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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 3.2 – Ring Around the Riddler

We think of Batman as a very old-fashioned program, very much of its time, but look what they did with season three: start the season with the new format and new character, and, in week two, bring out the big gun: Frank Gorshin, the villain who made the show so watchable and popular in season one, and heavily link him with the new villain who will take the lead in week three: the Siren, played by Joan Collins, with a big cliffhanger ending to get people to tune in next time. That’s pretty much what modern TV people would be doing to start the new season with a bang, isn’t it?

This was Gorshin’s final appearance in the series. I’m not sure how they persuaded him to come back, when he balked at returning for season two because he wanted more money per hour and this is only thirty minutes. Daniel said that this was pretty good and he enjoyed it, but it feels like the writer was really struggling to make the thirty minute format work. Batman has to act really out of character to get into the ring for a fixed fight against Riddler, and that’s done, bizarrely, with our hero wearing boxing trunks over his costume. The scene isn’t funny at all; it’s just silly.

Not much of this is worth mentioning at even this much length, but perhaps I should also point out that James Brolin made his third and final appearance on this show in this episode as a boxer named Kid Gulliver. It was nice to see Gorshin do his unhinged shtick again for a little while. We won’t see him don those green tights again for another eleven years…

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Batman 2.46 – A Riddling Controversy

Well… this was not as good as I remembered it. It’s still pretty good, though. There are worse Riddler episodes than this.

The story draws elements from the very first Riddler adventure by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang, which was originally published in Detective Comics # 140 in 1948, and it returns the character to his comic book roots, where his riddles are really word games, like the “banquet” / “bank wet” sequence from part one. The story is much truer to the character as he was originally scripted than anything with Incan treasure maps or silent movies, anyway.

While this adventure has a totally different plot, some of the set pieces are drawn from the original comic. Most obviously, there’s the bit where a millionaire named Eagle is caught in a trap of interlocking steel bars, which Batman and Robin have to disassemble. At the last minute, however, the producers decided that the millionaire should be a doppelganger for Fidel Castro named “Aquila,” necessitating some rather poor dubbing of new dialogue over what had been recorded in Commissioner Gordon’s office!

John Astin never really did seem comfortable as the Riddler, and the gorgeous Deanna Lund, who would would have a co-starring role a couple of seasons later on ABC’s Land of the Giants, is completely wasted in her part here. It’s all a shame and a missed opportunity, because the script, with its dense, cerebral word games and puzzles, wasn’t a bad one. It’s unfortunate that Frank Gorshin refused to come down on his price. His dangerous, unhinged edge would have elevated the story.

Daniel didn’t seem to enjoy part one much at all, but liked this a little bit more. The extra fight this time around probably helped. I was impressed that he was able to spot that the Riddler was played by a different actor. I can’t swear that I noticed that when I was a kid.

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Batman 2.45 – Batman’s Anniversary

As with any old series under the “cult TV” umbrella, Batman has a handful of episodes that are well-remembered, a whole pile that all sort of run together, and a handful known by fans as absolute stinkers. Think “Spock’s Brain,” or “The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” or “The Rules of Luton.” This two-parter is remembered as one of those kind of turkeys.

One teeny scene won’t redeem it, but I do want to note that the luncheon held in Batman’s honor has one of the all-time funniest moments in the whole show. Byron Keith is back in his recurring role as Mayor Linseed, and he’s roasting the Caped Crusader with a testimonial about how much the Dark Knight Detective means to the city. Keith is completely stealing the show from everybody with his over-the-top delivery of this mawkish script, and Adam West just steals it right back. With just two teeny little gestures, his hand on his heart and a barely-perceptible bow of his head, he just takes the scene completely away from Keith, and makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s the funniest thing ever.

If you don’t mind the personal gripe, I had some aggravating news from our insurance company today and I really, really needed that laugh.

Okay, to be fair, you can kind of turn the TV off after watching that and come back for part two – I hope I remember that it’s worth it – because the rest of part one is about as bad as its reputation.

See, here’s the problem. John Astin is a tremendously good actor, one of the all-time greats. Between Gomez Addams and Professor Wickwire in Brisco County Jr., he was often pretty reliably entertaining, but here, he’s just remarkably, oddly, bizarrely weak. He’s not even doing a passable impression of Frank Gorshin, but he’s asked to act as unhinged and as unrestrained as Gorshin made the Riddler, and he just doesn’t do it. The script is calling for Gorshin’s dialed-to-twelve performance, and Astin seems far too self-conscious to get there.

The script also calls for an underwater Batfight, which means the actors brawl in slow motion pretending to be underwater while walking around a stage and the action is shot with a fish tank between the camera and the actors. It goes on forever.

Well, you know, it’s great that Astin got some work – after Carolyn Jones and Ted Cassidy, he was the last Addams Family regular to appear in the show – and it’s always nice to have Deanna Lund to look at, even though her character does absolutely nothing in this episode, but they probably should have stuck some more Shakespeare in the script and asked Maurice Evans to come back as the Puzzler. However, I remember that part two is actually lots better. At least I hope so…

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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 1.32 – The Riddler’s False Notion

This episode… well, it’s really kind of horrible, actually. It’s just one eye-rolling moment after another. I even found myself very much on the Riddler’s side when he, naturally, let the very boring truth of his plan out. He’s just making the movie to get Van Jones to open his safe so he can burgle it.

