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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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Batman 2.27 – The Penguin’s Nest

We have to say that Daniel didn’t like this episode much, apparently because the Penguin successfully escapes from jail. Perhaps when he’s older, he’ll appreciate how completely hilarious it is, because Penguin wants to go to the big, proper state prison with all the supercriminals. Batman, knowing that he’s up to something, deliberately ignores some of Penguin’s more egregious criminal acts, which include popping Commissioner Gordon in the face with a pie, and busts him for a violation of the local sanitation code, sending him to the city jail with the rest of the petty crooks.

This episode features the second appearance of one of the Addams Family cast in the show, this one in character! Ted Cassidy, as the Addamses’ butler Lurch, interrupts a little performance of that program’s theme song on a harpsichord (unseen, of course) to stick his head out the window. The Addams Family had been canceled by ABC a few months earlier; had that black-and-white show continued into the 1966-67 season, it would have been made in color. I adore that series, but as the lousy TV movie Halloween With the New Addams Family would show us a decade later, nobody would have wanted that.

There’s another tiny Addams connection this week; Vito Scotti, who played the recurring role of Sam Picasso on that show, is one of the Penguin’s henchmen, Matey Dee. He’s joined by Lane Bradford and Grace Gaynor, and they’re all present at one of the most memorable of the show’s cliffhangers, one of the handful in which the Dynamic Duo do not appear.

The gang got away with O’Hara as their hostage, and they have him stuffed in a trunk on a slide above a swimming pool. They have a machine gun battery to mow down our heroes when they arrive, and they’ve also got leads dropped into the water to electrocute O’Hara, and any superheroes who swim in to save him, with 100,000 volts, just in case they avoid the bullets. But oddly, we don’t actually see Batman and Robin in danger. The episode ends with the villains waiting for them. A usual Batman cliffhanger leaves you wondering what ridiculous and goofball way our heroes will get out of their latest deathtrap. This one’s more like spotting the dozens of ways they can avoid the problem entirely!

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Batman 2.18 – Dizzoner the Penguin

This. is. phenomenal. It is so fun. If you don’t roar with laughter at least once watching this episode, something is really wrong with you. My favorite line came from Commissioner Gordon, who, on election night, takes a gloating call from Penguin to let him know that the Riddler will be the new commissioner, and Gordon can expect to resume his old beat on the waterfront. With the polls grim and spirits low, Gordon hangs up and says “The terrible thing is, in a few short hours, that mangy bird may be my boss!” When we finished the episode, I repeated the line with a chuckle, and Daniel shouted “Yeah, that itchy mean birdhead!”

This is such a great satire of elections. If part one was grand, then part two is masterful. There’s a televised debate, during which the Penguin makes the reasonable-sounding observation that whenever you see Batman, he’s always surrounded by criminals, while he, good, civic-minded citizen that he is, is always in the company of police. There’s a spectacular fight halfway through the episode, with at least a dozen goons battling Batman and Penguin, broadcast live with running commentary by parodies of Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and a roving reporter on the convention floor. The Huntley character is marking how many goons each candidate defeats, and since, of course, they’re on Penguin’s payroll, he comes out ahead in the end, and all the newspeople want to interview him. Nobody likes a loser, and so Batman departs.

And yet…

Earlier in the blog, I mentioned a time or two how the humorless and sad among comics fans are said to dislike this show because it’s silly, and treats Batman irreverently. I’ve often thought that today’s fans – actually fans from the last twenty-plus years, because this complaint is a very old one – simply must not be familiar with the actual comics from about 1964-68, which really are stunningly silly and goofy, but with this episode, they may have a point. We’ve seen this campy take before (in “The Joker Goes to School”, for starters), where Batman is a dull establishment bore sapping all the energy out of the room with his stodgy square non-personality, and the only life that’s worth living is one of fun and frivolity, in opposition to Batman. I love this subversive edge, because who wouldn’t vote for the Penguin with campaigns like these to choose from?

So perhaps the humorless have a point. If you’re a fan of the grim, dark, raspy-voiced avenger of the night, then it’s easy to dismiss a bunch of old funnybooks because nobody really knows about them anymore. What you don’t want is somebody making fun of your hero. And yes, by identifying Batman as such a tedious, square bore, that’s precisely what the producers did.

