Batman & Robin - The Columbia Serials [1949]

Certificate: U
Running time: 20 mins per episode
Director: Spencer Bennet
Starring: Robert Lowery, Johnny Duncan, Jane Adams, Lyle Talbot
Genre: Comic book, Action, Adventure
Country: USA

With The Dark Knight Rises but weeks away and the promise of the ultimate test the Bat has ever faced it seems fitting to fix our focus on the gallery of rogues, to borrow a phrase that is some of the many incarnations of the hero that Gotham needs.

After the relatively unsuccessful and unpopular 15 episode serial run of 1943, including one film Robert Lowery took over from Lewis Wilson (who would go on to become a powerful executive behind the Bond franchise).  Wilson was critically panned for being a “little too thick around the middle” to be a spritely superhero yet it was Lowery who would become the only one of the seven live action performers to step into the shadow of the Bat not to star in a film.  The Lowery serials of 1949 would prove not only to be a step up in quality of story telling, masterful with the obligatory serial “cliffhanger” at the end of each episode but would prove remarkably influential on the future of the Batman franchise.  The Batmobile, little more than a civilian car, can be seen over half a century later as influential in not only the design of the vehicle for Batman: The Animated Series but also the overall time period and feel of the award winning (and acclaimed) animated addition.

Similarly Spencer Bennet’s vision of the Batcave is one that will not change over the 15 years between these serials and Batman: The Movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  So clear is Bennet’s design, direction and execution that with the exception of the quality of the Batsuit (which makes Bruce look more like a horny clansman rather than a vigilante Dark Knight) the show, at least in my mind, has aged incredibly well.  It’s also remarkably dark, especially in comparison to the 20th Century Fox/West era.  Whether it’s the idea of the cinema of trauma or early influences of German Expressionism creeping into Bob Kane’s hero it’s much similar in tone and mood to the work of Tim Burton though chronologically it should be closer to Leslie Martinson.

Robert Lowery is a strong physical presence as Batman and a sophisticated Wayne, his affected English acting accent out of the mask is somewhat distracting but puts forward a well rounded performance.  John Duncan (as Robin) is window dressing but he’s not the first performer to have difficulty with the Robin character and no doubt, post Nolan and Bale, he won’t be the last.  Jane Adams’ performances as Vicki Vale are thankfully infrequent as her interactions with Lowery are wooden and drag him down somewhat.  The serials brilliance belong entirely to Director Bennet and Cinematographer Ira Morgan who have created a complex and darkly wonderful world for the Caped Crusader to ply his trade.  Over 60 years have passed since these were committed to film and they still look remarkable, I can only imagine what it must have looked like to have seen them at my local cinema before the feature presentation and just how unsatisfactory that feature must have been after these exquisite episodes.

Movie Bar HEROES! featuring a foursome of fantastic yet forgotten Superheroes including The Champions of Justice and 3 Supermen Against Godfather can be booked by clicking [here].


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