The mark of Kane: How Batman made it to the movies
It took Batman, the comic book Dark Knight of Gotham City created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger in 1939, less than five years to make it from his premiere in the pages of Detective Comics #27 to the silver screen.
Batman was a 15-chapter serial released in 1943 by Columbia Pictures. The serial starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. J. Carrol Naish played the villain, an original character named Dr. Daka. Rounding out the cast were Shirley Patterson as Linda Page (Bruce Wayne’s love interest) and William Austin as Alfred. The plot was based on Batman, here a U.S. government agent, attempting to defeat the Japanese agent Dr. Daka at the height of World War II.
The film is notable for being the first filmed appearance of Batman and for providing two core elements of the Batman mythos. The film introduced “The Bat's Cave” and its grandfather clock entrance. The name was altered to “Batcave” in the comics. Also, William Austin had a trim physique and sported a thin mustache. The contemporary comics Alfred was overweight and clean-shaven prior to this serial’s release. The comics version of Alfred was altered to match that of Austin.
The popularity of a re-release of this serial in the 1960s, called An Evening with Batman and Robin, directly led to the campy Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward on ABC.
It was in early 1939, with the success of Superman in Action Comics, that editors at the comic book division of National Publications (the future DC) were prompted to request more superheroes for its titles. In response, Kane created “the Bat-Man.” Collaborator Finger recalled in an interview once that “Kane had an idea for a character called ‘Batman,’ and he’d like me to see the drawings. I went over to Kane’s and he had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind of … reddish tights, I believe, with boots … no gloves, no gauntlets … with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign: BATMAN.”
Finger offered such suggestions as giving the character a cowl instead of a simple domino mask, a cape instead of wings, gloves, and removing the red sections from the original costume. Finger is quoted as saying that he devised the name Bruce Wayne for the character’s secret identity: “Bruce Wayne's first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot. Bruce, being a playboy, was a man of gentry. I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock … then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne.” He later said his suggestions were influenced by Lee Falk’s popular Phantom strip, with which Kane was familiar as well.
National’s cowled comic book hero became a pop culture icon around the world, at times surpassing his Kryptonian colleague in popularity. In 1943 came the Caped Crusader’s first appearance on the big screen.
Batman was made at the height of World War II, and like numerous works of popular American fiction of the time contains anti-German and, in this case, anti-Japanese ethnic slurs and comments (in one scene, one of Daka’s henchmen turns on him, saying, “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin.”). The film also suffered from a low budget, just like other contemporary serials. No attempt was made to create a bona fide Batmobile, so a black Cadillac was used by Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson as well as Batman and Robin. Alfred chauffeured the Dynamic Duo in both identities.
While many serials made changes during adaptation, to the extent that they were often “improved” almost out of recognition, Batman fared better than most as changes were minor. A normal limousine replaced the Batmobile, the utility belts are present but unused and Batman is a secret government agent in this serial instead of an independent vigilante. This last change was due to film censors, who would not allow the hero to be seen taking the law into his own hands.
Several continuity errors occur in the serial, such as Batman losing his cape in a fight but wearing it again after the film only briefly cuts away. Press releases announced it as a “Super Serial” and it was Columbia’s largest-scale serial production to date. The studio gave it a publicity campaign equivalent to a feature film!
The serial was unusually popular with both critics and movie-goers of the day, although later viewers panned the series as being an unintentioanl farce more akin to the TV series than Kane’s comics. Still, now as then, popularity breeds sequels! So in 1949, Columbia released Batman and Robin, a 15-chapter serial in which the Dynamic Duo face off against the Wizard, a hooded villain whose identity remains a mystery until the conclusion of the serial.
Robert Lowery played Batman, while Johnny Duncan played Robin. Supporting players included Jane Adams as Vicki Vale and veteran character actor Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon.
Needless to say, Batman’s rooftop world of mystery and suspense are just as popular today as they were when your grandparents (or perhaps your great-grandparents) were munching popcorn in the dark. That is the mark of a true comic book success turned film phenom!