Perfectly Ordinary Americans
A Film Essay by: Witney Seibold
“We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre — to funlovers everywhere — this picture is respectfully dedicated. If we have overlooked any sizable groups of lovers, we apologize.
-The dedication from “Batman.”
Whatever happened to whimsey? To fun?
There was a time in this country, sometime about the early 1960s, when “ridiculous” was an easy sell. When low, broad jokes were common and expected; indeed they were a witty art form. Low-brow comedies full of racist jokes, stupid puns, and horrible mugging, played like sophisticated parodies of artistic conventions. There was a time when raucous fun, and joyous adventure was the word of the day. When the heroes of adventure films would smile openly, think clearly, choose to be heroic, and always win. When things were bright and happy in adventure movies. When motives were clear, and our heroes were gods. Perhaps the people became bored with such lighthearted matters. Perhaps audiences responded more to the tension of an antihero, than to the brilliance of a peerless demigod.
I posit that adding death and darkness to a story does not raise the stakes, and does not make the proceedings more “important.” It’s darkness for darkness’ sake. Teenagers, don’t be fooled. A “dark” story is not an “important” story.
There seems to be a recent trend in Hollywood to transform the fantasy heroes of the past into gritty and realistic scowlers of a modern age. Filmmakers, and many audiences, seem to feel that by adding muddy photography, realistic physics, relatable angst, and all-too-human flaws to the once-indestructable hero figure, that we’re improving them. If we take a bright and enchanting world, and add elements of death and risk, somehow we’re making it somehow more grown-up, more mature. If we can transform our heroes into flawed, “realistic” humans – if we can ground them – perhaps, the theory goes, we’ll be able to relate to them better; audiences will be able to project themselves into the role of the hero more easily. Perhaps we can make our Batman more adult.
This trick works just fine when creating a human protagonist, but why must we apply the same flourish to our fantasy heroes as well? In the last few years, we’ve seen remakes or film adaptations of many fantasy heroes that were once bright, chipper, whimsical and glorious, and watched as they deteriorated into gritty, harsh, depressing, muddy territory. Robin Hood was once a merry man, but he was recently turned into a warrior. Alice once had absurdist adventures through a ridiculous Wonderland. Now she is a war hero who drinks monster blood. James Bond was a flawless superspy who would smirk and quip his way through rough patches. Hollywood turned him into a cheerless thug. The 1980 film “Clash of the Titans” was over-the-top, bright, ridiculous and fun. The 2010 film “Clash of the Titans” was mud-colored, messy, brutal, and dull. Lord of the Rings went from a book about culture and language to a 12-hour-long war picture. Even Harry Potter, who first showed up in 2001, was able to remain magical and full of awe for merely two films. After that, his films became dull and depressing, adding elements of death and risk.
I choose to go back, back to a time when our “dark” fantasy heroes were fun. When they were well-lit, and even kind of silly. Indeed, when they were outright knowingly ridiculous, and possessed of no small amount of whimsey. I will take us to Leslie H. Martinson‘s 1966 feature film “Batman,” starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader, and Burt Ward as the Boy Wonder.
I adore “Batman.” I love everything about “Batman.” I like the strange camerawork, the cheap effects, and the stupid jokes. I love the respectable actors’ recitation of truly strange dialogue, and the utter, straight-faced aplomb they possess in doing so. I love the impractical bat-devices, and impossible technologies. I love the obvious solutions to farfetched situations (Robin completing The Riddler’s riddles is a wonder to behold). I love the bright colors and Nelson Riddle’s cheery jazz music. I love Neal Hefti‘s famous theme song. I like the strange, dream-like kindergarten logic applied to the peril; when Batman incidentally finds his leg inside a shark, he remembers that he possesses a can of shark repellant.
This is a film that is, quite literally, dedicated to funlovers and lovers of unadulterated entertainment, and rarely has a film delivered so well on its promises. This is not a film that is revolutionary in its technique, in its themes, or in its philosophical musings. This is not the film to dissect the motivations of its heroes, or add tragic, noirish elements to costumed crimefighters (see Christopher Nolan‘s “Batman Begins” and Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” for those). This is a film that is – quite simply – as much fun as one can have at the movies. This is a film that bothers to actively shake off any pretense of seriousness, and give us something grandly over-the-top. Its morals are simple, and its objectives clear. We root for the hero, accept that he has access to the best crimefighting technology, and know in our hearts that he will indeed win over the bad guys in the end. We don’t care how he came to be, or question his need to be a Batman. We also accept wholeheartedly that the bad guys are merely purely bad, but, in an odd way, we like them as much as we like our heroes. We want to see the bad guys fail, but we never, for an instant, want to see horrid retribution for any real-life crime.
