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Legends of the Superheroes 1.2 – The Roast

The other episode of Legends of the Superheroes is one of those things you hadda been there for, and you hadda been under the age of nine. It still amused Daniel today, quite a lot actually, but to have seen this as a child in the era of celebrity roasts was to love this on a totally different level. As kids, we were all aware enough of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts to understand what this was making fun of. But the very intoxicated Dean Martin and all of his incredibly drunk friends – seriously, the only reason that Match Game bettered the Martin roasts in the “Inebriated Seventies Celebrities” stakes was that Match Game was on at least five days a week – weren’t for kids. This was, and it was magical.

But kids today, they have no idea what a roast is. And Daniel’s a little small to catch all the “grown up” gags about the Budweiser Clydesdales, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Idi Amin. This just has dumb slapstick to appeal to him, and it succeeded mightily in that. Even if the entire business with the “regional” superhero Ghetto Man went completely over his head.

There’s also the cute innuendo about how the hot new couple, Atom and Giganta, might have children. That also went over his head. Frank Gorshin’s not in this episode, but Ruth Buzzi is, as Aunt Minerva, and all the gags about her finding the right man also confused him. In what might be the strangest thing Daniel’s ever seen, Aunt Minerva – who, if you remember your comics lore, is a loony old lady, meaning Ruth Buzzi was just about the perfect casting choice – kisses Captain Marvel, shouts “Shazam!” and is transformed into a gorgeous young blonde, at which point all the superheroes who have been desperately trying to avoid her want her telephone number. “Who is she?” asked Daniel, not getting it. And he certainly didn’t get the climax, in which Mordru sings a version of “That’s Entertainment” that lists all the naughty things that supervillains enjoy.

Things that he did like: there’s a bit where Adam West and Burt Ward play charades in order for Robin to explain that he’s totaled the Batmobile, and a bit where William Schallert, who passed away last week, plays that “old, doddering fellow” he always played in the sixties and seventies – a bit like Ruth Buzzi, I suddenly realize – and, of course, the greatest and only actually funny moment of either special: Ed McMahon battling Solomon Grundy.

Fact: the day after this show aired, every single boy in my class reenacted and recited this bit ALL DAY LONG, and we kept doing it for weeks. It remains stupendously silly, stupid, and lovable. Ed McMahon somehow manages to repeatedly offend Solomon Grundy by either mentioning the word “swamp” or another word which Grundy can connect to a swamp, at which point Grundy shouts “HATE SWAMP!” and pounds McMahon. It’s a stupid shtick as ancient as, I dunno, Niagara Falls, but it works brilliantly for its target audience.

We’ve been hollering “HATE SWAMP!” at each other for the last ten minutes, actually.

Well, mercifully, they only made these two specials. After this, West and Ward put away their capes and cowls, and most of the other actors who played the superheroes (or, in deference to the ladies, super persons) left their very brief time in the Hollywood spotlight.

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Legends of the Superheroes 1.1 – The Challenge

Well, speaking of Gary Owens, Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin, one day in the winter of 1979, the worst thing in the universe aired. Well, one of them. Hanna-Barbera sold NBC on a pair of variety specials using many of the same DC Comics superheroes that they were using on their Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, despite the fact that Superman and Wonder Woman’s live-action TV rights were not available.

In his autobiography, Adam West later said that he deeply regretted the experience, but he needed the money. I’m not sure what Ward thought. Frank Gorshin came back as the Riddler for a week, one in a group of seven villains played, in the main, by Vegas-style standup comics. Among them: Jeff Altman as the Weather Wizard. The following year, Altman would appear as the co-host of Sid & Marty Krofft’s equally awful and notorious Pink Lady. Nobody else has that kind of track record.

As the heroes: a bunch of models and stuntmen. Neither of the actors who played Captain Marvel for Filmation and CBS were involved; a guy named Garrett Craig with three other parts listed in IMDB appeared in their place. He at least looked the part. Instead of Batgirl, Barbara Joyce appeared as the somewhat similar character Huntress, who had debuted in the comics a little over a year previously. Joyce was given exactly zero lines in episode one, which tells you where this show’s brain is. Gary Owens is the narrator, because anybody else tapped for the job would sound like a poor imitation of Owens.

The “plot” involves the villains starting a doomsday device, challenging the heroes to find it, and then disguising themselves as gas station attendants, gypsies, psychiatrists, kids with lemonade stands, and used car salesmen to delay them. Since the heroes are, to a man (or, in deference to the ladies, to a person), complete morons, they fall for these traps.

