Judge David M. Gutierrez knows how he's dressing for Halloween after watching this somewhat low-budget post-war superhero serial.
It's what Batman and Robin would look like if they had only fifty dollars between them.
Batman and Robin—The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection is something that must be viewed through nostalgic lenses, or barrels of vodka. This second serial outing from the Caped Crusaders retains a good amount of charm over five decades later.
A mysterious villain known only as the Wizard intends to steal a device that can remotely control any vehicle known to man, as he deftly demonstrates using an electric train and toy truck. Danger is imminent, and it's up to Batman and Robin to stop the villain and his horde of gangster cronies. To further complicate matters, Batman's alter ego—Bruce Wayne—must keep intrepid reporter Vicki Vale from discovering his secret identity and placing herself in danger. Lucky for Batman, his ward and sidekick Robin is there to assist. Commissioner Gordon and the city's police department are also on hand to lend whatever aid is needed to the Dark Knight Detective and the Boy Wonder.
I ended up loving all fifteen chapters worth of Saturday matinee madness spread out over two discs. Worth mentioning are some key differences between the Batman of this serial and the darker, tormented, begging for some much needed therapy Batman of today:
• First off, Bruce Wayne is only a millionaire who lives in the suburbs.
• Batman and Robin mainly operate in daylight.
• Batman doesn't miss any meals.
• The ears on the Batsuit are floppy at the tips.
• Batman is seen driving Bruce Wayne's car and doesn't seem to worry about it.
• The Batmobile—a simple unmarked car—is parked on the street, just in front of Wayne Manor (I believe).
• Robin/Dick Grayson appears to be approaching thirty. How he's a "ward" at that age is anyone's guess.
• Commissioner Gordon operates a rather cool-looking Bat Signal in broad daylight—and it works!
• The pocketless utility belt has room for everything.
Once you accept this Batman, it's all turbines and speed from there. Admittedly, the serial could probably have been a couple of chapters shorter. The lack of pacing quickly becomes apparent as each chapter clocks in about half an hour. Still, there's plenty of pseudo-action to be had to keep things moving along.
Turning a blind eye to some mediocre acting, the majority of the cast is strong for a serial. Robert Lowery (Young Guns of Texas) makes for a terrific Bruce Wayne. He looks every bit the Bruce Wayne from the Bob Kane Detective Comics era. Lyle Talbot (Plan 9 From Outer Space) does a bang-up job as the stoic Commissioner Gordon. I especially applaud Jane Adams (Street Bandits) for doing what she could with Vicki Vale. Really, Vale's just an inferior version of Lois Lane, but Adams keeps it as interesting as possible. The actor that tries his best to tank it all is Johnny Duncan (I Married a Communist). He is the worst Robin I have ever seen. Maybe he decided to play the role logically: a tired man almost as old as his mentor stuck wearing green tights and standing off the side, forced to take orders and cover for a studlier guy who gets the ladies. It's entirely possible I misjudged Duncan entirely and that Duncan turned in a fascinating, emotionally troubled version of the Boy Wonder—but I'm guessing not.
No review would be complete without mention of the sets and costumes. Yes, Batman and Robin run around in outfits that anyone's mother could have produced with a busted Singer. However, they do look very similar to the way they were drawn during their first appearances. The producers of this serial had the foresight to spare the audience from seeing a young man in Speedos, choosing to give Robin some leggings. All the outfits are tremendously goofy-looking, but the goof contributes to the serial's charm. Everything takes place during the day. Batman's usually a creature of the night, but those night shoots cost money. Extras also cost money, hence the emptiness of the streets and buildings.
The story's easy to follow and familiar enough to serial aficionados. The fun part is predicting the next cliffhanger and how it will be resolved. Enough false leads and red herrings are thrown in to keep our heroes and the audience wondering whom the Wizard is and when he will be apprehended. Even sidekick Robin is given plenty to do. At one point, Robin saves Batman's life. Too bad Duncan's performance keeps him from really earning Robin some much-needed respect.
An impressive transfer and a strong audio track make these discs worth watching. Some scratches, pops and frame movement are noticeable, but forgivable for a serial nearing seventy years old. I'm amazed it looks and sounds as good as it does.
A final thanks is owed to Sony for including a "Play All" feature. It's convenient and saves me from having to keep going back to the Menu screen.
Batman and Robin—The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection is worth a look. While it's no The Adventures of Captain Marvel, this serial deserves a spot alongside any Commando Cody or Kirk Alyn Superman adventure. The defendant is free to go—just don't go out in those ridiculous suits.
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