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Batman 2.33 – The Sandman Cometh

To begin with this week, I’ve done you all a disservice by not mentioning another blogger who is writing about the ’60s Batman series. He goes by the handle “The Squonk” and he’s writing a new installment every Friday at Channel: Superhero. He’s just finished the fourteenth episode, which is Mad Hatter’s first story, so go check that out and enjoy!

Anyway, tonight’s episode is… odd. The original draft was written by Ellis St. Joseph, who is best known for writing several live productions from the late 1940s and early 1950s, back when quite a lot of TV drama came via anthology programs. Joel Eisner’s Official Batman Batbook gives this story a little more space than most, as the writer had a very high opinion of what he had submitted, and considerable disappointment at how it was rewritten by Charles Hoffman, and talked at length about it.

Briefly, St. Joseph contended that his submission was very unique and original, and owed a lot to German expressionist cinema and Dr. Caligari. Robert Morley was cast as the villainous Sandman, a rare example of a villain whom Batman has not met before, but then the reality of the grind of TV production reared up. The problem was that Julie Newmar had been contracted for several episodes, since the ratings were slumping and she was just about the only thing that could reliably prop them up a little. They had Hoffman bolt a Catwoman plot onto St. Joseph’s script, and Morley was less interested in playing the role if he was going to be Newmar’s second banana. Michael Rennie was cast in his place.

The finished product is still pretty entertaining, much better than the last couple of stories. Catwoman really doesn’t have a lot to do in part one, but Newmar still controls the screen when the two villains are together. Still, Rennie has a calm demeanor that most Batvillains don’t have, and it’s refreshing watching how he plays the part. I like the way that during the Batfight, Sandman mostly stays out of the way while his henchmen brawl, looking on with his hands in the pockets of his fur coat, waiting for a chance to gas a hero with his sleeping powder.

Daniel enjoyed it all, but the episode did come to a crashing, noisy halt with one of the stupidest moments of the whole series. They’ve asked the Batcomputer to identify any wealthy insomniacs in Gotham City, who Sandman, alias “Dr. Somnambula,” may have targeted. The computer suggests the rich J. Pauline Spaghetti, not by a name on a card, but by belching pink spaghetti out at Robin. This sort of dopey Hanna-Barbera comedy moment is probably precisely the sort of thing that St. Joseph was trying to avoid with his German expressionism storyline.

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Batman 2.30 – The Bat’s Kow Tow

Chad and Jeremy got to banter in part one, but this time, we get to hear parts of two of their songs. Catwoman has a voice eraser, and she zaps the duo’s voice before escaping. The following morning, Batman and Robin appear on Steve Allen’s TV show to reassure the public. (Allen, like Don Ho, who has a Batclimb cameo, is uncredited.) This leads to one of the show’s all-time great exchanges:

Allen: “Millions of the world’s teenagers are in virtual mourning…”
Batman: “Yes, that’s quite true, but on the plus side, millions of parents are delighted!”

It’s impossible to put ourselves in the mindset of parents in 1966. Chad and Jeremy are remarkably inoffensive, and besides, we learned in part one that their manners are impeccable.

But really, any singers could have been in this story and been window dressing for Batman and Catwoman’s flirtation. This is the first of four Catwoman stories to be broadcast from December 1966 to February 1967, three of which were written by Stanley Ralph Ross. It was Ross who spotted the fun chemistry between West and Newmar and amped up the flirtation between the characters. It’s absolutely wonderful and charming in every way, especially when compared to the Bruce Wayne-Miss Kitka business from the movie.

Catwoman is so completely smitten by Batman, but has no idea how to get through to his square heart. And Batman wants to respond, but he’s just too square to do it. Think about the flirting between Cisco and Golden Glider in today’s The Flash series, only written down for younger viewers, who are certain to find this stuff gross and yucky. Adding to the fun: Catwoman cannot stand Robin. She just detests him, and so of course he interrupts their almost-kiss. Neither of them even look at Robin as they walk past, leaving him to whine “Holy mush!”

Daniel knows how Robin felt. He likes it when the episode ends with the fight, not three minutes of these two purring at each other. Gross and yucky, indeed!

