DVD Review: Batman (1943)

Batman 1943 Serial (DVD)Batman (1943)

Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, Shirley Patterson, J. Carrol Naish, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, Knox Manning, John Maxwell, Ted Oliver, Dick Curtis and Emperor Ming.

Directed by Lambert Hillyer.

Batman was a mere four years old when he first made the leap to the silver screen in 1943. At the height of World War II and Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) secretly work for the United States government. The dynamic duo receives their assignments via coded letters and telegrams notifying them that criminal elements intend to steal shipments of radium.Gotham City apparently received shipments of radium about as frequently McDonalds receives shipments of McNuggets.

The criminal element in question: an underworld gang run by Doctor Daka (J. Carrol Naish), an agent of Emperor Hirohito who has designed a disintegrator gun that requires radium to function. In Daka’s diabolic hands, the disintegrator gun would undoubtedly be used to destroy the infrastructure of the United States and prepare the country for its ultimate dominance by Japan.

Yes, Batman is without question a product of its time. For example, here is how the narrator describes an all-but abandoned area of Gotham City known as Little Tokyo:

This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street…

Later, when Bruce Wayne’s fianceé, Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) meets Doctor Daka, she shrinks back and exclaims, “A Jap!”

“Please to say, ‘Nipponese’,” Daka admonishes.

Detainment camps and racial slurs that might make current-day audiences chuckle nervously aside, the 15-part serial is pretty standard stuff: lots car chases and awkward fistfights, each episode culminating with the apparent death of the Batman in an explosion, fire, or crushed beneath whatever the crooks see fit to drop on his cowled head.

The serial did have a definite impact on Batman in the comic books, as it introduced both the batcave (called “The Bat’s Cave” in the movie) and the current version of Alfred. Prior to the movie serial, the comic book version of Alfred was rotund and clean-shaven, but Bruce Wayne’s on-screen butler (portrayed by William Austin) was tall, thin and mustachioed. He was also rather high-strung, a personality trait not generally seen in current incarnations of Alfred.

Perhaps the best thing about the Batman 2-disc DVD set is its presentation. The DVD cover art and disc menus bear a strong resemblence (especially in terms of color scheme) to Warner Brothers’, dark, edgy Batman Begins marketing material and DVD packaging. It’s a deliberate mimicking, as evidenced by the tagline on the back cover: See how Batman really began.

Apart from being a (very pretty) blatant rip-off, the packaging also fails to represent the movie versions of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder. In fact, there isn’t a single screen shot from the serial anywhere on the DVD cover, front or back.

Here’s the front cover/disc one menu artwork:This seems to be a classic Batman pose: the Dark Knight swooping in with his arms spread wide, cape flaring out behind him, one knee drawn up and the other leg fully extended. The wrapping paper Miscellaneous G™ used features the 1980’s-era Batman in a nearly identical pose.

Batman Disc 1 Menu
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Here is the back cover/disc two menu art:

Batman Disc 2 Menu
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Finally, here are Batman and Robin in all their glory:

Robin and Batman
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That’s a far cry from the Nomex survival suit and graphite cowl worn by Christian Bale, and Lewis Wilson isn’t wearing a utility belt so much as a utility girdle, but that’s definitely a bat on his chest and a cape on his back. For better or for worse, he’s the first of the movie Batmen.