Four years after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman and Robin hit the big screen for the first time in a Columbia Pictures movie serial. The story is told in 15 chapters and is amusing to watch with 70 years distance. The plot concerns Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) trying to foil a scheme by the evil Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish).
This movie serial came out at the height of World War II and there is quite a bit of propaganda and outright racism. Dr. Daka is a Japanese spy whose goal is to use a radium-powered ray gun to help overthrow the United States. Batman is employed by the U.S. government to stop Daka’s plan. This involves Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Paige (Shirley Patterson), her uncle, and zombies. Not risen-from-the-dead zombies but mind-controlled people controlled by Dr. Daka. Batman triumphs with the help of Robin and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (William Austin).
(Did I spoil that for you? I’m sorry. But in my defense, this is a 1943 movie serial aimed at kids and featuring a comic book superhero. This is 43 years before Frank Miller’s game-changing Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One stories where anything could–and does–happen).
Until I decided to do these essays, I’d never seen this version of Batman. I knew of it, of course, but hadn’t seen it. (Nor had I ever seen a movie serial). So my first viewing of this serial was as a 34-year-old adult.1 It must have been pretty cool, though, to be kid in 1943 and seeing these chapters. Yes, there are some changes from the comic book (Batman as government agent is but one) but it must have still be pretty nifty (or whatever the slang was back then) to see Batman and Robin fighting bad guys on the big screen. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft seem to work well together as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin. You get the sense that they’ve been working together a while. Wilson is pretty good as Bruce Wayne, giving him an arrogance that is almost mind-blowing at times. Croft gives Dick Grayson/Robin just enough boyish charm to appeal to the boys in the audience but is tough enough to hold his own. As a matter of fact, Robin tends to save Batman more often than the other way around in this serial.
William Austin as Alfred Pennyworth is also quite enjoyable, though not in a serious manner. Alfred is the comic relief of this story which is essentially about the Japanese taking over the United States, turning Americans into zombies.
Shirley Patterson as Linda Paige, Bruce Wayne’s oft-suffering girlfriend. Yes, she has moments of eye-rolling “I’m a woman and am therefore helpless” but she doesn’t hold back from putting Bruce Wayne in his place. Her uncle had just been released from prison and is kidnapped and she wants to look for him. When she asks Bruce for his help, he essentially tells her he can’t because he has some sort of inconsequential thing to do. She gets angry, tells him to buzz off, and then leaves. More on this later.
The action. Ranging from 26 minutes to 13-and-a-half, every chapter has at least one fist-fight, some have two. And because they comprise a serial and they wanted the kids to spend their dime next week, too, each chapter has a cliffhanger that puts Batman in some sort of jeopardy.
For modern audiences, this serial is an interesting look back on an artform that helped inspire what television series would become. It is also an interesting look at that time period and what entertainment was like. One of the charms of the serial is the low-budget feel. In one fight scene, Batman’s cape falls off in one shot and reappears on him in the next. In another chapter, Batman is climbing off a fire escape and some stuff falls out of his cape. After rewatching it multiple times I still don’t know what it is. This is low-budget, let’s get it done filmmaking.
Lewis Wilson may have been pretty good at getting Bruce Wayne’s “devil-may-care” attitude down, but he also plays Wayne/Batman as a jerk. This is not his fault, though, rather the writers Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, as well as the director’s (Lambert Hillyer). By the end of the first chapter (“The Electric Brain”), Batman and Robin have gotten their hands on Dr. Daka’s ray gun. In the second chapter (“The Bat’s Cave”), Bruce Wayne decides to scare Alfred, winks and nods at Dick Grayson, and then blasts something right near Alfred. The older man looks like he may have a heart attack while Bruce and Dick yuk it up. This kind of behavior happens throughout. Alfred is often the butt of the joke, or Linda is basically told she’s second fiddle to whatever plans Bruce has that day. Her uncle is missing and she keeps getting in trouble, but Bruce shrugs it all off so he can run off and be Batman. And as Batman, he’s kind of weak.
More than weak, Batman sort of sucks. While it must have been great to see the comic book character on the big screen for the first time, I wonder how the boys (and girls?) in the audience took to their hero being so ineffective. Batman is picked up by the bad guys and either thrown over the edge of something or nearly thrown over the edge of something in almost every chapter. In chapter 14 (“The Executioner Strikes”), Batman is trying to save Linda in an obvious trap (he knows it’s a trap) and the thugs walk in. One thug immediately walks up to Batman and hits him with the butt of his revolver, knocking Batman out, quicker than it took you to read this sentence. I understand this is a movie serial and putting the hero’s life in danger at the end of each chapter is supposed to get kids involved enough to want to come to next week’s show, but making your hero look no better than the average man goes against why you’d do a Batman story anyway.
