Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of the classic black and white movie serials from the 1930’s and 1940’s. I tend to like the action serials best of all, but if they happen to be comic book related? even better.
A few tears ago on this here blog, I wrote a review of the 1943 Batman live action serial. When I wrote that review, I was aware there was another Batman serial made later in the 1940’s. I’d even seen the dvd set at a couple of used movie stores. But I didn’t get a chance to watch the serial, until now that is.
“Batman and Robin” is the 1949 sequel to the 1943 serial “Batman.” But despite both serials being produced by Columbia Pictures, “Batman and Robin” stars a completely different cast. In this new live action 15-chapter adventure, Robert Lowery played Batman/Bruce Wayne, while Johnny Duncan played Robin/Dick Grayson. Supporting characters included Jane Adams as Vicki Vale, Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon, William Fawcett as Professor Hammil, and Eric Wilton as Alfred Pennyworth.
Unlike the 1943 serial where Batman took on the Japanese in the middle of World War II, this time, Batman and Robin battle a villain known only as The Wizard. The cloaked and hooded Wizard operates from a secret cave laboratory, where he uses “remote-control” technology to ransom Gotham City by disrupting all of the city’s cars and trains.
This machine the Wizard uses is made up of a quaint-looking bay of switches and knobs, and is fueled by diamonds. The machine doesn’t look like much today, but I’m guessing back in 1949 kids saw this as high-tech stuff. The Wizard has other trick too, like a hypnotic power and, eventually, the ability to turn invisible.
One of the things I enjoy about these serials is the simplistic way Batman is portrayed. This is just a guy trying to do the right thing. He has almost no state of the art gadgets, and often the villain is better equipped than Batman. This was nicely done in the 1943 “Batman” Serial, which is probably why I liked that serial so much.
From a visual standpoint though, I liked the cinematography of the 1943 serial over “Batman and Robin.” The original serial had more flair, and used shadows really well. In “Batman and Robin,” the direction and camera work isn’t as creative. All the car chases are shot the same, as are the fight scenes. Even the chapter cliffhangers are scenes we’ve seen before in other serials.
It’s possible the filmmakers had a bigger budget in 1949, but it doesn’t show in the finished product. Batman and Robin get from place to place in Bruce Wayne’s car. Only Vicky vale notices this, but she never follows up on the lead. Vicky also walks around with a camera the size of a Buick. This camera looks huge even for 1949.
The dynamic duo’s costumes were updated for this serial, with darker capes for both and tights for Robin. Thing is, Lowery ends up in a goofy-looking cowl that gives Batman a round-head and floppy ears. Robin’s mask is a little too big for his face, but it looks similar to the 1943 mask. Batman’s utility belt looked better in the first serial, but at least it gets used here. Although I’m not sure how the giant gas masks fit in there. On the plus side, neither Batman or Robin’s capes get in the way quite as much as they did in the 1943 serial.
When it comes to the leads, Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne/Batman and John Duncan as Dick Grayson/Robin, are not very convincing as either the heroes or their civilian alter egos. Lowery over plays the playboy angle, making Bruce Wayne more of a joke than anything else. If he’s really only interested in resting and going on vacation, why would the police commissioner bother to get his advice on cases?
Meanwhile, John Duncan in particular is just too damn old to be the “Boy” Wonder. Plus he spends more time on the ground rather than doing something productive. I lost count of how many times he got hit behind the head and missed part of the action. Duncan may have been knocked out more times than Tonto on an episode of “The Lone Ranger.”
While “Batman and Robin” isn’t the worst serial out there, it’s not my favorite either. This serials lacks some of the originality of the first Batman serial. The story has some good ideas, but it dumbed down with inconsistencies. For example, one character is in a wheel chair for most of the serial, but when the rest of the character see him walking, nobody addresses it.
Little things like that drive me nuts, but that’s just me. Then again, if you’re a big Batman fan, then check out the “Batman and Robin” serial. If nothing else, it’s fun to see this often forgotten chapter of Batman.