D: Lambert Hillyer / 26m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Robert Fiske, Gus Glassmire, I. Stanford Jolley,
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Batman aka Bruce Wayne (Wilson), and Robin aka Dick Grayson (Croft), have become secret government agents. They still find the time to catch regular bad guys though, and are supported by Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Austin). When Bruce’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Patterson), asks him to accompany her to meet her uncle, Martin Warren (Glassmire), on his release from prison, his abduction by men working for Dr Daka (Naish), the Japanese leader of a spy ring operating in Gotham, provides Batman with his most dangerous adventure yet. Daka has kidnapped Warren for information about a store of radium kept at the Gotham City Foundation. By coincidence, it’s where Linda works, and where Bruce and Dick witness some of Daka’s men entering the building. Using a radium powered device with explosive properties, Daka’s men steal the stored radium only for Batman and Robin to intervene. While one of them gets away with the radium, the others take on the Dynamic Duo in a rooftop fight that sees Batman pushed over the ledge and falling to certain death…
The very first screen incarnation of the DC Comics’ character, Batman fits neatly into the serial formula already established by the likes of Flying G-Men (1939) and The Shadow (1940). By this time, Columbia Pictures were old hands at this sort of thing, and in adapting Batman from the comics, they continued to mold an existing heroic figure into the bash ’em, smash ’em and crash ’em milieu they had been so adept at creating. Fans of the early comics will spot encouraging details such as the presence of utility belts, costumes that reflect the original DC design, and the presence of Alfred (whose appearance would lead to a complete change regarding his character in the comics). Inevitably, there’s no Batmobile, just a Cadillac Series 61 convertible that operates as a kind of Batmobile when the top is up, and as Bruce Wayne’s ride about town when the top is down. The costumes, though, aren’t quite as good as they could be, and are very baggy. Wilson isn’t the most athletic of actors, and Croft is clearly too old to be playing Robin, while the budget – such as it is – is highlighted by the sparse nature of the sets and the backlot surroundings.
But what of the story itself? Well, as mentioned before, Columbia were old hands at this sort of thing by 1943, and they weren’t averse to recycling some of their earlier plots. The pursuit of radium is used in much the same way as in Mandrake the Magician (1939), the hero’s girlfriend has already been attacked once (and no doubt will be again – and again), and there’s the first of what will be numerous car chases, so there’s much that will be familiar to devotees. But there is room for some invention: the bat symbol affixed to criminals’ foreheads (see above), and the car chase that ends due to the villains’ car changing colour; both of these are clever and creative in equal fashion. But this having been made during World War II, this is as much a propaganda exercise as it is a thrilling serial, and it is unrepently racist toward the Japanese. We’re introduced to Daka’s hideout, which is located in a rundown neighbourhood identified as Little Tokyo, and a voice over intones, “Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street”. No doubt there will be more like this in future episodes, but for now the tone has been set, the main characters have been introduced, and not for the first time, Batman is close to death. How will he survive?
Rating: 6/10 – as an opening chapter in a fifteen-part Forties serial goes, this isn’t so bad that it would put you off watching any more, but it is poor enough to make you wonder if sticking with it all the way to the end will be a profitable use of your time; this is history in the making, however, and as the first time the Caped Crusader appeared on screen, Batman has the advantage of being intriguing for how the character will develop across the remaining fourteen chapters.