One of the great things about DVDs is how the major studios can really surprise the buying audience. Out of nowhere like a bat out of hell (pun intended) Columbia TriStar announced that they were releasing Columbia Pictures’ 1949 BATMAN AND ROBIN serial, much to the delight of super hero and cliffhanger fans everywhere. This DVD was most likely released in anticipation of the upcoming BATMAN BEGINS starring Christian Bale, but whatever the reason, it’s most welcomed. Here on this two-disc set are all 15 episodes of the serial, uncut and presented the way they were meant to be seen.
BATMAN AND ROBIN was issued to theaters six years after Columbia’s original Batman movie serial, THE BATMAN (1943). Actor Robert Lowery (remembered by monster movie lovers for THE MUMMY’S GHOST, HOUSE OF HORRORS, and others) inherited the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne from Lewis Wilson, while John Duncan took over the role of Batman's loyal sidekick, Robin (“The Boy Wonder”) from Douglas Croft. The premise of BATMAN AND ROBIN is that crime is running rampant in Gotham City, and at the center of it is a mysterious black-hooded figure called The Wizard, who has stolen a diamond-powered remote control device that can stop machinery, and also works as some sort of death ray. Batman and Robin are called into action by the respected Commissioner Gordon (played by character great Lyle Talbot), who summons them with the help of the bat signal (seen on celluloid for the first time here). When the dynamic duo discovers that the machine runs on diamonds, they stake out a diamond store, which leads to a run-in with the well-dressed thugs that work for The Wizard. After numerous perils, Batman and Robin eventually stumble upon The Wizard’s secret underground hideout, where a remote-controlled submarine is used to transport visitors to. Photographer Vicky Vale (played by Jane Adams from HOUSE OF DRACULA and THE BRUTE MAN) is also entangled in the exploits, and is even able to save the day at one point. Naturally, the identity of The Wizard (who in a later episode has the power of invisibility) is left unrevealed until the final chapter, and the usual red herrings are in attendance to keep the audience guessing until the very end.
Now remember, BATMAN AND ROBIN was a produced by the legendary Sam Katzman, so it’s cut-rate in almost every way, having the production values of one of his typical Monogram programmers. While the producers could have taken a loan out or used a Title Max car title loan to get more money they chose to just save money instead. Titlemax can get you a loan in as little as a few hours. Batman’s costume looks like a converted pair of pajamas, while his wool cowl makes him look like a moronic devil at a Halloween party (Robin’s costume is no better, especially with his dime-store masquerade mask). The sets are limited, Bruce Wayne’s manor is nothing more that an upper class suburban home, Batman’s cave and the Wizard’s lair are stocked with army surplus electronics, while The Dynamic Duo drive in a modest Mercury convertible rather than a fancy “Batmobile.” Our heroes are often seen taking their costumes out of a file cabinet and getting changed in the backseat of the car! Also, look for Johnny Duncan’s two unconvincing stunt doubles (one who is a much stockier, balding guy) and bad continuity/editing errors, such as Robin taking off his mask, cutting to a close-up where his mask is back on, only to see him remove it again. And try to imagine Alfred the butler (played by a feeble-looking, 67-year-old Eric Wilton) theoretically standing in for Batman, wearing his costume and roughing it with a group of burly thugs!
But this exercise in crude poverty row thrills is part of what gives BATMAN AND ROBIN its charm. Unlike Adam West and Burt Ward in the beloved 1960s TV series, Lowery and Duncan play it completely serious, despite the cards their handed. At first, they might appear a bit dry in their roles, but once the story lets loose, they fit into the characters nicely and actually have fitting chemistry, making a good crime-fighting team always one step ahead of the villains. There’s lots of punching and car chases (shot in fast motion), a decent score by Paul Sawtell (who also worked on such pictures as THE FLY and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH), and each episode lives up to its “cliffhanger” status by concluding in explosive danger, while the subsequent installment inserts how our heroes escaped it. Call it nostalgic, mindless fun, or whatever, but BATMAN AND ROBIN: THE COMPLETE 1949 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION really is enjoyable.
All the chapters run about 17 minutes each, with the first one actually running over 27 minutes. Each includes the tag at the end to watch for next installment “at this theater” next week. Disc one contains chapters 1-8 which are: 1. Batman Takes Over, 2. Tunnel of Terror, 3. Robins Wild Ride, 4. Batman Trapped, 5. Robin Rescues Batman, 6. Target-Robin, 7. The Fatal Blast, and 8. Robin Meets the Wizard. Disc two contains chapters 9-15: 9. The Wizard Strikes Back, 10. Batman’s Last Chance, 11. Robin’s Ruse, 12. Robin Rides the Wind, 13. The Wizard's Challenge, 14. Batman vs. The Wizard, and 15. Batman Victorious. The entire show runs approximately 261 minutes, and moves at a brisk pace.
The DVD of BATMAN AND ROBIN: THE COMPLETE 1949 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION looks really nice, and shows how much better vintage serials look when their authorized and not a budget public domain release. Apparently culled from the original negative, the full-frame, black and white transfer is sharp, well-detailed and has deep blacks. There is some speckling on the source material, as well as what appear to be light horizontal editing splices, but no footage is actually missing and the entire presentation is quite enjoyable to view. The mono audio is also surprisingly clear. Optional Japanese subtitles are included. There are no extras, just some promotional trailers.
Columbia TriStar’s colorful, attractive packaging owes more to the recent animated Batman teleseries than to an old-time serial, but with “1949” stamped firmly on the front, and the back revealing that star Lyle Talbot appeared in PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE and GLEN OR GLENDA, no buyer is likely to be duped into thinking he’s purchasing something he’s not. Robin himself, actor John Duncan, has his own Web site, and you can visit it by clicking HERE. Highly recommended. (George R. Reis)
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