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Long before Bob Kane's legendary Caped Crusaders would become camp heroes in the 60s television series, and before Tim Burton would elegantly capture Kane's dark vision of Gotham City and its leading crime fighters in his 1989 film which spawned several sequels, Columbia Pictures introduced the Dynamic Duo in a pair of action-packed chapter plays, debuting in 1943 with a fifteen part serial simply titled The Batman (The box art is titled The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection: Batman). In this serial Kane's heroes would be transformed from lone-wolf vigilantes into a pair of independent agents working for the U.S. government against a gang of fifth-columnists whose leader is the nefarious Japanese mastermind Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), working on American soil under the direction of Emperor Hirohito himself!

Daka has developed a "disintegration ray gun"—a hand held machine that uses a small bit of radium to wreak small-scale destruction. With the technology now in hand, he intends to build a full-scale model with which he can bring the United States and its allies to their knees and under the control of the axis powers. With this aim he has assembled a gang of well-heeled traitors to be used to acquire the necessary equipment and the all-important stores of radium he needs to bring his evil scheme to fruition. But first he needs to add one more member to his team: dishonored industrialist Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire), who is promptly kidnapped by Daka's henchmen. Unfortunately for Daka, Warren is the uncle of Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), the girlfriend of millionaire Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson). It is Wayne's cowled alter-ego Batman who is making headlines as he fights crime with the help of his sidekick Robin (Douglas Croft), who in real life is Wayne's ward Dick Grayson.

Daka's plans go awry almost immediately when his attempt to steal the stores of radium from the Gotham City Foundation are foiled by Batman and Robin, and in the process he loses the disintegration gun. But the loss is insignificant while Daka still holds the knowledge of how to build a bigger model, so he sets his sights on procuring great amounts of radium so that he can begin construction of the "life size" model. He turns his attention to crusty prospector Ken Colton (Charles Middleton, who is best known for his unforgettable performance as screen-heavy Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials), whose discovery of a radium mine has been well-publicized. When the Caped Crusaders are again able to foil Daka's plot, the criminal mastermind is forced to re-group and go after the radium stores from a hospital. Of course, the heroes remain one step ahead of the gang.

Batman - The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection is an entertaining romp, despite the absence of any of the comic book series' usual rogues gallery (i.e., The Joker, The Penguin). Kane credited Zorro as one of the influences used in the creation of his most honored action hero, and that influence is clearly evident in the film realization of Wayne/Batman, with Wilson drawing a delightful contrast between the lazy, foppish millionaire and the dynamic hero. Croft isn't quite as successful at creating a difference between his youthful ward persona and his action-oriented alter ego, though much of that may be due to his all-too-recognizable Don King hairstyle than his acting. And the always enjoyable J. Carrol Naish is deliciously evil as the dastardly Daka, though his stereotypical Japanese accent is occasionally interrupted by a New York twang.

The serial has long been on the shelf due to its overtly racist overtones, beginning with the clever concealment of Daka's hideout behind an amusement park "funhouse" ride depicting Japanese soldiers committing atrocities against helpless women and children, and the liberal use of epithets such as "shifty-eyed Japs," "squint eyes," etc. In fact, when Sony released the 1949 sequel Batman and Robin in March of this year, word was that they had decided to hold back on the release of the original serial for this very reason. Fortunately, political correctness has been put aside for the release of the unexpurgated series in this new two disc set. As unabashedly racist as the series is in its depiction of the Japanese, it serves as an historical document of the pervasive attitude among Americans during the Second World War when the series debuted.

The source material for Sony's release of the serial to DVD has some problems, beginning with a particularly low quality print for the first chapter, which is badly worn, resulting in contrast that is so poor that at times the actor's features are nearly obliterated. Fortunately the rest of the chapters are in much better shape, though they all show some wear and minor debris. The audio for all of the chapters is showing varying degrees of deterioration, though the dialogue is usually clear and understandable. Again, the one exception is the first chapter, in which the amount of deterioration at times makes it difficult to understand the dialogue.

For more information about The Batman, visit Sony Pictures. To order The Batman, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter