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Batman 1.2 – Smack in the Middle

Whew! We made it! But this one was touch and go!

Despite rebounding from his unhappiness with the climax of episode one, Daniel was more than a little reluctant to start part two. He whimpered a bit and insisted on sitting on Mommy’s lap. It’s kind of a shame: Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is my favorite of all Bat-villains, in any media, and Daniel hates him. It’s kind of funny: since Warner markets Batman and the Joker to tots, he knows the Joker as this safe, cuddly clown. His only other experience with a Bat-baddie is Gorshin’s unhinged, manic, loose-limbed performance, and it really alarmed him.

We paused the episode to reassure him about the unreality of what we were watching, pointing out that Molly is played by an actress named Jill St. John, and the Riddler is played by an actor named Frank Gorshin. One of us, and it was probably me, said something foolish like “nobody gets hurt and everybody’s okay.” Of course, a few scenes later, Molly, disguised as Robin, meets a grisly end – one of the very few in this program, I believe. We sent Daniel out of the room to check on his big sister to miss that, and didn’t say a word about what fate befell her.

Everybody comments on how Batman knows that Molly isn’t the real Robin because – ahem – he instantly noticed the flaws in the Robin mask. Downright gentlemanly of the Dark Knight Detective to not point out the rather more obvious fact that Molly’s a whole lot curvier than the fellow who’s usually in the Robin suit.

It ended with Daniel excited and pleased and ready to watch another one. I told him that the Riddler would be back – these usually end with the villains going off to jail, but he actually escapes, which surprised me – but not for a few episodes yet. He asked who the next bad guy will be, and I didn’t tell him. Don’t want to spoil too much!

Interesting trivia: In the Batman comics, the Riddler appeared twice in the late 1940s, in issues 140 and 142 of Detective Comics in 1948. The character was retired and forgotten about for seventeen years. In May of 1965, he was dusted off by creators Gardner Fox and Sheldon Modoff for a rematch in Batman # 171 – it’s reprinted in Showcase Presents: Batman, Vol. 1 and I suspect it was only ever published because somebody in the legal department reminded the editorial department that they had a trademark that needed to be used or lost.

That issue was on newsstands when producer William Dozier was assigned by 20th Century Fox to develop a Batman TV show for ABC, and Dozier, picking up some funnybooks to see what the heck he’d gotten himself into, mistook the character for a regular villain. The script for “Hi Diddle Riddle” and “Smack in the Middle,” by Lorenzo Semple Jr., is not a real adaptation of Batman # 171, but some of the comic’s elements, like the Riddler’s gang, the Mole Hill Mob, and the sequence at the Peale Art Gallery with the cigarette lighter revolver, did make it into the TV show.

DC Comics (or National as I suppose it was technically called at the time) quickly brought the Riddler back for regular, frequent rematches from then on. The TV series is very much a faithful adaptation of how over-the-top and silly the comics of 1965-66 were – and if you scoff about how Adam West “ruined” Batman, as some of the more humorless members of comic fandom have done, you just buy yourself that Showcase book linked to above and get back to me on that – and the comics would frequently respond to the TV show. Elevating the Riddler from the D-list to one of Batman’s arch-enemies is the first of many, many examples of this…

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Batman 1.1 – Hi Diddle Riddle

So, back to 1966 and the absolutely wonderful Batman with Adam West, Burt Ward, and a battalion of Hollywood and Las Vegas’s finest as the baddies. This time out, it’s the remarkable Frank Gorshin in his debut as the Riddler. I’ve been very pleased to see this great, silly program get a newfound respect, of sorts, over the last couple of years, with new merchandise and comics set in its continuity, and, finally, last year, the show itself released to home video for the very first time. I finally remembered to order the new remastered set last week; my old copies will suffice until it arrives in a day or two.

I’ve always said that Batman is beloved by children, but absolutely loathed by people between the ages of 12 and about 17. I’ll talk more about this later, but usually about when boys hit that hyper-sensitive age where many of their peers stop paying attention to comics and mocking them, this deeply unserious show just can’t be defended. Not when you’re trying to believe that the Caped Crusader is SERIOUS BUSINESS and comics books are A MATURE ART FORM, QUIT LAUGHING AT ME. I don’t know how many people I’ve met over the years who never forgave this show for betraying them; me, I rediscovered it around age 17 and suddenly got it: the ridiculous dialogue, the very stilted acting, and all the celebrities having such a ball. I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of the most fun things about the 1960s.

I mean, nobody ever blamed The Addams Family for making light of old houses with torture racks.

Of course, it’s likely these days that, thanks to the Marvel movies, twelve year-old kids don’t go “off” comics anymore. I wonder.

What’s surprising, from the cold light of the present, is how very unlike a pilot this is. The director doesn’t do any kind of establishing shot of the Batcave, for instance, and doesn’t give us a “gee wow!” moment of any of the main characters in their costumes. Batman, Robin, and the Riddler are all first spotted in inconsequential long shots. The director does, on the other hand, linger on the gorgeous Jill St. John as Molly for as long as he can justify it.

There’s a cute bit here that’s dumped in subsequent episodes. As soon as Commissioner Gordon realizes that the Riddler is back in town, he asks his top policemen and inspectors whether any of them can capture the dastardly arch-criminal. One by one, they all sadly look away and shake their heads, because none of them are manly enough, leaving Gordon no choice but to pick up the Batphone. Almost instantly, this convention is dropped. Costumed, laughing bad guy in town? Call Batman. At once!

Anyway, I remember being really alarmed by Batman twice when I was a kid. The first of these times: Robin being kidnapped by the Riddler at the end of this episode. As if on cue, Daniel was really amazingly upset about this. He started growling when the Riddler emerged from a manhole and shot Robin with a tranq dart, but then he got really emotional and surprised us all by weeping when he carted him off. He seemed to be liking it just fine until then!

He wept for a couple of minutes and hid in his room, but rebounded quickly for a bath, and, within half an hour, was doing handstands in bed, showing off his Batman shirt and Spider-Man underwear. Still, the “I don’t LIKE this!” was pretty powerful, and I can’t swear that we’ll be back tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, for part two. Stay tuned!

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