Batman 1.29 – The Bookworm Turns

Boy! Just when the episode one formula (something weird / call Batman / interrupt study / rush past Aunt Harriet) was getting stale, this story shakes it up and is really entertaining. The Bookworm arranges for Commissioner Gordon to be delayed on the way to a bridge opening, but sends a double to be “shot” on live television while Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are watching the event. It’s a great way to control exactly when our heroes will pull up at police headquarters. That way he can plan to put a bomb in the Batmobile.

The bomb doesn’t work – there’s a Bat-bomb detector in the car – but the Bookworm has a “plot B.” The bomb is secreted in a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls with a reinforced asbestos cover which survives the blast in the sky after Batman ejects it. I remember, as a child, being really struck by that ominous cut to commercial, with Batman growling “…it tolls for thee!” Mainly because I was a child and didn’t know what it meant.

Bookworm is a tremendously good villain. He’s played by the great Roddy McDowall, who has a very interesting little criminal resume. He and Anne Baxter (“Zelda the Great“) were the only two Bat-villains to also appear as criminals on Columbo, and he and Baxter are also in the ultra-exclusive group of actors who played two separate Bat-villains. Baxter would return as a different character in season three, and in 1992, McDowall played Mad Hatter in the celebrated Dini/Timm Batman cartoon. His portrayal of Bookworm is clearly inspired by Gorshin and Romero, but wow, what a character. I love the way he thinks and schemes and lays out intricate plots, but the kicker is that he’s a frustrated novelist who can’t come up with an original plot of his own, so he rips off the greats in weird ways.

His frustration is so acute that when this week’s criminal babe sidekick, played by Francine York, who does not know Bookworm’s pathetic inability to be original, says that he should write a book, he instantly loses his head, roars in fury and becomes downright scary. He grabs a gigantic hardback book and fully intends to smack her with it until he notes the title: The Secret of Success: Self-Control. I’ve noted before how awesome Frank Gorshin’s insanity as the Riddler is to watch, but what McDowall did as Bookworm in this scene really is incredibly surprising.

Marie had some fun shaking her head in exasperation over some of the show’s more, shall we say, self-aware moments. This is the first episode to establish there’s a van parked around for parachute pickup duty after the Batmobile makes a 180-degree turn, and the first episode to feature a celebrity guest cameo interrupting the Bat-climb. It’s Jerry Lewis, the first of many celebrities making a quick appearance to wow their son or niece showing up on the fabbest show on TV.

Scientist that she is, Marie raised an objection to Batman using a sonic beam of 12,000 decibels to send anybody hiding inside the criminal’s Bookmobile scurrying out. Not 120 decibels, which’d do it, 12,000. And since Francine York’s character is “helpless” inside, as Bookworm’s subplot requires her to fake that she’s a hostage, that’s an incredibly dangerous and stupid thing for Batman to do. Should any criminal happen to actually have a real hostage – or, you know, one of these criminal babe sidekicks who really aren’t all that bad, just misguided and needing a little help from the Wayne Foundation for Wayward Girls after they’ve fallen in love with Batman – a sonic attack’s probably a bad idea. But on the other hand, how amazing is the Batmobile, being able to generate 12,000 decibels? What a machine!

Daniel was briefly troubled by the cliffhanger and hid his eyes, but didn’t get upset. The whole scheme seems to have been designed to separate Robin from Batman, gas the Boy Wonder, and strap him upside-down to the clapper of the bell inside the Wayne Memorial Clock Tower, which I believe is not the last time this show will try to pass off stock footage of Big Ben as something it’s not.

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