“Batman” is a world without death. A world without darkness. Where the most horrible crime committed is dehydrating your thugs. It is a chance for us to walk in the sun for a while. To enjoy whimsey again, and laugh.
Indeed, “Batman’s” comedy might even be a bit more clever that first glances would betray. Director Leslie Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. wrote a story that they seemed knew was kind of silly (the dedication being our only direct clue that they were toying with us). They knew they were dealing with silly characters and comic book conceits, and wrote a story that would exploit all manner of odd machines and ridiculous plans. They managed to make a movie that was deliberately campy. A film that was intended to be simultaneously laughed at and laughed with. I can think of few other entertainments that can make that claim. Susan Sontag once wrote that nothing could be deliberately camp; that camp had to come from an honest failure to entertain. I posit that “Batman” is that one glorious exception. Where we are invited to laugh with the joy, and laugh at the silliness.
Perhaps, then, “Batman” was ahead of ts time. It’s rare to come across an entertainment that is so… self-aware. Like a post-modern Pirandello, “Batman” manages to simultaneously be itself and be about itself. It comments on itself as it unspools. It uses the language of superheroes to mock superheroes. Batman is a hero we love on two levels. 1) Because we want him to succeed, and 2) because he is very funny. There is nothing to hate here.
The “Batman” TV series debuted in 1966 on CBS, and it was an instant hit. Audiences responded to its campiness and to its colorful representation of the superhero. The show’s producers, quick to respond, immediately put a feature film into production, keeping most of the show’s talent in tact. In the same year as the show’s debut, theaters saw “Batman.”
Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) has invented a grand new (and secret) device, and it is being transported by yacht to Gotham City. Bruce Wayne/Batman suspects that it will be stolen, and he and Robin go to investigate. In this universe, it is openly accepted that there is a Batman running around, and the local police aid and respect him. Batman is purely good, and has no internal conflicts; this is a perfect hero. He lives in a mansion with his helpful butler Alfred (Alan Napier) and doting aunt Harriet (Madge Blake, who, I hear, was added to the Batman universe as a mere female presence, intended to diffuse any homosexual subtext. A surreal move at best). This is also a universe where costumed supercriminals run about Gotham City wreaking havoc on a weekly basis. The villains have no motivations for their actions; they are merely evil.
Batman and Robin arrive at the yacht via Bat-Copter, but find that the yacht itself has been stolen, and Schmidlapp kidnapped. Back at Gotham City police headquarters, the dynamic duo confers with Commissioner Gordon (a wonderfully deadpan Neil Hamilton), and the Irish Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp). Together, the four of them deduce (in the weirdest leaps of logic) that behind this yacht disappearance is all four of Batman’s most hated nemeses. The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and the Riddler. “It all took place at sea! Sea! C! C for Catwoman!”
Indeed, all four villains are behind the yacht disappearance, and operate out of The Penguin’s penguin-shaped submarine. They try to kill Batman in several ways, and come up with a plan to kidnap Bruce Wayne, a wealthy millionaire, and have Batman rescue him. Catwoman will pose as a Russian journalist named KITKA, and seduce Wayne. Wayne is indeed seduced (there is a fantastic scene of Bruce and KITKA riding around in a carriage having a talk that barely skirts away from the sexual), and is indeed kidnapped, but manages to escape. N.B. “Kitka” is close to the Russian word for cat.
Eventually the supervillains’ plan is revealed. Schmidlapp has invented a hyper-dehydration machine that was intended for making booze, but can also dehydrate human beings into neat, conical piles of brightly colored powder. Add water, and the humans will be perfectly reconstituted. They intend to dehydrate and kidnap the top members of the United Nations, and, you guessed it, take over the world. There is an enchanting scene where The Penguin dehydrates his thugs, sneaks into the Batcave in disguise, and reconstitutes them just in time for a brawl.
There is a fight on a submarine (complete with cartoon sound effect appearing on the screen), a scene of Batman and Robin climbing up the side of a building (which is clearly done by turning the camera sideways), and, in the film’s funniest moment, Batman trying to dispose of a comically large, sparkling bomb, but without harming anyone, including a marching band, a pair of nuns, and a few baby ducks. That Batman is all heart. The bomb scene is sublime and hilarious, and is reportedly the filmmakers’ and actors’ favorite scene. It’s one of mine too. I challenge you to find a scene in any film that is equally tense and hilarious.
