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Batman 3.4 – The Sport of Penguins

Somewhere, deep in the darkest archives of Hollywood, there’s a book full of dirt on all the producers and network executives. Within that book’s pages, perhaps we’ll learn what was going on when ABC and William Dozier were thinking when, deciding that they needed to appeal more to young adults, they cast Ethel Merman as the villain in week four, and then followed her up with Milton Berle in week seven. Now look. I’ve loved many of their performances – Berle and Merman actually shared my favorite scene in the brilliant It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World four years before they showed up on Batman – but the last time Ethel Merman and Milton Berle were a draw for young audiences, nobody had any televisions yet.

As always in Penguin episodes, there are chances for Burgess Meredith to run rings around everybody with convoluted logic and fifty-cent words. The best scene in this episode has him conning a horse out of a character played by Horace McMahon, who was Lt. Parker on Naked City, and oddly is uncredited here. Also uncredited is Gary Owens, playing a radio broadcaster. Way to cast against type, guys. Anyway, Meredith runs away with the episode and Ethel Merman gets to yell a lot. There’s a plot here, and it continues next week – without a cliffhanger – but the draw is watching the veteran villains be silly and have fun.

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Batman 3.1 – Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin

The breath of fresh air that Batman badly needed, the incredibly gorgeous and sexy Yvonne Craig comes high-kicking her way into the show in the first of the self-contained episodes. Daniel was thrilled, figuring out that a new superhero had joined the show, and loved her motorcycle. “She is so cool!” he shouted as she drove after the bad guys.

This is actually much better than I remembered it. It’s incredibly zippy, doing the job of introducing Barbara and Batgirl really well and still having a bit of room to breathe. Some of it doesn’t make sense – who the heck built the secret Batgirl base on the eighth floor of a midtown apartment building, and why doesn’t Penguin recognize Alfred, despite having interacted with him at least three times previously – but it doesn’t matter much. It’s just plain fun and it’s always a treat to watch Burgess Meredith yelling at everybody.

What does look troubling is the immediately obvious slashing of the budget. In order to get renewed, ABC and the producers worked out an awkward compromise, cutting the numbers from what they’d pay for a one-hour drama to the cost of a half-hour sitcom. So apart from the new Batgirl theme, the music is all repurposed from earlier episodes (and, apparently, from The Green Hornet), Madge Blake was let go to pay for Yvonne Craig, other speaking parts get dropped except where absolutely necessary, and the set designers were thanked for their trouble. The Penguin’s lair is the first of many stark, minimalist sets, with a black curtain for a background, stairs to nowhere except a solitary door, and random colorful walls. It looks like a blown-up game of Mouse Trap done on a high school stage. Sadly, we’ll see lots more like it before we finish.

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Batman 2.44 – Penguin’s Disastrous End

This deeply odd story finally comes to a ridiculous end in the third part, when we finally learn the Penguin’s billion-dollar plan. Everything has been arranged to get him into a subterranean treasury where $10,000,000 in gold bars await him. There, he, Marsha, and Aunt Hilda all kick back locked in the vault for three days while his finks, using the WW2-era plans that he stole from the military last time, fashion the bars into a solid gold tank.

This is a really amusing visual, and of course, for a kid under the age of ten watching in the 1960s or 1970s who has a small collection of military toys and a stack of back issues of G.I. Combat, tanks are completely unstoppable and the most amazingly awesome things in the universe. So, if you’re under ten, there’s probably some undeniable eye-popping wowness to come from the Penguin’s new toy, which the police instantly label as completely impregnable.

So you’d think it would be a bit of an anti-climax when Robin takes out the tank with a single shot from the Batzooka to its treads, but Daniel was paying complete and total attention and said that was the best part of the whole story. Well, just as long as he’s happy, that’s what matters!

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Batman 2.43 – Penguin Sets a Trend

You know, I found out about the existence of this three-part story about twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. The least it could do is not be so absolutely brainless. It’s occasionally really funny, but it sure is dumb.

I am actually very curious about its production. Batman and Robin spend almost the entire episode trapped by the Penguin, and Marsha and Hilda get just a single short scene. (They’re looking for old toads for one of Hilda’s dopey spells.) Obviously production of this series was a brutal and busy one – thirty hours in about eight months – and any chance to give the stars a day off from shooting one story so they could get ahead somewhere else was one they couldn’t afford to miss.

So Burgess Meredith gets to walk away with everything in this half hour. He’s having a ball, of course, but I couldn’t help but wish the two officers at the “Hexagon” gave him a little more of an acting challenge. It’s a treat watching Meredith do his thing, but he’s more fun to watch when his opponents are not simpletons.

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Batman 2.42 – Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend

Marsha, Queen of Diamonds is just the oddest character. For the most part, all the Batvillains are cut from pretty similar cloth, but Marsha and her Aunt Hilda honestly seem to have wandered in from some entirely different TV show. I wonder whether this is because, as I mentioned last time she appeared, I somehow managed to completely and entirely miss this character’s appearances when I was a kid.

Anyway, there’s a bit this time where Marsha goes back to Aunt Hilda’s cave to complain, again, that her spells did not work, and the two of them interact with this oddball puppet that Hilda has conjured up, a silly monster that lives in her cauldron. Every other villain gets their gadgets from something that at least sounds like technology, even if these things have no basis in real science whatever. Only Marsha and Aunt Hilda practice magic, albeit incompetently. They’re really the biggest surprise that the program offers.

So anyway, this is the start of the show’s second three-part adventure, and the tone, throughout, is quite interesting since it completely dispenses with the Bat-formula. Our heroes are actually on their way to give a lecture in the pre-credits sequence when they stumble upon an apparent robbery. The Penguin has actually got clearance to shoot a film, and only agrees not to sue Batman and Robin for assault, as well as the city for not providing adequate protection, if Batman and Robin agree to act in his picture. So what is he up to?