It’s a huge missed opportunity. I’m not such a stick in the mud that I object to superheroes being made to look stupid, but the script has about two dozen things that sounded like they were meant to be jokes and not one of them is actually at all funny. It has a reputation of being terrible, terrible television and it deserves it. It’s boring.

That’s one way of looking at it. What actually happened in the winter of 1979 might have been the best thing ever. I was seven when it aired and I freaking loved it to pieces. Daniel is now five and he loved it every bit as much as I did. One day, of course, he might have the chance to look at this with adult eyes and then he will cringe. Let’s not worry about that.

He looked at the events with curiosity until Solomon Grundy threw a boulder at the Riddler, and then he chuckled. Then Sinestro blasted a hole in Riddler’s clipboard and he howled, and he didn’t stop howling for forty-seven minutes. Every dumb joke landed with expert precision and every slapstick foible ricocheted around the room. Every bonehead disguise and wacky accent employed by the villains had him grinning ear-to-ear. When Batman and Robin chased after Mordru on jet skis, he flipped. That was far more exciting to him than any chase on the original Batman.

I first saw this silly thing at my grandfather’s house in Fort Payne, Alabama. We’d visit every five or six weeks, usually arriving Saturday afternoon and leaving after supper Sunday, and this was one of those occasions that coincided with my uncles, who lived in Kentucky, making one of their long visits. In order to spend more time with Dad’s brothers, we left after school on Thursday, and I begged to watch the show on my Pappy’s only television set.

All the grown-ups tolerated the awful show while my younger brother (then the same age as my son is today) and I were entranced, but the raspberries started with the second commercial break. Each act’s end was accompanied by a caption reading “To be continued… in a moment.” I recall one of my uncles saying “Oh, thank heavens. It’s over. To be continued next week, turn it off!” I think he knew darn well what it meant, but his patience was exhausted. They grumbled and mocked for the rest of the hour.

At school on Monday, it wasn’t quite what everybody was talking about – that would come Friday morning – but I couldn’t wait to talk about it and most of my friends were still raving. This was what we wanted to see: superheroes on TV. Captain Marvel tricking Solomon Grundy into running into the distance to see who threw a tire the farthest was probably everybody’s favorite bit.

I’m writing this the night before my wife and I are going to watch Captain America: Civil War, and we’re completely confident that we’re going to enjoy the heck out of a film made with competence, love, and enthusiasm by a bunch of really good actors who care about their characters. There was so little of it around back then, and when Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman or Spider-Man did appear on TV, they were almost exclusively the only ones with super powers, and never fought villains from the comics.

Green Lantern and Sinestro shot beams at each other from their power rings, and Hawkman tussled with Solomon Grundy. Sure, we know it stinks now, but from the age of five to seven, this was A-OK.

No, it was more than that: it was why television was invented in the first place.

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Batman 3.25 – The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra

Far out, baby! Your mind’ll be blown when those wild hepcats, the mad mod Dr. Cassandra and Cabala, totally flatten those square superheroes, Daddy-O! Or not.

So here’s Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of the show, and it appears to have been made for no money at all. They didn’t have budget left for stuntmen in the fight scene – which, in the episode’s best moment, Commissioner Gordon clocks at usually lasting forty seconds – so the villains are given invisible pills. Then Batman turns out the lights.

The villains include six of the most famous arch-criminals on the show, all freed from jail to work with Dr. Cassandra: Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Egghead, and, bizarrely, King Tut, whom we just saw two installments previously restored to health and memory. The villains are played by stand-ins who don’t get any dialogue and who aren’t seen in close-up. It’s a phenomenal missed opportunity on one hand – again, imagine how a contemporary superhero series would do this at the end of a season – but it completely convinced Daniel. This might have been one of the highlights of the entire series to him, seeing six classic villains teamed up with newcomers. He’s too young to realize what a big fake-out it really is! And he loved the fight. Seeing our heroes flail around the set being “punched” by invisible villains had him howling with laughter.