The racism in this serial is mind-blowing, especially in the ultra-politically correct 21st century where one is offended by anything. The first chapter begins in a desolate part of Gotham City known as Little Tokyo. The narrator assures the audience that it’s safe because the “shifty-eye Japs” have all been “rounded up.” The narrator is referring to the Japanese-American determent camps that the U.S. government forced its own citizens to live in during WWII in case they decided to align with their former homeland. Of course, there were no German-American determent camps because it was harder to tell those of German ancestry than those of Japanese. Dr. Daka is played by a Caucasian man á la Warner Oland’s portrayal of Charlie Chan. His headquarters is hidden within a cave-of-horror funhouse-type ride that depicts wax Japanese people performing atrocities to White people. In chapter 8 (“Lured By Radium”), going out to the country, the thugs stop by a Native American on the side of the road selling “Indian Artifacts”. One thug says, “Hey, Sittin’ Bull,” before asking whatever question he needs to. Chalk that up to the thug being a bad guy and all. But when Bruce, Dick, Alfred, and Linda stop, the old Native American speaks in that Hollywood Indian dialect, “Me don’t know…Me this and Me that.”
Plot consistency. I know, this happens all the time (and will pop up throughout these essays) but they’re pretty bad here. At one point, one of Daka’s thugs say, “Hey, what if this Bruce Wayne is Batman!” Daka replies that Bruce Wayne couldn’t possibly be Batman because he’s too stupid and this and that. But by the 14th chapter, Daka says something about the possibility that Bruce Wayne may be Batman. Now, if this kept coming up, it wouldn’t have been a surprise, but it just came out of nowhere. Oh! And there’s the Radium ray guns plotline. After the small ray gun is confiscated by Batman, most of the serial is about Daka scoring more Radium to build a bigger, better ray gun to overthrow the United States. He eventually gets his Radium and has a ray rifle/cannon/thing. And then…. I couldn’t tell you what happens because it seems to be forgotten, either by me or by the filmmakers.
The fights. Oh, man, the fights. They are refreshingly not as slick as we’ve come to expect from Batman, but they are almost too realistic. If Batman is supposed to be one of America’s great secret agents, we’re in trouble. The fights are sloppy and usually end with Batman having his ass kicked so he can be saved by Robin in the next chapter.
Guns! Robin, the Boy Wonder, is given a gun at least twice in this serial. He usually fires into the air to scare the thugs working for Daka but in at least one chapter he holds the gun on them to keep them at bay. Now, it’s well-documented that Batman sometimes used guns in his early days, but by 1943 he hadn’t used a gun for 3 years, and Robin definitely wouldn’t have.
Speaking of guns, this is another thing I noted that can be placed in this section, the thugs only seem to have one pistol between them, and they use it to shoot only when Batman and Robin can find cover. There are several times in this serial when they have knocked out Batman (see above) and just leave him for whatever the cliffhanger will be. I know, I know, this happens all the time in movies and on TV, but considering their orders are to kill Batman, you’d think they might, well, kill Batman when they had the chance.
I found Batman to be rather enjoyable, though not for the reasons the filmmakers meant. It’s a slice of history and made me think about what going to the movies must have been like for my father’s generation. It’s apparent that Columbia made the serial to cash in on the comic book craze that was in its infancy but didn’t really care about the source material. There is no Commissioner Gordon, instead there’s a Captain Arnold. There are no villains from the comic books and Batman and Robin are government agents, not just crime fighters. There’s no Batmobile. Batman and Robin are actually chauffeured by Alfred most of the time (or drive around as Bruce and Dick and then change in the back seat). However, this serial introduced the Bat’s Cave, which we all know now as the Batcave. It may have even had Alfred in its planning stages before he appeared in comics and may be the reason Alfred was in the comics. If you’re a modern viewer who is easily offended by the mistakes of our forefathers in terms of race and ethnic portrayals, then this serial isn’t for you. But as a way to view Batman in a way you probably haven’t yet, check it out. The serial is available on DVD, though I watched it here. Just don’t expect to do so in one sitting. The entire serial is about 4 hours 15 minutes.
1 I originally wrote this essay a year before I did the Superman series of essays, so while the two Superman serials appeared on this blog over a year ago, it was two years ago that I watched this first Batman serial.
When Superman debuted in 1938, no one expected the character to become as famous as he did as quickly as he did. But famous he became. By 1940, did he have his own title, but he had his own a radio drama. Like the monthly comics, the show became a hit. Hollywood wanted to capitalize on this success and Paramount Pictures got the rights to bring Superman to the silver screen. The story goes that when Paramount executives approached the famed Fleischer animation studio, at the time second only to Disney Studios, they said no. Their hits, Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man, were hardly realistic in tone or style, and for Superman to work, he had to be realistic. So the Fleischers set a price so high that Paramount would have to say no.
Paramount said yes and the rest is history.
The first Fleischer Studios Superman film, called “Superman”, (but also known as “The Mad Scientist”) premiered in September 1941. It was an instant hit. Over the course of the following year, the studio put out nine Superman shorts. They were all well-received, with the first being nominated for an Academy Award. But trouble brewed for the Fleischers and the studio was dissolved after the brothers’ feuds broke them up. Paramount transferred the property to their other animation company, Famous Studios. Famous released eight more Superman shorts between September 1942 and July 1943.
