The Batman Project: Batman, 1943
1 Comment »Jun 4, 2012
Let us take a journey back in time to the end of January, 2012. I was pow-wowing with my boss – as I am wont to do – talking about projects we wanted to undertake here on the site. Then, this happened:
Me: I think I should watch every possible iteration of Batman.
Me: And talk about the women in them.
Me: You know, as a lead up to Nolan’s latest venture.
Alex: You know that Michael Keaton is not in every version, right?
But seriously, Alex loved the idea, and I loved the idea. Batman – and the women who populate his story – have always fascinated me. So when the press started for the new flick and it became quietly clear to me that I would hate Anne Hathaway in the role of CW so much it isn’t normal or right, the idea of this project asserted itself. Luckily, I have a boss to reign me in.
Alex: How about we limit it to the films.
Me: No! I want to watch everything!
Approximately five minutes later Alex had sent a scheduled breakdown for me to watch and write up all of the films. It quickly became clear that if I wanted to do this well and not become uh, A CRAZY PERSON, limiting the project to films was the best way to go. All of that said, before we even start, I wanna pour one out for Eartha Kitt, whose CW maybe still influences the way I try to get into dude’s drawers. While she will be discussed later on, it will be nearly as much I want to.
It’s a good thing I let myself be talked into films, because in addition to the sheer volume of Batman on television, I also took crazy pills – and thus, am approximately two weeks behind schedule in getting under way! Never fear lovers, I will rally, and double post (if necessary) and get us to this summer’s highly anticipated release if I go quietly mad trying.
1943′s Batman serials are mesmerizing. I will be the first to admit to large blind spots in terms of comic knowledge, but when it comes to Bob Kane’s Batman, I am a bit of a slavish devotee. I’m not sure why, maybe that’s something that will become clear through viewing and analysis, maybe I’m just really, really into guys with utility belts and and British butlers, who’s to say?
What’s particularly cool about going back to these earliest film incarnations of the Bat, is seeing the flesh being added to the Batman myth. What will eventually go on over the course of 50 and 60 years to become a well-known, beloved, dark, tragic, and oft-discussed origin story and character bible, began as something less-than. It’s interesting to note that in the 1943 films, the Bat Cave and its secret entrance are introduced – fundamental touchstones that would be added to the comics from there on out.
Now that I’ve spoken with the appropriate amount of reverence, let me now say that the Bat Cave is arguably the most piss poor thing I have ever seen. Imagine if you paid maybe ten dollars to go and look at a cave while you were on vacation and instead of it being a real cave it was just like, a small unfinished basement where some guy who was maybe dressed as the devil was sitting behind a mahogany desk and staring at you for a long-ass time without blinking or saying anything. To really complete the picture, now pretend I am standing behind him with a plastic bat on a fishing pole, quietly swinging it back and forth to maintain realism. Yeah, it’s pretty rough.
Watching the first-ever Batman as realized on celluloid is pretty damn exciting. I can’t imagine being a script writer or an actor involved without getting giddy at the concept that what you do is going to be set in cannon, that your choices are going to set a certain kind of standard, that they will one day be judged and even as the bones upon which a franchise was built, often be found wanting. But obviously, none of the folks involved knew -thought they might have hoped based on the recent success of A CERTAIN OTHER SUPERHERO – that they were creating a modern fairy tale for the ages, a second coming of MOTHER FUCKING PERSEUS YOU GUYS. Okay, I’ve calmed down. Let’s talk about the first Batman real quick. The man himself is played by one Lewis Wilson who you probably do not know from such films classics as Bowanga Bowanga which I refuse to research because of reasons. The best Batmen (go with it) are the ones who realize they are playing three distinctly different characters: Bruce Wayne Playboy, Batman, and, The Real Bruce. If you miss this, you miss the whole thing. Since we’re in early days – the earliest, really – there are just two – Batman and Bruce Wayne Playboy. This is handled by having Batman constantly covering his tracks by being a dick. His Bruce is louche, sneering, and probably a little drunk, which, while a valid choice, sure, is not how I like my Bruce Wayne (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, BALE). But I forgave it because the dude was meaty in his Batman costume which was basically a giant diaper and poorly stitched mask. Yeah, again, it’s rough.
