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Batman 3.18 – Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time

Last night, we were talking about bad movies with our friend David and I mentioned my belief that the very worst films are the ones that are just plain boring. Then tonight we watched this episode of Batman which, by that definition, must be the worst so far, because it’s so amazingly dull.

In other episodes, we might have seen other guest stars seem unhappy that they chose to do this show, and that tends to result in rushed, sloppy performances that come across as abrupt and grouchy. See Rudy Vallee in the Londinium episodes for a fine example. But here, Milton Berle acts like he just does not care at all. He put in his eight or ten hours on the set, perhaps learning his lines immediately before delivering them, and never again thought about this show. In his previous appearance, he at least had a twinkle in his eye even if Louie the Lilac is played oddly straight, but in this, there is nothing.

Perhaps with an interesting plot this might have worked, but no, we saw Charles Hoffman’s name in the credits and knew it wasn’t to be. This should have been a Batgirl solo mission, rescuing Bruce and Dick from Louie the Lilac, but once she finally arrives, she’s immediately captured and Batman and Robin have to save the day, thanks to a pair of – oh, come on – instant unfolding Bat-costume capsules, just add water.

There’s so little to the plot that even having just twenty-five minutes to fill, Hoffman has to add a highlight reel of exciting moments from season two and a subplot of a maintenance man almost finding Barbara’s Batgirl room. Of course we have to keep Batgirl and the cops away from the warehouse as long as possible, because once they do arrive, there’s no doubt Louie is holed up inside. He has his name painted on the side of the building! Next!

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Batman 3.14 – Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill

Well, here’s something unexpected. Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich appears in this episode as himself. Whose wacky idea was that? He’s the guy who designed the “monokini,” which had everybody at Playboy very pleased for about a decade, and who later designed the Moonbase Alpha costumes for Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999.

Oh, sorry, I was so surprised to have Rudi Gernreich pop into a Batman episode that it actually overshadowed, briefly, the return of Catwoman, now played by Eartha Kitt. I think she’s tremendously entertaining in the part, even if she doesn’t appear to be the same character who Julie Newmar was playing in the doomed romance storyline across the second half of season two. Perhaps the Catwoman we had been enjoying really did meet her demise in the West River, and this is a new villain who picked up where the original Catwoman left off?

Like the earlier Newmar stories, this is also written by Stanley Ralph Ross, and he didn’t include any real tangible link to Batman and Catwoman’s earlier flirtation. I wonder whether Ross knew that Eartha Kitt had been cast when he wrote the script? American television networks were incredibly worried about depicting interracial romance in the sixties; when NBC allowed William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols to kiss on an episode of Star Trek a year later, half of the network’s executives feared that their affiliates would revolt. So no, West and Kitt do not make goo-goo eyes at each other, much less resume their discussions of a possible married life together.

It didn’t even register with our son that Catwoman had been recast at all, which is nice. He still hated this episode, however, because Catwoman has a particularly gruesome fate in store for Batgirl, leaving her strapped to a conveyor belt to be sawed in half. Come to think of it, the Riddler did something very similar to Robin in season one and he completely hated that deathtrap, too.

There are some really funny lines in this one, as you’d expect from a Ross script. At one point, Catwoman safely ducks into the women’s dressing room, knowing that Batman and Robin will not follow her into this “hallowed and forbidden no man’s land!” Outside, Robin protests that they can’t go in after her, because, yes, that’s right, “it’s a hallowed and forbidden no man’s land!” Pure genius.

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Batman 3.11 – The Londinium Larcenies

The last time out, I said that we were tabling Batman for a bit, and we will. Its replacement show hasn’t arrived, and to be honest, I’m much happier to get this mess of a story over with rather than leave it as something to look forward to.

Yeah, time has not been kind to “The Londinium Larcenies.” It’s unusual, because I remember completely loving this story as a child and feeling that it was epic. Something clicked in my little kid head and I thought that Lord Ffogg was one of Batman’s greatest opponents, and that the story, which takes him away from Gotham City for the only time, left our hero out of his element. There’s also a really scary moment with a killer bee coming up.

About ten years ago, I went halfsies on a bootleg DVD set of this show, because it sure didn’t look like it was ever coming out legitimately. I left most of it alone as I never seemed to have the time, although I did marvel at the ten full hours of bonus features the bootleggers assembled. (No kidding; ten. It’s even got Peter Graves hosting an A&E Biography on Cesar Romero.) I did make time to rewatch the first two episodes of this story, expecting excellence, and couldn’t make it to the third. It’s awful.

