Thursday, 21 June 2018

Remembering the 75th birthday of the original BATMAN (Lambert Hillyer) serial. Geoff Mayer recalls its production and the Manzanar Historical Site used to house Japanese Americans rounded up in WW2

The 1943 Columbia serial Batman, which has its 75th anniversary next month, is the first screen adaptation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger’s creation that first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. The serial, like many films released in 1942 and 1943, is a valuable historical document as well as one of Columbia’s better, if somewhat crazy, serials.

The serial retained some elements of the comic, such as wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) as the crime avengers Batman and Robin. It also retained Wayne’s love interest Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), a character Wayne romanced throughout the war years in the comic. 

On the other hand, the serial introduced the Bat Cave (called the “Bat’s Cave”) that was eventually absorbed into the comic while Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson) replaced Commissioner Gordon in the serial. Distressingly, for some, Wayne drives a pedestrian black Cadillac in the serial.

Batman(1943) has, over the years, been subjected to derision (especially during the “camp” craze of the 1960s) and outrage due to its racial stereotyping that resulted in the censoring of early VHS copies of the serial.  Fortunately, the complete serial is now available (see image right try Ebayand it documents the intensity of American outrage following the “surprise” attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

While this attack had the effect of uniting a country divided between isolationists opposed to any involvement in World War 11 and those who supported President Roosevelt’s aid to Britain and its allies, it also had the effect of unleashing intense racial stereotyping, especially with regard to the Japanese. One unfortunate ramification of this was Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (issued on February 19, 1942) that resulted in the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans in 10 camps in remote areas of the country. Sixty-two per cent of those incarcerated were American citizens. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, held in a less emotive time, concluded that the incarcerations were not justified by military necessity but a result of “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

What has this got to do with Batman (1943)? Well, during chapter 1, where Batman and Robin are described as representative of “American youth who love their country,” the serial interrupts the narrative to endorse Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. This occurs as the camera tracks through empty American streets formerly occupied by people of Japanese heritage. The narrator (Knox Manning):
This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as “Little Tokyo.” Since a wise government rounded up the shifty eyed Japs it’s become virtually a ghost street where only one business survives eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity seekers.

The “one business” is an amusement show called the “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a sideshow involving tableaus depicting Japanese violence that serves as the hideout of the Japanese master villain, Dr. Daka (J. Carroll Naish). Here Daka, in an attempt to gain control of radium to fuel his atomic ray capable of mass destruction, transforms American industrialists into zombies. It also houses a concealed alligator pit in Daka’s office/laboratory.

Naish’s performance as Daka overwhelms, in a good way, the serial and Lewis Wilson is impressive as Batman despite his ill-fitting costume and cowl with horns attached. The cliff-hanger to chapter 13, even for a serial, is outrageously good with Linda Page subjected to Daka’s zombie converting machine while Batman faces “certain” death trapped in a collapsing room with steel spikes about to penetrate his body.

Manzanar National Historic Site
A final word on one of the internment camps, the first one, built at Manzanar, a few miles from Lone Pine at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California’s Owens Valley. To the credit of the American government the site remains as the Manzanar National Historic Site with a central area that documents the history of the internment camp plus a few huts. It is run by the National Park Service. I have visited the site more than a half a dozen times and I never fail to shed a tear at the persistence and courage of those Japanese Americans who tried to normalise their existence (with gardens, baseball games, marriages and births) in an area of extreme temperatures living in poorly equipped huts.

Manzanar National Historic Site
Anyone interested in more information on Batman(1943), Batman (1949) and the propaganda serials, including the similarly themed, and superior, 1943 Republic serial G-Men Vs. The Black Dragon (William Whitney), can consult my Encyclopaedia of American Film Serials  (McFarland, 2017, click on the title for a link to Amazon)
Manzanar National Historic Site

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