And God bless ’em, because it’s brilliant.

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Batman 2.17 – Hizzoner the Penguin

Man, was it ever a strange day in politics. California’s Kevin McCarthy was the frontrunner for the House speakership being vacated by Ohio’s John Boehner, but suddenly, ahead of a scandal hinted at by a prominent talk radio host that is said to involve a representative from North Carolina, he called a conference and quit, just like that. Amazing. Also, this evening, we watched Penguin begin his bid for mayor of Gotham City, because the voters of that great metropolis are morons.

“Hizzoner the Penguin” might not be the best episode of this series, but it’s probably the most genuinely hilarious. This one’s a pure comedy, and it works on every level. Batman, naively believing in the innate goodness of the people, hopelessly straight and earnest, gets talked into running against Penguin. Batman’s needed because, in a single day, Penguin’s foiling of a robbery has vaulted him from “not running for office at all” to 60% in the polls. The voters are morons with very short memories. The Penguin pulled this exact same stunt to get high society on his side back in his second story!

Marie pointed out how so very little has changed since this episode aired in November 1966, right in time for the midterm elections that saw, in the wake of the Vietnam War’s unpopularity, modest gains for the Republican Party in the US House and Senate, and, as predicted in season one, the landslide election of Ronald Reagan to the California governor’s mansion. 49 years later, issues are still boring the electorate, who want babies to be kissed. Batman declines to kiss any babies in this episode, as it is not hygienic, and is labeled a child-hater who thinks that kids are covered in germs.

In one of the funniest scenes in the series, Batman is somberly dictating to a crowd of about three people his point-by-point proposals about doing something boring. Even Chief O’Hara falls asleep. Cut to the party down the street. The Penguin’s rally features Paul Revere and the Raiders playing while a popular belly dancer of the day who went by the name “Little Egypt” does a show, and a huge crowd roars its approval. And why shouldn’t they? The Raiders had three different LPs in the top ten in 1966. The Penguin’s got this election sewn up.

So you’d think that Penguin could just leave well enough alone and win against this establishment stuffed shirt and cowl, but he has his goons in the GOON – that’s Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks to you – trap our heroes and leave them in a scale with melting ice blocks on one side lowering them into a vat of sulfuric acid! The brilliant thing, which really makes this a stupendously funny cliffhanger, is that the good citizen Penguin could certainly never be seen doing his rival in, so he’s not present for the trap. No, he shows up after our heroes are bound and helpless, tut-tuts and chastises these insidious goons, and tells Batman not to worry, he’ll phone the police. Unfortunately, GOON’s headquarters only has a pay phone and Penguin hasn’t a dime. So he’ll walk to police headquarters for help. Hold on, Batman, it should only take him three or four hours to get there!

The Penguin is such a fun villain. Nobody in politics today is as fun as him.

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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 1.34 – Batman Makes the Scenes

Well, there’s an image that’s got just about all you want from Batman, yeah? A bad guy in a silly costume, a babe-of-the-week, great big props and labels on everything.

Daniel was alternately bored and thrilled by this episode. It is a little talkier than many, with some more Bruce Wayne scenes than many episodes. And the big set piece at the millionaires’ dinner is… well, these one-percenters are happy to let go of some of their cash if they get a floor show first. They literally throw money – one million dollars a head – at the bathing suit beauty posing as “Miss Natural Resources.” Good grief. I think half the room then went to some masked naughty party in the Hamptons that Tom Cruise wandered around.

But as much as he enjoyed the fights and the nonsense, there is surprisingly little of it in this episode. Victor Lundin continued to overact and try to steal every scene as the henchman Octopus. He just moves really weirdly, with bizarre body language, waving his hands behind Penguin as they’re looking over the loot. Then he loudly announces that he’s going to use his cut to go to the South Seas and open a school for pirates. What an incredibly odd character! Daniel got downright bored, however, and a lengthy epilogue, that sees the millionaires back at Wayne Manor along with more babes in bathing suits, was dull enough to send him out of the room. Commissioner Gordon escorted Julie Gregg’s character to the party on a day off from prison. She’s not the first young lady led astray by crime to get a brief look at Wayne Manor before paying her debt to society, and she probably won’t be the last.