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Batman 2.29 – The Cat’s Meow

Hollywood used to have this remarkable habit of presenting TV episodes in which past-their-chart-peak musicians play alternative versions of themselves who are the biggest acts on the planet. The Davy Jones episode of The Brady Bunch, which aired six months after Jones’s solo record missed the Billboard Top 200 entirely, is probably the best example of this trend, but the Chad & Jeremy episode of Batman is another good one.

It really is peculiar. This version of Chad and Jeremy are shown as arriving in “the colonies” for the very first time and have a press conference that reads like this episode’s writer, Stanley Ralph Ross, was cribbing from a two year-old memory of A Hard Day’s Night. There’s a big crowd of screaming fans, and among them, below, on the left in purple, is Judy Strangis.

This is notable, of course, because ten years later, Judy would play the Robin role in Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.

Anyway, of course, in our world, Chad and Jeremy had already peaked, and after a short run of hits (three top 20 singles in 1964-65), they visited the top 40 for the final time six months before this episode. And they were fairly familiar with the United States; they’d lived in this country for three years before filming this. They’ll sing a couple of songs in part two, but the silly timing means that, like Jack Wild on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and Boyce and Hart on Bewitched, these songs were not the hits in our world that they were in TV Land.

Daniel was more concerned with holding his little toy boomerang like a pistol and making “pt-chow!” noises whenever Catwoman was on screen. There wasn’t anything in Chad and Jeremy’s two scenes to make him pay attention to them, but he’s never liked Catwoman and she needs to be shot at. More on Catwoman and her wicked plan next time.

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Batman 2.10 – Ma Parker

Wow, there’s the gem of something practically modern in this one. Ma Parker’s plan is awfully far-fetched*, but it’s cute. She’s assembled the Gotham State Pen Gang, and intends to launch robberies and heists from its walls. The running time and the format conspire against it, but we’ve actually seen not-dissimilar stories on modern superhero programs like Arrow and especially The Flash which give recurring baddies a little more screen time.

Unfortunately, the realities of the production, and the fact that the producers didn’t think and plan far enough ahead, mean that the only old villains that we actually see are Julie Newmar in a single scene cameo as Catwoman, and Milton Berle in an unbilled cameo as a former foe – it sounds like his name is “Left” or “Laugh” – who has 48 years until his parole. It’s said that the Joker and the Penguin are in solitary, but what a huge shame that they didn’t think ahead, and quickly film reaction shots of Art Carney and Van Johnson in prison blues while they had those actors on the set!

And speaking of former villains, in the Bookworm story in season one, it’s established that the Batmobile has a bomb detection device. It’s not working anymore.

*Her plan, however, is not even remotely as far-fetched as Batman’s idea to jump into a prison and make it to the offices without being jumped by a prison full of villains. Maybe the modern super-ninja Batman of the modern day could do such a thing, but not the 1960s iteration. This really kind of called for some backup!

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Batman 2.4 – The Cat and the Fiddle

You know, I’d really sold Marie on part one of this being completely wonderful. I don’t appreciate part two being so downright ordinary.

I should probably leave it there, but it really does have some great visuals, including Batman using little “jet” rockets to lift a stalled elevator 102 stories, and Jack Kelly’s gossip columnist suddenly turning into a partner in crime so he can join in with the batfight. It would totally not surprise me to learn that, eight or nine years previously, Adam West and Kelly traded punches in an episode of Maverick. (Or 77 Sunset Strip or The Alaskans or whatever late 1950s Warners Brothers adventure show needed them that week.)

And it does have the great surprise of James Brolin, of all people, playing an armored truck driver named Ralph Staphylococcus. I didn’t recognize him. imdb.com surprised me with the revelation that he plays small roles in two other Batman episodes. Later, among sixty gajillion other roles, he’d play the father in The Amityville Horror and star for years in the 1980s nighttime soap Hotel.

And we probably should mention that Catwoman gets all sweet on Batman this week. After he saves her life, she gets a last scene in the epilogue after her trial, before she heads off to prison for ten to twenty years (or weeks). She gets to cuddle up to Batman and rub cheeks and give a deeply inappropriate but hilarious ecstatic growl. Neil Hamilton got a lot of great, great lines in this show, and delivered them all perfectly, but “Why, Batman, are you blushing?” might be the very best of them.