A big part of the problem is the casting of Rudy Vallée, of all people, as Lord Ffogg. Why they couldn’t have hired, you know, an actual British person for this job is beyond me. The rest of the cast is full of the sort of expats who knew how to believably say “cor” and “blimey” and “stone the crows, missus, what a sticky wicket” and, like Glynis Johns (playing Ffogg’s sister Lady Penelope) and Maurice Dallimore, frequently ended up in Walt Disney films set in jolly, merrie old Engerlund. (Bizarrely, this isn’t the only example I can come up with of an ostensibly British criminal duo on TV played by a British female and an American male passing as English; there’s a Columbo with Honor Blackman and Richard Basehart.)

Anyway, Ffogg could have been played by Bernard Fox or Terry-Thomas or, heck, Dallimore himself would have made more sense, but they went with Vallée, fresh from the huge success of the stage and film productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and he just sleepwalks through the episode like he could not possibly care less. Earlier in this blog, I mentioned how Adam West had some animosity toward guest star Otto Preminger. Yvonne Craig was, similarly, less than impressed with Vallée, and had some really choice words about him and his crummy attitude in West’s autobiography.

But the real problem with this story is that it’s smug and it requires everybody to be stupid. There’s not even a reason to suspect Lord Ffogg in episode one. Somehow, the Dark Knight Detective jumps from “the criminal creates his own fog” to “there’s this guy with a big lawn full of fog grass,” and fingers him. And the humor never rises above “Barnaby Street! Londinium! Ireland Yard! Get it?”

It is amusing, at least, that Monte / Monty Landis, another expat who started his career in the UK in the 1950s and moved to Hollywood around 1964, plays Lady Penelope’s cockney butler and somehow manages to be even more wooden than Parker on Thunderbirds.

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Batman 2.36 – The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul

Part two of this story is indeed better than part one, as I remembered. That’s despite a completely ridiculous subplot about Batman and Robin’s supposed death. They apparently chose to fake their deaths in the nuclear reactor to put the Mad Hatter off guard, but word got out and kind of got away from them. Within hours, President Johnson, Premier Khrushchev, and the Queen of England are all flying to Gotham City, Aunt Harriet is organizing a funeral committee of four thousand women, and the same two bits of stock footage of crowds that were employed in the Batman movie get used again.

But never mind that, this has one of the all-time great Batfights, which looks like it happened because the stunt team convinced the producers that they could stage a really great one on a water tower. There’s absolutely no practical reason in the plot for the Mad Hatter’s hideout, at the defunct Green Derby restaurant, to have a water tower, and the best that the writer can come up with is that the Hatter plans to zap Batman and Robin with his mesmerizer as they climb the ladder. But the wind carries his hat off, so it’s down to fisticuffs, and you know what? It looks terrific. That is a great, great fight scene.

But never mind that either, the crowning moment comes when the news of our heroes’ deaths breaks to the citizenry and the villains plan their next move. The Mad Hatter is overjoyed that he’s done what the Joker, the Puzzler, and the Riddler have all failed to do and killed Batman, elevating him to one of the greats. Interestingly, though, Commissioner Gordon, who’s usually naming every costumed menace in town as the most dangerous and lethal lunatic on the planet and more than a match for any policeman, has no respect for the Mad Hatter whatsoever, labeling him an inconsequential “pipsqueak.”

So in a scene that is made more glorious by David Wayne’s extremely mannered and fussy body language and fey delivery, the Mad Hatter basks in his infamy and immediately sets about plotting the next details of his plan. Then moll-of-the-week Polly, played by Jean Hale, wonders whether they’re being disrespectful to Batman’s memory and Mad Hatter patiently corrects her. Since Batman and Robin were made into celebrities because of criminals, then the best way to honor their memory is to be crooked. “It’s the LEAST you can do!” What a delightful, funny scene!

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Batman 2.2 – Walk the Straight and Narrow

Over the last few years, there’s been a bad math meme that keeps going around, exposing the poor arithmetic of the gullible. It goes something like how if the government is going to spend $2 billion on Project X, they could just give all 240 million of us citizens a million dollars instead. The meme is made further heartbreaking because it’s inevitably shared on Facebook by somebody that you sat with in Ms. Montfort’s algebra class in the eleventh grade.

