I’ve been on a bit of an old superhero TV / movie binge lately. And in doing so, I’ve been a bit of a sucker for punishment. After writing about the 1943 serial Batman here, I pushed on and watched the sequel–Batman and Robin, a 15 episode serial from Columbia Pictures, released in 1949. The serial features Robert Lowery as Batman and Johnny Duncan as Robin.
Batman and Robin is a 15 chapter serial starring the famous titular superheroes. It was their second such live action project, coming 6 years after their initial effort. That earlier serial was a bit of a mess for a variety of reasons, so I didn’t have high expectations coming into this film. In some ways, those concerns were justified, but in others the serial was a huge improvement.
First, let’s just state the obvious: the movie doesn’t feature everyone screaming “A Jap!” every time they bump into the villain (a good actor but in Asian makeup), or narration extolling the virtues of the government for relocating those “shifty Japs” out of their homes and into camps. (Of course, it also doesn’t feature any Japanese or other non-white characters for anyone to say anything to, but that’s another issue). This doesn’t necessarily make the serial better exactly, but it makes it way less awkward or cringe-inducing.
In addition to this, the storytelling is on the whole more solid. The action sequences are more daring, the cliffhangers are by and large more gripping, and the overall structure is less rambling. Batman himself is genuinely physically imposing–he seems like someone who could easily break your face with one punch, and at one point fully picks up two goons, one in each hand, and clocks their heads together.
And there is a legitimate effort to make the identity of the Wizard (the story’s villain) a mystery.
Of course, it’s all built on an incredibly silly plot that is full of much daft science. The villain–the mysterious, hooded mastermind known as the Wizard–has stolen an invention that allows him to take control of any moving vehicle, a feature which is demonstrated on a small model car. It does this by somehow controlling the vehicle’s electrical system, which I’m pretty sure does not make any sense with cars, especially from 1949. Maybe you could use it to stop a car, but to steer it?
And oh, did I mention it’s powered by diamonds?
Oh well, it’s just one of many silly aspects of the story, when you consider that the Wizard also has a scanner which allows him to basically watch any place in the city on his monitor screen, all without the benefit of actual cameras. And later, the Wizard is able to combine the machine along with a neutralizing ray (which is supposed to counteract it) in order to render himself invisible, of all things.
There are a number of suspects presented to us who could be the Wizard. The most obvious is crotchety Professor Hammil (played memorably by William Fawcett), who is normally in a wheelchair but occasionally zaps himself with a special machine which enables him to walk.
In fact, he seems so obviously to be the Wizard that I thought it wasn’t even supposed to be a question. But later this turns out to be a red herring (a huge, underdeveloped red herring: nobody every finds about his special walking machine aside from the audience and it’s never commented on in the story at all–people even see him walking and don’t remark about it). The real Wizard turns out to be Hammil’s attendant, Carter (Leonard Penn), who is basically a non-presence in the story until the last couple of episodes. Carter appears to die but that turns out to be his twin brother that nobody knew about. So anyway, it all gets kind of confusing.
Other than being physically tough, there’s not much to Batman in this serial. In the original, Lewis Wilson was able to create a pretty funny dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego, but I’d say that Robert Lowery isn’t as sharp at this. His costume also fits even less well than Wilson’s did, especially the cowl–he seems to always have to be tilting his head back and looking a bit downward to actually see anything.
The presence of Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) means that there are more familiar Bat-characters involved, but neither of them are interesting personalities in anyway. Alfred (Eric Wilton) is more of a non-presence this time around (last time he was comic relief and got to be involved in the action at times).
The “batmobile” is again just an ordinary car (or a couple of cars, I think). The batcave (or Bat’s Cave) is back a bit and again has shadows of bats flying around, and this time around we add the bat-signal: a lamp that Commissioner Gordon has in his office which he shines out a window with almost supernatural brightness in order to ask for Batman’s help. More than once, Robin also shines a miniature bat-signal through windows so crooks will see it and think that Batman is outside.
One last notable oddity: the musical theme for this serial is an instrumental version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, the popular Civil War song. Why? Who knows. Its an odd fit. And the opening of each episode featured Batman and Robin seemingly trapped behind the credits of the serial, before starting to move forward.
Also, there’s someone there named Greg McClure as one of the henchman.
That’s the same last name as me, though I’m not aware of being related to him at all.
Anyway, on the whole I’d put this serial ahead of the 1943 in terms of quality, but only somewhat. It’s still not especially good, but in general I found myself less bored.