Batman: Looking back at Columbia’s 1943 series
Matthew Turner | On 08, May 2022
Produced by Columbia, a black-and-white Batman serial was made in 1943, just four years after the Caped Crusader made his comics debut. Commercially successful in cinemas at the time (when each chapter would play before a movie every week), the series had a theatrical re-release in 1965, which directly inspired the 1966 Batman TV series.
The series is notable in terms of Bat-history, not just for the first live-action incarnations of Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft), but also for establishing several elements that would become part of the character’s mythos, such as Batman’s penchant for disguises or the Batcave and its secret entrance via a grandfather clock in Wayne Manor – there’s even a crude version of the Bat-signal, as Robin shines a Bat-light on a wall to distract some criminals. In addition, the series is directly responsible for the comics’ portrayal of Alfred as a tall man with a thin moustache (resembling actor William Austin), as prior to the TV series, Batman’s faithful butler was decidedly more portly in stature.
In terms of the cast, the only characters from the comics are Batman / Bruce Wayne, Robin / Dick Grayson, Alfred and Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), who was Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend at the time in the Golden Age comics. Oddly, there’s no Commissioner Gordon, although Charles C Wilson’s Police Captain Arnold serves the same purpose, just without the special relationship.
Alongside the similarities, there are a number of interesting differences between the comics and the serial. Most obviously, there’s no Batmobile, largely due to the series’ very low budget – instead, Alfred drives the Dynamic Duo around in a 1939 Cadillac convertible and they frequently change in and out of their costumes in the back of it. It’s also curious that the Batcave is primarily used to frighten and intimidate villains into revealing information – you wouldn’t catch any subsequent Batmen casually revealing the Batcave secrets in such a manner.
Unfolding over “15 exciting chapters” (much like the Flash Gordon serials), the plot takes place in contemporary 1943, with America still very much at war with Japan. Consequently, the villain – created for the series – is a diabolical Japanese mastermind named Doctor Daka, played by character actor J Carrol Naish, who’s working for the Japanese government. That gives rise to the series’ biggest problem, in that it’s very much of its time and there are a significant number of racial slurs scattered throughout, with even the narrator using some unfortunate terms.
That decidedly troubling element aside, Daka himself makes a delightfully diabolical villain, with Naish’s performance making him sound exactly like Peter Lorre. Daka is also a villain in the classic pulp tradition – he has both a zombie machine (which he uses to turn people into remote-controlled automatons) and a secret alligator pit beneath a trapdoor in his headquarters.
Given the structure of the serial, every episode contains a decent amount of Bat-action. The fights are surprisingly well staged – the punches look good and there’s lots of jumping about. Amusingly, it quickly emerges that Batman’s signature move is climbing a wall and then crashing through a window, even when it would have made a lot more sense for him to take the stairs. Admittedly, the fight scenes are slightly undermined by the hilarious stunt doubles for Batman and Robin – Batman’s is decidedly more heavy-set, while Robin’s is almost twice the size of 16 year-old Douglas Croft.
Serials in the 30s and 40s were famous for their cliffhangers and Batman doesn’t disappoint in that department, even if at least half of the resolutions involve a bit of cheating, eg. Batman jumping free of a car just before it goes off a cliff and explodes or, the most egregious example, escaping an exploding building through a previously unseen trapdoor. The cliffhangers also have an amusing knock-on effect with the narration at the end of each episode (subsequently parodied by the 1966 show) – since most of the cliffhangers involve Batman’s apparent death, it’s always Robin going it alone in the teases for the next chapter.
In addition to the great cliffhangers, the serial also has a number of fun comic-book-esque ideas, from the elaborate, mad scientist-style design of the zombie machine to the use of a self-painting car for quick disguises. One of the most bizarre examples – which feels straight out of a horror comic – involves the Japanese delivering a message to Doctor Daka by sending him a body in suspended animation, which relates the secret message after being electrically revived and then dies immediately afterwards.
Happily for fans of pulp, the serial also contains that all-time classic death trap: spiked walls that close in from either side. That leads to the series’ best cliffhanger – Batman getting crushed by spikes while Linda is getting zombified in the next room. There are some nice quirky little touches too, such as Batman putting Bat-stickers on the heads of the criminals he leaves tied up for the police.
The tone of the serial is largely serious – certainly when compared to the 1966 show – but there are nonetheless moments of self-referential humour, most notably when Batman and Robin escape a cliffhanger by cheating a bit and remark to each other as something explodes: “Glad we missed that!” Similarly, there’s a very amusing in-joke whereby Batman gets “killed” so many times that Daka believes there are multiple Batmen.
The performances are decent. Wilson (who looks a lot like Jon Hamm) has a bit of a Boston accent (which he indulges in one of his disguises) but does at least manage to delineate between the Batman and Bruce Wayne personas, while Croft makes an appealing Robin, even if his wild hairdo makes it blatantly obvious that Dick Grayson is also the Boy Wonder.
Elsewhere, Austin largely plays Alfred for comic relief (“Hurry up! I’m getting murdered here!”), while Patterson is slightly more than the usual clueless love interest-slash-damsel in distress, even if she doesn’t get to do any actual fighting – although there is a fun moment when Daka amuses himself by making Zombie Linda slap a tied-up Batman and she does so really hard.
Ultimately, the Batman serial is a lot of fun and remains a fascinating watch for its place in Bat-history, even if it’s dated extremely badly in terms of language and content. It would have been so much better with a Batmobile, though – it’s a shame Columbia couldn’t have ponied up those extra Bat-bucks for a set of Bat-wheels.