The Archer has some inside help in part two of this story. Surprising absolutely nobody over the age of six, the Wayne Foundation’s treasurer Alan A. Dale is a traitor. If the character’s name wasn’t a giveaway to people unfamiliar with Robin Hood, the actor, Robert Cornthwaite, is playing him so snootily and fussily that he just can’t be a good guy. He’s meant to be overseeing the Wayne Foundation’s charity giveaway of $10 million to 100,000 of its poorest citizens.

This means that all 100,000 of them get called in reverse alphabetical order to receive a brand new $100 bill, meaning everybody’s going to be there all darn day. And the first to take the podium is the legendary actor Sam Jaffe, in an uncredited role as Zoltan Zorba. Jaffe was very well known to viewers at the time for his role as Dr. Zorba in Ben Casey, and he spots the bill as a phony, in part because he brought a magnifying glass onto the stage, and in part because the Archer did not merely go to the trouble of obtaining $10 million in counterfeit money, he printed money with his own face in place of Ben Franklin’s. We’ve already established that the character is a raging egotist, but that must have taken a little time!

Anyway, other name parts in the cast are Barbara Nichols, whom imdb describes with some accuracy as “an archetypal brassy, bosomy, Brooklynesque bimbo,” and Vinton Hayworth, later to co-star in I Dream of Jeannie, as yet another Gotham civic official, this one both an old fraternity brother of Commissioner Gordon’s and a former governor(!), whose principal job description seems to be “overact, as much as possible.”

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Batman 2.1 – Shoot a Crooked Arrow

Conventional wisdom has it that season two of Batman is one long slide into mediocrity and repetition, but at least since Stanley Ralph Ross, the program’s best writer, got to pen the season opener, it starts with a good script. It’s not directed well, and the performances are all pretty lousy, and having a Robin Hood-themed villain steal from Bruce Wayne is a bit obvious, but it’s still just a little odd, and that’s a good thing.

The quirk this time out is that the Archer is embraced by Gotham’s poor and downtrodden, who spend all their days on a studio backlot street huddled around a hot dog cart and dressed like Daisy Mae from Li’l Abner – I’m pretty sure that one of the extras is wearing the same dress that Sherry Jackson wore in episode 31 – and after Batman and Robin capture him, the people of Gotham City cobble together $50,000 for his bail. Have I mentioned how downright dumb the people of Gotham are?

Daniel was not really interested in this episode, but that’s in part our fault because we overlooked that he doesn’t know who Robin Hood is. The Archer’s played by Art Carney, deliberately reading the goofball, cod-Shakespeare dialogue in a broad New Yawk accent. Also hanging out in this episode to get his face in front of all the millions of hip viewers is American Bandstand‘s host, Dick Clark. He’s the second of the window interruption cameos, following Jerry Lewis in season one. They somehow shoehorned him in while forgetting that Batman and Robin were climbing down from Commissioner Gordon’s office. We can only conclude from this that the police department rents out rooms on the second floor of their building to TV hosts.

So no, it’s not very good, but the concept of a villain who’s more popular than Batman is a great idea and deserved a little better than this. I wish Art Carney was acting as though he cared even a little about this job. In 1977, he was in an amazingly good film called The Late Show. I would much, much, much rather watch that than part two of this.

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Batman 1.34 – Batman Makes the Scenes

Well, there’s an image that’s got just about all you want from Batman, yeah? A bad guy in a silly costume, a babe-of-the-week, great big props and labels on everything.

Daniel was alternately bored and thrilled by this episode. It is a little talkier than many, with some more Bruce Wayne scenes than many episodes. And the big set piece at the millionaires’ dinner is… well, these one-percenters are happy to let go of some of their cash if they get a floor show first. They literally throw money – one million dollars a head – at the bathing suit beauty posing as “Miss Natural Resources.” Good grief. I think half the room then went to some masked naughty party in the Hamptons that Tom Cruise wandered around.

But as much as he enjoyed the fights and the nonsense, there is surprisingly little of it in this episode. Victor Lundin continued to overact and try to steal every scene as the henchman Octopus. He just moves really weirdly, with bizarre body language, waving his hands behind Penguin as they’re looking over the loot. Then he loudly announces that he’s going to use his cut to go to the South Seas and open a school for pirates. What an incredibly odd character! Daniel got downright bored, however, and a lengthy epilogue, that sees the millionaires back at Wayne Manor along with more babes in bathing suits, was dull enough to send him out of the room. Commissioner Gordon escorted Julie Gregg’s character to the party on a day off from prison. She’s not the first young lady led astray by crime to get a brief look at Wayne Manor before paying her debt to society, and she probably won’t be the last.