This story was the final one in the first production block for the series, made in April 1966 and broadcast in May. The first season has an incredibly high episode count for a midseason replacement, but that’s because it was budgeted as seventeen one-hour episodes. That was a standard midseason order for ABC in the mid-1960s. At the time, it was less common for shows to be canceled midway through the year than it would later become; networks then stuck with their shows for much, much longer, and usually didn’t axe anything that launched in September until Christmas.

After the first story, “Hi Diddle Riddle,” was finished in the fall of 1965, the plan had been to shoot a feature film, launch with that in movie theaters in the summer of 1966, and then start a series that September. But ABC’s 1965 lineup was a complete disaster, and the network was deep in third place in the ratings. Before October was finished, ABC had decided that they wanted to cancel their weakest program, the variety show Shindig!, after Christmas and start Batman a full nine months early.

So the film was postponed until production of season one finished. In his memoir, Back to the Batcave, Adam West recalled that they literally began filming the movie after only one weekend’s break in mid-April.

One interesting thing about the film, by the way, is that ABC suddenly had a massive hit on its hands and the producers were about to make a movie. Watching this from across the street, somebody at Universal looked at the CBS sitcom The Munsters, dying in the ratings and about to be axed, and said “Make a movie of that, quick!” And somebody else at David Susskind’s Talent Associates looked at the sitcom Get Smart, which had just debuted, and said “Make a movie of that, too!”

Munster Go Home! was released first, and it bombed. The Batman movie came out a month later, and did sort of okay. The Get Smart people, seeing that neither had set the world on fire, put the brakes on their idea, and rejigged the in-progress script into a really terrific three-part story called “A Man Called Smart” that finished season two of that show. It might be my favorite episode of that series; I’m glad that they saved it for television.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie with Daniel this weekend. I haven’t seen it in a long time.

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Batman 1.33 – Fine Finny Fiends

Normally, I have to brace myself a little bit when we get to the end of part one of a Batman story. Daniel just plain does not like the cliffhanger deathtraps. He’ll either hiss or grumble or hide his face or, once in a sad blue moon, cry a little. But this story, the third to feature Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, confounded my expectations completely.

In the story, the Penguin’s goons abduct Alfred, who has, bizarrely, been sidetracked on his shopping by a handbill advertising cut-price caviar. I can see how he might want to watch his pennies because he needs twenty pounds of the stuff for a multi-millionaire’s dinner, but really. Penguin brainwashes Alfred so that he’ll forward him the address of this dinner once the location is decided. Caged in the Penguin’s waterfront headquarters, Alfred is stiff-upper-lip defiant, but Daniel was nevertheless very worried about him, and hid his head under his blanket (which is called “Bict,” by the way).

So Alfred’s brainwashed and then released, but Batman knows something is up, because Alfred has (a) developed a bizarre twitch, and (b) he does not recognize a photograph of the Penguin. Actually, the show doesn’t draw attention to that, because American teevee programs in the sixties cared very little for episode-to-episode continuity, but Alfred met the Penguin on both of his previous appearances. But there’s no time for that, because there’s a rehearsal dinner for the multi-millionaires, during which time Aunt Harriet boasts that Bruce Wayne’s great grandfather founded Skull & Bones at Yale. Well, there’s something you didn’t know.

Anyway, since Alfred’s imprisonment bothered Daniel a lot, I was worried about the cliffhanger, but I needn’t have been. Our heroes are locked in a vacuum chamber and the baddies are pumping out the air. The room is full of balloons that pop as the air grows thinner. It’s actually a really grisly way to go – man, the Penguin’s traps don’t mess around, they’re all sick in the head – but it was, mercifully, a little above my son’s head, and he was bemused by the odd room of popping balloons. It didn’t bother him at all!

As for the other guest stars, Julie Gregg, who later played Sonny Corleone’s unfortunate wife Sandra in The Godfather, is the dame-of-the-week, and the most blatant one to date. She spends her time in the Penguin’s hideout wearing a one-piece swimsuit, practicing to be a “bathing beauty.” Victor Lundin was a regular face in ’60s television, and would be back in a different role in season three. This time, he’s the Penguin’s goon “Octopus,” and he does a remarkably silly little dance when Batman catches him in the back with a fishing pole in the fight scene.

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