Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection (1943)
"There, gentlemen, is what happens to the American will to fight."- Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish)
Stars: Lewis Nelson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson
Other Stars: Gus Glassmire, Warren Jackson, John Maxwwell, Charles Middleton, Charles C. Wilson, Ted Oliver, Pat O'Malley, Knox Manning
Director: Lambert Hillyer
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence, racism)
Run Time: 04h:19m:34s
Release Date: 2005-10-18
DVD ReviewA different kind of costumed hero appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. The character of the Batman, modeled loosely on Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel, immediately caught the imaginations of the public even though he didn't have any superpowers. What he did have was ingenuity and a wide variety of devices to help him in his fight against crime. Unlike the superpowered heroes, Batman was a character that could be nearly any man, suitably equipped and motivated. This broad appeal made him a natural for the movies, and his first film appearance, this 1943 serial, takes the character into the fight on behalf of the war effort.
Batman (Lewis Nelson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) have been retained by the government to smash spies in addition to their usual crime-fighting activities. In their civilian identities as wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, they pretend to be unconcerned with such matters, even though Bruce's girlfriend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) works at the Gotham City Foundation, which is doing vital war work with radium. That element is the goal of evil Dr. Daka (or Prince Daka, the serial can't seem to make up its mind as to which), portrayed by character actor J. Carrol Naish. Daka has developed a radium gun that emits a disintegrator ray, and he covets more radium to build an even bigger example on behalf of his emperor Hirohito. But his evil doesn't end there, for those who refuse to join his League of the New Order and betray their country are converted into mindless zombies doing his will. Among them is Linda's uncle, Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire), an industrialist just released from jail, and Daka has no reservations about using Warren to lure Linda and the Batman into his clutches.
Columbia has presented the complete and uncut version of the serial here (though they have not particularly noted the fact on the packaging). As a result, the film is replete with wartime racism with plenty of reference to Japs and approving descriptions of internment by narrator Knox Manning. Naish's characterization is (as typically for the period) far beyond the pale, though his Japanese accent is iffy at best; at times it sounds like a shoddy Bugs Bunny imitation. Of course, the characterization of Batman isn't a lot better; perhaps we've just gotten used to the buff body armor version of Batman in modern films, but a paunchy fellow in ill-fitting tights just isn't convincing from any standpoint. Croft's Robin seems quite boyish, moreso than just about any Robin I've ever seen, leading one to suspect Bruce of child endangerment. The homoerotic aspect of the pair was clearly not lost on the creators even in 1943; in one scene Robin carefully eats a banana next to Batman in a Freudian reference that's hardly coincidental.
The serial has some repetitive elements; most notably Daka's thugs get into an ineffectual fistfight with Batman and Robin in nearly every episode before finally overpowering him, thanks to a suspiciously glass jaw, and sending him to certain doom just in time for the chapter end. You'd think they'd learn and carry a gun or two, but they seem to be very slow on the uptake. For the most part, however, the serial plays fair with the cliffhangers; while we might see the last minute rescue that wasn't shown before, there is little if any alteration of the facts to suit the resolution in comparison to the prior chapter end.
While there are some serious detractions to the serial as a modern entertainment, it does have some positive aspects, beginning with the opening shot of Batman, posed like a stone gargoyle, even lit to appear marble-like. There are some clever James Bondish tricks with cars invoked by Daka's men, and an ironic access to Daka's hideout through a Chamber of Japanese Horrors. There's plenty of goofy science as well, with an odd sense of how radium works and a reference to "animated suspension". Batman gets in some detective undercover work a la Sherlock Holmes by masquerading as "Chuck White," getting access to Daka's gang; unlike many such portrayals, Wilson is barely recognizable as White, and it's a really impressive performance of triple identities. One of the intriguing things about identity in the serial is that for nearly the entire running time Batman and Robin have not the first idea of who they're pursuing; only in the last five minutes do they learn that Daka is the mastermind (though his name was briefly mentioned to them in the first chapter). And of course, what's not to like about a serial that features a pit full of alligators in the bad guy's hideout?
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The quality of the full-frame picture is spotty at best. The first chapter is almost entirely too contrasty, with blown out whites and little detail or texture. Later chapters look much better, but are still subject to softness and dupiness, despite a more adequate greyscale. Most of the episodes feature a greyish thread of what appears to be damage or decomposition about one-third of the frame from the left edge. Speckling, nicks, dirt and other damage of the decades are present in quantity, but for the most part it's watchable.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: As one would expect for a film of this vintage, there's a fair amount of hiss and crackle; it gets louder around dialogue, indicating Columbia has tried to minimize the effect but it's only been partially successful. Several episodes have badly damaged audio tracks that get extremely warbled and are hardly intelligible for a few seconds.
Audio Transfer Grade: C-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 75 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English (closed captioning only)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Extras Review: There are no extras. However, Columbia does provide a handy 'play all' button so you don't have to sit through the copyright notice on each and every episode. Chaptering is adequate, with 5 stops per episode; that's fine for most but gets a little thin on the longer first and last episodes.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsOver-the-top serial marks the Batman's first appearance, and although there are some variances in quality across chapters, at least it is uncut in all its wartime glory. No extras, though, beyond the handy 'Play All' button.
Mark Zimmer 2005-10-18