I’ve been talking about a series of Batman posts for months so I felt it was about time I wrote one!
In the late 70s and 80s, the BBC broadcast movie serials from the 30s and 40s often during the long, dark winter months. Thus I was introduced to Flash Gordon, Vultan of Mongo, the Clay People, Killer Kane and the king of the Rocket Men. (I’ve also just learned Flash and Rocket Man were resurrected for Xmas 1991 on BBC2!)
Nowadays, thanks to internet vendors, I’ve been recreating those distant days with the adventures of Captain Marvel, the Shadow and this year, Batman.
The 1943 Batman serial is a fairly racist kiddy adventure but in the context of the war years, the gung-ho prejudice is perhaps understandable -if not excusable. Despite the evocative pulpy chapter titles- Mark of the Zombies; The Sign of the Sphinx; Embers of Evil- it’s a pretty dull and plodding Californian affair but it introduces two elements recognisable to modern Bat-audiences.
First is the ninny Alfred, an impulsive yet dithery gentleman’s gentleman. This rather effete figure was a re-imagining of the portly cockernee introduced in 1943’s “Here Comes Alfred”.
The slender, balding and mustachioed butler was the version I grew up with-reinforced by the refined yet plucky version on tv portrayed by Alan Napier and much later by the etoliated Michael Gough. Nowadays, Michael Caine’s grave and paternal Alfred has inspired the bruisers who buttle in the Batverse- more of that another time.
But the second element of Bat-lore introduced in the film serial is the Batcave itself. It’s remarkable to think that this stony dungeon, equipped with only a filing cabinet, a sizeable desk, a prison cell and the silhouettes of rubber bats would become the nerve centre we know today.
B’n’R are played by Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft: the latter is a scrappy 16-year-old with an untameable bramble of hair. Wilson, only 23 or so looks perhaps a decade older by modern standards ( a world in which Brad Pitt looks ten years younger at least than fifty). Wilson’s Wayne is a shallow, frivolous fellow but interestingly, when in the guise of underworld drifter “Chuck White”, his physicality changes and he resembles a tough, young Mitchum. Batman’s impersonation of crooked Chuck prefigures his “Matches Malone” role in the 70s. Unfortunately, the 1943 costume is unflattering, the bat-ears look like Hallowe’en horns and the athletics are too gracelessly real.
The villain of the serial, the improbable Tito Daka, is played by J. Carroll Naish, a character actor of Irish descent. The fiendish Daka, both a doctor and a prince(!) is a spymaster reporting to Hirohito himself. His schemes include a radium death ray and a brainwashing machine. His Shogunate lair is hidden behind a ghost train ride depicting a brutal POW camp. A fun day out, then.
Unlike the villains of other serials- the hooded Scorpion, the imperious Ming or the enigmatic Black Tiger- Daka really enjoys being eeeevil: terrorising heroine Linda Page ( cafe society girl turned nurse from Batman#5) and chuckling sadistically. Patriotic Bats dismisses Daka as a dirty Jap and Tito falls into his own alligator pit at the serial’s climax.
Daka returned, after a fashion, as the leader of a group of Japanese super-villains ( including Kung and Tsumami) in the pages of 1985’s All-Star Squadron.
In future posts, we’ll look at some of the giant Batman issues of the Sixties and Seventies, and unearth a few more obscure Bat-foes.
Coming soon: Ice Warriors and the Club of the Damned
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