The story is, very obviously, a flimsy and surreal exercise in screenwriting, and serves as little more than an excuse for the actors to mug, overact, and hang action scenes on. It is transparently utilitarian, allowing all manner of silly fantasy gadgets to be employed. I don’t mind. The screenwriters clearly knew what they were doing.
The largest reason for “Batman”’s success can easily be attributed to its savvy and talented cast. The villains were mostly old-guard theatrical performers, and the heroes knew exactly which note to play: dead earnestness. Had the actors taken time out of their overacting to wink at the camera, everything would have fallen apart; the actors, like performers in a Beckett play, knew exactly where the fourth wall was, and were careful never to break it. They let the screenwriters do that.
Adam West. Burt Ward. The two men are perfection. Batman and Robin are intense. Dedicated. Every line they read sounds like a speech. There are no mere sentences. Everything is a superlative. No doubt, every line of doalgue had an exclamation point. “Support your police! That’s our message!” Every silly joke is given without a hint of irony. Every dumb riddle is delivered with the utmost seriousness. Each strange leap of logic seems completely natural to Batman and Robin. What weighs 3 ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous? Why, of course. It’s only natural. It’s a sparrow with a machine gun.
How did they manage to do it? Cast a comedian, and the film would have sunk under its overwhelming goofiness. Cast a natural “method” actor, and, I suspect, the ridiculous would have stood in stark contrast to the actors, and the ridiculous would have outweighed the material. West and Ward struck that perfect balance between being laughed with and laughed at. They didn’t just play the parts, they embodied the joyous spirit of the film. They were woven directly into the tapestry. These are the kind of bravura performances that rarely get hailed as great, merely because they are so silly. But it’s a feat to perform silly so well, and West and Ward deserve endless credit for making it work.
Cesar Romero had, by 1966, done enough acting to retire for life, thanks to a profit sharing deal he made with the producers of “Passport to Danger,” his 1954 TV serial. He was known for his roles as a Latin charmer in films like “Captain of Castille.” A consummate gentleman, and a hard working performer, he decided to stay in the game, and continued acting. He was offered the role of The Joker in the 1966 “Batman” TV series. He refused to shave his trademark mustache, and it can clearly be seen under his Joker makeup.
Burgess Meredith began his career in the early 1930s (in, of all things, Tod Browning‘s “Freaks”), and had already starred in dozens of plays, TV shows and movies by 1966. He was a professional, giving his all to every role he was offered. He was once heard saying that he took the role of The Penguin for mere yuks, and, indeed, rarely had more fun acting.
Frank Gorshin was another of the old guard of TV and movie performers who approached every role he was given with equal ardor. A lesser actor could have given the usual amount of villainous glee to the role of The Riddler, but Gorshin managed to leap, crawl, and giggle maniacally all over the screen in a fashion that almost made one think that he was indeed mentally ill. It’s a level of dedication rarely seen in any role, much less in the role of a TV supervillain.
Lee Meriwether was a former Miss America model-turned-actress who took over the role of Catwoman from Julie Newmar. Meriwether is not just a pretty face, she, like her cohorts, manages to embody her role, and play it straight for the camera. She has to purr and meow a lot as Catwoman, and really (if you will allow me) digs her claws in. She also wears that obviously fake russian accent very well as miss Kitanya Irinya Tatnya Karenska Alisov, or KITKA. It took me a while to see the acronym, even though Batman himself points it out.
Romero, Meredith, Gorshin, and Meriwether have all said that they took the “Batman” job for fun. It’s been reported that they would often have serious discussions of the acting craft between takes on the movie’s set. They would, as is the professional’s wont, talk about character motivation, particular physicalities, and various techniques. Then the cameras would roll, and they would cackle and bicker and mug with joy. These were performers who did not feel the “Batman” material was beneath them. They saw “Batman” as a new avenue of performance to explore, and a great way to overact and have fun with their profession.
Can you imagine a cynical “Batman” actor? Or perhaps an actor who was self-aware? Who made the show about themselves, rather than about the material? An actor who broadcasted their boredom and superiority through their performance? That would have sunk the filmmakers’ intentions, and the film would have fallen apart. The only way something this silly can work is with total dedication from everyone involved. That the director and producers were able to get so much dedication for such oddball material is something of a miracle. “Batman” survives as a popular culture icon because of its dedication.
And because it’s still fun. It is one of the most fun films ever made.
If you have the heart for it, I implore you to hang up your darkness and cynicism, your insistence that fantasy heroes need to grow up, and revel in the delightfully weird, childish, and hilarious world of Leslie Martinson’s “Batman.” For lovers or unadulterated entertainment, this film is dedicated to you.