But overall, it just doesn’t have that weird, funny, zippy, sexy, and very sixties vibe that part one had. Kind of a letdown.

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Batman 2.3 – Hot Off the Griddle

WOW! This episode is completely terrific. Man alive, is it ever entertaining. I mean, you know it must be a winner if I’m passing up a perfectly reasonable opportunity to post a sexy photo of Julie Newmar in favor of something from this amazing scene in which our heroes visit the new, happening nightclub, where the latest crazy dance, the catusi, had been popularized on record by Benedict Arnold and the Traitors. So let’s hear it for Aunt Harriet, supporting local music. You just know she’s a sponsor of the local university’s college radio station. (Save WRAS.)

The specials at this club, our hostess tells us, include catburgers and chicken cacciatore. I just love this scene. It’s got totally with-it and hip kids from 1966 dancing to this twangy guitar songs, and it looks exactly like a scene from 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I said that to myself and totally did not recognize Batman and Robin’s hostess. It’s Edy Williams! Sheer perfection.

Anyway, so I had this little hypothesis that since the Batman movie was originally planned to precede the series, even though circumstances required it to be filmed and released after season one, the narrative still takes place before episode one. That seems to be borne out here. There was the odd continuity error of Batman not recognizing Miss Kitka as Catwoman, but it makes sense if the movie is actually the first time he saw her without a mask. That’s borne out here, as Gordon refers to her as coming back from the dead, as we saw in her previous television appearance.

Daniel really started wondering about the books on the shelf that slides back to reveal the batpoles. He wondered what would happen if you had your hand there and the shelf slid back. He was still asking about that during the “what can all these clues mean” scene in the commissioner’s office.

But I said that this was entertaining, and that’s got to be for more than one mod scene, a continuity fill, and Daniel’s curiosity. Okay, for starters, Jack Kelly – Brother Bart Maverick himself!! – appears in a small role as an oddball gossip columnist whose office is a phone booth in a drug store, and he’s hilarious. Batman doesn’t want to have lunch with such a disreputable character, and even after the reporter betrays Batman to the villainess, she shoots him down too. “Nobody wants to eat with me,” he grumbles. I died. It’s an example of the absurdly witty dialogue by Stanley Ralph Ross, which probably reaches its apex when Robin, roasting on a butter-smeared griddle in the baking Gotham sun, whimpers “Holy oleo,” and Catwoman replies “I didn’t know you could yodel.”

But to be clear, this really appears to be a case where Newmar watched Lee Meriwether in the movie and said to herself that the gauntlet had been thrown. Catwoman is now in full dominatrix mode, and purring how sad it is that she and Batman are on opposite sides of the law. It’s a particular shame, since Batman’s such a he-man, and she’s had to turn down offers from the Joker (“green hair”) and the Penguin (“too short”). It’s also the first time that she finds a way to dismiss Robin as just being a teenager. Forty million people watched this episode in 1966 and lit a cigarette when it finished.

Daniel, of course, sees none of this. He’s four. Catwoman’s just mean.

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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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Batman 1.20 – Better Luck Next Time

Julie Newmar’s first story as Catwoman ends with she and Adam West sharing virtually no screen time. Looking ahead, I see that she’s in five of season two’s 29 stories, and all the oddball chemistry between the actors and fun flirtation between the characters can be found there.

This is kind of an odd story, happily not quite stuck in the formula. All the climactic rescue and fight business happens in the first half of part two, and then Batman deduces that Catwoman is after a lost pirate treasure – it belonged to a repentant “Captain Manx” – and pursues her to some remote caverns. The set looks kind of expensive for something that’s only on screen for five minutes. Maybe they borrowed the set from Lost in Space or something.

Daniel was slightly alarmed by Catwoman’s fate. She tries to jump across a “bottomless” ravine – there were a heck of a lot of bottomless ravines around in my childhood days – with a sack full of the treasure, doesn’t quite make it, won’t drop the treasure to catch a rope, and plummets to her presumed death. Of course cats have nine lives and all, but this is the first time since the first story when a villain is not taken to jail.

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