Tag Archives: Charles Middleton

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 8: Lured by Radium

Lured by Radium actually does refer to the content of the chapter. It’s almost getting to be a habit for Batman. Unfortunately, all the serial’s other bad habits are in play here.

The recap and resolution of the previous chapter takes a fifth of the runtime. Once again, boring resolution, but at least then Charles Middleton and Shirley Patterson show up. Middleton’s showing the bad guys his radium mine, Patterson drags Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft out there to look for him. It’s in the mountains, which is a nice change from the backlot.

Director Hillyer doesn’t exactly excel on outdoor location, but he certainly does a little better.

Middleton has some nice moments, Patterson and William Austin almost have some nice moments. Everything else is about the same… down to how Wilson and Croft’s Batman and Robin fight goes. It’s particularly noticeable since the recap has their entire previous fight with the same choreography and plotting.

And then the cliffhanger’s kind of dangerous?

The one weird thing is how there’s a Native American character, who isn’t well-portrayed, but he’s still better portrayed than the gangsters. Batman’s racism apparently has layers.

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), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 7: The Phoney Doctor

The best part of The Phoney Doctor is Charles Middleton. He’s the rough and tumble prospector, albeit one who falls for a phoney doctor, but he’s got personality and presence. He’s unexpected. Everything else in Batman, down to Batman and Robin getting beat up yet again, is predictable.

The chapter opens with another lackluster resolution to the cliffhanger. It’s always exactly what it appears to be, only somehow Lewis Wilson survives. It’s a peculiar narrative, just in terms of there not really being any A plot other than J. Carrol Naish’s pursuit of radium. He needs it for some weapon we haven’t seen (or heard about it many chapters).

The one slightly amusing part involving Wilson and Douglas Croft–though, again, they’re perfectly fine, with Wilson’s New Englander blue blood accent oddly fun for Bruce Wayne–is when they report getting beat up to the cops. They got beat up as Batman and Robin.

What if the cops did catch the bad guys?

While Batman is pretty dumb, the screenwriters characterization for Wilson is even dumber.

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), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 6: Poison Peril

Poison Peril actually fits a lot into the chapter. Narrative too, not just racism. Lots of racism this time around, with the screenwriters rushing to fit in slurs.

There’s the exceptionally weak cliffhanger resolution–it’s like they aren’t even cliffhangers as much as pauses in action–J. Carrol Naish plotting with a submarine, Shirley Patterson gets a couple scenes, an all-new supporting character (Charles Middleton), and William Austin getting some comedic moments. Austin (or his stuntman) even gets into some fisticuffs.

Oh, and Batman and Robin actually win a fight. When it’s two against three, they can win. Well, the first time. The second time it’s two against three, they lose miserably. Mostly because Douglas Croft (definitely his stuntman) never can take out his opponent.

Middleton’s got a cowboy hat and a prospector beard; he’s a prospector, so it’s appropriate he’s got said beard. He’s got a precious mineral Naish wants. Naish finds out about it through standard contrivances.

When the chapter’s moving fast enough–once Naish’s submarine intrigue is over–it’s not terrible. It’s not good, but Lewis Wilson and Croft are affable enough leads. Batman only works when there’s enough Bruce Wayne.

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), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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