What’s more rough is the no-apologies introduction of the sexually-ambiguous Batman and Robin relationship (As early as the first installment, I was shaking my head, reaching for the cognac and going ‘You guys totally have only yourselves to blame for the rumors what with your frolicking and cheek to cheek chats. Plus Robin you are ten years old. THAT IS PEDOPHILIA BRUCE”) As fun as it is to harp on that, any such enjoyment is hampered when you not-so-gradually realize that you’re watching anti-Japanese propaganda.
This makes a certain (awful) type of sense. After all, the early 40s found the US at war, and superheroes like Batman were used primarily to beat the tar out of Nazis. And in this case, horrible portrayals of Japanese folks. The villain in these particular serials, is a fellow by the name of Dr. Daka who is hellbent on basically creating zombies – mind control y’all! That’s what’s up. I was initially all “well at least they made him as doctor?” as I tried not to awkwardly laugh at the Ricky Rooney-esque yellow-face happening on my screen, that was until I realized it was a joke name and then I wept bitter, bitter tears. Just in case you’re unclear about what exactly your feelings about the Japanese are supposed to be, the voice-over tells you ever-so-solemnly that Gotham’s own “Little Tokyo” has been THANKFULLY EMPTIED WHAT WITH EVERYONE WHO LIVED THEIR BEING IMPRISONED FOR BEING A DIFFERENT RACE. It’s so awful, you guys. And then you get to Doctor Daka’s evvvvil office by going through a carnival-esque ride that’s supposed to be a haunted hayride kind of deal but instead of demons there are mannequins of Japanese soldiers torturing US Troops. It is. Certainly something.
It’s interesting to see Batman working for the government, and when he’s not doing so directly being respected – nay, admired by police officers. The more layered – and more traditional in terms of the contemporary pictures- approach to building conflict in all the spheres of the superheroes life is non-existent. Everybody loves Batman except, conceivably, the Japanese and the Nazis. Even Bruce Wayne isn’t sneered at, nor used for his stores of wealth. This version of the devil may care playboy is hilarious, because while he’s still got good ol’ Alfred driving him around, you don’t get the impression that his money has lent him any air of respectability. He spends most of his time as Bruce complaining about having to do things before noon and being perpetually short on spending money. Bruce Wayne as we think about him now has a certain cache. Sure, he’s no super hero, but he’s brooding, slutty, secretive, and influential. In the 1940s Bruce Wayne is essentially a fop who has probably dodged serving his country in a time of war (SEXY). In its way, shirking the realization of a “third Bruce” – the real one - makes his double-life that much more dynamic, if not realistic in terms of a long-term dramatic arc.
I can hear you by now asking “Whut aboot the Wymenz?” (I have no idea – Canadian internet speak perhaps? Your guess is as good as mine.) Shirley Patterson plays the role of Bruce Wayne’s long-suffering love, Linda Page. (well, not THAT long suffering – she eventually ends their dalliance – according to the ‘books - when she catches him getting his flirt on with a woman who will turn out to be CW…) Though not one of BM’s (HA.) central female figures, she’s a great sketch of what it takes to be a woman in the Batman universe. She’s a former socialite who now spends her time “doing good” – in the movie this is demonstrated through her typing at the “Gotham Foundation”. So, a woman who’s – albeit in a small way – rejected the society that’s her birth-right, cool, got it. Awesome – she’s born good but with a wild streak. She’s also way into Batman, to Bruce’s perpetual chagrin. She basically spends her time being all “I WANT TO KNOW HIM,” which – who doesn’t, right? She’s also got a bit of a sad streak. In this case, her uncle – recently released from prison for a “CRIME HE DID NOT COMMIT!” has been sent to work for Doc Daka -having already been made a social pariah, this is just the icing on the cake of awful.
To be a foil to Batman, a woman’s got to have her own darkness, she’s essentially got to match each one of his own personalities – which is why I have always adored Catwoman because she comes the closest. Linda doesn’t quite get there, but in her you get a cool look at what’s to come.
Even here, in its earliest iteration a pattern is set – a woman who lives her life outside the lines and strives to make a new existence after elements of her old one have been broken. It’s fascinating in its way – because the women of Batman are in no way victims. They do not let their brokenness define them, nor do they deny its existence – instead they incorporate it into a new version of themselves, one that may have closest to their real self to begin with anyway.