Director: Lambert Hillyer
Sony Pictures

A few months back, Sony surprised and delighted a lot of DVD buyers by releasing the Columbia-produced BATMAN AND ROBIN serial from 1949. Many fans thought they chose to unleash this rather than their 15-chapter 1943 serial, BATMAN (or “The Batman” as it’s sometimes called), due to racist themes found within the body of the story, much of which is spurted in out in very un PC dialogue. But here it is, streeting on the same date (with similar cover art) as the recent box office smash, BATMAN BEGINS, the first-ever screen incarnation of the timeless DC Comics hero, presented un-edited, the way it was meant to be seen. Classic cliffhanger aficionados can rejoice!

While maintaining their true identities of wealthy bachelor Bruce Wayne and ward Dick Grayson, The Batman and his faithful young sidekick Robin keep busy fighting crime in Gotham City. Their latest foe is a Japanese super villain named Daka. The dynamic duo have their hands full: Daka is assisted by a small army of American traders, as he turns hapless victims into zombies with electrical head devices and steals radium to fuel an atomic ray gun. As nothing he seems to do can stop Batman and Robin, Daka abducts Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Page, until our heroes uncover his hidden lair.

Serial devotees seem mostly divided when comparing the 1943 and the 1949 Batmans. Personally, I find the 1949 version more enjoyable and better produced, but that’s not to say that the 1943 version isn’t a hoot. As Batman, Lewis Wilson does a nice job. His Bruce Wayne is always grinning and playing it up as the carefree bachelor type while his Batman takes all the heroic credit. He even goes undercover as a hood to infiltrate the bad guys. Douglas Croft is not only the first, but also the youngest actor to play Robin/Dick Grayson and he pulls it off convincingly straight, despite looking puny when fighting burly thugs with his high mop of hair. Shirley Patterson is very striking as Bruce Wayne’s main squeeze, but she is given little to do except be frustrated at her beau’s inconsiderate attitude and be a damsel in distress. In the 1950s, Patterson would change her name to Shawn Smith, and was a B-movie leading lady in such monster epics as WORLD WITHOUT END, THE LAND UNKNOWN and IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. William Austin plays Alfred the butler comically, and he’s fun to watch. The most delicious performance goes to L. Carrol Naish. New York-born Naish was well known for playing characters of various ethnicities, with his turn as Japanese spy Daka among them. Naish is colorfully wicked in the role, with his Asian make-up and dialect being quite credible for a kiddy-aimed serial of this ilk.

With tacky costumes, highly visible stunt doubles, and embarrassing fast motion fight scenes galore, BATMAN has very shoddy production values, which adds to its nostalgic charm. The Batcave – later a staple in the comic book, the TV series, and the movies to follow– actually made its debut here. Basically, it’s one set with a bulky office desk and a bunch of bats on strings flying overhead. Wayne Manor is simply represented by one set with a grandfather clock that our heroes enter from. There’s no Batmobile, only a Cadillac that the duo can change into their costumes in the back seat. Daka’s secret hideout is pretty neat, lodged inside a “Japanese House of Horrors” funhouse attraction, and equipped with the usual trap doors and torture devices. Since this was shot during WWII, it’s no surprise that the villain was Japanese, allowing for a lot of stereotypical remarks (when Batman first sees Daka, he yells, “Ah… a Jap!”), but this was a sign of those times, and thankfully none of this content has been removed for this DVD release.

The episodes are as follows: 1. The Electrical Brain, 2. The Bat's Cave, 3. The Mark of the Zombies, 4. Slaves of the Rising Sun, 5. The Living Corpse, 6. Poison Pearl, 7. The Phony Doctor, 8. Lured by Radium, 9. The Sign of the Sphinx, 10. Flying Spies, 11. A Nipponese Trap, 12. Embers of Evil, 13. Eight Steps Down, 14. The Executioner Strikes and 15. The Doom of the Rising Sun. Each runs around 15 minutes, with the first segment being a few minutes longer. The entire program runs approximately 259 minutes.

The DVD of BATMAN: THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION looks really nice, and shows how much better vintage serials look when their authorized and not a budget public domain release. The first episode does look washed out and dupey, especially when compared with the other 14 segments to follow. Aside from the inferior Episode 1, the full-frame, black and white transfer is sharp, well-detailed and has deep blacks. There is some speckling on the source material, but nothing too drastic. The mono audio is clear, but dialogue is sometimes a bit low. Episode 2 does not have a “Coming to this theater next week” tag, but apparently since this was culled from the original source, that’s the way it's meant to be. I’ve seen bootlegs of this series where the tag was obviously spliced into the conclusion of Episode 2, but the narration was spoken by a different voice, so perhaps some versions were shown like this when it was re-released in theaters.

No extras here, but again, it’s just great to see Sony unleashing such longtime fan favorites like this on DVD! (George R. Reis)