The character of Batman has a long cinematic history. He was the first comic-book crimefighter to reach the big screen in The Batman, a 15-chapter serial released on July 16, 1943, by Columbia Pictures.
(Prior to Batman, serials featuring pulp-magazine characters the Spider and the Shadow had been produced — also by Columbia Pictures. The first live-action superhero was Captain Marvel, the subject of Republic Pictures‘ Adventures of Captain Marvel, released on March 28, 1941. The first of 17 animated shorts featuring Superman arrived in theaters on Sept. 26, 1941, with the final short hitting theaters on July 30, 1943.)
The Batman serial had a wartime theme, with our hero actually being a government agent who battled the agents of the sinister Japanese superspy Dr. Daka — played with stereotypical relish by character actor J. Carrol Naish — whose main goal was to acquire a super-weapon ray gun invented by an American scientist, whom he had captured.
Six years later, a sequel, Batman and Robin, was released. By this time, Columbia’s serials were being overseen by Sam Katzman, known as “Jungle Sam” for all the cheap, backlot jungle movies he had produced during his career.
If you watch enough Katzman features, you are bound to see the same animals fighting each other and the same group of monkeys swinging through the same trees.
I could not find a definitive budget figure for Batman and Robin, but I estimate its cost equals about 10 minutes of one of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies.
To be fair, Batman and Robin is not a bad serial. It has an interesting mystery villain, the Wizard, whose identity is not revealed until near the finale of the serial’s 15th and final chapter.
Two aspects of Batman and Robin detract from the presentation — its overall cheapness due to Katzman’s budget constraints and its cast, especially the actors portraying Batman / Bruce Wayne and Robin / Dick Grayson.
Journeyman actor Robert Lowery, whose career began in the early 1930s and who had small supporting roles in major studio pictures and featured roles in dozens of B-movies, played the Caped Crusader. At the time, Lowery was 36 years old and a bit thick around the middle. Lowery, of course, did not have to stretch his acting chops here; after all, the target audience for serials were young boys. Still, he looked older than his years.
To be fair: Michael Keaton was 37 when he first played Batman, Val Kilmer and George Clooney were both 36, and Christian Bale was 31. Adam West was 38 when Batman debuted in 1966. Ben Affleck was 44, but he was playing an older version of Bruce Wayne. And for the record, Lewis Wilson (who starred in the 1943 serial) was 23 while Douglas Croft, who played Robin, was 16.
The difference between the aforementioned big-screen Batman actors and Lowery was they at least looked the part — most likely with the help of their Batsuits (and stunt doubles). Lowery’s baggy, ill-fitting Batman costume did not help. He continually tilts his head or looks up to see through the eyeholes in his cowl, and his suit resembles something a mother would throw together for a child out for trick-or-treat. One supposed reason for the suit problem was that it was fitted for another actor, Kirk Alyn, who had starred as Superman the year before in Columbia’s Superman serial. For whatever reason, Alyn did not play Batman, so Lowery inherited the role and the costume.
The costume presents other problems as well. You can clearly see that Batman does not wear a utility belt, but at a couple of critical junctures he turns away from the camera and, abracadabra, he produces a foot-long blowtorch to burn his way out of a vault. Another time, laying a trap for the Wizard in an industrial vault, he pulls out an oxygen mask.
Meanwhile, Johnny Duncan was 26 when he portrayed Robin in Batman and Robin. He knew he was too old for the part, explaining that Katzman could not find a young actor whom he believed was suitable, so Duncan was given the role by default. Like Lowery, Duncan had unbilled minor roles in several films and supporting ones in mainly B-movies. He also was a fine jitterbug dancer and appeared as an uncredited “Jitterbugger” in a few movies.
Another example of budget limitations in the film is Batman’s vehicle. It is not a fancy Batmobile, but a 1949 Mercury, which, as it turns out, is Bruce Wayne’s car. At one point, news photographer Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) asks Batman why he is driving Wayne’s car and the crimefighter tells her that the millionaire playboy lets him borrow it when needed. Right, and of course the intrepid newshound accepts that lame explanation.
Also, there is no majestic Wayne Manor. Wayne and Grayson live in a quaint suburban home. To add further insult, Wayne and Grayson store their costumes in a filing cabinet!
The Bat-signal also is misused. Commissioner Gordon (played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot) utilizes it in broad daylight to summon the Dynamic Duo. Luckily, a passing cloud is blocking the sun so the signal can be seen.
The plot of the serial centers on a remote-control device that can start or stop any motorized vehicle — car, train, airplane — within a certain radius. The machine, invented by crotchety and unsocial Professor Hammil (William Fawcett) has been stolen by the Wizard, who plans to use it to blackmail Gotham City industries.
Among those suspected of being the Wizard are the wheelchair-bound Hammil, who secretly has developed a device that allows him to walk; radio newscaster Barry Brown (Rick Vallin), who always seems to know the Wizard’s plans; and shady private eye Dunne (Michael Whalen), who periodically turns up at Wizard crime scenes. The reveal of the Wizard’s true identity is anticlimactic — and a bit of a cheat.
The serial ends with Vicki, suspicious that Bruce Wayne and Batman are one and the same, in Commissioner Gordon’s office with Batman and Robin receiving a phone call from Wayne, apologizing for breaking a dinner date and telling her he is going on vacation.
Vicki laughs and confesses to Batman her ludicrous assumption, thus ending the serial as Batman, Robin and Vicki have a good laugh at her expense.
The serial, though, is no laughing matter. Yes, it is campy and ridiculous by today’s standards, but it was produced during a less sophisticated and more innocent period in which kids were thrilled simply to see one of their favorite comic-book heroes on a movie screen for 15 consecutive weeks.