Batman (1966)

The Batman film has been written about and dissected far more than the episodes of the TV series has been, since, for many years, only it and not the show was available on home video. It’s still the most entertaining Batman movie that Hollywood’s ever made. Sure, the one with Heath Ledger is certainly an objectively better film in every regard, but entertaining it’s not. And, to be honest, as much as I’d love to champion this from the rafters… it has a lot of problems.

They’ve been discussed by many, and so I won’t belabor them, but it is unfortunate that it leads with ten completely awful minutes – all the over-narrated stuff, the Bat-shark repellent, the press conference, the “it happened at sea… C! C for Catwoman!” line – which is more than enough evidence for anybody skeptical about the Adam West series that the party line is actually true. The movie’s not so much campy as it is smug, the work of people who can get away with lousy, hasty work just because they can.

And plotwise, much of the movie’s like that. It’s all first-draft stuff, with things just falling into place out of sheer laziness and conviction that the audience will be perfectly willing to accept anything given. It’s not a story that works; it’s a story that happens.

And yet it’s entertaining because some of the performances are completely terrific. Some. The director seems to have told West and Ward that they’re on the big screen now and so they should play to the back of the theater, leading in the awkward feeling that the two leads are trying a lot harder than the screenwriter did.

But the bad guys… they’re all having a blast. Gorshin, Romero, and Meredith were all old hands at their parts, having done three or four stories apiece. Julie Newmar was unavailable, and filming actually began on the movie without a Catwoman, with Lee Meriwether joining them during the second or third week. She’d been in a couple of dozen small guest star parts for TV, and this was her first really big role.

A word of revisionist thought about Lee Meriwether: she’s fantastic. Conventional wisdom holds that she’s a poor second to Newmar, but at this point, we can compare just a single performance each. I had the feeling, watching “The Purr-fect Crime”, that a lot of what we remember Newmar for came from the show’s second season, but what I think now is that Newmar kept the character evolving in response to Meriwether’s portrayal here. As Catwoman, Meriwether is all tight curls and loud meows, while in Newmar’s first story, she is more languid and purring. There’s an astonishing bit where she’s at the periscope in the Penguin’s submarine, her hips gyrating as she lets out a loud “reeee-OWWWW!” and the henchman standing next to her gives her an eye that clearly says “this woman is insane.”

Her comrades in Underworld United all tackle their parts with relish, and they each playfully work to steal the scenes from each other. Gorshin gets a great one about sixty seconds before the image above. Lying on the floor with Meredith, he repeats the instructions for phase whatever of their latest plan, wide-eyed and crazy. But Meredith is the real star. It’s a little unfair to the others that he has the most to do, and doesn’t have to work the hardest, but when he growls “Run silent, run deep” in that submarine, you can turn off all the other Bat-movies, starring Keaton or Bale or whoever, because there’s not a more perfect moment in any of them.

Daniel ran hot and cold on this movie. As I feared, it was a little long for him, and the bits where Bruce Wayne is on a date with Miss Kitka sent him to the floor to roll around with toys, although I’m sure that Adam West appreciated the opportunity to do something different. Incidentally, since Meriwether didn’t join the production for at least a week, that blows a hole in a silly hypothesis of mine. When the couple goes dancing, you can spot Julie Gregg, from the last TV story, as the torch singer who’s performing “Plaisir d’amour.” She’s even wearing the same dress that she wore in the final scene of that episode! I sort of envisioned that after the director called a wrap on that episode on Friday, the producer said, “Julie, you were wonderful, can you come back Monday?” I guess there must have been more than just two days between them!

My son’s favorite scenes in any Batman story are the climbs. Good for him, because season two is full of them. This time, when they’re climbing the outside of the baddies’ lair, he was sitting on the couch between us imitating the climb, one hand in the air after another. Of course, he also loves the fights, and the movie got the biggest laugh from him during the big fight on the submarine, when Joker accidentally socks Riddler into the water.

And all the big new Bat-gadgets got the seal of approval: he loved the helicopter, speedboat, and motorcycle. We’d actually seen a different Bat-cycle in the second Penguin story. This new one Batman keeps hidden by the side of a coastal road covered in greenery camouflaging it. I can understand wanting to have various equipment stored in an assortment of hidey-holes around town in case of emergencies, particularly as the Batmobile gets pilfered for the fifth time in eight stories, but surely some shed, with a lock on it, would be more sensible?!

Finally, the ending is really, really fun, but it’s silly even by this show’s standards. It involves a cameo by an impersonator of President Johnson, stock footage of crowds cheering around the world, the most delicate operation in the history of medicine being performed in a very unsterile meeting room, and, wanting to make a discreet exit, our heroes climb out a ninth story window. Insanely, the villains don’t get a scene of final comeuppance, one last chance to jeer at our heroes and snap at each other before being marched off to prison, and the movie really misses that beat, that punctuation, needed before the long and silly epilogue.

So in conclusion, I’m of the opinion that almost all Batman movies are terrible. I’ll give you The Dark Knight, because Ledger was so, so good in that, and this is certainly the second best of them, but man, you watch this film and know that, as entertaining as it is on its own modest merits, if only the script worked a little harder and didn’t rely so much on coincidence and chance, it could have been great.

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2 Comments

Filed under batman, movies

2 responses to “Batman (1966)

  1. Now I *know* you’re not including “Mask of the Phantasm” in your “all Batman moves are terrible hypothesis”…

    In all seriousness, I’ve come to believe more and more that Batman simply doesn’t work in live-action, unless you go embrace straight-up comedy like this show did. Other members of the Gotham crew can (there’s a decent argument to be made about the Gotham City Police Department and some of the more sober arch-villains being able to carry a show on their own – Gotham is doing its best to ruin that concept, but eh), but Batman himself, I feel, can only be taken seriously as a creature of ink and paint, not flesh and blood.

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