Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Batman (1966)
In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
I want to start off this installment in the series by admitting up front that our host Lebeau probably has a stronger and more personally informed take on this particular piece of pop culture. I fully expect he will share some of that in the comments section. Although I did grow up with reruns of the Adam West Batman television show running repeatedly on a variety of stations, I ended up both a Marvel guy and someone who took superhero stories just a little more seriously than this version of the “Caped Crusader” ever did. At the same time, if you ever want to participate in a fully tiresome example of “old man yells at cloud,” you might consider engaging me in a discussion on the merits of the “edgy” tone comic books have taken on in the intervening years. The long term reaction of the art form to what it perceived as its undeserved goofy and childish reputation appears to have resulted in a swing way too far in the other direction. The 1960s television Batman is often cited by those who resent the dismissive attitudes many people held toward sequential art.
Even though at the time the television show was first being produced the adventures of Batman as represented in the pages of his comic books were not very campy, there was definitely a history of DC comics being pretty ridiculous in previous decades.
When the television series was in production, its eventual star Adam West was attracted to the humor he found in the example script he was given. He particularly mentioned a scene in which Batman went into a nightclub in full costume, but told the staff that he wanted a table by the wall in order to maintain a low profile. The idea that the character would believe he could avoid standing out while he was dressed as a bat made the aim of the project click into place for West, and the producers’ belief that he might be exactly the actor for the role turned out to be very accurate.
The show was very expensive to make, with just the set for the bat cave costing $800,000. To the horror of ABC executives, when they screened the pilot episode for a test audience, it received the lowest scores they had ever seen. If they hadn’t already sunk so much money into it. the Batman television show may not have ever aired. Thankfully for ABC (the network was airing nearly half of the bottom 15 rated shows on television at the time), they pressed forward and debuted the show on January 12th, 1966. Most of us know the opening sequence by heart.
Yes, that’s the well-known composer and bandleader Nelson Riddle’s name listed in the credits. He did not write the famous Batman theme song, but arranged the music and created more for the series.
The show was a serious disappointment, not to ABC, but to Batman’s already-established legion of fans who considered its humorous tone to be insulting to their favorite character. Audiences across the country were laughing at Batman, not because some clever jokes had been worked into his otherwise serious crime-fighting exploits, but because the concept of Batman itself was being treated as a joke. These fans weren’t wrong. The show’s producer, William Dozier, was initially contemptuous of the project when it was first handed to him. He had never read a comic book and considered them below his standards. After reading just twelve Batman comic books, he decided that the only way to make the character work was to “over-do it” and make it funny.
Unfortunately for serious Batman fans, the show was a big ratings success in its first year on the air. The two-part stories were spread out over two consecutive nights (Wednesdays and Thursdays), with Dozier himself imploring viewers to return for the second part “Same Bat-time. Same Bat-channel.” The comic books themselves were not even safe from this newly spoofy protector of Gotham, because its sales went through the roof, eclipsing even DC’s most popular hero, Superman. In reaction, the books began incorporating elements from the television show, with increased appearances of the “Biff!” “Bam!” “Pow!” style onomatopoeia associated with the fights Adam West and Burt Ward were participating in and the inclusion of Robin’s signature “Holy ________, Batman!”
Nerd rage was clearly not even a slightly new thing when Lebeau wrote about it a couple of years ago.
The show was enough of a pop culture phenomenon that when this film version appeared the summer after the first season, it must have seemed like Batman was unstoppable. The film, however, had been originally produced with the idea of releasing it before the debut of the television show as a way to promote it. When that premiere was moved up, however, the film showed up between the first and second seasons. One inconsistency between the show and the movie was in one piece of key casting. The actress most associated with this version of Catwoman, Julie Newmar, was unavailable for the film shoot, resulting in her appearance in two episodes of the tv show’s first season and in episodes of the second season while Lee Meriwether played the role in the movie.
Considering one of the key plot points of the film, in which Batman fails to recognize Catwoman out of costume, this makes a strange kind of sense. Bruce Wayne unknowingly develops romantic feelings for the comely Russian woman he meets and repeatedly tries to save her from the group of villains without ever stopping to consider that his new squeeze looks just like Catwoman and is constantly in the same places. The scene in which he realizes he’s been wrong is one of the biggest laughs of the movie.
The camera holds on Batman’s forlorn face even a little longer than that.
This and a scene in which Batman runs around carrying a humorously large bomb with a lit fuse, looking for a safe place to dispose of it won huge laughs from me when I watched the movie again in preparation for this article. I’m sure some senses of humor won’t react in the same way as I did. In general, I have to admit that it was only my nostalgia for the show I watched as a kid that got me through the entire running time of the 104 minute movie. One constant gag that I never really warmed to was the tendency for the clues leading the dynamic duo to deduce the identities or locations or plans of their foes to be extraordinarily obscure and nonsensical. Only someone who already knew the answer would connect the clue to its solution. I understand the gag intellectually – – it just doesn’t make me laugh.
A ridiculously fake rubber shark that chews on Batman’s leg for what seems like several minutes also misses the mark for me.
But that’s kind of the essence of both the Batman television show of the sixties and this film version. Some of the face palming cheesiness will land and result in amusement, while other bits will just fall flat. How much you can tolerate the conceit as a whole will determine your endurance of what basically amounts to five episodes of the show laid back to back, but without the trope of the framing devices to add to the serial nature of the storytelling. Give me those two big laughs in the space of a 22 minute tv show and you’ve got me on the hook. Spread them out over the course of a full movie and I’m going to be much less patient.
As I mentioned before, this version of Batman became a sore subject for serious fans of superhero comic books for years to come after its initial run on ABC. Even in the late 80s when I was doing most of my comic book reading, I encountered people who associated them with this characterization. So when gritty and dark material such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or even the Kraven’s Last Hunt sequence of Spider-Man books appeared, those of us in the comics community who had been told our fanship was silly based on a wide misunderstanding of the source material grabbed onto them pretty hard. Unfortunately, comics publishers saw a spike in sales and concluded that increased violence, death, and ‘extreme’ storylines were what readers wanted. Who knows? maybe they were right overall. But I can tell you that I personally ended up leaving comics because I found much of the storytelling to be increasingly lazy and focused on style or tone over content, giving each book less value for my entertainment buck.
I told you.