Hollywood produced over 500 serial adventures between 1912 and 1956. This chapter in film history remains forgotten to most modern filmgoers, but gave birth to television adventure (like the hit show 24) and ultimately the modern blockbuster film. George Lucas took the Flash Gordon serials as his inspiration for Star Wars, while Spielberg modeled Indiana Jones on the rugged heroes of the "cliffhanger" serials, so named for the suspenseful chapter endings that often involved heroes appearing to plunge fatally from cliffs.
The comic-book character of Batman hit screens in Columbia's 1943 adventure Batman, followed six years later by the 15-chapter serial Batman and Robin. This time around, Robert Lowery (Drums Along the Mohawk) played Batman and his public self, Bruce Wayne. Described by all as a "lazy do-nothing," Wayne makes an ideal disguise for the dynamic detective Batman. Wayne's ward Dick Grayson doubles as Batman's trusty sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder (though at age 25, actor Johnny Duncan hardly qualifies as a "Boy"!).
Batman and Robin is diverting entertainment for innocent youngsters, though the bad guys do wield guns. Jaded adults may be lactose-intolerant to the high cheese factor, but c'mon: it's part of the fun of the old serials. In the world established here, Wayne and his ward live with their butler Alfred (Eric Wilton) in a non-descript suburban home; there, a secret door in a grandfather clock leads to the Batcave, Batman and Robin's laboratory base (bats dangled off-camera provide low-tech shadow effects). Those familiar with the modern Batman suiting-up sequences will chuckle when Wayne and Grayson run to a filing cabinet and pull their costumes from a drawer.
This time, Batman and Robin battle a super-villain called The Wizard. A doppleganger of sorts to Batman, the cloaked and hooded Wizard operates from a cave lab, where he uses "remote-control" technology to ransom Gotham City by disrupting all of its transportation. "With this in operation," The Wizard snarls, "I'll be able to control everything that moves, including man himself." The quaint-looking bay of switches and knobs is fueled by diamonds (fancy that), so The Wizard must send a small army of henchmen on heists. When diamonds temporarily lose their luster, The Wizard goes after the highly concentrated explosive X-90 (and its essential detonators) and technology that threatens to neutralize his remote-control machine. Despite the bad guy's hypnotic power and, later, ability to turn invisible, take heart: The Wizard can never prevail over Batman and Robin!
The story mostly concerns the mystery of The Wizard's identity, which writers George H. Plympton & Joseph F. Poland & Royal K. Cole bury under red herrings for fifteen chapters. Is he radio reporter Barry Brown, who demonstrates suspicious knowledge of The Wizard's crimes? Perhaps he's the private eye, Dunne, who's always conspicuously around The Wizard's crimes. Or maybe it's cantankerous Professor Hamill, who's not as wheelchair-bound as he seems. The story highlights are the action scenes: a precarious fight atop a moving train, fires, explosions, runaway cars, a locked room filling with gas, and a fall from a high-rise building that seems to snuff out Batman for good. Nearly every chapter features fisticuffs between The Wizard's thugs and the dynamic duo.
Despite the typical hurry-up-and-wait serial formula, director Spencer Gordon Bennet kicks things off with a dynamic montage and, though he must sometmies rely on stock footage to pad the action, occasionally employs something more than a flat camera placement (the unintentionally comical opening titles show Batman and Robin looking confusedly in every different direction). Bennet allows Lowery and Duncan's dialogue scenes to unfold listlessly, but then it's all about the two-fisted action, anyway.
Batman fans will recognize the duo's utility belts, though perhaps not the full blowtorch Batman miraculously pulls from his at one point (Batman and Robin also employ large oxygen inhalers). As for the Batmobile, Batman and Robin follows the precedent of 1943's Batman. Wayne and Grayson drive a 1949 Mercury convertible, with the top down; Batman and Robin drive the same car, with the top up. Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?) contacts Batman by way of the Bat-Signal (called, at one point, "the Batman signal"); as in the '43 serial, Robin uses a miniature version to scare thugs.
In point of fact, the Hollywood Batman serials were an important influence on the Batman mythos, as guided by Bob Kane (who's credited with creating Batman) and the DC Comics writers of the Detective Comics and Batman titles. Batman and Robin introduced the character of Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), a photojournalist for "Picture" magazine. Vale is a transparent lift of the archetypal reporter/damsel-in-distress embodied by Superman's Lois Lane, but Vale came into her own over the years (eventually, Kim Basinger played her in Tim Burton's big-budget 1989 film relaunch Batman). According to legend, Bob Kane met Marilyn Monroe at the film's banquet and subsequently introduced the character of Vicki Vale into the comics, in Monroe's image.
As for Batman and Robin themselves, Lowery and Duncan provide an alternative to 1943's Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft: fans are split on which pair does more justice to the roles, essentially generic masked heroes reflecting the lightness of the comics at that time. Lowery is hampered by an inferior costume. Despite updated costumes (darker capes for the twosome and tights for Robin), Lowery suffers inside a goofy-looking cowl that gives Batman a round-headed appearance and outward-poking devil horns. Lowery's Adam West-erly physique drags him down in sometimes clodhopping action scenes, but the more athletic Duncan holds his own when a lousy photo double doesn't replace him. At one time or another, each actor has to struggle around his cape to deliver a punch, lending yet more credence to The Incredibles's anti-cape stance.
Stylistically, one might argue that Batman and Robin set the stage for the series Adventures of Superman, which premiered only three years later. Though rudimentary by ordinary film standards (Bob Kane cracked that Columbia "knocked it out in about ten days"), this serial has enough awkward charm and heroic heritage to keep it perpetually on video shelves.
Chapter Titles: Chapter One: "Batman Takes Over"; Chapter Two: "Tunnel of Terror"; Chapter Three: "Robin's Wild Ride"; Chapter Four: "Batman Trapped!"; Chapter Five: "Robin Rescues Batman!"; Chapter Six: "Target—Robin!"; Chapter Seven: "The Fatal Blast!"; Chapter Eight: "Robin Meets the Wizard!"; Chapter Nine: "The Wizard Strikes Back!"; Chapter Ten: "Batman's Last Chance!"; Chapter Eleven: "Robin's Ruse"; Chapter Twelve: "Robin Rides the Wind"; Chapter Thirteen: "The Wizard's Challenge"; Chapter Fourteen: "Batman vs. Wizard"; Chapter Fifteen: "Batman Victorious."
NOTE: In 1966, Columbia re-released Batman and Robin to theatres, uncut, under the title An Evening with Batman and Robin.
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