Batman and Robin

Batman and Robin--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1949. Starring Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams, Leonard Penn, Lyle Talbot, Lee Roberts, William Fawcett, Rick Vallin, Don Harvey.

Batman and Robin pits the titular heroes (Robert Lowery and John Duncan, respectively) against a mysterious masked criminal called the Wizard. The Wizard has stolen a powerful remote-control machine that can start or stop any motorized vehicle over long distances, and intends to use it to blackmail Gotham City’s transportation industries. With the help of Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) and the help/hindrance of girl photographer Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), the two masked crimefighters set out to smash the Wizard’s schemes–and discover his true identity. Could he be brash radio broadcaster Barry Brown (Rick Vallin)? Or the shady private investigator Dunne (Michael Whalen)? Or is it Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), the cranky, wheelchair-bound inventor of the remote control machine?

Batman and Robin comes nowhere near Columbia’s earlier Batman serial in quality–mainly because Sam Katzman had taken over the studio’s chapterplay production during the six years that separated the two outings’ releases. While Katzman took unusual care over his Superman serial from the proceeding year (possibly because he was handling the first live-action version of the character), he–and his production crew–apparently regarded Batman as an already-proven property who could be easily and profitably plugged into a by-the-numbers serial script.

“By-the-numbers” might actually be too charitable a term for the screenplay of Batman and Robin; writers George Plympton, Royal Cole, and Joseph Poland–all of whom were capable of much better work under better producers–do a substandard job here. The basic plot is respectable, but it’s simply not substantial enough to fill Katzman’s preferred length of fifteen chapters, forcing the writers to resort to innumerable pieces of padding that serve no purpose in the narrative. A few examples include the repeated journeys the Wizard’s men make to the hideout in a remote-controlled submarine, Professor Hammil’s periodic self-rejuvenations in his hidden lab, and Batman’s borrowing of a car to pursue the Wizard after his own has been stopped by the Wizard’s machine–only to have the second car be almost immediately stopped as well.

Batman and Robin--Hammil Batman and Robin--submarine
Above: Two oft-repeated scenes–Hammil in his rejuvenation chair and the henchmen en route to the Wizard’s hideout via submarine.

The script, besides being padded and slowly-paced, is frequently incoherent; the Wizard abandons his transportation-control schemes in Chapters Two through Four to chase after an explosive called X-90, only to switch back to transportation sabotage without any real explanation of his temporary change of objectives. His attempted assassination of Commissioner Gordon in Chapter Fourteen, which leads directly to his downfall, is left even more motiveless by the script. Batman’s impersonation of a captured thug–accomplished with minimal makeup and a bandage “disguise” that leaves almost all of his face exposed–also strains credibility when the masquerade succeeds in fooling villains who know the real crook by sight.

The plot threads surrounding the Wizard suspects are also terribly mishandled; Barry Brown’s suspicious broadcasts (which leak information to both the Wizard and Batman) are never satisfactorily explained, while the crippled Hammil’s temporary cures via his rejuvenation machine–and his crippled status itself–are completely forgotten in the last two chapters, which have the Professor walking around nimbly in front of the other characters, none of whom even comment on his sudden recovery. In fairness, many of Mascot’s serials (and a few of Universal’s) featured similarly unaccountable suspect behavior and equally large plot holes, but those chapterplays’ narratives moved at such breakneck speed that the audiences were kept from focusing on the logic gaps; in a plodding affair like Batman and Robin, there’s more time to notice (and get irritated by) outrageously shoddy plotting. These suspects also engage in little of the entertainingly outrageous behavior favored by Mascot’s red herrings, rarely interacting with the other characters and performing the same pieces of isolated shtick chapter after chapter (Brown broadcasts, Hammil crabs at his attendant and sits in his rejuvenation chair, and Dunn the detective occasionally pops up at a crime scene). To top off the mystery-villain mishandling, the revelation of the Wizard’s identity involves an outrageous cheat that I suspect even Mascot’s writers would have avoided.

Batman and Robin--Barry Brown
Above: Rick Vallin’s Barry Brown (right) begins one of his unaccountable broadcasts.

Batman and Robin does feature a good assortment of outdoor locations–the Columbia city-streets backlot, Iverson’s Ranch, and the big plant that serves as the Gotham City research center–but not much in the way of action is staged against these backdrops; there are no chases through interesting locales in the style of the 1930s Republics. The George Lewis Mansion, also seen in several Republic serials, provides some good visuals as well–but it’s used as Hammil’s house, not Bruce Wayne’s; the millionaire playboy is relegated to a very inappropriate-looking suburban home. Some of the serial’s incidental props aren’t bad–the Wizard’s lab is pretty impressive-looking, but the Bat Cave is rather inadequately furnished (the Dynamic Duo keep their costumes in the drawer of a filing cabinet, for Pete’s sake) and the Batmobile is a mere convertible; the earlier Batman serial at least let its hero drive around in a limo.

