Tag Archives: Bob Kane

Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

For the majority of Batman’s fifteen chapters, the serial has a set formula when it comes to the action. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) get into fist fights with the same five or six thugs. Croft gets beat up early while Wilson takes on at least two of the villain, then two or three of the thugs beat up Wilson. They either put him in danger, triggering the chapter’s cliffhanger, or Croft just wakes up and helps him. Or, in the subsequent chapter’s resolution at the beginning, Croft wakes up and helps him.

Even on the rare occasions it’s something different, elements of the formula remain. Screenwriters Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser don’t have much plotting ingenuity. Especially not for fifteen chapters. Other variations to the fight and cliffhanger formulas include whether or not Wilson abandons Croft to the thugs or, you know, whether or not Wilson kills someone. Sometimes he means to kill them, sometimes it’s incidental. The only time he ever stops to worry about it is when it’s bad guys–as opposed to when he kills an innocent civilian through his ineptitude–and, in that case, the bad guys turn out to be dead anyway.

Not much of a role model, this Batman, despite being an official government agent. Or, maybe, because of it.

In addition to Wilson’s careless crimefighting, he’s not really good at investigating. Despite fighting the same group of thugs throughout the serial–and even bringing some of them to his “Bat’s Cave” for rather ineffective interrogation–Batman doesn’t even discover his adversary’s identity until the final chapter. He’s dreadfully bad at his job.

The villain of Batman is J. Carrol Naish. He’s playing an evil Japanese scientist, in full yellowface. The serial is exceptionally racist. Even as wartime propaganda, Batman is a lot to take. The first chapter narration makes special mention of the just internment of Japanese Americans. It, and the way the serial’s heroes are, you know, heroic for their stupid ignorance when they meet Naish, is astoundingly gross. The racism does not, however, distract from the serial’s utter stupidity. Sometimes, though not with Naish’s thugs, it manages to be gross and stupid. Usually it’s just stupid, with occasional flakes of racism.

The worst part of it? Naish gives the best performance in the entire thing. Even though he’s a coniving villain, out to use a giant radium gun to wreck havoc (it’s actually entirely unimportant as the serial progresses), Naish gives the role a lot more characterization and personality than anyone else gives theirs’. He even figures out Batman’s secret identity at one point.

Besides Naish, the best performances are from Charles Middleton and William Austin. Middleton is a radium miner, which seems likes it’s going to be important in the middle chapters of the serial. It’s not, but it does at least give Batman a chance to get off the backlot and go on location in the mountains. Director Hillyer does a little better with those exteriors. He never does well, but he does do a little better there.

But Middleton’s not around for long and, even if he were, it’s doubtful the screenwriters would give him anything to do. Middleton as bearded, folksy mountain man brings energy to Batman, something the serial sorely lacks. Hillyer doesn’t direct the actors’ performances–at least, one hopes he doesn’t, because then it’d be even worse–and Wilson and Croft aren’t engaging. Croft even less than Wilson.

The one time Wilson and Croft do get energized is opposite Austin, who plays Alfred the butler. Austin drives Wilson and Croft around town most of the chapters, whether they’re crimefighting or not. Occasionally, he gets roped into helping them in the crimefighting, which is usually at least mildly amusing. Austin’s got fine comic timing. Timing is another thing Batman tends to lack. Editors Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner are better than anyone else on the crew, but Hillyer’s a lousy director and James S. Brown Jr.’s photography is rarely competent. Lots of bad day for night in Batman. Lots.

Shirley Patterson plays Wilson’s love interest, who just can’t figure out why Batman is always around once Wilson leaves the room (or vice versa), and she’s got almost nothing to do. The serial treats her like an annoyance or a victim or a damsel in distress. Wilson usually just treats her like a pest, condescending or dismissing her. For a while, those moments are actually Wilson’s best as an actor. Until he puts on a fake nose and pretends to be a thug to get in with the gang. Shockingly enough, Wilson’s engaging during those scenes. It’s a downright treat when he skips the Batman costume for a chapter to (stupidly) investigate in his disguise.

Some of Naish’s thugs actually give decent performances–Robert Fiske the most, but also George J. Lewis and Warren Jackson. Competency helps a lot in Batman. There’s not much of it, so when someone isn’t terrible, it’s a big deal.

Sadly, Charles C. Wilson is atrocious as the moron police chief who occasionally pops up to answer Wilson’s questions about bad guys the Batman has apprehended. Even though Naish spends at least half the chapters assuming Batman has died (in the lame cliffhangers), he’s still too savvy to get taken down by the bumbling “heroes.”

