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Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (May 26-Sept. 1, 1949)

Batman and Robin
Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Columbia Pictures

Batman and Robin was the second live-action Batman movie to hit the big screen.

The first, simply titled Batman, was also a 15-episode Columbia serial. It starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, and was directed by Lambert Hillyer, the man who made Dracula’s Daughter (1936), one of my favorite Universal horror movies.

The 1943 version had a slightly darker and more sinister tone than the 1949 version. I believe it featured the first appearance of “The Bat Cave,” and emphasized the Gothic elements of the Batman mythos. The title card and music were far superior to the 1949 version, and Wayne Manor looked a lot better.

Batman 1943

On the other hand, the 1943 version had slightly less impressive stunts than the 1949 version, and was made during World War II, so the 1949 version is probably a better choice to watch with your kids, unless you want to have a conversation with them to explain lines like “a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”

The 1949 version was made by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet, the same creative team behind the serial Superman (1948), which starred Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Batman and Robin stars Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader and Johnny Duncan as the Boy Wonder.

Katzman and Bennet’s version starts out less impressively than the first Columbia serial. Batman and Robin leap onscreen, ready for action, and then stand there looking around as the music plays and the credits roll, as if they’ve lost something and can’t find it.

Maybe they’ve lost the keys to their 1949 Mercury convertible, which they drive in lieu of a Batmobile.

Batman 1949

Both serials have their good points and their bad points. Unfortunately, neither is a comic-book masterpiece like Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), but both are essential viewing if you’re a serious Batman fan.

Katzman’s Batman and Robin is campy fun if you like chapterplays, and I think it works a little better than Katzman’s Superman, if for no other reason than Batman looks great in black & white, whereas with Superman it seems as if something’s missing without those bright blues and reds.

Unlike the 1943 serial, the 1949 version features Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot). He has a little portable Bat Signal in his office that he can turn on and wheel over to the window to beam the sign of the bat onto clouds. It’s ridiculously tiny and looks like an overhead projector, and Commissioner Gordon refers to it as “the Batman Signal.”

Gotham Central

Batman and Robin also features Jane Adams as reporter Vicki Vale and Eric Wilton as butler Alfred Pennyworth (the only supporting character from the comics who also appeared in the 1943 version).

Unlike the dimly glimpsed and imposing Wayne Manor of the 1943 version, in the 1949 version Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson, live in what appears to be a four-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home in the suburbs. (Incidentally, this version of “Wayne Manor” is the same movie-studio house that Danny Glover and his family occupied in all four of the Lethal Weapon movies.) When Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson relax at home with Alfred serving them drinks and Vicki Vale stops by, there’s barely enough space for all four of them in the living room.

Oddly enough, the antagonist of Batman and Robin lives in a mansion that looks tailor-made to be Wayne Manor. He’s Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), who’s confined to a wheelchair but can turn himself into a lean, mean, walking machine by sitting in something that looks like an electric chair and zapping himself. This pulp lunacy seems to allow him to don the guise of “The Wizard,” a fearsome black-hooded criminal mastermind. The MacGuffin of the serial is a powerful ray that can remotely control any vehicle.

While I enjoyed Batman and Robin, its flaws are legion. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan are the two most disreputable-looking versions of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson you may ever see on film. Lowery looks kind of like Victor Mature and Johnny Duncan was about 25 years old when this serial was filmed, which makes him hardly a “Boy” Wonder anymore.

Lowery and Duncan

Also, apparently Kirk Alyn — who played Superman — was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, so the costume was designed for his measurements. Lowery was slightly smaller, which means that he’s constantly leaning his head back to see out of the eye holes in his cowl, which is too big for him.

Lowery’s stunt double is fine, but Duncan’s stunt double looks absolutely nothing like him. Unlike Duncan’s full head of dark, curly hair, his stunt double has straight, thinning, light hair, and appears to have a bald spot.

