Batman On Screen: Batman (1943)

December 13th, 2014


What’s The Story?

Dr Daka, a Japanese spy, has kidnapped Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend’s uncle, to try to force him to join a gang of criminals intent on stealing radium for a prototype radium gun, which he will use to bring about Japanese victory in World War II. Batman and Robin have to stop him.

The Goodies

Batman
“Clad in the sombre costume which has struck terror into the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld”, Batman is “on special assignment from Uncle Sam”, hence being out of the army. As Bruce Wayne, he appears callous, lazy, self-centred, and stupid, but as Batman he goes out and beats up criminals, leaving them tied to lampposts with notes for the police and a bat-symbol stamped on their foreheads.

He takes a somewhat mean-spirited delight in lying to his girlfriend, standing her up, and letting her down in order to appear as Batman, sniggering with Dick Grayson as he tells her his latest feeble excuse over the phone.

His costume is more or less that of the comics of the time — a grey bodystocking with black bat logo, black trunks, cowl, cape, and a large utility belt. Sadly, the belt is pulled up to his ribcage, giving a somewhat comical look.

He has a Boston accent, making Bruce Wayne seem convincingly old-money.

Robin
Along with Batman, he “represents American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it.” His costume is identical to that of the comics, and Douglas Croft’s enthusiastic performance contains the seeds of Burt Ward’s later portrayal, but intended perfectly seriously, with all the good and bad that entails. Croft was sixteen when he played the role, and looked younger, so we have here the only true “Boy Wonder” in live-action Batman.

Alfred
Bruce Wayne’s cowardly, stupid, hapless, but loyal, British chauffeur, with a fondness for pulp magazines and comics. Alfred here is simply a loyal servant who happens to know Bruce Wayne’s secret identity. He’s treated as a third member of the team, but mostly provides comic relief (for certain values of “comic” and “relief”).

The Baddies
Daka

Doctor (or Prince, the scriptwriters apparently couldn’t decide) is a Sinister Oriental Mastermind in the Fu Manchu mould, although from Japan rather than China. He uses mind control, has a secret organisation infiltrating the US to bring it down from within, and has his own alligator pit. His secret lair is under a horror house showing Japanese atrocities.

The Gadgets
Oddly, the first film appearance of Batman has none of the gadgets which make the character so appealing — not even a batarang. This Batman uses nothing but his fists to defeat the bad guys.

Daka, on the other hand, has no such scruples — he uses an “electrical brain” to control people and turn them into zombies, and menaces people with his radium gun.

The Batmobile
There isn’t one. Instead, Alfred drives Batman and Robin around in Bruce Wayne’s Cadillac convertible. No-one seems to notice that Bruce Wayne’s chauffeur is driving Batman around in Wayne’s car.

Gotham City
Gotham has not yet become a major “character” in the Batman films. Here it looks just like 1940s LA — and in fact, Bruce Wayne gets a message addressed to 1918 Hill Road, Los Angeles, California, rather than to anywhere in Gotham.

What’s New?
The 1943 serial adds two major ideas to the Batman “mythos”, although both would undergo major changes over the years.

The first is Alfred. Alfred had shown up in the comics a few months before the serial came out, but he was overweight, clean-shaven, and wanted to be a detective. The 1943 serial gives Alfred the look he has had to this day — gracile, rather than robust, balding, and moustachioed.

The second, and a totally new element, is what is described in the serial as “The Bat’s Cave”, but which would shortly become known just as The Batcave. In the serial, this is a rather unprepossessing affair — simply a small cave with an office desk and a couple of chairs, and its main use is as somewhere to threaten criminals — being a superstitious and cowardly lot, they will give up any information rather than be left alone in a dark cave containing some bats.

Review
“I hear you’re a racist now, Batman”

The main thesis of this series of reviews is going to be that by looking at a long-running but versatile character like Batman, we can come to learn quite a bit about the times in which the character has appeared. And that’s never truer than in this first cinematic Batman story.

Within minutes of the start of the story, the voiceover narrator has said “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.”

