We continue our look at how Golden Age Hollywood supported, rather than undermined, America’s war effort by producing films featuring stirring, patriotic themes, casual racism, and stories about draft-dodging, leotard-clad bachelors and their adolescent life partners. This week, it’s Chapter 9 of the 1943 Batman serial: Sign of the Sphinx!
Let’s recap: When last we left The Batman, The Robin, Ming the Merciless Miner, and Linda and Her Amazing Jiffy Pop Hair-do, they had all gone to Knott’s Berry Farm and were roughhousing with some dapper thugs in the Calico Mine ride. The Japanese spies (actually, American mobsters who are serving as private sector security forces for Japan after receiving a no-bid contract) had taken Ming at gunpoint to his mine where they planned to steal his radium and drink his milkshake. “But,” the narrator breathlessly exclaims, “Batman arrives in time to give the enemy some real opposition!” And he does! If by “opposition” you mean “a tubby, ill-dressed punching bag who falls down more frequently than a fainting goat.”
One of the criminals trips and falls on the detonator and there’s a huge explosion (don’t you hate when that happens? This is why I baby-proof my detonators). And when I say “huge explosion,” I mean “an off-camera stagehand listlessly flings a handful of dust at the set.” But that’s good enough for Daka’s ruthless minions, and they pronounce The Batman dead, without bothering to peek around the corner and check. A quick back-of-the-envelope tally shows that while the bad guys have now pronounced Batman dead in all nine chapters, and have been wrong every single time, they still have quite a way to go to beat William Kristol’s record on Iraq.
Robin, as he does every episode, runs and pulls some crap off the Batman’s head and helps him to his feet. Then our hero hoists an unconscious Linda off the ground and holds her at a weird angle like a rag doll, letting her neck loll alarmingly from side to side, just in case she had any crushed vertebrae.
Suddenly, Alfred runs in shouting, “Master! Master!” Thanks to the head injury he sustained at the end of the last chapter, Alfred now thinks he’s Renfield. On the bright side, they find that one of Daka’s men has survived the explosion, and immediately decide the best thing to do with a trauma victim is to tie him up and stuff him in a small, windowless U-Haul trailer and drive around the desert.
Back at the lair, Daka is peeved that yet another of his schemes for world conquest has gone tits up, and threatens to use “drastic measures” in order to motivate his malingering staff. The new chief thug (who by the way looks exactly like the old chief thug, except this one didn’t call Daka a yellow-skinned “squint-eye” and then get eaten by alligators) points out that they did eliminate The Batman. The brilliant Oriental spymaster decides to believe this, even though it’s never been true before, and there are still five chapters to go. But now Daka has to replace the two men who died in the mine explosion, and testily orders one of his underlings to post a want ad on Mobster.com.
Meanwhile, back at the Dark Knight’s combination Batcave and Cubicle, our hero sits at his desk and interviews the surviving thug. Coincidentally, the Batman also threatens to use “drastic measures” if he doesn’t get what he wants, causing Daka to get all pissy and accuse the Batman of copying off his torture memo.
The Batman leaves the quisling trussed to a chair, remarking ominously, “A few hours alone with our vampire friends may cause you to change your mind.” Which explains why the erstwhile sophisticate Alfred Pennyworth is now shouting “Master!” and eating bugs.
As soon as he’s alone, the thug wriggles loose. He quickly surveys the Batman’s office, then decides to use the phone to make a personal call. Even worse, he makes a bunch of copies of his resume and charges it to Marketing, then sends an unauthorized fax.
Bruce disguises himself as a tough guy by applying a banana-shaped schnoz and a unibrow, although in my opinion he looks less like a hoodlum, and more like Lucille Ball in that one episode where she was hiding from William Holden and accidentally lit her putty nose on fire.