Batman and Robin lacks the technical sophistication of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the colorful pop sensibilities of Tim Burton’s 1989 version, but it’s a lot of fun. I think if you’re a Batman fan you have to accept all the iterations of the character — from the excessively dark, grotesque, and violent comic-book adventures of the ’80s and ’90s to the most ludicrously campy and brightly colored adventures of the ’50s and ’60s. Batman and Robin leans farther toward the campy end, but its black & white cinematography and closeness to the era of the pulps make it a little less silly than the ’60s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. It’s definitely not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a Batman fan you should make the time to watch both the 1943 serial and the 1949 serial.

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Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

Brick Bradford (15 chapters) (Jan. 5-April 12, 1948)

Brick Bradford is the worst of the three Columbia serials produced by “Jungle” Sam Katzman that I’ve seen so far, and that’s saying something.

The previous couple of Katzman-produced serials I watched — Jack Armstrong and The Sea Hound (both made in 1947) — suffered from a similar lack of focus across their 15 weekly chapters, but Brick Bradford takes it to a new level by setting up a tantalizingly trashy science-fiction scenario and then abandoning it halfway through.

Brick Bradford was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr and based on the daily newspaper strip created by writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray that began in 1933.

Brick Bradford was a square-jawed, spacefaring, time-traveling adventurer in the mold of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He’s played by serial superstar Kane Richmond, who also starred in Spy Smasher (1942), one of my favorite serials, and as Lamont Cranston, a.k.a. The Shadow, in The Shadow Returns, Behind the Mask, and The Missing Lady (all 1946), as well as innumerable other B movies and chapterplays over the course of his career. When he appeared in Brick Bradford he was pushing 41, and he would only appear in one more film before retiring from acting — William Nigh’s Stage Struck (1948).

Richmond is definitely not the problem with Brick Bradford. He still looks great and can carry himself in a fistfight. The problem is that it leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end.

Chrome-domed, bespectacled scientist Dr. Gregor Tymak (John Merton) invents an “interceptor ray” that could be used to shoot down atomic weapons, but that could also be easily tinkered with and made into a terrifying weapon. Definitely not something that should fall into the wrong hands.

Tymak has also invented a “crystal door” that can be used to move through space and time, or through what Tymak calls “the fifth dimension.” He uses it to travel to the far side of the moon, which no one has ever seen before. Despite what you may have heard, the dark side of the moon is as bright as high noon in California, has a breathable atmosphere, and is the perfect place to mine “lunarium.” It also has plenty of moonhabitants, who are mostly overweight middle-aged men with capes and Centurion helmets.

Unsurprisingly, producer Katzman’s vision of life on the moon isn’t too far removed from his vision of life in the jungle, but I felt like there was some cheesy good fun to be had on the moon with the evil dictator Zuntar (Robert Barron) and his queen Khana (Carol Forman), and their war against the “exiles,” a group of scientists from the earth who were able to reach the moon and form a utopian civilization. For the first half of Brick Bradford, Brick and his sidekick Sandy (Rick Vallin) travel back and forth to the moon through the crystal door, battling the evil super spy Laydron (Charles Quigley, the hero of the 1946 Republic serial The Crimson Ghost) on terra firma and Zuntar and Khana in orbit.

In chapter 8 of the serial, however, Brick and Sandy use Tymak’s experimental “Time Top” to travel from 1948 America to 1748 Brazil and team up with pirates to find some secret plans Tymak hid in the past among some buried treasure. This diversion is mercifully brief, but when it’s over there is literally not one more mention of the moon or anything that happened on it.

There’s some fun stuff with Tymak’s “Z-ray machine,” which is worn around the neck like a tourist’s camera (Tymak explains that the Z-ray “creates the illusion of invisibility, just as the mirror reflects the illusion of form”), but aside from that the last five chapters of the serial are a boring collection of fistfights and cliffhangers in and around Tymak’s farmhouse in the California countryside. It’s standard serial stuff, and I probably wouldn’t have found it so frustrating if I hadn’t spent every minute wondering what was going on up on the moon. Imagine if a Flash Gordon serial introduced Ming the Merciless in the first several chapters and then completely forgot about him for the climax!

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”