Saturday, September 1, 2007

BATMAN SERIALS

Because most major home video companies will only release many of their older catalog titles if there's a way to tie it in to a new studio release, we owe BATMAN BEGINS for the 1943 Columbia movie serial BATMAN – and its 1949 follow-up, BATMAN AND ROBIN – being released on DVD.

For those unfamiliar with movie serials, they were multi-chapter movies that ran in weekly 15-minute installments at most movie theaters during the Thirties, Forties and early Fifties. Each episode tended to end with the hero in some sort of danger, a situation that would not be resolved until the beginning of the next week's chapter. Hence, the other colloquial name for these action-packed chapter plays, "Cliffhangers."

These Cliffhangers usually were shown at Saturday matinees, and were therefore aimed at a primarily juvenile audience. Since kids tended to be less demanding in those days, serials were often produced on remarkably low budgets, starred minor studio contract actors and substituted fistfights and car chases for complicated plotting.

Both of Columbia Studios' Batman serials were clearly products of that kind of thinking. BATMAN stars Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, the Boy Wonder (which makes the only time on screen that Robin is actually portrayed by a kid). The plot, such as it is, hinges on the sinister machinations of Japanese spymaster/saboteur Dr. Daka (played by the talented character actor J. Carrol Naish) and the Dynamic Duo's attempts to thwart his evil plans. The serial is full of politically incorrect, wartime racial slurs, and even as a pop culture product of its time, it's kind of startling. Yet, I commend Sony (a Japanese-owned company) for releasing this uncensored.

The 15 Chapter serial comes in a 2-disc set designed to resemble the advertising and DVD dress of BATMAN BEGINS, and it's appealing if a bit misleading. The first chapter looks pretty bad; washed out and contrasty. But, beginning with Chapter Two, the quality of the presentation makes a marked improvement, with a nicely detailed, well-balanced black & white image for the rest of the serial. There's some age-related print damage here and there, and some spotty degradation, but overall, it's a fine presentation. I'm guessing that Columbia couldn't find a good 35mm source print for the first episode and used the best they could find, probably a 16mm dupe. There are no extras provided, not even liner notes, which might have placed the serial in its proper historical context.

BATMAN AND ROBIN, made six years later, stars Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader and the somewhat mature John Duncan as Robin. This time, their adversary is the mysterious Wizard, who possesses a miraculous remote control device, which allows him to control pretty much any machine in Gotham City. It's fast-paced fluff, if somewhat cut-rate (For example, in neither serial is there a Batmobile, and in the second, Batman tools around in the same convertible he drives as Bruce Wayne. This leads ever-observant girl reporter Vicki Vale to ask: "Does Bruce Wayne know you're using his car?"). Like the other set, the overall technical presentation is solid, if bare bones.

Fans of the Caped Crusader will be interested in these two sets so as to experience the first appearance of their hero on film, and collectors of Cliffhangers will be glad to have decent-quality copies for their libraries. I'm both, so I happily recommend both releases.

BUY: Batman - The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection

BUY: Batman and Robin - The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection