Our first foray into the world of cinema serials begins with… The Bat. As we inch ever closer to the release of Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, it’s worthwhile to take a look at where it all began. No, not with Tim Burton’s movie, and not even with the Adam West camp-fest. We start simply with Batman, the original Columbia Pictures serial.
This film, released in 15 chapters, marks the big screen debut of Bob Kane’s legendary creation and was released in July 1943 — just over four years after Batman sprang to life in Detective Comics #27. For those with even a superficial knowledge of Batman, much of the first chapter (“The Electrical Brain”) will seem familiar.
The dynamic duo of Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) display their crime-fighting prowess early in the film, rounding up some local gang toughs for the Gotham City police to haul in. Alfred the butler is also here, as is the Bat Cave — although that was created for the movie and subsequently added to the comic book. (Sorry, no Batmobile, just a period luxury car.)
The biggest change is in Batman’s role. He’s a government agent in this film, rather than a vigilante. I guess the filmmakers felt that the Dark Knight should be a team player, what with it being the height of World War II and all. Speaking of which, those of you who are easily offended might want to skip watching this.
See, the villain here is the mysterious Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carroll Naish), an evil scientist who wants to overthrow the U.S. and pave the way for Imperial Japan to run the show. Naish’s broad portrayal of Daka is bad enough, but there are heaping spoonfuls of period racism to add flavor to the proceedings. As the action cuts to Daka’s hideout in Little Tokyo, here is the narration:
“This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street where only one buusiness survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity-seekers.”
So yeah, there’s that. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.
OK, I’ve rambled on long enough. Enjoy the first chapter of Batman, “The Electrical Brain”! (Broken up into four parts on YouTube.)