Gary Collinson traces the many screen incarnations of The Dark Knight in the first of a three-part feature...
With Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman debuting in Action Comics #1 in 1938 to unprecedented success, publisher DC Comics tasked 18-year-old Bob Kane with creating a new character to extend their line of superheroes. Inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of flying machine featuring bat wings (along with the 1930 silent movie The Bat Whispers and masked heroes such as Zorro and The Shadow), Kane - with assistance from writer Bill Finger - conceived The Batman, a costumed vigilante devoid of any superpowers who relies on his skills, cunning and vast array of gadgets to bring justice to the underworld of Gotham City.
Making his first appearance in May 1939 in Detective Comics #27 with "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate", Batman quickly established himself as a cultural icon and one of the most popular comic-book characters of all-time, with a continuous publishing schedule unbroken since his debut. Many elements of the Batman mythos were already forming by the time he received his solo title that same year, such as his origin story, utility belt and batarangs, along with sidekick Robin, whose introduction saw the series adopt a softer approach than the initial pulp-inspired adventures.
Four years after Batman's first print appearance Columbia Pictures launched a fifteen-part serial with Lewis Wilson making history as the first actor to portray the character on screen. Entitled Batman, the production debuted in cinemas on July 16th, 1943 and saw The Caped Crusader and sidekick Robin (Douglas Croft) working as government agents (a change demanded by censors, who were against the idea of a hero taking the law into his own hands) on the trail of a mad Japanese scientist named Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish). Rather unsurprisingly given that it was produced during World War II, Batman contains a number of racial slurs and anti-Japanese propaganda, although the serial is notable for introducing the Batcave and establishing the look of Bruce Wayne's faithful servant Alfred, whose appearance in the comics was adjusted to match that of actor William Austin.
Although the 1943 serial suffered from low production values and a host of continuity errors, a sequel was released in 1949 under the title Batman and Robin. Made on an even-smaller budget than the original, Batman and Robin sees our heroes square off against a mysterious villain known as “The Wizard”, with Robert Lowery taking over the cowl from Lewis Wilson alongside new Boy Wonder Johnny Duncan. As with its predecessor, Batman and Robin is a far-from-perfect interpretation of The Dark Knight but it is significant in that it marks the first screen appearances of Commissioner Gordon (B-movie veteran Lyle Talbot) and Bruce Wayne love interest Vicki Vale (Jane Adams). Both serials would briefly re-emerge in the early 60s for a combined theatrical run under the title An Evening with Batman and Robin before a heavily-censored home video release in 1989. The serials were also broadcast uncut on American cable television that same year and received a DVD release in October 2005.
By the late 1940s the Batman comic-book had shifted even further from its noir-esque roots, but the series managed to retain much of its popularity as interest in the medium waned throughout the next decade. It was during this period of Batman’s history that psychologist Frederic Wertham criticised the 'homosexual' relationship of Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson and a moral panic surrounding the industry and its corrupting influence on its young readers led to the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. This pushed the colourful and light-hearted approach to the forefront of the Batman series before declining sales eventually led to a revamp of the character. In 1964 a ‘new look’ Batman was introduced (complete with the yellow bat-insignia), with the title shifting away from the sci-fi influenced tales of the 1950s to give it more of a basis in reality. However, the character would continue to develop as a new television show debuted in 1966, which would simultaneously reignite Batman’s popularity and push the franchise into new levels of ‘camp’.
In the early 1960s Ed Graham Productions secured the rights to Batman and planned to develop a prime-time television series for CBS featuring former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Mike Henry as The Caped Crusader. However, with ABC executive Yale Udoff impressed by the popularity of the recently reissued 1940s serials he approached Harve Bennett and Edgar J. Scherick who quickly brokered a deal with DC Comics to develop their own show. Production duties were farmed out to William Dozer via 20th Century Fox, with the executive producer then deciding that the only way to portray a convincing Batman would be as a parody, featuring camp tongue-in-cheek comedy and slapstick humour. Thus, the 1966 Batman series was born.
Dozer hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. as head scriptwriter and had planned to launch Batman with a feature-length theatrical movie that would see Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) do battle with their greatest foes – The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). However, Fox were reluctant to finance the movie without knowing how the series would fare and when ABC decided to bring forward the broadcast date to January 12th 1966, Batman made its debut on the small screen and immediately became a huge hit. Taking inspiration from the earlier serials, Batman adopted a cliff-hanger approach with two episodes broadcast each week. The regular pattern for the first episode would see The Dynamic Duo investigate a crime and square off with the villain’s henchmen, ultimately finding themselves staring death in the face with the narrator (Dozier) questioning how the heroes could possibly survive. This cliff-hanger would then be quickly resolved in the second episode before the villain would finally be defeated in a mass brawl accompanied by superimposed comic-book effects such as “zap!” and “pow!”.
Initially the formula proved successful and the show attracted a host of notable guest stars and recurring villains including Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman along with the likes of John Astin, Joan Collins, Vincent Price, Art Carney, Eli Wallach, Roddy McDowall and Otto Preminger. The $1.4m-budgeted theatrical movie followed the first season and was released in the summer of ’66, marking Batman's first full-length big screen outing, while the series ran for another season-and-a-half before the axe fell in March 1968 amid declining ratings and repetition (just weeks after its cancellation NBC made an offer to produce a fourth season but pulled out after learning that the sets had been destroyed and would cost $800,000 to reproduce). West and Ward would reprise their roles on a number of occasions, most notably for a public service announcement in 1972 and Hanna-Barbera’s Legends of the Superheroes TV specials in 1979, while the pair also reunited in 2003 for the TV movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt, which presented a dramatised ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the making of the series.
Although the live-action show had been cancelled, Batman quickly reappeared in animated form with Saturday morning cartoon Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder, a Filmation series broadcast on CBS in 1969 as part of The Batman/Superman Hour. This version of Batman (voiced by Olan Soule) and Robin (Casey Kasem) would then shift to ABC and make appearances in Hanna-Barbera’s The New Scooby Doo Movies (1972) and the various incarnations of Super Friends (1973-1986), based on the Justice League of America. At the same time Adam West and Burt Ward took over vocal duties on The New Adventures of Batman, a rival show produced by Filmation for CBS that served as a continuation of the live-action series (West would also take over from Soule for the last two series of Super Friends in the mid-80s, as well as voicing Batman in an episode of Animaniacs in 1997).
While Batman had enjoyed huge success in the 1960s as a result of television series, it also led to one of the toughest periods in the character’s illustrious history. Naturally looking to capitalise on the show’s popularity, the comic-book line quickly adopted the same camp tone as the series and this portrayal went on to define the character for a generation, overshadowing efforts to return Batman to his roots and leading to a decline in circulation that lasted the best part of the next two decades. Worse still it would be more than twenty years before a live-action Batman would once again grace the screen, courtesy of an unproven director and unpopular casting choice for The Dark Knight…
Continue to part two.
Short Film Showcase - Batman: Dead End (2003)
Short Film Showcase - Batman: City of Scars (2010)