And this tone is consistent pretty much throughout. While one cringingly accepts a certain amount of low-key stereotyping in films from many decades ago, this serial is virulently racist, having all the characters, including Batman himself, freely using racist slurs against Japanese people. Given that the serial was made less than two years after Pearl Harbor, that is perhaps to be expected, but it’s certainly not something that can be condoned, and it makes the serial itself well-nigh impossible, especially in those scenes in which Daka, the main villain, is present.

Daka is played in yellowface by J. Carrol Naish, a white American actor who built his career on playing unspecified ethnic characters. Naish seems unable to even get his racism right, as his accent careers wildly round the globe, sounding like Peter Lorre one second and Minnesotan the next, with occasional swerves into Australia and Pakistan, but somehow never actually hitting either a real Japanese accent or the stock racist comedy Japanese accent, even by accident.

Trying to review anything else about the serial seems a bit like asking Mrs Lincoln how she liked the play — when your story starts with praising the internment of people in camps on racial grounds (and after opening with the overture to Rienzi, the opera that inspired Hitler to enter politics), saying “yes, but the performances were good” doesn’t really cut it.

Which is a shame, because there must have been much to enjoy watching this at the time (assuming you had a virulent hatred of the people of Japan, which admittedly a large proportion of Americans would have in 1943). It’s not clever, or in any way subtle — it’s just fifteen episodes, of between ten and twenty-five minutes, in which Batman or one of his allies would get out of a certain-death situation (falling off a tall building, being held over an alligator pit, being unconscious in front of a speeding train), get into a punch-up with some generic gangsters (and these are none of your modern martial arts choreographed graceful athletic performances, just a bunch of middle-aged paunchy men punching each other in the stomach and generally acting like they’re in a bar fight), tie them up and leave them for Captain Arnold (a character who is Commissioner Gordon in everything but name, and who reguarly gets angry at his men for needing Batman to catch criminals for them), before getting into another death-trap.

The surprising thing is that this works as well as it does, stripped of pretty much everything that makes Batman interesting. And in many ways this is the live-action Batman that’s most realistic — for all the claims about the realism of the later versions of the character, one suspects that Batman in real life would be a paunchy bloke in a body stocking going around hitting men with cauliflower ears and driving around in a normal car.

But it’s not something, really, that anyone needs to watch today. In ten-minute chunks it can be fun enough if you can get over your natural repulsion at the racism, but should certainly not be shown to the children who were its intended audience, while watched in one go it’s simply a slog — twenty minutes of story and several hours of padding.

Its main use now is as a cautionary lesson. In the wake of the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon in 2001, a nasty anti-Arab strain entered American culture, which mirrored the anti-Japanese hatred of the 1940s, and which is sadly still all too prevalent. If filmmakers, writers, and musicians want their work to be respected in decades to come, they could do themselves a favour by avoiding the excesses shown in films like this.

Personnel
Cast

Lewis Wilson: Batman
Douglas Croft: Robin
J. Carrol Naish: Daka
Shirley Patterson: Linda Page
William Austin: Alfred
Charles C. Wilson: Captain Arnold

Crew
Rudolph C. Flothow: Producer
Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker & Harry L. Fraser: Writers
Lambert Hillyer: Director

[These are being published several weeks in advance on my Patreon, where I've just posted the second Batman 66 TV series post, which will not appear here until the new year. If you want to find out what I think about the Penguin's scheme to get Batman to plan a crime for him right now, sign up to support my writing at $1 per month or whatever you can afford. If you can't afford anything or don't like the idea of me having money, they'll all turn up here for free eventually anyway.]

4 Responses to “Batman On Screen: Batman (1943)”

  1. Zakaria Says:

    Prince Daka?

    Isn’t Prince Dakkar the alias of Captain Nemo?

    Nemo + Fu Manchu?

    Looks like Batman’s struggles with “Ra’s Al Ghul” go back further than I was aware.

    ..speaking of Middle Eastern boogeymen being prevalent… or at least an exotically bearded Liam Neeson.

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    That’s a REALLY good point that I wish I’d noticed…

  3. Zakaria Says:

    Aw shucks.

    Well that’s the beauty of the internet, collaboration.
    I was vaguely aware of the 40s Batman serials but I wasn’t planing on watching them any time soon. So the only reason I’d ever notice is because of your spoonfeeding me the relevant data.

    Looking forward to the next course(PUN!).

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