originally published April 15, 2012
Little Tokyo, Gotham City. “Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has virtually become a ghost street.”
Yes, we have entered racist Batman territory here. Well, in all fairness, Batman himself doesn’t appear to have been racist, just the narrator and the world around him. This is not only Batman as I’ve never seen him, but it’s Batman as the world first saw him.
Most people know that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (which really begs the question – what went on in the first 26 issues?), brought to life by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane. This happened in 1939, and it didn’t take long for the character to catch on.
Well, as a comic book character anyway. Nothing truly captured the wide American audience’s interest in the late 30s until it showed up on the silver screen, much like a celebrity today isn’t really a celebrity until some facet of their personal life has been reported on TMZ. In fact, that’s actually a more important determining factor in becoming a modern celebrity than actually having to do anything.
So in 1943 Batman was first brought to movie life, in the form of a series of 15 serials by Columbia Pictures. This was prior to the TV revolution, so it was the best medium for this kind of entertainment. Back then, you’d go to see a movie and, instead of sitting through a series of giant commercials, screaming at you to invest in mutual funds the moment John McClane finishes killing bad guys, you’d get other entertainment: Looney Tunes shorts, a newsreel, maybe some Three Stooges, and if you were lucky, a first look at Batman.
These short films were not perfect, but they established some of the staples of the Batman story as we know it today. This is where we first saw the “Bat’s Cave” that acts as the Dark Knight’s lair, and also its secret entrance, hidden behind a grandfather clock in Wayne Manor. Alfred went from a tubby clean-shaven guy into a slender mustachioed gentleman on this Bat-channel, a look he’d soon adopt in the comics. Even the omniscient narrator’s voice sounds remarkably like the voice that bookended the 1960s Batman TV show.
The writers of the serial were veterans at serial shorts, and they knew how to set us up with dastardly cliff-hangers at the end of each episode.
So what happens? We have no Riddler, no Penguin, no Joker. The villain was made up for this serial, and his only gimmick appears to be that he’s Japanese. Dr. Daka has built a device that turns people into mindless zombies that Daka can control with his “special microphone”. Pretty scary stuff.
That’s Dr. Daka, played with exquisite 1940s racism by Irish New Yorker J. Caroll Naish. Naish made a living playing other ethnicities: he was a radio and TV star as an Italian named Luigi, and netted an Academy Award nomination for playing a Native American in Sahara, released the same year as his turn as a Japanese super-villain. His nickname, and I’m not making this up, was “Hollywood’s One-Man UN.”
Winnipeg native and 1940 Miss California Shirley Patterson played Linda Page, Bruce Wayne’s love interest, and she played it with a good three or four inches of sculpted hair on top of her head.
Robin was played by child actor Douglas Croft, seen here being groped by an unknown assailant.
Croft’s story is one of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries. As a kid, he was tagged to play the younger version of a lot of major roles: Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Ronald Reagan in Kings Row, all in 1942. The following year, at 16 he became the first-ever Robin. He disappeared from show business soon afterward, and was dead by the age of 37. I have looked everywhere (well, Wikipedia, IMDb, and two other websites), and I can’t figure out how he died. As a fellow 37-er, I’d really like to know.
Then we have Lewis Wilson, who sits in pretty good company with Clooney, Keaton, Kilmer, West and Bale as playing a live-action Batman. I mean, okay, he’s not quite as fit and tough-looking as some of our later-era Batmen.
Wilson didn’t do much acting aside from Batman, and a few years after donning the cowl he was beginning a steadier, non-crime-fighting career at General Foods. His son, Michael G. Wilson, has taken up the reins on a different kind of superhero. He’s been an executive producer for every single James Bond film since 1979’s Moonraker. He has also appeared in every Bond film since 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, sneaking in as a speaking or non-speaking cameo. Spotting him in this year’s Skyfall might be an interesting exercise, except that – unlike Hitchcock, another cameo-hog – not many people know or care what Wilson looks like.
At this point I should return to my racist opening remarks. This series was made in the midst of World War II, so it seemed natural to paint a Japanese guy as Batman’s enemy. The line I quoted was spoken by the narrator in the shot leading up to our first encounter with Dr. Daka. There were a few awkwardly offensive comments like this, though as I pointed out, none of them were said by Batman. So I guess… he gets a pass?
Alright, it’s not a perfect adaptation (though it has to be better than 1997’s Batman & Robin). They never even tried building a Batmobile, instead just allowing the caped crusaders to jet around in the same limo Bruce Wayne uses, with Alfred often acting as chauffeur whether or not his passengers were wearing their capes. The utility belts are in the series, but they never get used. At least they don’t have Batman firing a machine gun.
Perhaps the greatest blasphemy is the alteration of Batman’s back-story. The ever-present Hayes Code (which protected audiences in an even worse way than today’s MPAA) didn’t want to depict a vigilante hero. So no mention was made of the fate of Bruce Wayne’s parents; instead, Batman worked for the federal government, fighting crime in an official capacity. Disgusting.
I don’t want to be too critical though. This was an important step in the journey from comic book hero to icon. Its success begat another set of serials toward the end of the decade, then its re-release as a giant marathon movie called An Evening With Batman And Robin in 1965 gave birth to the beloved campy TV series. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a necessary step to bring us to this:
If you’d like to watch a bit of how Batman really Begins, Youtube shall provide.