the Scots hero Robert the Bruce and Revolutionary War general Mad Anthony Wayne — but it also sounds a lot like Bob Kane! For Batman was Kane’s alter ego of sorts, a mysterious, romantic figure who was rich and athletic, virtuous yet not bound by laws or convention. He would be a hero made superhuman not by powers beyond those of mortal men, but by an incredible will and unceasing effort. He was the flip side of Superman, the dark contrast to his bright colors, not quite as unique perhaps, but all the more compelling because he was just within the bounds of possibility.
RADIO AND FILM
It seems odd that Batman never had a radio show of his own. He did appear on The Adventures of Superman, but not until 1945. On March 1st of that year, Superman rescued a boy adrift in a rowboat who proved to be Robin, the boy wonder. He tracked down and rescued the missing Batman, forming an enduring partnership. Batman and Robin became recurring characters on the show, largely so that Bud Collyer could take time off from playing Superman. Robin was always portrayed by Ronald Liss, but the part of Batman would be played by a number of actors, including Stacy Harris, Matt Crowely (the majority of appearances), and Garry Merrill. Superman radio announcer and character actor Jackson Beck (voice of Bluto in many Popeye cartoons) would play Alfred when needed, using a cockney accent to humorous effect.
An odd conceit of the radio series is that Bruce Wayne seemed to live in an upscale suburb of Metropolis, rather than a distant city. At first, Superman knows the true identities of Batman and Robin, but they don’t know his. When Clark Kent has to approach Bruce Wayne for Batman’s help, Wayne is hostile and suspicious, and Kent reluctantly reveals his Superman identity. It’s not clear if Robin is entrusted with the secret at that time.
What many people don’t know is that Batman had been suggested as a radio show before then. A script was written for a pilot Batman program entitled The Case of the Drowning Seal, and an audition disk was made in 1943. This was a wartime script ; the villains were Nazi agents and the destroyed towns of Lidice and Coventry are pointedly mentioned. It’s been a number of years since I read the material, but it was a rather different idea of Batman.
To differentiate Bruce Wayne from the Batman, the masked hero spoke with a British accent. The character’s costume was described as being simply a “horned” black mask and bat-like cape. Apparently( from the context of the script) this simply was worn over Bruce Wayne’s street clothes, and Batman seemed not to bother with gloves, since he identifies one of the Nazi agents previously encountered in darkness because he has oil on his face — the same black oil that the Batman got on his fist when he socked one of the villains on the jaw. Not too worried about the secret identity, it seems. This was perhaps because the Batman was something along the lines of a secret agent, known to the U.S. government.
This lack of concern about secrecy is also shown by the fact that Bruce Wayne is also dealing with the orphaned son of Bruce’s friends the Graysons, undercover FBI agents who have been murdered by the spies. The boy is named Robin Grayson, not Dick — which kind of makes the team of Batman and Robin a bit too obvious even for the most dim-witted of criminals. Radio historian Jack French informed me that Scott Douglas portrayed Batman in this version. The actor had also played the pulp and comic book character The Black Hood in a 1943 series on the Mutual Network, which carried Superman as well.
Batman may have struck out on Radio but he had leapt from the comic book pages and onto the silver screen with greater success. 1943 also saw the release of the Columbia serial BATMAN.
It was 15 chapters of low-budget slam-bang thrills, directed by Lambert Hillyer; primarily an action specialist who also directed atmospheric horror thrillers such as Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray. Batman was played by Lewis Wilson. (Crime fighting must run in the family, because his son Michael Wilson now produces the James Bond films). Robin was portrayed by juvenile actor Douglas Croft, who also appeared in a number of “A” features, most notably playing the young George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The part of Alfred the butler was played by William Austin, who was tall and slim, and wore a mustache –- quite the opposite of the comic book Alfred who was at that time depicted as short, chubby and clean-shaven.
