The Oddball World of 1949’s BATMAN AND ROBIN

REEL RETRO CINEMA: A 75th anniversary tribute!

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UPDATED 5/26/23: The Batman and Robin serial debuted 75 years ago on May 26, 1949! Perfect time to re-present this fun piece by Rob Kelly from 2016. Dig it. — Dan

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Hey, it’s a special REEL RETRO CINEMA two-fer! We’re gearing up BATMAN/SUPERMAN WEEK, so it only figured to have Rob Kelly take a look at our heroes’ filmic roots — namely, two of their serials!

For 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman, click here!

For the complete BATMAN/SUPERMAN WEEK Index, click here!


By ROB KELLY

Did you know there was a film titled Batman and Robin that doesn’t make the average Bat-Fan want to throw themselves in front of the nearest train? It’s true! It’s a 1949 movie serial starring the Darknight Detective and the Boy Wonder squaring off against the mysterious hooded bad guy known as the Wizard!

Batman and Robin was Columbia’s second Batman serial, but featuring an entirely different cast. Robert Lowery plays Batman/Bruce Wayne, Johnny Duncan (who died just last month, at age 92) is Robin/Dick Grayson, Jane Adams is Vicki Vale, and Lyle Talbot plays Commissioner Gordon.

I have a giant, stretched-canvas framed version of this very poster hanging in 13th Dimension's secret lair. -- Dan

I have a giant, stretched-canvas framed version of this very poster hanging in 13th Dimension’s secret lair. — Dan

The Wizard is uncredited until the final chapter, since part of the “cliffhanger” aspect to this story is the Dynamic Duo trying to figure out who he really is. The initial suspect seems to be the uber-crotchety Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), who has invented a device that allows the user to remote control any vehicle in Gotham City. Not too long after confronting Hammil for the first time, the wheelchair-bound inventor calls our heroes “A pack of careless idiots.” See? Crotchety!

The Wizard steals the device, and starts using it in ever-larger doses to show Batman and the GCPD that he means business. The machine runs on diamonds, so that means he has to steal a lot of them to keep it running. He spends a lot — a lot — of time in his secret cave base flipping switches and turning dials, while letting his fedora-d henchmen do the heavy lifting.

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As you can see from the first chapter, where poor Bats has to tilt his head up so he can see through the eye-slits of his dime-store cowl, Batman and Robin is a cheap, cheap affair. Brought to you by the same team that would work on Atom Man vs. Superman, director Spencer Bennet and producer Sam “Eh, Good Enough” Katzman, this 15-chapter adventure has our heroes fighting almost exclusively during the day, which does Batman no favors. Most of the time, he and Robin just look completely ridiculous as they stand around regular citizens, and everyone pretends this is a totally normal set of affairs.

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Considering how rich Bruce Wayne is, he really skimps on the details: There is no Batmobile; instead Batman and Robin drive around in a regular ol’ 1949 Mercury (which is parked right outside Wayne Manor). Batman keeps his costume in a filing cabinet. He has no utility belt, etc. etc. Considering how much more difficult Superman must have been to transform to live action, it’s surprising that his two serials seem more impressive on the superheroic SFX scale. Poor Batman doesn’t even get one scene of him skulking around in the shadows — I guess even night photography was beyond this serial’s budget (somehow the Batsignal works when it’s a bright, clear 78 degrees in the shade).

But there is some fun stuff to be found here! Right off the, er, bat, Batman gets in a fight on top of a moving train, and you can see at least some of it was actually shot for real. When mixed with the process shots, it makes for a pretty exciting action scene, and gives you exactly what you came for: Batman kicking butt. There’s a fun scene where Batman dons a disguise and goes undercover in the Wizard’s gang, a nifty piece of actual detective work that virtually none of the later cinematic Batmen have engaged in.

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But those exciting moments are stretched pretty thin: There’s a whole sub-plot about a radio-show host named Barry Brown, who seems to be in cahoots with the Wizard. He gets a lot of time where he just explains what’s going on, and conveniently it seems that everyone in Gotham listens to his show: Mere seconds after a broadcast, all the characters are marveling at what they just heard.

There are some moments where you wonder if anyone behind the camera was paying attention—the aforementioned Professor Hammil is confined to a wheelchair, and so is ruled out as being the Wizard. Yet in Chapter 14, Hammil is up walking around, right in front of Batman and Robin, and no one says a word! In an earlier segment, Batman mentions going through his “rogues gallery” to look for suspects, yet all he does is shuffle some papers — would it have killed the producers to snap a few photos of actors made up to look like the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, et al? I guess so.

Acting-wise, I enjoyed Jane Adams as Vicki Vale, who is a giant smart-ass to both Bruce Wayne and Batman: When she produces a photo of who she believes is the Wizard, she follows it with: “It’s Carter.” Batman replies, “He’s dead.” Vicki’s retort? “Well, it’s still Carter.” Considering that one of Adams’ previous co-stars was the non-actor Rondo Hatton (in 1946’s The Brute Man), she probably considered trading lines with Batman a step up.

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Unfortunately for the character, Batman is constantly putting her down: At one point he describes Vicki’s job as a reporter thusly: “She’s always going around taking pictures no one ever sees.” Lyle Talbot is OK as Commissioner Gordon — I enjoyed him a lot more as Lex Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman, produced the next year. (Speaking of, the Wizard’s cave hideout looks suspiciously like Luthor’s — maybe the ever cost-conscious Lex leased it from the Wizard once it became available).

