I’ve been wanting to do a blog series on pre-DC Cinematic Universe Batman and Superman movies for a few years now. It’s about time to kick it off. For this blog series, I’ll only be looking at live action cinematic releases, so no TV shows, no animated movies (as fantastic as some of them are), and of course no DC Cinematic Universe movies. I’m also not completely sure that I’ll cover everything, because this list gets really complicated with multiple film studios, and so many different actors and directors. That said, I’ll throw in a couple of spinoff movies, like Supergirl (1984), Catwoman (ugh) and Steel (starring Shaq). And yes, it’ll also include the 1966 movie that’s based on the Adam West TV show.
The first movie we’re looking at isn’t really a movie. It’s a 15-episode theatrical serial, which you could say was a precursor to TV shows. But since it received a theatrical release, I’m counting it. There were actually two serials, the second released in 1949, but I’m only looking at the first one.
The 1943 Batman serial is historically significant in several ways. 1, it’s the first on-screen appearance of Batman, whose first comic appearance was just over 4 years before the first episode released. It’s the first ever appearance of the Bat Cave in any medium, called the Bat’s Cave in the series. It also introduced the secret entrance to the bat cave through a grandfather clock that’s been used several times since. The appearance of Alfred in the series affected how he’s been visually portrayed ever since – before that he was drawn as a fat man. And of course, the serial format helped inspire the Adam West show.
Because my personal life’s been a bit busy in the last couple of weeks, I wasn’t able to find the time to watch the full series. It’s also why I didn’t find the time to post this last weekend. This full series runs at a total of 260 minutes – over 4 hours long. Even watching a handful of episodes at a time, I only saw the first four episodes and the last two. But I feel that these 6 episodes were enough to give me a good idea of what the show’s like and what it’s about.
First off, I was mistaken when I said it’s a silent film in my last Sean Connery post. It’s not. You hear the characters talking, punching sound effects, and some very familiar music that I’m pretty sure has been used in a number of silent film parodies. That said, there was a home video release in the 60’s that edited it into a 1-hour silent film. Also, since the movie was made at the height of World War II, it contains a lot of anti-Axis sentiments. At times, uncomfortably so.
The opening narration talks about throwing Japanese citizens in camps as if it’s a good thing, and the main villain is a Japanese madman, played by American Actor J. Carrol Naish with a really fake sounding evil accent.
Batman himself is played by Lewis Wilson, and this is the role he’s most known for. He went uncredited for a number of his roles after The Batman. After his film career ended, he worked for General Foods (which was later bought by Kraft). He lived into his 80’s, in the year 2000. His son, Michael G. Wilson, is a screenwriter and producer who’s been involved in every Bond movie since Moonraker, including the upcoming No Time To Die. These blog posts really are starting to blend together. Douglas Croft played Robin. He was 16 at the time, which also makes him the youngest actor to portray Dick Greyson in live-action film. Croft sadly died at 37 from alcohol poisoning complicated by liver disease.
The movie as a whole feels old fashioned, and I don’t really mean that in a good or a bad way. The costumes are cheap, the cliffhangers are often resolved in disappointingly simple ways, and the dialogue hasn’t aged all that well. But there is a certain charm to the whole thing. You can tell they put effort into some of the set designs and the fight choreography. For the most part, it was faithful to the comics at the time, and the general reception was very good and saw several successful re-releases. In fact, a successful 1965 re-release inspired the Adam West show that ran from January 1966 to March 1968.
The video and audio quality of the episodes varies a bit, but with the exception of the “next chapter” sequence in the second episode, the show is complete, unlike a number of serials from that era that are now completely lost. It’s worth checking out for Batman enthusiasts, because of how historically significant this series is, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. I’m glad I saw what I did see of it to satisfy my curiosity, but I don’t really feel the motivation to watch the rest any time soon.
There were also a couple of Superman serials, but because all of the fight scenes were animated, I won’t be looking at them for this blog series. Maybe someday in the future I’ll look at them for the fun of it. Next up will be Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves as Superman. It’s the first theatrically released film based on any DC comics character. After that, it’ll be the Adam West Batman movie, then we’ll dive into the Christopher Reeves Superman movies.