The script has no character development, no character relationship development (it’s not like Wilson treats Patterson any differently as things go along, he always treats her like crap), it does nothing with Naish’s various schemes, just kills time. In the end, only the first two and last two chapters are relevant to the narrative. The rest could be chucked… if only we could be so lucky.

But we aren’t. And Batman trucks along, its best chapters never even registering mediocrity, Austin and Middleton’s contributions for naught, Naish’s relative success a debasement.

Though Lee Zahler does eventually get to some good music, albeit only in the last couple chapters.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), Gus Glassmire (Martin Warren), George J. Lewis (Burke), Robert Fiske (Foster), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), Warren Jackson (Bernie), Dick Curtis (Agent Croft), Ted Oliver (Marshall), and Charles C. Wilson (Police Captain Arnold).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 15: The Doom of the Rising Sun

Titling the final chapter, The Doom of the Rising Sun, might give away whether or not J. Carrol Naish succeeds with his awful plan–which Batman never quite defines and sort of forgets about anyway. The screenwriters try to drum up some excitement as Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft finally face off with Naish. It’s rather lackluster.

Oddly, even though the cliffhanger resolution is fairly predictable–just like the previous chapter forecasted–there’s enough built around the resolution to make the reveal nearly interesting. And it gives Croft and William Austin a decent moment.

Then Doom just turns into a rush for the finish. How fast can Austin get the cops, how fast can Wilson chase Naish, how fast can Wilson tie up the bad guys–the only time Batman and Robin prove competent in a fight and it’s the last chapter in the serial.

The last few minutes tie up plot threads from the first chapter. Nothing in between mattered much, apparently, and it goes out with Wilson being a jackass to Shirley Patterson again. It reminds why it was so nice for him to do something else for a while.

Technically, the finale doesn’t attempt much–all the action takes place on existing sets, using already introduced foils. Though it is maybe the first time Lee Zahler’s score is all right, even if it’s just momentarily.

The biggest letdown, besides Wilson’s Batman being just as much of a bigot as the narrator and the serial itself, is how little anything in between the first chapter and this final one mattered. The rest–almost ninety percent of Batman–was prattle.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 14: The Executioner Strikes

The impossible occurs, one chapter until the finish, with The Executioner Strikes actually having a satisfying cliffhanger resolution. A somewhat satisfying one. Better than any of the others.

After that high point, unfortunately, the chapter gets pretty bad for a while. First, it’s dumb, with Lewis Wilson revealing himself to the bad guys without costume, then chasing them down in the car to attack them as Batman. William Austin drives the car the whole time, never in costume. Presumably, unless they’re going to be killed, these guys can identify Wilson as Batman.

And when Wilson, Austin, and Douglas Croft do catch up to them, it’s probably the worst fight scene in a Batman chapter so far. James S. Brown Jr.’s day for night photography is bad enough, but then Hillyer speeds up the film. What wacky antics.

Then it’s time for Shirley Patterson to come back in–she was brainwashed at the open–and for Wilson to fall into a trap he said he was expecting. There’s a lot of costumed Batman about town doing stunt work this chapter. Lots of derring-do.

If the cliffhanger resolution weren’t so predictably setup, it might actually be effective. Though maybe the energy of Batman almost being over just gives it more potential.

J. Carrol Naish is around quite a bit. Despite his entirely offensive performance, Naish does at least try to have some fun, which no one else manages.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 13: Eight Steps Down

Despite the previous chapter suggesting a cliffhanger, turns out the resolution is more about Douglas Croft and William Austin’s impatience than anything else.

But as Batman is now seventy-some percent complete, things start happening in Eight Steps Down. Though nothing about eight steps. There’s a narrative jump between one part of Lewis Wilson and Croft investigating (in costume) and another, so maybe the eight steps are just supposed to be the implied distance they descended?

I guess Eight Steps Down sounds more thrilling than Almost Five Feet Down, but whatever.

J. Carrol Naish’s goons deliver Shirley Patterson to him and, no, it doesn’t turn out she’s any less of a bigot than the serial itself. He’s going to brainwash her to get her to write a letter to Wilson because Naish has decided he must be Batman.

Meanwhile, Wilson is actually doing some investigating and happens upon Naish’s underground layer. You know, the one apparently almost five feet below the surface.

The episode ends with an actual cliffhanger for Wilson and some ominous plot development for Patterson. It’s still clunky, but it’s probably the best Batman has ever been.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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