What’s The Story?

The Wizard, an anti-Batman, has stolen a prototype remote control, which can control any vehicle at all. The remote control is powered by crushed diamonds, so the Wizard’s henchmen have to keep stealing diamonds, while Batman and Robin have to keep trying to prevent them, aided by the radio announcements of Barry Brown, who seems to know a lot about where the Wizard’s men will strike next…

The Goodies
Batman

Here played by Robert Lowery, a studio player who had appeared in small roles in Charlie Chan films and wartime propaganda, before moving up to starring roles in B-movies like Queen of the Amazons. Lowery would later go on to become mildly well-known for his regular role in the TV series Circus Boy, starring a pre-Monkees Micky Dolenz. Here Batman and Bruce Wayne have even less of the characterisation they had in the earlier serial, being utterly blandly heroic.

Robin
Played by twenty-six-year-old Johnny Duncan, whose other screen credits…well, not “credits”, as such… include “Beheaded Man (uncredited)” in Spartacus, “Second Stretcher Bearer (uncredited)” in Plan 9 From Outer Space (and one wonders what it must have been like to work on those two films back to back), “Prom Dancer (uncredited)” in Rock Around The Clock, “Sailor (uncredited)” in The Caine Mutiny, and many, many films in which he played “Jitterbug Dancer (uncredited)”. His performance is precisely as convincing as one would expect given this extensive list of credits.

Alfred
Appears so briefly the actor playing him (Eric Wilton) is uncredited. He’s still British, but no longer the comic relief he was in the earlier serial. Instead he’s just a background character.

Commissioner Gordon
The last of the regular supporting cast for future Batman stories comes into place here, as Commissioner Gordon, who had been head of Gotham police since the very first Batman comic, finally appears. Gordon has a Bat-signal to let Batman and Robin know they are needed, knows the secret identities of Batman and Robin, and is played by the most well-known actor in the story, Lyle Talbot.

Vicki Vale
Vicki Vale is a character who had first appeared in the comics a few months before the serial came out, and one suspects (though I’ve not seen any proof one way or the other) that she was created specifically for the love-interest role in the film.

Vale is a journalist, for the Gotham Gazette in the comics and for Picture Magazine here, who is an admirer of Batman and wants to discover his secret identity, while also being Bruce Wayne’s love interest. The character is clearly modelled on the corresponding character, Lois Lane, from the Superman comics, right down to her appearance.

She is played by Jane Adams in one of the few competent performances in this story. Other than this performance, Adams is probably best known for playing Nina the hunchback in House of Dracula. Sadly, Adams died earlier this year.

The Baddies
The Wizard

While a character named The Wizard had recently appeared in DC Comics stories (a character whose real name was William Asmodeus Zard, in a typical Gardner Fox touch), this Wizard bears little relationship to that one, being instead a super-scientific genius who wears a dark cowl and cape, even when alone, and operates out of a cave. This is, then, the first appearance in screen Batman of that frequent trope, the Dark Mirror of the Hero.

The Gadgets

Still not many, but for the first time on screen we see the Bat-signal, the searchlight which is used by Commissioner Gordon to alert Batman and Robin that they’re needed. In this story, it’s a small projector which is kept in Gordon’s office, and which he wheels over to the window when he wants to project the Bat-symbol on clouds.

We also see for the first time Batman producing a gadget from his utility belt. In this case it’s an oxy-acetylene torch, which is clearly far, far too large to fit into the pouches his belt doesn’t have.

The Batmobile

Still yet to appear. Batman and Robin go about in a Lincoln convertible. They put the top up when they get changed into their costumes in the back seat.

Gotham City
Still looks like 1940s LA.

What’s New?
Nothing. This story adds nothing that has ever been picked up on for future stories, unless as I suspect Vicki Vale was created for the serial.

Review
I’ve been arguing that from looking at these Batman stories we can learn a lot about the time in which they were created; if that’s the case then the main thing we learn here is that the late 1940s were very like the early 1940s but without the virulent hatred of Japanese people.

Other than the big mystery about the real identity of the Wizard, this is essentially the same story as the earlier serial — a supervillain has stolen a powerful invention that could be used as a weapon, but it also needs a constant supply of a valuable substance to power it. The villain sends out his henchmen to steal that substance, and Batman and Robin beat them up. The villain kidnaps the love interest, and eventually Batman and Robin beat the villain.

It has the same plotting style as most serials of the time — a style later adopted by 90s platform video games. Batman and Robin solve a simple problem and beat up a bad guy, only to find there’s a slightly more difficult problem and harder bad guy, all the way to the end, at which point they beat up the biggest bad guy and win.

These early serials are difficult to review in any sensible way, because they’re not trying to do anything at all other than be fifteen minutes of screen time a week. This one has some advantages over the earlier serial — it’s not entirely devoted to hating Japanese people, and the production design is much better (the Batcave here is clearly recognisable as the Batcave we will come to know in the future, and quite impressive for such a low-budget production) — and many disadvantages (the acting is even poorer, and the sheer grotesquery of Daka’s death-traps is not mirrored here), but you could swap episodes of the two and very few people would notice the difference.

Whatever you say about the 1966 TV series, which we will move on to next, it had a clear artistic direction. Other than the production design and Jane Adams’ performance, this could be replaced with a card saying “will this do?” and nothing much would have changed. It doesn’t even have the campy pulp fun of the earlier serial.

Much like the late 1940s and early 50s themselves, this is dull, conformist, unexciting, and conservative. It’s the “return to normalcy” writ large — this was a time when mass culture was all about pretending that a gigantic world war hadn’t really changed anything, and that everything would go back to a dull normality.

Of course, that wouldn’t last…

Personnel
Cast

Robert Lowery: Batman
Johnny Duncan: Robin
Leonard Penn: The Wizard
Jane Adams: Vicki Vale
Eric Wilton: Alfred
Lyle Talbot: Commissioner Gordon

Crew
Sam Katzmann: Producer
George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole:Writers
Spencer Gordon Bennett: Director

[These are being published several weeks in advance on my Patreon, where I've just posted the third 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 Joker's scheme to use his own utility belt to defeat Batman, 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.]

6 Responses to “Batman On Screen: Batman & Robin (1949)”

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    Tiny Wayne Manor in this (I can’t remember if they call it Wayne Manor).

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