24 April 2011

"Batman and Robin" The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection

Batman and Robin - The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection
Starring: Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams, Lyle Talbot
Written for the Screen by George H. Plympton & Joseph E. Poland & Royal K. Cole
Produced by Sam Katzman
Directed by Spencer Bennet
DVD Release: 22 March 2005
List Price: $14.94
261 Minutes

Batman (Lowery) and Robin (Duncan) are plagued by The Wizard, a mysterious villain in control of a gang of criminals who do his bidding.  The Wizard takes possession of a powerful new weapon capable of controlling cars, trains and airplanes and begins using this weapon in a series of extortion schemes.  Complicating matters is radio broadcaster Barry Brown, who seems to broadcast inside information about events the moment they've happened; private investigator Dunne, who finds himself at all the right places at all the right times; Vicki Vale, who spends as much energy trying to find out Batman's real identity as she does being captured by the Wizard's thugs.

This is the second and final Batman serial, released in 1949 in the twilight of the serial format.  The budget was obviously low; sets, costumes, effects and stunts are all pretty crude.  Like many Batman screen adventures, this one doesn't seem to know whether to take itself seriously or bask in silliness.  The actors play it straight, but the plot is full of "WTF" moments.  It's easy to appreciate how Hugh Hefner screening this years later at the Playboy Mansion, along with the 1943 Batman serial, helped generate the interest in the character that led to William Dozier developing the 1966 TV series.  There's plenty of "Batman and Robin to the rescue!" action, and some laughs along the way.

I'd be lying if I said I was wholly satisfied with the serial.  I can overlook the poor budget and I'm fine with the tone.  But there are some developments in the final two chapters that arouse immediate attention with the viewer that are never addressed on-screen.  I'm not into spoilers, but I will say that one story element defies a point that is made repeatedly throughout the serial, and it is bothersome to see the flagrant ignorance of the protagonists, as the violation occurs right before their very eyes.

I've read a few early Batman comics, and it's my impression that Batman and Robin did a pretty good job capturing the actual feel of what Bob Kane and his collaborators (chiefly Bill Finger) had been producing in the pages of Batman and Detective Comics.  Younger viewers may become impatient or lose their interest; there's no colorful supervillain here like the Joker or Riddler.  For fans of the Golden Age, though, I think they'll find Batman and Robin a real treat.

As for the DVD presentation, the quality is as good as I suspect it will ever be for this.  There are some instances of white noise, but they're minimal and to be expected.  The sound was very clear; I don't recall anything distracting.  Disappointingly, there are no bonus features save a trio of previews (for DVD releases of Spider-Man 2, Hellboy and an assortment of 1970s police/detective TV shows).  The serials are generally glossed over in documentaries about Batman and his screen career, and it would have been nice to hear about the production and see Batman and Robin placed in its proper context.  Apparently, Columbia had enough hope in 2005 when they released this DVD collection that they could cash in on Batman Begins, but not enough confidence to invest in the project beyond remastering in in High Definition.