As s.z. and I begin work on our sequel to Better Living Through Bad Movies, it dawned on me that I never finished my epic 15-part study of the 1943 Columbia Pictures serial, Batman. And I firmly believe that posterity would never forgive me if I left but a tantalizing fragment behind, much like O’Neill’s great, unfinished Harford Family cycle. So I have summoned up the blood, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and resolved to watch the rest of this crap.
As we last left our hero, at the heart-pounding conclusion to Chapter Seven, he had turned into a tackling dummy and was lying at the bottom of an elevator shaft, after having had the guano beaten out of him by Japan’s army of All American thugs. Unfortunately, when I sat down to watch Chapter 8, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on (it had something to do with Ming the Merciless taking Bruce, Dick, and Linda to Knott’s Berry Farm, but that’s as far as I got.) So I’ve decided to rerun the first episodes to help us all catch up, before continuing. Besides, there’s a writer’s strike on, and that’s what all the networks are doing.
So without further ado, I present you the thrilling, re-heated adventures of The Batman!
“Don’t touch the Bat Batch, old chum!”
The Batman (1943)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser (screenplay) Bob Kane (character)
We open in a subterranean chamber, “hewn from the living rock of the mountain” below Wayne Manor. The Batman is “clad in the somber costume that has struck terror in the hearts of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld,” although it looks like the vet didn’t tape his ears up properly. This fearful spectre that haunts the dark chasms below sits at a nice executive-style desk, with a guest chair off to the side (last used when Robin was called in for his annual review), while one of those collapsible crepe bats you get at Target around Halloween, which has gotten tangled in the ceiling fan, lethargically orbits the Dark Knight’s head.
Cut to scenes of the Batman engaging in fisticuffs with men in business suits. Far from striking terror, however, his outré ensemble seems to prove that when roughhousing with dapper thugs, a cape just gets in the way; sort of like trying to perform open-heart surgery on a man who stubbornly refuses to remove his lobster bib. Nevertheless, the Dynamic Duo triumph, and call the Gotham City police to pick up the pair of mobsters they’ve just nabbed. When the cops arrive, they find the pair handcuffed to a lamppost, with tiny bats etched on their foreheads. The detectives are baffled, but Captain Arnold deduces that the Batman is either secretly Charles Manson, or the mark is just there to let any Indian Flying Foxes know that the thugs are already married.
Cut to Batman and Robin driving away from the scene at high speed in Bruce’s Cadillac, grinning crazily at each other as they begin to strip. Cut to the Gotham Foundation, where Bruce’s
beard girlfriend, Linda Page works. Linda is quite dishy (the actress playing her represented California in the 1940 Miss America pageant), but her coiffure rises so astonishingly high into the air that she makes Marge Simpson look like H.R. Haldeman, and you just can’t help but suspect that she’s wearing a turban made of human hair and yeast.
Linda conveniently leaves the room so Bruce can explain to Dick Grayson that he’s not in the Army because of “our special arrangement from Uncle Sam.” Yes, the country is mobilized, the world is at war, but Batman has “other priorities.” Linda comes back in so she can browbeat Bruce into picking up her Uncle Martin when he’s released from prison tomorrow. Cut to an elderly convict stepping outside the penitentiary walls, drawing his first sweet breath of freedom, and then getting promptly abducted by a bunch of thugs. Bruce, Dick, and Linda give chase, but as soon as the fleeing car gets around the bend, the head crook orders the driver to “release the gas and make the change!” The car breaks wind, and the paint magically changes from black to white. Of course, it’s still a big sedan full of gangsters and a struggling hostage, so this isn’t likely to fool The Batman! Except, at the last instant, the driver fiendishly changes his hat! Their disguise is now foolproof! Bruce races past the criminals none the wiser; but then, he fell for that horn-rimmed glasses trick Superman was always pulling, too.
Cut to a desolate-looking street, full of empty shops with Japanese signage. Our Narrator helpfully explains: “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street, where only one business survives,” the Japanese Cave of Horrors. This is a carnival-like Tunnel of Love, except it’s full of mannequins dressed as Imperial Japanese soldiers who are threatening Margaret Dumont with a bayonet. The thugs arrive and take Uncle Martin for a ride, but they fail to keep their hands and arms inside the car at all times, and wind up backstage, where they are received by J. Carroll Naish, who is attempting to pass himself off as an evil Japanese doctor named Tito Daka. It’s quickly apparent that this smooth Japanese criminal will not be easy to beat, for even if Batman does manage to capture him, he can quickly be replaced by Jermaine or LaToya Daka. Although, come to think of it, with his pencil mustache, Colonel Sanders-style string tie, and perpetual squint, Dr. Daka looks less like an Asian supervillain, and more like Tennessee Ernie Ford with conjunctivitis.