Posing as a mook named “Chuck White,” Bruce goes to a waterfront dive called the Sphinx Club. Inside, Chief Thug 2.0 observes “Chuck” through the world’s largest peephole and finds himself curiously but deeply moved by this strapping stranger and his trunk-like proboscis. He invites the newcomer into the back room and, seeing as they have an opening, interviews him for the position of Seditious Goon. But he warns “Chuck” that they’ll have to check his references, and frisk him to A) make sure he’s not a cop by checking to see if he’s carrying a badge, and B) make sure he’s not a stool pigeon by checking to see if he’s carrying a pigeon.
At last, the Caped Crusader is poised to insinuate himself in the bosom of Daka’s organization and crack the spy ring wide open! So naturally he panics and pulls a gun, shrieking, “Nobody’s gonna frisk me!” Right. They can pummel the Batman in the face and roll him up in his own cape and whack him with carpet beaters until he’s whizzing blood, but nobody’s gonna pat him gently beneath the armpits!
Bruce levels his gat at the roomful of hoodlums, then backs up to the Giant Peephole so it can open and somebody can reach through and knock the gun out of his hand. Instantly, the mobsters hogpile our hero, violently groping and squeezing and spanking him everywhere! Now this is more like it, since, judging by Bruce’s expression, he likes his frisking to be a little more frisky.
Now, to the casual observer, acting suspiciously, pulling a gun, and getting beaten to a bloody pulp by the people whose confidence you’re trying to win may seem to make no sense at all, but it’s all part of the Batman’s brilliant plan to gain the trust of Daka and his minions. Let’s watch…
Outside the Sphinx Club, Dick has slipped into his costume. He flings a rock through the window, shattering the bare, hanging bulb inside the room where Bruce is being gang-frisked, then Robin switches on a flashlight, throwing the Bat Signal onto the wall.
“It’s the Batman!” Chief Thug 2.0 shouts. Or a mischievous 8-year old with a Kenner Give-a-Show Projector. In either case, they run outside to kill him.
Robin skulks around some crates, but his stealthiness is compromised by the cinematographer, who apparently forgot to put the day-for-night filter on the lens, making it appear likely that if a fight breaks out in this gloomy, midnight-shrouded alley, someone’s going to get sunstroke.
Then Bruce runs outside and trips. At this point, I’m going to drop all pretense and just come right out and say it: I really don’t understand the Batman’s plan. I mean, I’m sure he’s got one, but it sort of seems like a Bush Administration strategy, where you plan for a bunch of stuff that doesn’t happen, and then you trip.
The gangsters shoot at crates and barrels, no doubt ruining thousands of dollars worth of moderately priced stemware and home furnishings. Then Robin bursts onto the dock and runs up a gangplank and boards a ship.
Okay, that’s gotta be part of the plan, right?
Suddenly, the Batman appears on a rooftop somewhere and shouts, “Over here!” Then he jumps off, and thanks to the editing, lands on the crooks, who immediately start punching him in the face.
All right, so he put on an elaborate disguise and pretended to be a mobster named Chuck White so he could slip back into his costume and get smacked around like he does every episode? If this trend continues, by next chapter I fully expect to see the Batman naked except for his utility belt and getting spanked with a cricket bat like Kevin Bacon in Animal House. I’m just saying.
Meanwhile, Robin gets chased around the deck of the ship, pausing momentarily to pose with arms out-thrust in the prow and scream, “I’m king of the world!” Ah, at last, the plan is bearing fruit, and the trap is sprung!
Wait. No. Check that. Robin just panics and jumps into the harbor. But suddenly we hear the whine of approaching police sirens, and the thugs realize that – as fun as this has been – it’s time to make the Batman fall off something so they can clock out and start pounding gimlets at Boardners.
But the Batman is too clever for them! Yes, they knock him out, but instead of falling off something, he falls under something – the gangplank. By a strange coincidence, one of the mobsters is standing several decks overhead with a fire axe, and he severs a rope that makes the gangplank fall on the Batman’s face and crush his skull.
I love it when a plan comes together into a tight ball of collapsed matter so super-dense that not even light can escape it.
Just us next time for Chapter 10: The Flying Spies!