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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 3.5 – A Horse of Another Color

For what it’s worth, Yvonne Craig really did seem like she was having a ball as Batgirl. If she didn’t enjoy this job, then she was a far, far better actress than anybody credited her. Above, she’s just about to smash one of the Penguin’s goons in the face with the door of a locker.

Ethel Merman wins the unfortunate award as the villain with the least interaction with the heroes. Honestly, apart from telling Batgirl that she can’t go into the men’s locker room, and opening her umbrella in Chief O’Hara’s face, she doesn’t have any lines with any of them. Her principal shtick seems to be, whenever anybody calls her by her name, Lulu Schultz, yelling “I am Senora Lola Lasagne!”

I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the writer, Charles Hoffman, especially after yet more weary, wacky Batcomputer gags in part one, but this story clearly did not require a female villain at the first draft, and Lola Lasagne’s presence is pretty clearly bolted on. It resulted in some funny exchanges between Meredith and Merman, but she really is completely superfluous to what plot there is, and Hoffman probably had the sense to know not to even bother giving Lola Lasagne a character, since that would require some subtlety and of course Merman was just going to bellow all her lines at the cheap seats.

For what it’s worth, even though the outcome of the horse race is never in doubt at all, our son really got into it and found it tremendously exciting.

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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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