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Batman and Robin

Batman and Robin(1949)

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I don't know much about a lot of things in this world, but I do know this: if you're a superhero who dresses up in costume to keep his identity secret, you'd better ride in different vehicles when you're in costume and out of costume. It's a sign of just how chintzy the 1949 serial Batman and Robin is that Bruce Wayne and Batman both use the same 1949 Mercury convertible, and that no one else can put two and two together and get four (especially considering he and Robin park the Merc in Bruce's driveway, get out and run to the Batcave). Unfortunately, this isn't the 15-part serial's only pathetic way of trying to get audiences to suspend their disbelief.

Now on DVD, Batman and Robin offers more historical value than entertainment value (speaking of history, this is also known as The New Adventures of Batman and Robin, as it followed a 1943 serial that had a different cast). I'm sure there are many Batman comic-book buffs out there who get something out of the serial's 4+ hours of good versus evil, but this B-movie fan is not one of them. In order to somewhat replicate the chapter-a-week diet with which 1949 moviegoers were fed Batman and Robin, I watched a chapter a day for 15 days. It's not a diet I can recommend. As with the lack of a Batmobile, the serial is a series of gaffes, ineptitude and illogic. It's not just the bad costumes (Batman's cowl looks like it has devil horns); it's not just the scratchy stock footage whenever a vehicle plummets off a cliff; it's not just the fight scenes made up of punch sound-effects and 1940s pro wrestling moves; and it's not just the fact that Batman pulls a 25-inch blowtorch from his heretofore unused utility belt in one chapter. It's more.

What can you say about a piece of staged drama in which the evil Wizard can say to his group of feckless henchmen, "You stay here, the rest of you come with me" without any inflection or gestures to denote just who is supposed to stick around, yet somehow one guy manages to stay put? Or when Bruce Wayne's trusty butler Alfred keeps opening a door to glimpse the Bat signal in the sky, instead of just looking through a window? Or when Batman and Robin are guarding the contents of a vault, but when someone mysteriously sets off an explosion to pop the door open, they immediately run off in pursuit of, essentially, nothing and leave the opened vault unguarded? I guess you have to say that it's a miracle director Spencer Gordon Bennett worked from the 1920s through the 1960s (at least producer Sam Katzman has some interesting other credits).

Those sorts of things happen regularly in Batman and Robin, as the masked, cloaked Wizard tries to wreak havoc with the "remote control machine" he stole from a scientific research company. The machine can control any transportation vehicle within a 50-mile radius and, in between trying to fight off Batman and Robin, the heavy tries to pry $5 million ransom from the railroad industry for not shutting them down. Curiously, The Wiz forgets all about turning the machine into gain after his first attempt fails, and focuses only on fending off Batman and Robin. But the plot is hopelessly drawn out, with the henchmen's escapes from arrest almost as plentiful as Batman and Robin's close calls with death. To call Batman and Robin a cliffhanger is to be too kind, as most of these "close calls" are little more than cinematic baits-and-switches involving no great feat on the title characters' parts - like the parked plane that explodes with Batman and Robin "in it," except (as we see in the next chapter) they've merely stepped out the door before the explosion.

Although the bad guys have plenty of useful gadgets, the heroes have next to nothing, which makes you wonder just what they do in the Batcave. I mean, c'mon, they keep their costumes in a file cabinet. That's just sad! As Batman, colorless Robert Lowery comes off like a B-movie Victor Mature (isn't that redundant?) while Johnny Duncan seems to have the disposition of an evil henchman more than of Robin. Also here is Lyle Talbot, playing rather clueless Commissioner Gordon on his slide from 1930s contract player to 1950s member of Ed Wood's stock company (when he at least got to be in interestingly bad movies). The less said about Jane Adams' magazine photographer Vicky Vale, a bland damsel in distress role, the better. Just as most any attempt at thrills emerges as less than thrilling, any attempt to cultivate humor (rare) or sexual sparks between Bruce and Vicky yields little.

There is one sign of hope that maybe someone working on Batman and Robin realized how pathetic it was. During a sequence in a warehouse in a later chapter, every single box reading "this side up" is stacked upside down (there are a dozen or so). Is this some crew member's wink to the audience? Did maybe even Bennett do this? After sitting through this charmless drag, it's no wonder this serial did not lead to any follow-ups and that the makers of the next big Batman filmed project, the 1960s TV series, took a completely opposite approach to it, with color, humor and a distinct lack of earnestness. What an improvement.

But just one more question before I sign off: Do you think the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys could come out of retirement to mercilessly heckle a chapter of this thing? Snacks are on me, fellas.

For more information about Batman and Robin: The Complete 1949 Movie Serial, visit Sony Pictures. To order Batman and Robin, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman