The two archetypal superheroes made their cinematic debuts in quick bursts of action to be played in front of the movies people came to see. These serials took fifteen weeks to tell their stories, beginning each segment with a quick recap and concluding with a promise of even more intriguing predicaments next time. It was a natural fit for characters born in comic books, and it pointed ahead toward Superman and Batman’s next home, television. Distributed by Columbia Pictures, the serials all have offscreen talent in common. The only actors to appear in both Gotham and Metropolis were Lyle Talbot, taking on the roles of Commissioner Gordon and Lex Luthor, and Don Harvey as a henchman for “The Wizard” and Luthor. The only performer credited in all four serials was Knox Manning, the prolific narrator. His work, though superfluous without the one-week gap between episodes that original audiences experienced, is energetic and amusing. Memorable examples of his mid-Atlantic accent are the emphasis on the second syllable in the noun “ally” and the “/ju:/” pronunciation of the U in “Superman.”
I’ve enjoyed the serials, despite the fact that clearly no one involved thought they were doing anything special. Over on my Tumblr account, I’ve written quick reviews for each serial upon completion and will do so for the fourth and final one, Atom Man vs. Superman, next week. Letterboxd is where I would typically put these write-ups, but I’ve decided (for now, at least) that my Letterboxd account is for feature films only. I’m making things up as I go along, basically, but so were the artists who first brought superheroes to life. So, here are my collected haphazard thoughts on the first leg of my journey through the live-action films of the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel.
Batman (1943) – “Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs…”, J. Carrol Naish in yellowface, etc. etc.
This was 1943, so it’s hardly surprising that Batman would become a servant of the war effort – it’s just odd that his service would primarily consist of punching white guys in fedoras over and over and over again. He doesn’t even realize that his ultimate adversary is a Japanese man trying to build an atomic weapon (!). The action becomes repetitive very quickly, and the cliffhangers have a tendency to cheat, making it look like Batman fell victim to some cruel fate only to later reveal that he got away. For all the obvious deficiencies, though, I found this serial oddly compelling in its extremely old-school approach to superheroics. The fires, the electricity, the shattered windows, the death traps, the hypnotized “zombie” henchmen – if you can’t appreciate it on some level, Batman stories aren’t for you. Here for the first time in the physical world is the primal image of the Dark Knight on the edge of a building, spreading his cape and swooping down on his victims. This is also, I’m pretty sure, the only live-action interpretation of the character that I’ve seen which incorporates Bruce Wayne’s penchant for putting on more than one disguise (i.e. “Chuck White”). The hammy approach to the secret identity business does get tiresome, but the performances were mostly adequate for the purpose of connecting the dots between fight scenes. William Austin’s interpretation of Alfred became iconic. This is a throwaway entertainment, but it’s not that bad.
Superman (1948) – Now that I’ve completed my second serial, I realize I may have been a little too hard on the 1943 Batman and its cliffhangers. “Cheating” might have been more common than I’d like to think. It just always works out that Superman will find Lois at the last possible second, but only after the episode ends with no indication that he’s on his way. It’s not a big deal. Structurally speaking, this has a lot more momentum than Batman, but it also starts to tread water over fifteen episodes. Original audiences probably didn’t find it imperative to watch every segment. Atomic weapons are the MacGuffin once again, with the fear of them having grown much more acute after 1945. The Spider Lady makes for a significantly better villain than Dr. Daka, and not just because the latter was a gross ethnic stereotype. Her iconography is terrific, and the chess match with the good guys is genuinely clever at times. Carol Forman plays her with a real sense of grievance, and that’s all the character development we need. Then there’s Kirk Alyn’s Superman. He does an adequate job with the dual role, lowering his voice to play the hero and having some fun as the mild-mannered Clark Kent. There are many interpretations of these characters, but just based on these two serials, there’s no question that Superman is more interesting than Batman. The latter is just a rich wastrel getting his kicks by dressing up in a funny costume and punching guys. (At least he’s doing it to help the Allies.) Superman is a twice-orphaned immigrant, blessed with tremendous powers and the burden of using them wisely. Lewis Wilson’s Batman didn’t even have to interact with any “good guys” who didn’t know his secret. The whole cast is well-served in this, with Noel Neill’s Lois Lane and Tommy Bond’s Jimmy Olsen getting in on the action repeatedly. Even Perry White gets to fight a henchman in one of the last episodes. The only issue I had with this serial was that it tells a very similar story to the 1943 Batman. Villains try to develop the ultimate weapon; heroes try to find the secret lair. It gets repetitive, of course, but it’s mostly effective. For the special effects, animation was used to make Superman fly. This was a wonderful surprise. I think it looks great. Now that the stage has been set for these heroes, I’d like to see something new in their next adventures.
Batman and Robin (1949) – This serial had mostly the same talent behind the camera as the 1948 Superman, and they all repeat themselves at every opportunity. Commissioner Gordon and Vicki Vale make their first appearances in a live-action film here, and they perform the same duties as Perry White and Lois Lane. Even Gordon’s office is oriented identically to White’s. Vale is, of course, a photojournalist, but she isn’t allowed anywhere near the impact of Lane. Seldom has a major character been brushed aside so often, even disappearing entirely for long stretches. The filmmakers’ focus was directed at the mildly diverting whodunit of the plot. For a time it almost becomes interesting, as Batman and his opponent the Wizard serve as mirror images of each other. Both operate from caves, and both are engaged in learning each other’s secret identities – for at least an episode or so. The plots of these things usually tread water, but this is something else. The villain uses a special weapon to help him steal diamonds so that he can use those diamonds to power the weapon and steal more diamonds. The heroes, meanwhile, try to find out who he is. An inventor, a reporter, and a private detective are all suspects, but there’s no hurry to figure out what they’re all up to. It’s boring, and you can tell that the writers knew it was boring, because they threw in a whole “invisible man” twist in the final stretches. The action is mostly limited to fist fights and car crashes. The best image from this serial is the Bat Signal projected onto clouds. What I find interesting is that the origin story of Batman still hasn’t been touched. It’s every bit as dramatic as Superman’s, but it looks like to date only one film has dealt with it at length.