Needing capital, because running a movie studio is expensive, Penguin invites the wealthy Marsha to become an investor. She agrees on the condition that she be cast as the leading lady, and Penguin forces Batman to kiss her in a love scene so many times that Batman goes home with his lips chapped! That’s after Batman “arranges” for the cancellation of Marsha’s nude milk bath scene by making sure that the Gotham City Film Decency League gets a copy of the script.

This is a deeply silly, strange episode. I laughed out loud several times and really want to know what the heck is going to happen next.

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Batman 2.39 – The Penguin Declines

I don’t have very much to add this time. The three-part format worked incredibly well, and it’s probably a shame that the producers only used it twice more. There’s another giant pile of events, none of the scenes lasts very long, and the whole thing moves with incredible speed and zip. We’re used to 1960s television being so much slower-paced than today’s, and so something with so much activity, locations, and events feels practically modern!

Of note: Rob Reiner has a very small part as a delivery man in a scene with Burgess Meredith and Terry Moore. The Joker decided that he needs the Penguin to seduce the errant Venus into a trap, which is an amazingly strange plot development since he tried to feed her to a giant clam earlier. I love the notion that the Penguin is such a suave don juan that no woman can resist his charms for long.

And the trap? Well, it sort of requires suspending disbelief long enough to accept that there’s room in the Batmobile’s trunk for six people to hide, but it’s an invasion of the Batcave, which is absolutely the biggest plot development that this program has ever shown us. It lasts for another terrific fight, but the villains get no mileage from their bravado: it didn’t occur to any of them to try and crack the trunk and see where they were. Not that it would have mattered; Batman knew they were in the car all along and disabled the emergency trunk unlock switch!

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Batman 2.37 – The Zodiac Crimes

I wish that I could say that Daniel’s mind was blown when the Penguin shows up about a quarter of the way into what seemed initially like the Joker’s episode. Unfortunately, my son was very restless, wiggly, and not on his best behavior tonight. He was a little more alarmed by the cliffhanger than he has been in quite a long time, though.

This time, our heroes are trapped in a museum, tied down underneath an eight-ton meteorite. They’ve just lost a fight with the Joker and his men because his moll-of-the-week, Venus, finally decided to stay evil instead of good. Venus is played by Terry Moore, who had been a glamour girl and in-demand actress in the early 1950s, but parts had been drying up. Charitably, accepting that the babe-of-the-week role is a fairly routine one, she’s not the best actress to tackle this role. Moore largely faded from the spotlight not long after this appearance, before reviving her career in the mid-1980s along with the surprising claim that she had spent a quarter of a century as Howard Hughes’ secret bride.

But that was much later. What happens onscreen is what I recall as one of my favorite stories, and it’s held up pretty well, without any of the eye-rolling goofiness that had been punctuating recent episodes. The original story was by Stephen Kandel, who wrote an episode or two of dozens of interesting TV series over a thirty-year career*, and it’s a great example of throwing dozens of ideas and locations at the wall, seeing what will stick. I think that I liked it when I was a kid because I liked the Zodiac for a time, as kids do, but I like it today because while the heroes know that the Joker intends twelve Zodiac-related crimes, they don’t know the order or the exact targets.

Dropping the Penguin into the proceedings just makes things more complicated, and that’s a great thing. The plot moves far too quickly to afford Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith more than one scene together, but Meredith does his usual, calm, stealth stealing of every scene that he’s in. At one point, he calls the criminals’ lair from a payphone with a message about the evening’s plan, then casually does that old stunt of repeatedly tapping the hookswitch to get his dime back.

But the Penguin is arrested before the final fight – seriously, this episode moves at warp speed – because this is Joker’s show and he’s just one of many elements of it. If the previous Joker story had been disappointing with its half-finished laundry list of extremely odd ideas, this one’s much better, with trick magic wands and distracting, exploding jumping beans, and Romero ratcheting up the egotism and the mania. He’s in peak form and having a ball in this story.

(*These include Banacek, Mission: Impossible, the Nero Wolfe with William Conrad and Lee Horsley, MacGyver, Harry O, Wonder Woman, and all the Harry Mudd episodes of Star Trek – even the cartoon version!)

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Batman 2.28 – The Bird’s Last Jest

You might have noticed that the continuity on Batman is just unbelievably slipshod. The Penguin made three appearances in season one, and in the third of them, he did not recognize that Alfred, who he kidnapped, was the same guy he’d seen in his two previous misadventures.

This time out, Batman sends Alfred undercover as the criminal Quill Pen Quertch. Now, I get that the TV Batman Family is a lot smaller than in the comics and he doesn’t have a lot of agents to whom he can assign this task, but the Penguin has met this guy three times already: twice as Alfred and once as an insurance man from “Floyd’s of Dublin.” Surely Batman knows that he must be pushing his luck! And indeed he is: at last, Penguin recognizes him, gasses him, and then closes his restaurant, blaming an outbreak of Moldavian Food Poisoning. He even has a nice, professional sign printed up after all his patrons flee, which is perfect.

All along, the Penguin’s scheme has been to get arrested and back in his old cell next to the criminal forgery mastermind Ballpoint Baxter. Finally, he’s all set to head to the state pen… and Bruce Wayne has convinced the board to parole Ballpoint into his program for wayward youths and a teacher of good penmanship. Ballpoint is played by frequent series writer Stanley Ralph Ross in an unspeaking cameo, and he’s enormous! He just towers over Adam West and Burt Ward. Ross did some of the voices for the villains in the 1970s Super Friends cartoon, and if you ever listened to Gorilla Grodd and concluded “the actor playing that gorilla must be huge,” well, you’re right.

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