Saturday, January 14, 2012

Batman and Robin : Chapter 12 : Robin Rides the Wind

Columbia produced a second and final Batman serial in 1949 entitled Batman and Robin, starring Robert Lowery as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Johnny Duncan as Robin/Dick Grayson. Like Batman, the serial was a black-and-white, 15-chapter film presented in weekly installments. Also like Batman, each of Batman and Robin’s chapters ended with a scene showing its heroes facing seemingly inescapable mortal danger. Unfortunately, Batman and Robin had something else in common with Batman besides its 15-chapter cliffhanger serial format – it was also every bit as poorly realized as its predecessor. Almost every element of Batman and Robin was sorely lacking in quality – it suffered from bad writing, stale acting, unconvincing special effects, shoddy costuming and props, and wildly inappropriate shooting locations. In the serial, Batman and Robin were again realized in very poorly designed costumes, and they were still not even given a Batmobile to drive. Also, many of Batman and Robin’s action sequences were as unimaginatively staged and unconvincingly executed as the ones in 1943. And like Batman, Batman and Robin also chose to ignore all of Batman’s classic comic book villains such as the Joker and the Penguin in favor of creating a villain specifically for the serial. The villain they came up with was an appallingly bland character called “The Wizard,” who wore a dark mask that covered his entire face and a long dark cape. The Wizard was Batman and Robin’s only villain – all 15 chapters of the serial revolved around Batman and Robin’s efforts to find him and bring him to justice. The villain concealed his identity from everyone in Batman and Robin, including all of the members of his own gang. Part of the “fun” of Batman and Robin for audiences was to try to figure out which other character featured in the serial was actually the Wizard. It would probably be unfair to say that Batman and Robin was all that much worse than Batman was. But it was certainly not any better. There seems to be no consensus amongst Batman aficionados as to which serial was superior. For example, out of all the books and articles offering appraisals of the two serials that I have examined, roughly half of them thought that Batman was the stronger work, and the other half preferred Batman and Robin. To put it bluntly, both serials are on the whole so bad that neither one has a noticeable advantage over the other. In other words, Batman fans, choose your poison. I am of the opinion that Batman and Robin is the worse poison. I cannot give Batman a wholehearted thumbs up, but I feel it still has considerably more style and spirit than Batman and Robin does. Plus, one must remember that Batman was made a scant four years after the character’s comic book debut, during which time many key elements of his mythos were still in its infancy. Since these elements could not possibly be viewed as “time-honored traditions” in 1943, it is hard to find fault with the serial for not sticking to the comic book version of Batman all that closely. But Batman and Robin does not deserve this same allowance. The serial was made a full decade after the character’s comic book debut, by which point most every key element of his mythos was firmly established. In other words, by 1949 these elements WERE starting to be looked upon as “time-honored traditions.” Still, Batman and Robin changed or ignored many elements of the comic book version of The Batman, even after the character had proven his popularity. Columbia should have treated Batman with more respect when making Batman and Robin than they did when making Batman, because by 1949 he had become a character that possessed a certain degree of “longevity.” But instead, the studio treated him every bit as offhandedly as they had six years earlier, and basically doomed Batman and Robin to failure even before the cameras started rolling.

Robert Lowery’s portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Johnny Duncan’s portrayal of Robin/Dick Grayson made matters worse. While Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft gave energetic performances in Batman that at times managed to rise above the serial’s many faults, Lowery and Duncan blandly delivered most of their lines as if they were reading them for the first time. Duncan’s performance was probably the worse of the two, because he was simply far too old for his role – he was 26 years of age when the serial was filmed! Duncan was youthful-looking and considerably shorter than Lowery, so the pair bore a decent enough physical resemblance to their comic book counterparts. But whenever Duncan talked, it was glaringly obvious that he was about a decade removed from being a “Boy Wonder.” Even though Batman and Robin was Columbia’s second Batman serial, it was actually the first of the two Columbia Batman serials to be released on DVD -- Batman and Robin was released as a two-disc set by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on March 22 of this year. (Perhaps Sony had misgivings about EVER releasing Batman because of its racist overtones, but reversed their thinking after the success of Batman Begins reinvigorated the character’s popularity) Like their release of Batman, Sony’s Batman and Robin is not a “high end” release -- it contains no bonus features or printed material dealing with the making of the serial. However, Batman and Robin’s picture and sound quality is uniformly better than the Batman DVD set. It is also far better than the only other “official” home video version of Batman and Robin, the two-part VHS tape set recorded in substandard playback speed that was released by GoodTimes Home Video in 1990. (As previously mentioned, GoodTimes also released Batman in the same format) Like Sony’s Batman DVD set, the Batman and Robin DVD set features some interesting artwork on its cover – perhaps too interesting. The cover features a dramatic full-color image of Batman and Robin standing on a rooftop, the night sky above them lit up by a huge Batsignal. Batman and Robin are outfitted in costumes that look like a 2005 comic book cover – the bat ears on Batman’s cowl are long and imposing, and Robin has on a full bodysuit that is red and green in color. In other words, the image looks nothing like anything contained in the serial itself! In my opinion, Sony is doing more than a little bit of false advertising by using this image to promote Batman and Robin. So I’m afraid that I can only recommend Batman and Robin to the most avid Batman film fans who want to own a complete collection of Batman DVDs – it simply does not have the historical value or cheesy charm of Batman. But if you are that avid Batman film fan who has to own everything Bat-related, run out and buy both DVD sets. Just remember when you

Mark S. Reinhart is the author of THE BATMAN FILMOGRAPHY.



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