Actor Lewis Wilson was born 101 years ago. Dig this INSIDE LOOK at Batman’s first time on celluloid…
UPDATED: 1/28/22: The late actor Lewis Wilson — the first person to play Batman on screen — was born 102 years ago on Jan. 28, 1920. This piece first ran during 2020’s ROBIN WEEK, but it’s as relevant now as it was then. Dig it. — Dan
Welcome to ROBIN WEEK! One of the greatest heroes in comics history debuted 80 years ago this month — and we’re celebrating with a series of features saluting the Boys, Girls and Teens Wonder. For the complete index of features, click here.
It’s ROBIN WEEK, so it only made sense to take a look at the Boy Wonder’s first time on screen — which, of course, was Batman’s first time on screen, as well. Dig this look back at 1943’s Batman serial, by REEL RETRO CINEMA columnist Rob Kelly:
By ROB KELLY
DC Comics’ Dynamic Duo made their live-action debut in Columbia Pictures’ 15-chapter 1943 movie serial Batman, starring Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Douglas Croft as Robin/Dick Grayson, and J. Carrol Naish as the nefarious criminal mastermind Dr. Daka. Dr. Who? More on him in a minute.
As we have already covered in other movie serial-centric profiles for REEL RETRO CINEMA, movie studios barely seemed to care about the source material when translating comic book characters to live action. In Batman, our heroes are straight up officially sanctioned government agents who are on the lookout for Japanese saboteurs following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda (Shirley Patterson) tells Bruce that her uncle has been kidnapped, the investigation discovers it’s the work of Dr. Daka, who has a plan to steal Gotham City’s radium supply so he can use it to power his ray gun that can dissolve anything. Daka sends his goons to get the radium, and it’s up to Batman and Robin to stop them. But Daka (and the screenwriters) have come up with an interesting twist: accompanying the henchmen is a sort of zombie that Daka controls via an electronic brain implant!
After Batman and Robin apprehend one of Daka’s goons, they oh-so-subtly suggest that the real live bats fluttering around “the Bat’s Cave” are hungry. The terrified goon gives up the secret that the radium has been taken to The House of the Open Door, located in the mostly-deserted Little Tokyo section of the city. This sets up the basic formula, where Daka’s goons show up to a location, Batman and Robin try and stop them, and then Daka comes up with a new plan. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Like what often happens with these serials, a comic book fan has to wade through endless fights with top-hatted goons and scenes of cars driving to and fro just to find bits and pieces that make this serial distinct from all the other Westerns, jungle adventures, and spy thrillers.
For instance, in Chapter One (“The Electrical Brain”), Batman delivers two crooks to the Gotham police, each thug festooned with black bats on their foreheads, a little piece of branding that the Ben Affleck Batman would use to slightly more gruesome effect. In this serial, Batman’s hideout is what he calls “the Bat’s Cave”, and shortly thereafter the comic book version would end up with such a place, arguably still the greatest superhero lair ever created.
Also influential was the serial’s take on Alfred, played here by William Austin (The Gay Divorcee, The Return of the Vampire). In the comics Alfred was always comically portly and slightly clumsy, but following the serial he would become tall, thin, and veddy veddy proper.
At a couple different points, Batman goes undercover (always welcome to this old school Bat-Fan), and Alfred gets included in a surprising amount of the action. There are one or two pretty cool death traps, like when in Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), Batman barely escapes a room with knives sticking out from both walls. This drives Daka, frustrated at his foe’s ingenuity, to bellow, “Batman must be a magician or a devil!”
And that’s the real problem with Batman: its villain, Dr. Daka. Supposedly originally planned to be the Joker (Daka’s HQ is hidden inside a working funhouse), Daka is unfortunately written and portrayed as a World War II-era Asian stereotype, complete with derogatory references to his “yellow skin” and the shape of his eyes. When the narrator tells us that Little Tokyo is mostly deserted, it’s because “A wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.” Yuck.
This new villain was specially created to appeal to American audience’s pro-war sentiments, and it’s unfortunate that instead of simply making the bad guy a spy or mad scientist, the filmmakers chose to wade into jingoism. Every scene that Naish — a gifted actor with a ton of credits like Beau Geste, Sahara and House of Frankenstein — is in just reminds you how unnecessary this change to the serial was. The mind reels as to what this thing might have looked like if it had been the Clown Prince of Crime as the main baddy. Inside his lair, Daka keeps a pit of hungry crocodiles, a very Joker-esque touch for sure.
If you can get past the ugly racism that litters this thing, the other performances are pretty solid. At 23, Lewis Wilson was the youngest screen Batman ever, but he looks older and has a nice swagger, especially in his scenes as Bruce Wayne.
Douglas Croft, as Robin, was only six years younger than Wilson, and they have a nice rapport. Robin doesn’t seem so much like a sidekick than a partner, trading jokes back and forth with a youthful joie de vivre that was always a hallmark of the character. After helping the Dynamic Duo beat up some goons, Linda’s uncle asks what happened to them all, to which Robin cheerfully replies, “We tossed them out the window!”
Costume-wise, yeah, our heroes both look pretty silly in their dime store Batman and Robin suits (Batman’s cape flops around in a less-than-atmospheric way), but the action scenes are generally pitched at such a speed that you don’t get a chance to get too bothered by it all.
As directed by Lambert Hillyer (who helmed a lot of Westerns but also some fun horror/sci-fi entries like The Invisible Ray and Dracula’s Daughter), Batman keeps moving at a brisk pace. And you always have to remember, these serials were meant to be watched a week at a time, where their repetitive sequences don’t get as, well, repetitive.
For whatever reason, when Columbia produced the second Batman serial, Batman and Robin, in 1949, none of the personnel, in front or behind the camera, was brought back to reprise their roles. (Click here for my REEL RETRO CINEMA column on that series.) Comparing the two serials, I think I’d give the edge to Wilson and Croft as Batman and Robin, while happily tossing Dr. Daka into a pit of crocodiles in favor of the 1949 serial’s villain the Wizard, not to mention the latter’s addition of Vicki Vale. So there’s something to be said for both efforts.
Batman was reissued in 1965 (helping inspire the pop culture explosion that was the TV show!) as one very long feature under the title An Evening with Batman and Robin, which sounds like something that would have been hosted by Dick Cavett. A heavily edited version was released on Super 8 (you could find it for sale in the back of a lot of Warren magazines), and then again on VHS and DVD.
Back when I worked at a video store in the 1990s, we had this serial for rent, and I remember being charmed that the people who packaged it actually managed to find a still that made Batman look, well, kinda cool. Decidedly not cool is our very first glimpse of Batman in the movie proper, where he is sitting at his desk, looking like he’s having a major hissy fit.
Like Batman and Robin, Atom Man vs. Superman and Captain America, the Batman movie serial is fun in places and certainly has its charms if you’re willing to sit through the three-hour plus running time. The Dr. Daka character is an unfortunate black mark on the production, but it’s still worth checking out, if only for the performances of Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft, who will go down in the history books as the very first in a long—and ever-growing—line of live action Dynamic Duos.
— The ROBIN WEEK Index of Features. Click here.
— BURT WARD’s TOP 13 Moments as ROBIN. Click here.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the host or co-host of several shows on The Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, The Film and Water Podcast, TreasuryCast, Superman Movie Minute and Pod Dylan.