As for the newcomers, they’re played by Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. The actors were actually separated at the time, but they wouldn’t get around to divorcing for another sixteen years! Lupino had a long list of disparate film and TV credits and is remembered as one of the first women directors in Hollywood, with a few movies and lots of sixties TV episodes – everything from The Fugitive to Gilligan’s Island – to her credit. Duff had played Sam Spade for years on radio, and starred in ABC’s Felony Squad. He’d actually made a Batclimb cameo in season two in character as his Squad character Detective Stone. Together, the couple had starred in the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve for two seasons in the fifties.

Tune in next time for the final episode, and, more than a year after she was first approached to play a role, Zsa Zsa Gabor!

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Batman 3.24 – The Joker’s Flying Saucer

Every once in a while, we run into an episode so boring that there’s nothing to say about it beyond noting the firsts or lasts. This one, like the second Louie the Lilac episode, is just plain dull. It’s the fourth and final appearance in the show for Richard Bakalyan, who here plays one of the Joker’s henchmen, painted green and sent to cause a Martian panic in advance of the Joker’s arrival in a craft-built flying saucer. It’s the final appearance of Cesar Romero, and I would say that it’s the final appearance of the Joker, but I think we’ve got one very silly cameo by a stand-in to get through before that.

Earlier this evening, I picked up two more volumes of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold for our son, since he’s watched the 13 episodes on the one that he has about six times each. This episode was so dull that I genuinely felt bad putting on this bore instead of letting him have fun with the cartoon. I’ll make sure he has time to watch a couple tomorrow.

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Batman 3.20 – Penguin’s Clean Sweep

This is a phenomenally dopey episode, but at least it’s a fun one. This time, the Penguin contaminates some of the newly-printed money at the Gotham Mint with a sleeping sickness. It’s immediately collected for distribution, and one bank circulates $13,000 in the space of a couple of hours. A panicked populace dumps all their currency in the streets for Penguin, his moll, and two goons to sweep up. But he can’t spend any of it because Bruce Wayne warns all the world’s financiers that Gotham’s money is no good. Somehow they don’t find time in 25 minutes to address the economic upheaval that this might cause and still have time for a fight scene.

Daniel enjoyed this episode, which was the final outing for Burgess Meredith and the Penguin, in part because the heroes are almost not put in any real danger. Batgirl is almost entirely superfluous to the plot this week, but she does get a face full of knockout gas to lead into the commercial break, and that caused him to growl a little. I thought it was all kinds of fun because unlike some of the recent villains – Rudy Vallée, Barbara Rush, and Milton Berle in particular – Meredith was always having a ball on this show, yelling and making threats and running rings around everybody. No, the plot’s just plain dumb, but anybody bored of watching Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is bored of life itself, I say.

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Batman 3.19 – Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club

This one is painful. Daniel adored it; the resolution involves leading several thousand explosive mice into the harbor playing tunes on flutes, and he thought that was incredibly charming and had a big smile on his face. I was grimacing because, in an episode that’s mainly filmed on the backlot, the producers somehow came up with the dopey idea to shoot the final scene in that awful limbo set.

But while Daniel smiled and I grimaced, Marie just fumed at the sexist awfulness of this very dated disaster. I suspect the writer must have been a real hit down at the Moose Lodge complaining about the womenfolk thinking that they could do men’s jobs. But the men doing the jobs in Gotham City are the most incompetent gang of numbskulls on television. Solution: make the women even worse.

Mayor Linseed’s wife has withheld cooking and dry cleaning until he appoints women’s libber Nora Clavicle as police commissioner. A month in, and unable to do his own shirts or learn to cook, he caves. Clavicle is played by Barbara Rush, a film star who had recently made the great Robin and the 7 Hoods with the Rat Pack and Peter Falk, and she’s accompanied by two blonde amazons in gold lame. (Incidentally, one of the amazons is played by June Wilkinson. Unfortunately, Jayne Mansfield had been killed about six months previously. Had she been alive to play the other character, that would have been the one good joke in the whole episode.)

Clavicle fires O’Hara and hires Mrs. Linseed as the new chief, and she then sacks the entire police force and replaces them with every screaming stereotype that the real women’s libbers in ’68 were warring against. I remembered that all the policewomen were terrified of the robot mice, because it was the 1960s and that happened on TV a lot then, and I was certain that would aggravate Marie. What I did not remember, apart from Linseed’s awful marriage, was that the policewomen cannot do their jobs because they are too busy putting on makeup, swapping recipes, gossiping, and using the police radio to alert each other to bargains at the shops.

Daniel occasionally enjoys the shows that we watch more than the grown-ups do. This was one of those times.

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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 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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