None of the other comic book regulars appeared in the serial. There’s no Commissioner Gordon, instead the Batman enjoys teasing Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson, This Gun For Hire). Phased-out comic book girlfriend socialite-turned actress Julie Madison is replaced by medical secretary Linda Page, played by Shirley Patterson — who would later change her screen name to Shawn Smith and appear in 50’s faves such as The Land Unknown and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
The serial must have impressed Bob Kane, who permanently changed the appearance of the Alfred character to resemble the actor. Linda Page (now a nurse) was introduced in the new Batman newspaper strip, and Captain Arnold would also make a few appearances. Other long-lasting adaptations included the Bat’s Cave of the movie, which became the Batcave, along with the idea of entering it through a grandfather clock, which the serial writers had cribbed from Zorro. It’s interesting to note that like the radio pilot, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s identity seems to be known to the government, and he is willing to undertake missions for them. (Likely this was a case of the film serial inspiring the radio series.)
There is no Batmobile, with the crimefighters getting around in Bruce Wayne’s sleek black Cadillac convertible. Alfred often serves as wheelman, and nervously dons disguises when needed to aid the caped crime-fighters.
The serial is a lot of fun, and rather well done by the standards of Columbia chapterplays. Actually, BATMAN was produced outside the studio by Rudolph Flothow (Ramar of The Jungle TV series) for Larry Darmour Productions, who handled Columbia’s serials and a number of their ‘series films’, such as Ellery Queen, Lone Wolf and Crime Doctor at the time — acting as an essentially independent B-Unit with their own off-lot soundstage facilities. When needed, they could rent the Columbia Ranch or the Warner Brother’s backlot.
BATMAN has a nice visual look to it for the budget, using fluid camera work and creative lighting by Director of Photography James S. Brown Jr. (Strangler of the Swamp 1946.). The villainous Dr. Daka’s (J. Caroll Naish House of Frankenstein) laboratory features a nice array of equipment, including Frankenstein electrical apparatus rented from Kenneth Strickfadden. With this, he can create human ‘zombies’; mind-controlled slaves to further his campaigns of sabotage and subversion. There’s also a nifty radium-powered ray pistol (which would show up years later in 1960’s Cape Canaveral Monsters), though it’s quickly captured by Batman and rendered moot, though the bad guys continue to hunt for radium to buld a larger version. Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton gets a rare good-guy role as a prospector friend of Bruce Wayne.
Lee Zahler provides a effective, if strident score, basing his main themes on darker motifs from Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, and likely other classic influences.
However, despite the positive things in its favor, there are some puzzling editing errors — such as keeping in a portion of a fight scene wherein Batman looses his cape, only have it back on following a cut-away to Alfred waiting in the car below. Logically, the place to put the edit would have been at the point where the hero begins to have cape trouble, rather than continuing to show the fighting sans cloak. A letter to Bruce Wayne from the government asking him to look into a aircaft plant is shown with a Los Angeles address, although the film is indeed set in Gotham City. The recent DVD release seems to have added an editing slip-up or two, possibly attempts at covering for missing or damaged footage. (Several of the chapters show damage or wear that has not been restored, digitally or otherwise. There’s a least one collector’s 16mm print that has a better copy of Chapter One.)
The film has run into trouble in recent decades due to its blatant wartime anti-Japanese fervor, but it’s still interesting viewing, and J. Carroll Naish’s gleefully depraved faux-Japanese Prince/Dr. Daka is a delight for fans of hammy screen villainy. At one time the only commercially available version of the serial had been redubbed to remove the many racial slurs, with announcer Gary Owens (Laugh-In) redoing the original narration by sportscaster Knox Manning. The Sony/Columbia DVD release restores the original, warts and all.
In 1949, after the success of their Superman serial, Columbia released BATMAN AND ROBIN (also as New Adventures of Batman and Robin) . This 15-chapter serial is not nearly as good as the ’43 version and is a poor successor to 48’s Superman, though director Spencer Gordon Bennett directed both. Much of the chapterplay’s failure is likely due to the low budget producer Sam Katzman allowed. Columbia would give serial producers a flat rate, how much of that wound up onscreen is another matter. The film seems rushed and haphazard, and its lead actors worn out by the frantic pace.
