Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Batman & Robin" - The Motion Picture Serial (Spencer Gordon Bennet, 1949)

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Produced by Sam Katzman
Cinematography by Ira H. Morgan
Art Direction by Paul Palmentola
Set Decoration by Sidney Clifford
Editing by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner
Musical Direction by Mischa Bakateinikoff

Robert Lowery Jr. ... Bruce Wayne/Batman
John Duncan ... Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson/Robin
Jane Adams ... Vicki Vale
Lyle Talbot ... Police Commissioner James Gordon
Eric Wilton/Alfred Pennyworth
Ralph Graves ... Winslow Harrison
Lyle Talbot … The Wizard
Don C. Harvey ... Henchman Nolan
William Fawcett ... Prof. Hammil
Leonard Penn ... Carter - Hammil's valet
Rick Vallin ... Barry Brown
Michael Whalen ... Private Investigator Dunne
Greg McClure ... Henchman Evans
House Peters Jr. ... Henchman Earl
Jim Diehl ... Henchman Jason
Rusty Wescoatt ... Henchman Ives
Knox Manning … Narrator (voice)

Anti-Social Professor Hammil's Remote Control device, which enables the user to take over any motor vehicle within 50 miles, is stolen by The Wizard. Batman and Robin must now prevent the Wizard from obtaining diamonds, needed as fuel for the device, and also rescue magazine photographer Vicki Vale.


Chapter Titles

1: Batman Takes Over
2: Tunnel of Terror
3: Robin's Wild Ride
4: Batman Trapped
5: Robin Rescues Batman
6: Target - Robin!
7: The Fatal Blast
8: Robin Meets the Wizard
9: The Wizard Strikes Back
10: Batman's Last Chance
11: Robin's Ruse
12: Robin Rides the Wind
13: The Wizard's Challenge
14: Batman vs. Wizard
15: Batman Victorious


Following the immediate success of the original 1943 serial, Columbia made quick work of jumping back onto the Super Hero bandwagon.

Following the first “Superman” motion picture serial starring Kirk Alyn in 1948, the studio saw fit to bring their initial success back to the silver screen with 1949’s “Batman & Robin.”

This time around, thanks to the end of the war, Batman and Robin are sent on a blazing case unabridged by the presence of Axis forces. As a result, it feels more in line with the adventures of the comics, uninhibited by the need to act as propaganda.

Batman (Robert Lowery) and his Boy Wonder protégé (John Duncan) come across a bizarre wheelchair bound professor named Hamill (William Fawcett). The professor has developed a Remote Device capable to seizing control over any car or motor-powered vehicle within a certain distance of the device’s location.

At first the dynamic duo thinks nothing of it, until the device is stolen by a masked evil-doer calling himself the Wizard.

Using the device to take control over Gotham City, the Wizard seeks to steal vast amounts of diamonds, the material used to power the device, to continue his stranglehold over the city.

Now, with the aid of Police Commissioner Gordon (Ed Wood alum Lyle Talbot) and beautiful photojournalist Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), Batman and Robin must fight to reclaim the device, unmask their foe and put an end to the Wizard’s reign of terror once and for all.

“Batman & Robin,” for me personally, is a tad more enjoyable than the original serial out of the mere fact that it includes more of the Batman lexicon into its vocabulary. Now I don’t want to be misunderstood; the base thrill of seeing the world’s FIRST live action take on the character in and of itself is incredible.

But unlike the first serial (despite the fact that it introduced audiences to the Batcave, which later went on to become part of the comics), here we’ve got a number of iconography to relish, including the flesh and blood introductions of Commissioner Gordon, the Bat-Signal AND Vicki Vale.

With the war over, the story was liberated to be more like its corner newsstand source material, right down to the inclusion of gangsters and, more importantly, a costumed adversary.

This was the second serial for a comic book character but it was not the first time that it was done.

Flash Gordon, Don Winslow, The Spider, Tailspin Tommy, Jungle Jim, The Green Hornet and Secret Agent X9 had all had 2 or more.

Dick Tracy leads the pack with four serials.

But unlike these others, which may have had one or two changes in cast, “Batman & Robin” cleaned house, leaving no one from the original.

Veteran Robert Lowery, who referred to himself as "the King of the B's", was a fairly good choice for Bruce Wayne/Batman. His dead panning of Wayne's dialog contrasted with the oh-so-serious speech of Batman. He possessed the build and obvious athleticism to bring a certain authenticity to the role, maybe even more so than Lewis Wilson.

John Duncan had been around doing juvenile roles for several years (including the “East Side Kids” series), and now had matured some, giving him both the youthful appearance and the gymnast-like musculature that Robin would have. As the Chapter Titles suggest, I might add, Robin gets a bit more attention this time around (also thanks in large part to being a title character now).


The most welcome addition to the cast, for me personally, is Lyle Talbot’s authoritative yet warm take on Jim Gordon. Sure there’s nowhere near the emotional weight and relationship fans have come to embrace between him and Batman, but you can sense a mutual respect between both men in the same manner as Adam West and Neil Hamilton’s take seventeen years later. Just on principle, Gordon’s presence is appreciated and the character is a clear step up from “BATMAN”s Captain Arnold. It’s a great performance for what time Gordon is afforded. Talbot would go on to portray the villainous Luthor in the serial sequel “Atom Man vs. Superman” and he was a regular for notorious director Edward Wood in films such as “Glen or Glenda?” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”

Like many motion picture serials, they DID employ a hooded mystery man villain as the "brains" heavy. The project utilized the gimmick of including several on screen suspects to keep the audience guessing for 15 chapters as to Wizard’s true identity. This works as an obvious means of keeping the audience returning to be sure and, being a comic book fan, a more ‘super-villain’ oriented antagonist is arguably a slight step up from Dr. Daka. However this does beg the question: If the filmmakers wanted to go this route, why not use one of the great members of Batman’s rogues from the comics?

By the serial's beginning run in 1949, several key villains such as the Joker and Catwoman had been successfully introduced.

If “Atom Man vs. Superman” was able to include Luthor, I find it odd that Batman’s rogues, which have always blown Superman’s out of the water both narratively and visually, weren’t utilized. After all we’re talking about the difference between a super-powered adversary for the Man of Steel and, say, a jewel thief with a cat motif. Given the modest budget afforded movie serials, it makes no sense that a more ambitious foe like Atom Man is fine while the easier-to-pull-off Catwoman isn’t.

As far as the actual production, “Batman & Robin” is along the same lines as its 43 predecessor. Inevitably cheap in appearance what with its stock musical score and cliché set pieces, the serial at least catches the spirit of the comics it’s trying to emulate.

The action is just as pulse pounding and all around it’s a lot of fun.

All in all, “Batman & Robin” is a fun watch here and there. In a lot of ways it improves upon “BATMAN” and, on that basis alone, fans should find it quite entertaining. One could argue that it isn’t as distinct a milestone as the original serial but it stands as a worthwhile continuation of Batman’s exponential popularity throughout the 1940s.


Here is the first part of "Batman Takes Over;" the first Chapter from "Batman & Robin."

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