Batman: The Movie (1966)
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I remember when Bat-mania hit. When the Adam West TV series premiered, millions of kids were glued to their sets. We thrilled to the colorful adventures of the Caped Crusaders, Batman and Robin, as they fought to keep flamboyant foes such as Joker, Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman from terrorizing the good citizens of Gotham City. It was like seeing the old Bob Kane comics brought to life, and we all went batty over it. In no time the Batman logo was all over T-shirts, lunch boxes, bubblegum cards--you name it. It was cooler than cool.
We didn't know it was a comedy. Most of our parents and older siblings didn't either--they just thought it was the silliest, stupidest thing they'd ever seen, and as we sat there watching each episode in Bat-ecstacy while the older folks poured on the derision, the jokes just went zooming like Batarangs right over all our heads. As I got a little older, I finally started to catch on to how dumb it was myself. But it wasn't till much later, when the Tim Burton movie prompted a lot of local stations to start showing reruns, that it finally dawned on me that "Batman" was one of the most deliriously funny comedies to ever hit the airwaves.
Meanwhile, back in my childhood...the show had been on for one season when word hit the playground that there was gonna be a movie. HOLY HOLLYWOOD, Batman! The local theater was packed to the gills with screaming kids on a Saturday morning back in '66 when BATMAN:THE MOVIE lit the place up. We sat in awe as our formerly TV-sized heroes went widescreen with bigger adventures, a bevy of bad guys, and better Bat-gadgets such as the Batcycle, the Batboat and the Batcopter, in addition to the already-awesome Batmobile. What we didn't realize at the time was that the movie was just as dumb as the TV series--maybe even dumber! Along with the POW!, WHAM!, and THUD! graphics that "Batman" was famous for, there might as well have been a giant ZOOM! above our heads as the jokes continued to sail right over them.
Back in the Batcave--that is, my livingroom, present day--I can now enjoy BATMAN:THE MOVIE as the wonderfully funny spoof that it is. Adam West as the wise, mysterious, somber Batman and Burt Ward as his earnest, straight-arrow yet boyishly-impetuous sidekick Robin are almost painfully deadpan. They take their responsibility as the Dynamic Duo, tireless protectors of Gotham City, with utmost seriousness, and they totally crack me up as they swoosh down their Batpoles, leap into the Batmobile, and Bat-a-pult into action against the nefarious foes of all that is decent.
Their dialogue is often hilarious, as in this Batcave think-session which features them trying to decipher two of the Riddler's fiendishly clever brain-teasers:
BATMAN: "Listen to these riddles, Robin...tell me if you interpret them as I do. One: what has yellow skin and writes?"
ROBIN: (after a moment's reflection) "A ballpoint banana!"
BATMAN: "Right! Two: what people are always in a hurry?"
BATMAN: "Right again. Now what would you say they mean?"
ROBIN: "Banana...Russian...I've got it! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!"
BATMAN: "Precisely, Robin! The only...possible...meaning!"
Giving Batman and Robin a run for their money in the deadpan humor department is Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon. To him, each new outbreak of villainy is the gravest catastrophe and would spell certain doom for Gotham City save for the intervention of the Caped Crusaders. His constantly apprehensive expression and dead-serious line delivery are perfect. When it appears that Gotham's most foul enemies have become partners in crime, he's utterly crestfallen. "Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and now, Catwoman..." the commissioner solemnly intones. "The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!"
The bad guys, on the other hand, get to have all the fun. Back then, everyone wanted to play a super-foe on "Batman"--even Frank Sinatra tried to land a role--and people who hated or didn't "get" the show were astonished by the list of big-name guest stars lining up to be on it. Here, Latin romantic star Cesar Romero plays the treacherous trickster, the Joker, his trademark moustache covered in white greasepaint (he refused to shave it off!) Distinguished actor Burgess Meredith is delightful as the foul-feathered fiend, the Penguin, while well-known actor and impressionist Frank Gorshin goes nuts as the Riddler. Julie Newmar, who was busy filming MACKENNA'S GOLD at the time, is replaced here by the equally statuesque Lee Meriwether as the felonious feline, Catwoman. The scenes with all four of them together in their secret waterfront lair or in Penguin's submarine are sparked with manic intensity and unrestrained nuttiness as these actors get to ham it up without any of the usual restraints.
There's a story floating around somewhere, but it isn't really important. The villains kidnap a guy named Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) in order to obtain his new invention that dehydrates people into powder so they can make off with a group of United World ambassadors and somehow end up ruling the world. Who cares? It's all just an excuse to have fun.
Highlights include: Batman on a rope ladder below the Batcopter with a rubber shark hanging from his leg ("Robin! Hand me down the Shark-Repellent Batspray!"); Batman scrambing all over the waterfront trying to find a safe place to discard a huge bomb he's carrying, but surrounded by nuns, mothers with baby carriages, and baby ducks ("Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"); Batman scolding a Pentagon offical over the phone for selling a war surplus pre-atomic submarine to a Mr. "P.N. Guinn", who didn't even leave his full address; and a long sequence involving Batman's alter ego, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, on a date with a Russian reporter named Miss Kitka, who is really Catwoman. Bruce becomes deliriously smitten with the lovely Miss Kitka, and the screen practically drips with romantic cliches that are played so relentlessly straight by Adam West that the result is almost excruciating.
Of course, since the TV series always featured a nail-biting cliffhanger every week, the movie is filled with certain-death situations for Batman and Robin. We also get to see the famous Bat-climb, and we're finally shown how Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson, always leap onto the Batpoles in their street clothes but end up at the bottom in full costume. ("An instant costume-change lever!" I remember thinking as a kid. "So that's how they do it!")
On the downside, the movie gets a bit draggy in spots, and the ending isn't exactly what I'd call a big pay-off. I've always been disappointed by the opening titles as well--no supercool "Batman Theme", no cartoon Batman and Robin POW-ing their way through a horde of evildoers. There's even a lame-joke foreword that betrays the mock seriousness of the whole concept. But most of the time, BATMAN:THE MOVIE is a colorful rush of nostalgic fun that raises pure, straight-faced Bat-silliness to a level rarely experienced by anyone who isn't huffing nitrous oxide. TO THE BATPOLES!
Added: Thursday, August 02, 2007
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