Fight scenes are generally brief, and, although well-handled by director Spencer Bennet, steer carefully away from the kind of large-scale set destruction Bennet featured in his Republic outings (a strong case in point being the fight among the boxes in Chapter Eight, which is nicely done but gingerly avoids toppling more than a few of the props, no doubt to the relief of economical producer Katzman). The Chapter Five fight on the dock is also good, but most of the serial’s brawls are far shorter, with either the Dynamic Duo or their opponents going down for the count after a dozen punches are thrown. The most memorable pieces of action are some of the quick throwaway bits, like Batman’s impressive leap from a rock onto a pair of henchmen in Chapter Seven, or his smashing two thugs’ heads together in Chapter Four.

Batman and Robin--Batman's leap
Above: Batman makes an impressive leap.

The cliffhanger sequences suffer from Columbia’s typical lack of buildup; the peril usually strikes the heroes before the audience has had time to figure out what it is (the Wizard’s electrification of an iron bar Batman is holding at the end of Chapter Three, and Batman’s fall onto an electrical panel in Chapter Four, are particularly strong examples of this out-of-left field syndrome). That said, the blazing-water cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Five, and the cabin explosion at the end of Chapter Seven, are staged quite effectively–but such endings are the exception here instead of the norm.

The actors in Batman and Robin do their best in spite of poor scripting; Robert Lowery’s distinctive voice and ability to convey both suavity and authority make him a pretty good Batman, so good one wishes he had better lines–and a better costume; his cheap-looking outfit is visually horrendous, not only baggy but sporting too-long ears and nosepiece. John Duncan is bland but not unlikable as Robin, delivering his lines in an unemotional but pleasant Kansas drawl; though too old for the part, he’s not at all the surly-looking thug several critics have painted him as.

Batman and Robin--Batman masked
Above: Poor Robert Lowery in his Batman getup.

Jane Adams as Vicki Vale is saddled with a really stupid-looking beret and some terrible dialogue; the supposed banter between her and Bruce Wayne is a pale echo of the much better Clark Kent-Lois Lane interchanges in Superman (most of it consists of Lowery acting hopelessly tired and Adams sneering at him). This sneering, combined with her character’s penchant for getting into trouble, makes Adams seem more irritating than anything else, despite the actress’s natural charm. Lyle Talbot takes a break from his usual villainous roles to do a fine job as Commissioner Gordon, giving the character both dignity and affability.

Batman and Robin--Bruce and Vicki
Above: Robert Lowery and Jane Adams.

Peppery William Fawcett is the most entertaining of the suspects; his cranky, anti-social Professor Hammil is a delight to watch when he’s chewing out the other characters. Rick Vallin makes Barry Brown so convincingly (and infuriatingly) smug and cocky that his performance is somewhat less enjoyable than Fawcett’s–though still effective and vivid. Michael Whalen, as the Number Three suspect Dunn, has much less screen time than either Fawcett or Vallin, popping up and acting shifty on an occasional basis. Greg Offerman Jr. is unable to make Vicki Vale’s crooked but conflicted brother Jimmy seem as complex as he should, delivering his lines in the same flat and nasal manner whether he’s being honest or dishonest.

Don Harvey starts off the serial as the Wizard’s smug and rather lackadaisical chief henchman, but is abruptly “liquidated” in Chapter Six; his removal does not lead to any plot developments and he’s not even granted the courtesy of an on-screen death scene, making his exit seem very odd. Lee Roberts takes over as action heavy for the remaining episodes and delivers a entertainingly tough and cranky performance. Rusty Wescoatt, John Doucette, Jim Diehl, House Peters Jr., Greg McClure, and Eddie Parker are the other principal henchmen; all of them are quite solid in their parts. Emmett Vogan plays the head of the research plant that owns the remote control machine, while James Craven is wasted in a miniscule role as his aide.  One-time leading man Ralph Graves is given fifth billing but only pops up briefly as a railroad executive, while future leading man John Hart has a bit as a thug; Marshall Bradford plays a larger role as a harassed inventor.

Eric Wilton makes a dignified Alfred; he’s far less comic than the version of the character in the first Batman serial, but is also given far less screen time. Frequent Columbia-serial villain Leonard Penn plays William Fawcett’s valet/medical attendant in uncharacteristically meek style, but is allowed to cut loose in more typically snarling fashion in his second role as the voice of the Wizard; his arrogant and sarcastic delivery is perfect for his egotistical dialogue (“I always have a plan!” becomes almost a tagline for the villain). Penn’s vocal work, coupled with the character’s well-designed costume, make the Wizard a far more memorable heavy than the serial deserves.

