Sunday, April 14, 2013

Batman (1943)

“BAT-MAN, yes BAT-MAN: clad in the sombre costume which has struck terror into the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld!”

My multi-volume VHS copy of this Columbia Pictures chapter play, released eighteen months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, kept me from offing myself throughout middle school.  The Batman mythos was still embryonic only four years after the character’s comic debut.  But this serialized tale, his earliest celluloid incarnation, shoehorns it into the war effort.  The results are mixed, but so are my feelings about everything.

The Dynamic Duo appear as operatives for the U.S. government rather than independent vigilantes.  Their daunting task: to foil a sinister agent of Emperor Hirohito, mad scientist and would-be Japanese Colonel Sanders lookalike “Dr. Daka,” whose evil ministrations reduce high-profile Americans to freakishly strong but mindless playthings christened as “Zombies” in his electronic laboratory.  His ultimate aim: to acquire vast quantities of radium for the construction of an atomic “lethal mechanism so destructive as to make retaliation by [the enemy] impossible,” thereby ensuring his nation’s victory in the war (sound familiar?).

The series is notable in part for introducing story elements that later became iconic.  Most importantly, it was here that the public first encountered “The Bat’s Cave,” Batman’s subterranean headquarters whose secret entrance is Wayne Manor’s grandfather clock.  Prior to these films, Batman housed his vehicles and equipment either in an “underground hangar” never actually depicted in the magazine or comic strip, or in a dusty old barn somewhere on the Wayne estate grounds.

This earliest version of the Batcave is pretty modest, consisting of a small stone room “hewn from the living rock of the mountain,” featuring a single desk, some filing cabinets and a bat emblem mounted on the wall.  This “strange, dimly-lighted, mysteriously secret Bat’s Cave” (quoth the narrator) is basically a study, though in later episodes an adjoining crime lab is revealed.  At any rate, great things have small beginnings.  And it’s better than a damn barn.

Other artifacts from the era have aged more gracefully, but the show has a certain charm.  At any rate, its shortcomings were entirely lost on me after I discovered it on a dusty Suncoast shelf in the mid 90s, so I refuse to acknowledge them now.  And I think the main theme prefigures Danny Elfman’s brooding score for the 1989 film.  I won’t say what nocturnal capers were inspired by my adolescent infatuation with it.  Just know that if you do not watch it, we’re finished.

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