From 1943, BATMAN was a lot more fun than I expected. To be honest, I'd always been a Republic fan and I approached this Columbia serial without expecting much. But it's enjoyable and compelling in its own way, and encouraged me to check out other well-known chapterplays from that studio.
The Republic cliffhangers had bigger budgets and great stuntmen, and they sometimes looked like as polished as the 'B'-pictures of that era. BATMAN on the other hand is more like an early black & white TV episode. The special effects (car crashes and ray guns and so forth) aren't as convincing, Batman's lab seems seriously understocked, and the solutions to the chapter endings aren't particularly inventive (Batman just dusts himself off and walks away from a plane crash, for example) but none of these things are fatal drawbacks.
For one thing, the fights and stunts are awkward and unspectacular, but they also seem more realistic, like real brawls. Batman and Robin fight gamely but they're not superhuman in skill or strength. Our heroes are shown actually climbng and jumping, without special effects. And it's strangely appealing to see a Batman who is wearing a simple cloth costume, not a gadget-laden black rubber get-up that would weigh a ton and be difficult as a straitjacket to move in. This is a Batman who fits in with other human mystery men of that time, like the Phantom and the Green Hornet. It's odd but Batman seems more real here than he has ever since.
The cast is pretty good, overplaying their roles a bit but that's appropriate. Lewis Wilson wasn't athletic-looking (especially compared to guys like Tom Tyler and Buster Crabbe) but he had the right voice and languid gestures for Bruce Wayne.
And the fact that he played the role in a straightforward and sincere manner helped. William Austin as Alfred added some comic relief from the unbearable suspense and Shirley Pattterson as Linda Paige had surprising charm. (When she's made into a brain-controlled zombie who will follow any orders, many teenage boys in the audience must have had some ideas of their own on what Batman should do next.)
But it's J. Carroll Naish who takes over the serial and runs with it. I've always liked his broad style of acting (remember him as the love-smitten hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN?) and here he plays the Japanese spymaster Dr. Daka as a completely diabolical mastermind. Daka not only compels his American agents to betray their own country and work for Japan (boo! hiss!), he uses the advanced gizmos found in the world of the serials. There's the explosive radium gun, the mind-controlling zombie helmets and a pit in the floor containing hungry alligators. (You just KNOW where he's going to end up in Chapter Fifteen!)
Admittedly, Naish's make-up looks crude today and his accent is a bit strong, but it works. Even a big MGM production like THE MASK OF FU MANCHU had make-up that looked more like a Martian than an Asian. There aren't as many (or as virulent) anti-Japanese slurs as I had expected after hearing the protests when this was re-released on video. Seeing this for the first time, I find the 1966 TV series suddenly makes more sense. The bombastic narration, the death-traps and imminent crashes at the end of the episodes, the wild fistfights.... they were all there back in 1943, just dusted off and put on the small screen twenty-odd years later where they were met with amused condescension. The thrills offered were the same, it was the audience that had changed.
Dir: Lambert Hillyer - 15 Chapters