I was aware of these old cartoons at some point in my late-childhood, early-teens. I even saw one early one morning, though I don’t remember what channel. The “Fleischer Superman” cartoons (as they are most commonly known) were legendary even then. So much so that when Warner Bros. decided they were going to capitalize on the Batman films of 1989 and 1992 by creating an animated Batman series, they wanted the style of the show to be reminiscent of the (then) 50-year-old cartoons.
The animation. I know how that sounds talking about a cartoon but the animation in these shorts are nothing short of astounding. Their likes really weren’t seen for this subject matter until the Warner Bros. Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, and the shows that have followed, including the direct-to-home video movies. This kind of animation of people and objects is a visual treat. In several of the Fleischer stories, which were very science fiction-oriented, machines worked to give Superman trouble and every cog and wheel was animated to perfection. The giant robots in “The Mechanical Monsters” weren’t just silly robots that moved at whatever angle the story needed them to move, but each machine worked in a way that adhered to science and engineering. Their designs were simple but technical. The use of rotoscoping—or using live action film to help animate—helped with some of the movement of the human characters, but many of Superman’s movements couldn’t be replicated in this way leaving only the talent of the animators.
The music is great fun. Sammy Timberg’s music is definitely of its time but makes Superman feel larger-than-life, as he should. Superman’s theme is easy to remember and recognizable. There’s a feeling that one should cheer when his theme comes up towards the end of every segment, just as he’s getting the bad guy.
The voice-acting is also really good. Bud Collyer plays Superman/Clark Kent and Joan Alexander plays Lois Lane to perfection, which should come as no surprise since both played their same characters on the radio. Much is made about voice differentiation between Clark Kent and Superman, and there should be a lot made. Collyer plays Clark Kent in a higher register that is much weaker than his alter ego’s voice. Superman’s voice is lower and much stronger. The most famous line from the cartoons is the same line made famous in the radio show (and went on into other media, as well): “This looks like a job for Superman.” The boldface type indicated the transition from Clark Kent’s voice to Superman’s. Collier is the stand-out but every actor in the films did great work.
The lack of much dialogue. At about 10 minutes per episode, there wasn’t really much need for a lot of dialogue. Generally speaking, what dialogue there was was limited. The majority of each episode had Superman saving the day.
The lack of continuity. Lots of fans love continuity, and I’m cool with that, continuity has its place in series. I’m also one who believes leaving continuity behind to tell a single story isn’t a bad idea. These Superman short films seem to take place in a vacuum. There’s never any reference to previous adventures, there’s never any character growth. Those things were not needed. In 1941-1943, the target audience was the comic book reading boys in movie theaters waiting for that week’s western, crime, adventure, or horror movie to begin and what did they know for continuity? As long as Superman nearly fell but ultimately saved the day, they were happy. As such, if you don’t like an episode, it never happened. Done. End of story.
The Famous Studios shorts aren’t as good as the Fleischer Studio shorts. That’s the general feeling among fans and it’s true. The Fleischer films were very science fiction oriented tales that featured mad scientists, killer robots, and the like. The Famous shorts went between propaganda, crime, and fantasy. I have no problem with crime tales, Elmore Leonard is a favorite writer and I loves me the 1940s crime flicks, but some of these are a bit weak. For instance, in a short called “Showdown”, a mob boss (who strongly resembles Edward G. Robinson) is sending a flunky out dressed as Superman to commit crimes. Of course, the city believes that has Superman turned on them. Superman gets to the bottom of it and a bunch of strange, silly things happen. The worst are the propaganda films. This was during World War II, of course, and there’s a strong anti-Japanese and anti-German sentiment in the films. Of the eight shorts that Famous Studios produced, three were propaganda, two against the Japanese, one against Germany. The rest of the shorts were split between crime and fantasy. Even the animation wasn’t as good, though Famous used a lot of stuff from Fleischer.
The racism. It’s well-known that many older cartoons have a streak of racism in them, but it sticks out more now in the more progressive world. The Japanese soldiers and spies in the tales are every stereotype you can imagine from the time period. In the short “Jungle Drums”, there are Africans that are their stereotypes of the time. While one may be able to turn from those gross imaginings in Bugs Bunny cartoons (since they made fun of everybody), they’re more difficult to ignore in a Superman cartoon. As a result, the timelessness of the earlier stories disappear for an uglier reminder of How Things Were.
After the Battle
All in all, the Superman cartoon shorts from the 1940s work splendidly. The first nine are nothing short of masterpieces, and while most of the stuff I didn’t like came in the second eight, all of them are worth watching, preferably with a child on hand. This is one time when the old saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a real thing (concerning the animation if nothing else).
The Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons are more than just cartoons, though. They’re windows into a time passed, perhaps forgotten by all but a few. And the fact that they introduced Superman’s flying (his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” looked funny) as well as set the template for Superman on film for the next twenty years, make them even more important to watch.