D: Lambert Hillyer / 20m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Gus Glassmire, John Maxwell
Trapped inside a wooden crate, Batman seems doomed to be fed to Daka’s crocodiles, but when the crate is dropped into their pit, Daka and his goons are surprised to learn it’s one of their own who’s inside the crate. With help from Robin and a handy Morse Code device in his utility belt, the Caped Crusader has switched places with Daka’s unlucky henchman, and has trailed the crate to Daka’s lair. Using Alfred as a diversion, Batman and Robin sneak into the Cave of Horrors that serves as the entrance to Daka’s hideout. Overcoming several of the villain’s henchmen, and while Robin ties them up, Batman is apprehended by two of Daka’s zombies and forced into Daka’s laboratory, where he is strapped to a chair and threatened with being turned into a zonbie. Meanwhile, Alfred finds himself apprehended too: by a policeman who takes him to see Captain Arnold; soon he’s returning with more police (well, three of them) than you can shake a Japanese spy ring at. But will they be in time to save Batman from having his secret identity revealed and being turned into a zombie…?
And so, we reach the end of Batman’s first screen appearance, thanks to those good folks at Columbia, and the efforts of a cast and production crew who you could argue were suffering from serial fatigue from the very outset. It’s been a very patchy affair, with chapters that failed to advance the (very basic) plot, and performances that could provide the dictionary definition of perfunctory. The direction was inconsistent too, with Hillyer seemingly engaged in some episodes, and treading water in others (along with everyone else). In short, when Batman was good, it was really good, and when Batman was bad, it was really bad. Seventy-five years on, it’s not a serial that’s stood the test of time, but as a curio it has its good points, and is worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the Caped Crusader, or if you’re a fan of the serial format. Be prepared though to wade through some very tortuous moments in order to get to the good stuff, and then repeat as often as the script deems it necessary – which is a lot. Surprisingly, this was Columbia’s largest-scale serial production to date, but watching it, you have to wonder where the money went to.
And sadly, the problems that have plagued the serial throughout the first fourteen chapters are still present in the last, and are exacerbated by the need to wrap things up. The radium remains completely forgotten, the references to Daka as a “Jap” are rehashed (three times by Batman, who can’t refer to him in any other way), Daka’s zombies continue to hang around like glorified human ornaments, and the fight scenes are as clumsily choreographed as ever – but are now much shorter as Daka’s men prove to have glass jaws all of a sudden. Aside from being tied to a chair for a few minutes, it’s all too easy for Batman, and Daka’s fate is sealed with a minimum of (ironic and appropriate) fuss. If there’s one positive aspect about the whole thing, it’s that Robin gets to save the day not once but twice, but even then he remains as invisible as ever. If you watch each chapter closely, you’ll find that Batman is always referred to in the singular, and there’s no mention of Batman and Robin. Perhaps it’s an oversight, perhaps it’s deliberate, but it is indicative of the lack of care taken in the script, something that happens a lot, and which, sadly, stops this particular serial from scaling the heights of some of its predecessors.
Rating: 6/10 – narrative short cuts and the need to wrap things up neatly leads Chapter 15 into a dramatic cul-de-sac that sees what should be an energetic and exciting finale become something of a chore to get through; historically important for being the character’s first screen outing, Batman isn’t the best example of the Forties serial format, and it’s only sporadically rewarding (oh for the heyday of Chapters 6-8), all of which ensures that this particular episode fits right in in the overall scheme of things.