Don’t confuse this with the infamously bad Joel Schumacher film from 1997. This serial was produced in 1949. You may recall that last week I reviewed the first serial from 6 years previous. Now it’s time to see how the sequel holds up. Except it’s not really a sequel. None of the original actors return, and much has changed from the original. If anything, it’s closer to the comics now.
Batman and Robin: The Complete 1949 Movie Serial CollectionFORMAT: DVD PUBLISHER: Sony Pictures, originally produced by Columbia Pictures STARRING: Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams, and Lyle Talbot WRITERS: George H. Plympton, Joseph E. Poland, and Royal K. Cole. PRODUCER: Sam Katzman DIRECTOR: Spencer Bennet
PLOT: Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are still Batman and Robin, ace crimefighters. Their opponent this time is a man known only as The Wizard, who has stolen a device that can remotely control any machine. There are numerous suspects, with only Alfred the Butler, Commissioner Gordon, and Vicki Vale as their allies. Who is the Wizard and what is his ultimate goal?
ANALYSIS: Batman and Robin should not be compared to the previous serial, as the 1949 serial has no connection to the 1943 Batman serial, save for having the same narrator (which was just Columbia’s stock narrator anyway). None of the actors return, the costumes are different (and not for the better in Batman’s case), and circumstances have changed for our heroes.
The Dynamic Duo are no longer depicted as agents for the government but resume their status as vigilantes technically, but ones who work with the police. Commissioner Gordon (Talbot), who is finally in this story, even has a small Batsignal, which can amazingly work in the daytime as Gotham City must have a permanently cloudy sky.
Also making an appearance from the comics is former Bruce Wayne love interest Vicki Vale (Adams), a magazine news photographer in this version. The character made her debut in the comics a year earlier and like in the comics suspected Bruce and Batman were the same guy. She disappeared in 1963 and would later make guest appearances. You may remember her from Tim Burton’s Batman film, portrayed by Kim Bassinger.
Taking a cue from Republic’s handbook, the Wizard is one of the people Batman and Robin encounter during their pursuit of the villain and his organization. Suspects include the inventor of the remote control machine, Professor Hamill (William Fawcett,) who is an invalid, but has a machine that allows him to at least temporarily walk around–which nobody knows about. This leads to a plothole near the end of the serial, where he is clearly walking in front of Batman. Other suspects are radio reporter Barry Brown (Rick Vallin) who always seems to know what both sides are going to do next, the private investigator he hires, Dunne (Michael Whalen), and Hammil’s valet, Carter (Leonard Penn). There’s quite a twist to whom the Wizard actually is, and they do a good job of keeping you guessing until the end.
(I also give them credit for the unique way the Wizard hides his lair, with three secret entrances and a submarine before you get there.)
Not that everything is perfect. The cliffhangers are pretty decent, but nothing spectacular. Outside of a few moments, it lacks some of the death traps of its predecessor with most the near-death experiences being brought on by the Wizard using the remote control and later a counter-device that he steals and rigs to turn himself invisible. This idea comes out of nowhere but it gets the villain out of his lair where there’s the possibility of his getting caught. Otherwise, it’s science straight out of the 1960′s TV series. Also there is no Batmobile again, although instead of the small limo from the first serial the good guys use a 1949 Mercury which Vicki easily recognizes as Bruce’s car. (In one scene he even has to say that Bruce allowed him to use it. I’m sure that curbed Vicki’s suspicions.) The Batcave returns, but Alfred (uncredited as Eric Wilton for this serial) has a reduced role, once playing Batman to keep Bruce’s identity a secret when he goes undercover and is captured, but otherwise staying out of it. That’s too bad, as he was less of a joke than in the previous serial.
The big crime, however, is the Batman costume. The ears are too small and look more like horns. Otherwise, it would be a great costume (both his and Robin’s cape flow beautifully when they’re running or pouncing on crooks) except it doesn’t look like it fits Lowery very well. It’s really too bad.
Otherwise, this was a well-done serial and without the baggage of the anti-Japanese war propaganda today’s fans may find it easier to enjoy. Personally, I like them both and would encourage fans of serials and Batman to give this one a look.