Anyway, Dr. Daka is here to “free the enslaved people of America” by instituting regime change, and he’s enlisting the help of various “dishonored men,” middle-aged white felons who are bitter about not being offered Elliot Abrams’ job in the Bush Administration. But Uncle Martin refuses to join the Project for a New American Century, declaring, “I’m an American, first and always, and no amount of torture conceived by your twisted Oriental brain will make me change my mind!”
“You are laboring under a misapprehension,” the good doctor replies. “I do not believe in anything so barbaric as torture.” From the perspective of our current political climate, you have to admire, however grudgingly, the basic decency of Daka’s statement. Or you would, if it wasn’t delivered in Mickey Rooney’s accent from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Dr. Daka reveals that he has transformed Uncle Martin’s former business partner into a zombie, by making him wear a colander topped with an Epilady. But still Martin refuses to cooperate, and Daka shouts, “Take him to my electronic laboratory!” Inside, we see the full horror of Daka’s handiwork – an entire army of zombies (which is to say, we see a room filled with three or four flabby, middle-aged men milling about in colanders and clingy mock turtlenecks). Daka administers a truth serum to Uncle Martin, forcing him to reveal that there’s radium inside the Gothan Foundation! At last, Linda’s obelisk-like hair is explained!
It turns out that Dr. Daka needs radium to fuel his ultimate weapon, “a forerunner to the atom-smasher” which can destroy anything on earth with a single shot! (At this performance, the role of the Ultimate Weapon, normally played by something that looks like a weapon, will be played by a partially dismantled slide projector.) Telling his men to stand back, Daka loads up a radium BB and demonstrates that his gun has the awesome power to make cement scream. It doesn’t really do much more than that, but you got to admit, that’s pretty weird. Probably going to put a lot of people off their food.
Daka’s thugs use the slide projector to blow the door off the safe at the Gotham Foundation, and then carefully collect the hazardous radioactive material in a pillow case. But, just as they’re making their escape, The Batman appears, sporting a pair of saggy longjohns that leak. Sure, the zombies get tight knit tops that hug their pot bellies like a second skin, but our hero gets a costume that fits the contours of his figure about as neatly as Bill O’Reilly’s dewlap fits his neck. Oh well. The thugs flee, and the Batman and Robin pursue them. Since the set is tiny and they really don’t have a lot of room to run around, the director creates the illusion of a chase scene by hilariously speeding up the film, although he does spare our heroes the indignity of blaring “Yakety Sax” on the soundtrack as they run.
Anyway, Robin gets his ass kicked, and Batman is beaten to a pulp by a zombified Mr. Drysdale, then thrown off the roof by the other thugs. When last seen, the Batman is plunging to his death, and plainly annoyed at how he can’t seem to keep his flapping cape out of his face. Will our hero survive? Well, not to give it away, but the next chapter is entitled “The Bat’s Cave of Batman,” and unless it’s an estate sale, or a Century 21 open house, he’s probably going to be there.
So what have we learned from this living docudrama ripped fresh and steaming from the pages of history? Well, first of all, if you’re fighting against Japan for the cause of American freedom and you intern all the Americans of Japanese ancestry, then the first time you need somebody to play a shifty-eyed Jap with a twisted Oriental brain, you’re going to have to make do with some Irish guy from New York. (“J. Carroll Naish is Slim Whitman as Sessue Hayakawa in The Colonel Sanders Story!”) Michelle Malkin might want to keep that logistical problem in mind if she plans on pitching any anti-Islamofascist flicks to the Liberty Film Festival.
Second of all, if you’re running a charitable foundation, don’t keep radioactive materials in your front office, because it’ll just attract criminals and mutate your secretary’s hairdo. Third, despite the ruthless nature of total warfare, even Japanese supervillains would not stoop to torture, which explains how we won the war. They’re pussies. And finally, while technology has advanced, the fundamental things apply. During World War II, Japanese spies fashioned crude electronics from kitchen utensils and depilatory devices that were capable of forcing loyal Americans to mindlessly follow orders, even to the point of committing treason and enabling war crimes. Nowadays, the same thing can be achieved more quickly and efficiently by hiring someone from NPR to work as a Fox News analyst. Join us next week. Same Bat Time. Same Bat Blog.