Actor Robert Lowery (The Mummy’s Ghost) was reportedly (in accounts by co-star Duncan) not too thrilled to be playing the tights-wearing comic book character. Johnny Duncan, who was in his twenties (and looked it) when he portrayed Robin the Boy Wonder, also related that he had to secretly help Lowery lace up a girdle in order to fit in his leotard. The eyes in the cowled mask were too small and didn’t line up well for Lowery; you can see him adjust the cowl several times onscreen. The ‘bat-ears/devil’s horns’ were floppy, leading Lowery to stuff them with cotton. Batman’s gloves give out early in the serial, and heavy work gloves are substituted –not matching the much darker finned gauntlets.
Robin wears a dark colored cape, possibly influenced by the green cape the character sported on the cover of Batman #1 (or not, it’s anybody’s guess). Lowery and Duncan gamely did their best to enliven the proceedings, and there are a few good moments, but the results are still pretty dire from today’s standpoint.
One pathetically amusing bit is that Batman and Robin usually drive around in Bruce Wayne’s gray `49 Mercury convertible, which is noted and draws a barbed on-screen comment by the comic book’s press photographer Vicki Vale, played by Jane Adams (House of Dracula). “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?” This and other obvious tip-offs only make her mildly suspicious of her nominal boyfriend’s dual identity. Perhaps she was distracted by her never before seen brother Jimmy Vale (George Offerman, Jr.), a pilot with feet of clay who gets mixed up with the villains.
Hollywood veteran Lyle Talbot introduced the part of Commissioner Gordon to the screen, and a partially disassembled television set in his office was used as a “high-tech” electronic Bat Signal that could miraculously project out the window a bat insignia onto the clouds… in broad daylight.
In later years, Bob Kane reported visiting the production, when he asked to see the Batmobile (apparently in the script), had the convertible pointed out to him. His heart sank; apparently the producer had made a deal with the auto manufacturer, and they supplied the car for free — several times. John Duncan said the cars were used roughly by the actors and stunt men, and the local Ford dealer would just give them a new (or repaired) one to use when they broke down.
Showing the rushed and seemingly lackadaisical nature of the film, despite there being a Batcave set, Batman and Robin are shown at least once getting into the car in Bruce Wayne’s driveway. No Wayne Manor, the place looks like a junior exec’s nicely appointed but unpretentious suburban home, complete with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk. Instead, the wheel-chair bound inventor suspect gets the mansion.
With its reliance on the masked mystery villain The Wizard’s super-science Remote Control Ray, and other gadgetry, the film has something of the feel of Batman’s 1950’s daylight sci-fi adventures. On that basis, or for low-budget laughs, the serial can be enjoyed. Completists should be aware that Chapter One of the Sony/Columbia VHS tape is incomplete by several minutes, due to the tape being assembled from 16mm prints edited to make Super 8mm reduction prints for sale to collectors. I’m told the DVD release continues this omission, though I have not viewed it myself.
If the BATMAN AND ROBIN chapterplay might have been a disappointment to comic book fans, it appears to have done fairly well at the box office. Perhaps this is why another attempt at a Batman Radio show was made in1950.
The Batman Mystery Club was an audition disc made in September of that year. The story was called The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall, and was written by Don Cameron, who wrote for the comics and the Batman newspaper strip. It was rediscovered by Fred Shay, of the National Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. The series’ premise reflected Cameron’s interest in disproving superstitions, and opened with Robin addressing a group of kids, and introducing Bruce Wayne, the Batman to show them that the seemingly supernatural adventures they would encounter had purely natural explanations. Writer Cameron had been researching and writing a book about occultism, which might explain his motivations somewhat.
However, it’s kind of an odd and dry idea for an kid’s superhero show (hey kids, this whole spooky story we made you sit through is pure bunk), and it’s not too surprising that the pilot did not become a series. Ronald Liss reprised his role of Robin (just Robin, not Dick Grayson) from the Adventures of Superman, and Batman was played by John Emery, who had also portrayed Philo Vance on radio.
Reportedly, there was a Batman radio series in Argentina in the 1950’s starring Carlos Carella as the caped crusader. They only documentation I’ve found of this is an intriguing publicity still.
Though it might have seemed a natural spin-off, there was no Batman series to mirror the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV show (although former Batman Robert Lowery would guest star in an episode, The Deadly Rock). Batman would have to wait until the 1960’s to hit the airwaves again.
And when he did, it would be a tidal wave.