It turns out that Van Jones has, in the collection of films in his vault, the only copy of the most famous silent film of them all. Hoarding bastard. Batman should have let the Riddler get on with it. Oh, yeah, Bruce Wayne’s probably buddies with Jones at the country club. Rich people.

There’s a long, long, bit where Batman brings Commissioner Gordon to the Batcave to administer a truth test to the Riddler’s dame of the week, and a really ridiculous bit where Batman tosses a rope down to the bound Robin, who is plummeting to his death, and who catches the batarang in his mouth, and is grateful to his dentist for his clean teeth after being hauled up. Never mind his teeth, what about his jaw, neck, and spine?

Anyway, the high point came after this awful one ended and we got a little freeze frame “next week!” shot that the Penguin will be in the season finale. Daniel declared that he’s not scared of the Penguin. Penguins are cool, because they live on ice!

Then I told him that after the Penguin episode, we would watch the movie, and asked him who might be in the movie. He immediately predicted that Batman will meet Mr. Snake, who’s like a snake, but he walks like a man. I said that he sounded like a bad dude and hoped he was wrong. I was corrected: Mr. Snake is a good guy, who punches bad guys super, super, super hard. Shame that he’s not in the film, really!

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Batman 1.31 – Death in Slow Motion

What an odd, odd series of coincidences. See, yesterday, at work, I decided to put on my headphones and listen to some music on a YouTube playlist of mine while I did some data entry. One of the songs on it is one that we’ll be seeing with Daniel in a week and a bit, Mama Cass Elliot singing “Different.” I happened to glance over there as I got to a stopping point, and saw, on the YouTube sidebar of recommended similar videos, a 1973 episode of Match Game, the greatest game show ever made, featuring Elliot. Well, there was what I was doing during my lunch break settled.

So on this episode, Jack Klugman berates the host, Gene Rayburn, for his inept impression of Chester from Gunsmoke. “You got a job! What are you trying to do, put Frank Gorshin outta work?!” Celebrity impersonations were Frank Gorshin’s bread and butter. He had an extremely successful nightclub career in the 1960s and 1970s, and routinely appeared on programs like The Tonight Show doing his repertoire. Batman didn’t offer him very many chances to do that kind of thing, but darned if tonight, we didn’t watch an episode which begins with the Riddler dressed as Charlie Chaplin doing a long shtick in the lobby of a fancy theater, being chased around by faux Keystone Kops, a big distraction while he robs the box office.

You have to ask… what are the odds that, on top of his expertise with explosives and safecracking, his brilliant criminal mind, his obsession with leaving clues in the form of riddles, his encyclopedic knowledge of US Customs regulations, foreign wax solvents, and Incan history, the Riddler is also a skilled Charlie Chaplin impersonator? Did he pick this up in the penitentiary talent show or something? Do he and the Bookworm sing Charles Aznavour duets together?

Unfortunately, the amount of screen time devoted to Gorshin doing his Chaplin routine meant that there must have been some fierce editing done, because unless you’re paying enough attention to recognize Gorshin as Chaplin, there’s literally not one thing given to the audience to announce the foe before Commissioner Gordon calls in Batman. So having already paused the action to explain to Daniel who the heck Charlie Chaplin is, we had to then say “And oh, yeah, that Chaplin guy was actually the Riddler… just roll with it.”

The real surprise and confusion comes from the Riddler reminding his crew that their robberies and mayhem are because the millionaire Van Jones, a grumpy old teetotaler whom we met in the theater lobby, has hired them to make a silent movie of their criminal exploits. That’s Richard Bakalyan in the image above as the gang’s cameraman. Bakalyan made a career playing cops and heavies, often in Disney live-action films, and will turn up in this show a couple more times in other roles. He died earlier this year. The robbery of the Mother Gotham Bakery payroll is amazingly entertaining, incorporating sleeping cream pies, daysticks that look like French loaves, exploding eclairs, and Sherry Jackson, dame of the week, begging for charity in what looks like a cast-off Li’l Abner costume.

The cliffhanger had Daniel hiding behind the couch. Apparently as part of the Riddler’s movie opus, he kidnaps Robin and, in classic silent movie melodrama style, has him unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a spinning sawblade. The mustache-twirling bad guys of old movies really were sick in the head, weren’t they?

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Batman 1.24 – Give ’em the Axe

Considering the previous entry, I guess I’m not sure. The American Revolution costumes might be more suspicious-looking than the criminals’ regular togs after all… but not by a whole lot.

I absolutely love where the Riddler finds the Incan treasure. It’s in a sarcophagus which is on loan to the Gotham City Museum. Batman goes on about how absolutely priceless this is to archaeology and to good diplomatic relations with our neighbors to the south. So, get this: on a day where the Museum is closed to the public and totally unstaffed and unguarded, the Riddler and his gang go to a basement room full of unused exhibits. These are five torture / restraint devices – one for each of ’em plus Robin – and stacks and stacks of empty cardboard boxes.

This is where the priceless treasure is “housed” – more like dumped – before it goes on display. It’s in a single big crate clearly labelled, as all things are in Batman, something like PRICELESS INCAN MUMMY SARCOPHAGUS, DO NOT EXPOSE TO AIR, with six or seven boxes stacked on top of it. I’d rather like to sit down with the executive committees of both the Mexican Museum and the Gotham City Museum and give ’em, not an axe, but an earful. This is no way to treat your priceless exhibits, people!

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