Lowery and Duncan are fine, if not all that memorable, in their dual roles as Bruce/Batman and Dick/Robin. Unlike Kirk Alyn in his role as Superman, both actors get credited right there on screen (I guess they weren’t worried about ruining kids’ delicate sensibilities when it came to the Dynamic Duo). As I mentioned before, their costumes do them no favors, with saggy midsections and capes that flop around and look like they just get in the way. Even when Bruce and Dick are alone, they refer to their dual identities as if they are separate people, which is weird.

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In the intervening decades, this and the earlier Batman movie serial have fallen out of copyright, which is why you can find them on VHS and DVD from various cheapjack labels. Some of the sleeve art used has tried really hard to convince you Batman and Robin was something resembling what most modern Bat-Fans might reasonably expect, but don’t be fooled, citizens! Last year TCM showed each installment on consecutive Saturday mornings, which is just another reason why I love that channel.

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All in all, Batman and Robin is a pretty dire affair, but if you go in with very low expectations, you’ll enjoy at least parts of it. It’s a shame that Columbia never thought to combine Batman and Superman in one movie serial — but of course, we all had to wait a lot longer for that to happen.

Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He keeps his Batman costume in a filing cabinet, as well.

You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.

MORE

— REEL RETRO CINEMA: 1950’s ATOM MAN vs. SUPERMAN. Click here.

13 COVERS: BATMAN and SUPERMAN in the Golden Age. Click here.

Author: 13th Dimension

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17 Comments

  1. I do like the Robin suit in this. I’ve often wondered if this suit inspired the 90’s Robin redesign.

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    • Another entertaining review of a Columbia serial. Thanks. I get a kick out of these films – its nice to see what contemporary audiences think of them. One note, neither BATMAN serials are out of copyright (i.e. Public Domain). Both are still owned by Columbia Pictures (Sony). Not sure why DC didn’t retain the rights (like they did on the two SUPERMAN serials). It is Columbia itself who reissues these serials on DVD with exciting, dark, box art. Columbia also owns its BLACKHAWK and SHADOW serials – and have put them out as well in beautiful restored copies.

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  2. I’m a big fan of 30s and 40s serials. Everything you say is true. Regardless of studio, serias were made on the cheap, took a lot of liberties interpreting licensed characters, and left a lot to be desired in the acting and writing departments (especially resolving cliff hangers). The major laughable thing about the B&R serial is the number of times Robin is knocked out from behind. It seems to be the only reason he’s in the serial.

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  3. There is a scene early on where the Professor sits in an electrified chair to stand and walk around. It might be shown 2x. Been a while since I watched this one. Lowery had some good touches. The bit he does where he shrugs to feign boredom before meeting Vicky in his living room is a good bit.

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  4. Not sure in which Batman serial this line is spoken, but at one point, Batman is pulled over by a policeman on motorcycle who asks, “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?”

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    • Batman was never pulled over by a policeman on a motorcycle. The line was from Vickie Vale I believe.

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      • Yeah, it was Vicki. If memory serves, she says something like: “Why are you driving Bruce Wayne’s car?” Batman lamely answers: “He loaned it to us.”

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  5. The Riff Trax guys did their take on this serial, every chapter of it. They start to lose a little steam by the final chapter (especially after having to make up new jokes for each iteration of the opening sequence) but overall it’s one of my favorite of their riffs. Good natured while also having a lot of fun with the serial’s $10 budget you mention…

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  6. I happened upon this series on the Roku channel. It’s pretty funny. The Wizard has all the best toys and poor Batman is driving around in an ordinary car. I guess Wayne industries isn’t doing so well in this series. And did anyone notice that the Wizard has transporters like on Star Trek. His henchman were transported to his lair. Why the heck is he stealing people’s inventions when he as access to 24th century technology? He could just vaporize Batman with a phaser. And he could use replicators to produce all the diamonds he needs. Why bother to steal them? And industrial diamonds can’t be too expensive anyway. He could just buy them with the proceeds from his other criminal enterprises.

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  7. Batman and Robin, in my opinion, is the better of the two Batman serials. Not back in the day, but looking at it now..Robert Lowery’s portrayal of Batman, is lighter like the Tv show of the 60s. Not having a war theme (like the first) the villain , The Wizard with his sci-fi gadgets just stays more up to date today, even though his hardware may not. :),

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  8. In the early 1960s, a local theatre ran one chapter a week during their kids matinee. I went every week. There are a number of problems with the serial, of course, but there was one thing that I still wonder “what were they thinking?” Robin was sitting inside a truck, parked on a city street, and he was so shocked to see Bruce Wayne alive after he thought Batman had been killed that Robin quickly took off his domino mask – while still in costume – and where plenty of people nearby could have seen he was Dick Grayson.

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  9. 1949 Batman cowl is way better then the cowl we saw in the recent Gotham Knights trailer for the CW show.

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  10. I remember buying all 15 chapters in Super 8 sound released by Columbia for the home movie market. I showed them at lunch in high school. Everyone loved em.

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  11. I may be confusing this one with the earlier serial but I think it’s in “Batman and Robin” that the brief exterior shot of the bad guy’s lair is the house they would use as “Stately Wayne Manor” in the ’60s TV show!

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  12. Johnny Duncan once told us at a film festival that, since Robert Lowery had a few extra pounds showing in that costume and “I was always bobbin’ around,” they referred to each other off camera as Fatman and Bobbin.

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  1. REEL RETRO CINEMA: Atom Man vs. Superman | 13th Dimension, Comics, Creators, Culture - […] 1949’s Batman and Robin, click here! — […]
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