Batman and Robin--Wizard and company
Above: The Wizard with henchmen Greg McClure and Don Harvey.

The cast, the locations, and some good bits of Bennet-directed action keep Batman and Robin from hitting the depths of lousiness reached by earlier Katzman serials like Who’s Guilty, but the serial still remains a padded, tedious, sloppily-written, and frequently frustrating outing; to compare it with Columbia’s earlier Batman is to graphically illustrate how deleterious an impact Sam Katzman frequently had on the studio’s serial-making.

Batman and Robin--last
Above: “Can you send me some new writers? Actually, make that a new producer.”

9 thoughts on “Batman and Robin

  1. Jerry,
    Your review is spot on and I got a chance to meet Johnny Duncan at the SerialFest in Pittsburgh back in 2002. I asked Duncan about Katzman being tight with a buck and said absolutely but if he liked you he gave you a lot of work. I thought Robert Lowery was a decent Batman but in some scenes he looked a little over weight. Another thing is why didn’t anyone figure out that both Bruce and Dick as well as Batman and Robin both used the Merc convertible…..duh!

  2. I liked this one a lot more than you did. Robert Lowery made a first-rate Batman for me, much better than Lewis Wilson. He spoke his lines like he meant them when he was in the serious crime fighting Bruce Wayne mode. The factors which seemed to bother you and others so much didn’t bother me as much. Robin was okay. I liked the rough furnishings of the bat cave, and the metal file cabinet was a nice touch (with bats flying overhead and bat droppings–good idea). The fights were very good generally, and I liked that this Batman was generally able to win a fist fight. I even liked the mystery, despite the late cheat, and the suspects were diverse and interesting. I thought Barry Brown was supposed to be smarmy, and he did get throttled, plus William Fawcett was a hoot. Fawcett’s chair bit was really only used three or four times and was cut down a couple of times. The Wizard was a solid serial villain, and this one lacked the racist theme of the 1943 version, so it was more successful as mindless fun. On location filming hid quite a bit of the cheapness. On the other hand, Batman’s costume? Ouch. ***1/2 out of *****

  3. I also really liked this one. It definitely has its flaws but overall I would rate it as a good effort. Some of the action scenes are quite good, for example the traintop brawl in one of the earlier chapters, and the car chases. The fights are acceptable. The outdoor settings were very pleasing and the interior set appointments were detailed and engaging. I found the understated acting (relative to Superman for example) more believable. Duncan’s double for many fight scenes was so noticeable it was hilarious, but not in a good way. I guess adrenaline made him instantly gain 50 pounds and lose his hair. No Academy Award here but an enjoyable afternoon. Had a beautiful print so that helped.

  4. I feel kind of bad for Robert Lowery. I think his career in movies started at 20th Century Fox in the late thirties, where it didn’t take off, and ten years later he was wearing the worst Batman costume ever in one of the most ludicrous serials ever. He was a good actor who deserved better. This whole thing reminded me of an extended Three Stooges short, only without the Stooges and with Batman instead.

  5. Watched this serial in 1950, and drove my mother crazy trying to make a Batman costume. I enjoyed it then but rewatching now I am more critical but still at 70 plus years it is enjoyable if it is taken as it was meant to be, a fill in between two movies on a Saturday with friends who enjoyed most serials or chapter plays. Granted it has its flaws but it didn’t matter at the time of the original release because one of our comic book heroes was on a screen bigger than life. 3 Stars now, 4 stars in the eyes of a 12 year old.

  6. Interestingly, Robert Lowery started off, in 1930’s Fox films, were he played bit and unbilled roles, in Fox star Michael Whalen’s films, who is sadly relegated, to tenth billing, in this serial made only 10 years later. Whalen also supported star Lowery, in the 1948 “Highway 13”, which also featured Lyle Talbot. Whalen’s career went downhill fast, and he aged prematurely, due, to personal problems. A good example, of this, is Whalen playing hero Kent Taylor’s girl friend’s elderly father, in “Phantom from 10,000 Leagues” (1955), despite the fact, that there was only a four year age difference, between them, and they had both been contemporary, leading men, at major studios, in the 1930’s.

  7. There’s not much on the positive side to be said about this one. Except for the location work and a good cast, it’s a typical Katzman product all the way – on the cheap as always. And really, uniforms stored in a filing cabinet? Talk about low rent! I was also very disappointed in the way that James Craven was completely underutilized. No billing, minimal screen time and virtually no dialogue. Wasted says it all.

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