This story was the final one in the first production block for the series, made in April 1966 and broadcast in May. The first season has an incredibly high episode count for a midseason replacement, but that’s because it was budgeted as seventeen one-hour episodes. That was a standard midseason order for ABC in the mid-1960s. At the time, it was less common for shows to be canceled midway through the year than it would later become; networks then stuck with their shows for much, much longer, and usually didn’t axe anything that launched in September until Christmas.

After the first story, “Hi Diddle Riddle,” was finished in the fall of 1965, the plan had been to shoot a feature film, launch with that in movie theaters in the summer of 1966, and then start a series that September. But ABC’s 1965 lineup was a complete disaster, and the network was deep in third place in the ratings. Before October was finished, ABC had decided that they wanted to cancel their weakest program, the variety show Shindig!, after Christmas and start Batman a full nine months early.

So the film was postponed until production of season one finished. In his memoir, Back to the Batcave, Adam West recalled that they literally began filming the movie after only one weekend’s break in mid-April.

One interesting thing about the film, by the way, is that ABC suddenly had a massive hit on its hands and the producers were about to make a movie. Watching this from across the street, somebody at Universal looked at the CBS sitcom The Munsters, dying in the ratings and about to be axed, and said “Make a movie of that, quick!” And somebody else at David Susskind’s Talent Associates looked at the sitcom Get Smart, which had just debuted, and said “Make a movie of that, too!”

Munster Go Home! was released first, and it bombed. The Batman movie came out a month later, and did sort of okay. The Get Smart people, seeing that neither had set the world on fire, put the brakes on their idea, and rejigged the in-progress script into a really terrific three-part story called “A Man Called Smart” that finished season two of that show. It might be my favorite episode of that series; I’m glad that they saved it for television.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie with Daniel this weekend. I haven’t seen it in a long time.

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Batman 1.33 – Fine Finny Fiends

Normally, I have to brace myself a little bit when we get to the end of part one of a Batman story. Daniel just plain does not like the cliffhanger deathtraps. He’ll either hiss or grumble or hide his face or, once in a sad blue moon, cry a little. But this story, the third to feature Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, confounded my expectations completely.

In the story, the Penguin’s goons abduct Alfred, who has, bizarrely, been sidetracked on his shopping by a handbill advertising cut-price caviar. I can see how he might want to watch his pennies because he needs twenty pounds of the stuff for a multi-millionaire’s dinner, but really. Penguin brainwashes Alfred so that he’ll forward him the address of this dinner once the location is decided. Caged in the Penguin’s waterfront headquarters, Alfred is stiff-upper-lip defiant, but Daniel was nevertheless very worried about him, and hid his head under his blanket (which is called “Bict,” by the way).

So Alfred’s brainwashed and then released, but Batman knows something is up, because Alfred has (a) developed a bizarre twitch, and (b) he does not recognize a photograph of the Penguin. Actually, the show doesn’t draw attention to that, because American teevee programs in the sixties cared very little for episode-to-episode continuity, but Alfred met the Penguin on both of his previous appearances. But there’s no time for that, because there’s a rehearsal dinner for the multi-millionaires, during which time Aunt Harriet boasts that Bruce Wayne’s great grandfather founded Skull & Bones at Yale. Well, there’s something you didn’t know.

Anyway, since Alfred’s imprisonment bothered Daniel a lot, I was worried about the cliffhanger, but I needn’t have been. Our heroes are locked in a vacuum chamber and the baddies are pumping out the air. The room is full of balloons that pop as the air grows thinner. It’s actually a really grisly way to go – man, the Penguin’s traps don’t mess around, they’re all sick in the head – but it was, mercifully, a little above my son’s head, and he was bemused by the odd room of popping balloons. It didn’t bother him at all!

As for the other guest stars, Julie Gregg, who later played Sonny Corleone’s unfortunate wife Sandra in The Godfather, is the dame-of-the-week, and the most blatant one to date. She spends her time in the Penguin’s hideout wearing a one-piece swimsuit, practicing to be a “bathing beauty.” Victor Lundin was a regular face in ’60s television, and would be back in a different role in season three. This time, he’s the Penguin’s goon “Octopus,” and he does a remarkably silly little dance when Batman catches him in the back with a fishing pole in the fight scene.

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