The 1943 Batman Serial Airing on TCM
On Saturday mornings, Turner Classic Movies shows serials, short episodic movie chapters, at a rate of one installment a week. Their most recent series is Batman, a 1943 15-chapter telling of superhero adventure “based on the Batman comic magazine feature appearing in Detective Comics and Batman magazines created by Bob Kane” (as the credit card has it).
We first see Batman, “America’s #1 crime fighter” (and government agent, surprisingly), sitting at an ornate desk in a “chamber hewn from the living rock of the mountain… deep in the cavernous basement” below his house. He looks bored, frankly, until his “two-fisted assistant, Robin, the Boy Wonder” bounces in. “They represent American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it”, we’re told — and Lewis Wilson, who plays Batman, was the youngest to ever do so at 23. He does a decent job with the part of his role as a “good-for-nothing playboy”.
I’m late mentioning it, because the first chapter, “The Electrical Brain”, aired last Saturday. I wasn’t surprised to find that it featured cheesy costume design, exposition-driven writing, cliffhanger endings (how will Batman survive being thrown off the roof?), and filming shortcuts meant to keep the budget down. It was neat seeing the first DC superhero on screen, though, even though there was one stunning moment that made the time period of its creation clear.
Bruce Wayne (Wilson) and Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) are accompanying Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) to pick up her uncle, who’s getting out of jail for some reason. He’s been taken away by minions of Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish, an Irish actor who appears in yellowface, as he later did when playing Charlie Chan), so the action cuts to the new location, where the narrator tells us:
“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, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity seekers.”
That business is labeled “Japanese Cave of Horrors”, another sign of the wartime racism. It’s a ride, only it takes you, if you know the secret, to the bad guy’s underground lair. He’s working as a spy, taking orders from Tokyo, and turning people into zombies electrically. There’s also a “radium gun” everyone’s after that blows up piles of bricks quite effectively.
Danny Bowes at tor.com found the racism
“so over-the-top that it becomes comic. Daka, played by J. Carrol Naish (a white guy in makeup), is the most compelling character in the entire serial and the only one who, including Batman and Robin, displays any consistency from episode to episode. Naish is clearly having a massive amount of fun hamming it up, and his accent is absolutely fascinating: an oily New York accent with intermittent odd, vaguely Asian flourishes. His performance is simultaneously fascinating and grotesque. Naish also establishes a pattern that would repeat throughout Batman movies: the villain being more compelling than the hero.
Batman was popular enough that it got a sequel in 1949, Batman and Robin.
If you want to catch up before tomorrow’s airing of “The Bat’s Cave”, chapter two, you can buy Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection on DVD.