Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Film Review: Batman (1943 Movie Serial)

"Batman"  *** (out of ****)

Although I normally don't review "movie serials", I thought I'd make an exception. I have recently started rewatching a lot of these movie serials because of my four year old nephew. He is a big fan of superheroes and while I never really was a fan growing up, I do remember watching these movie serials like "The Green Hornet" (1940), "Superman" (1948), "The Shadow" (1940) and the king of all movie serials, (in my opinion) "Flash Gordon" (1936).

Since I don't have any children, I thought I would pass these things along to my nephew. First I thought I would show him this 1943 "Batman" movie serial. I was worried he would say this isn't the Batman he knows.Or that it looks "too old". He might complain it is in black & white. But, to my surprise, there was none of that. We sat down and watched the entire serial in one viewing.

Many people, mistakenly, believe "Batman" was first brought to the screen in the 1966 television show starring Adam West. I always love to tell people they are wrong and inform them there was this 1943 movie serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This was the first screen appearance of the Batman character!

First lets explain what a movie serial is, just in case I may have some younger readers who aren't familiar with the term. Back in the days of the double feature, when you would see your featured "A" film and a "B" movie (made by the same studio, showcasing younger, hopefully, up and coming talent) you would also see a newsreel, a cartoon, a comedy short (along the lines of Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges) and there would be a movie serial. These were usually 12-15 chapter movies approximately 15 minutes long. Though usually the first and last chapter were the longest, around 20-25 minutes. Each week you had to come back to the movie theatre to see the next chapter. The chapters ended with the hero in a cliffhanger, life or death situation. At this point you would hear the narrator some something along the lines of " will (name of hero) be able to escape? Will (name of villain) evil plan work? Come back to this theatre next week to see chapter two (name of chapter and serial).

What eventually did in the movie serials was television. Every week you would turn into a TV show. A movie serial was no different and it was cheaper. You didn't have to pay a movie ticket price each week to see the show.

But us old timers have fond memories of movie serials. They take us back to our childhood. More modern viewers will undoubtedly complain the movies were cheap in production design (these were essentially "B" pictures), corny story lines and bad acting. They might be right. But, we forgave all that. We found them exciting. We anxiously awaited to see how the hero would escape the deadly predicament they found themselves in. It was all good natured fun.

"Batman" is a 15 chapter serial dealing with Batman (Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) going up against a Japanese spymaster, Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Nash). The serial was made during World War II. During this time, in feature films and serials, the villains were usually German or Japanese. Dr. Daka is turning people into zombies who will not join his cause to defeat Americans which his special radium gun.

A lot of modern viewers often criticize the serial as racist. There are several racial slurs made against the Japanese. They are referred to as "Japs", "shifty eyed Japs" and "evil Japs". Even Batman calls the Dr. Daka character that. While I cannot deny these terms are racist, I must remind viewers this serial was made in 1943. America was at war with the Japanese. You must remember their attack at Pearl Harbor was the reason America "officially" entered the war. War was declared on America.

Overall the serial is entertaining with a lot of action scenes. However, the plot is rather thin and seems to shift focus to sustain a 15 chapter serial. But this was a nice introduction to Batman. We see the Batcave but no batmobile. Batman has Alfred (William Austin) drive him around in the same car he uses when seen as Bruce Wayne. Which makes me wonder. If people wanted to find out who Batman is, why not write down the license plate number. But anyway!

The serial is fun to watch for the historical purpose of seeing Batman make his screen debut. It is also interesting to watch as a piece of American propaganda. Batman and Robin both work for the U.S. government (!).