[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Of any superhero Batman has the longest and storied career in film. Those too young might even forget the fact that there were four Batman films before Christopher Nolan took over the franchise and turned it into the holy grail of comic book films. Those original four Batman films were mighty popular, and increasingly bad. They weren’t, however, the true “original” Batman film. That honor goes to the Adam West-starring, 1966 Batman.
I’ve done a lot of Batman re-watching over the past week in preparation for the release of The Dark Knight Rises and while I’d never actually go as far to say that 1966’s Batman is better than The Dark Knight after re-watching the film it’s surprising how smart, timely and well delivered it actually is. In fact its humor is so tongue-in-cheek and so “theater of the absurd” that I am now convinced that the film’s screenwriter (and writer of the pilot episode for the TV series the film was based off of) was actually a time traveling hipster.
Read on, bat-fans, to discover why Adam West’s Batman is far more than anyone gives it credit for.
In 1966 the Batman TV series premiered starring Adam West as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward as Robin/Dick Grayson. Forgoing initial plans for a more serious show based on the comic, which had recently turned more serious itself, the producers went camp and they went camp hard. In fact if you think of camp these days you’re probably thinking of Batman. The show was like nothing else on at the time. It’s comedy wasn’t just slapstick, but satirical and oddball to the point of absurdity. Even Get Smart, the nearest show in tone and genre to Batman, was miles away in its humor, relying more on hilarious slapstick and site gags. Of course Batman had both of these, but its real genius comes from its randomness; a kind of comedy that is far more prevalent today than it was in the 1960s.
The show was a hit, but that actually wasn’t the reason the film was made. Originally the movie was to premiere first to generate excitement for the television series, but 20th Century Fox decided that it would cost too much for them to make the movie and went straight into the TV series with plans to make the film after the first season ended and release it before the second. This gave the film a notoriously tight schedule to shoot on as they basically had one summer to put the whole thing together. Yet come together it did, with all the main villains from the TV series making an appearance along with a Bat-copter, a Bat-boat and every other thing one could stick the word bat in front of. But enough of the history lesson, let’s get this Bat-post moving.
The film centers around the show’s four most popular villains joining together as the United Underworld in a quest to kidnap the World Organization’s Security Council by dehydrating them using a dehydration gun. Batman and Robin must ride to the rescue in their hilariously awesome spandex. This little set up allowed for such things as exploding sharks; Bat-shark repellent; heroic, almost human porpoises; foam rubber helicopter landings and a submarine with penguin flippers. It also let the satirical mind of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., whose humor must have flown over the heads of a lot of people, take a pretty nasty swipe at current world events. His parody of the U.N. is none too friendly, though plenty funny and the use of Polaris missiles to launch all of The Riddler’s riddles into the air was surprisingly topical for a movie where onomonapia fly across the screen.
Still, the central idea behind the film was to be sublimely ridiculous. This is clearly the case throughout the film, but the opening action might be the best way to demonstrate just how stupidly smart the film is. Batman, hanging from the Bat-ladder that is suspended from the Bat-copter, is attacked suddenly by a very plastic shark. As it dangles lamely from his leg he punches at it and yells up to Robin, who is flying the Bat-copter, to throw him down the Bat-shark repellent to which Robin turns to a set of spray canisters all labeled with different sea creature repellents. It’s the kind of ridiculous humor that you find commonly in today’s more “random” YouTube/Family Guy era, but that Batman was making nearly half a century ago. The Simpsons (along with almost every other pop culture show) made a gag about it attempting to parody what was already a parody in and of itself. The thing is, the scene from The Simpsons and the lines uttered in it would not be out of place in the Batman film. This is a movie that played camp and satire perfectly, which is a rare feat.
It helps that both Adam West and Burt Ward knew exactly what they were doing. West’s Batman is hilarious even when delivering expository dialog, and his penchant for crossing his arms awkwardly like a bat would cross its wings is one of those details that just make a camp movie work. Even better is his horrendously awkward romantic night and kiss with Catwoman, which I am almost positive is one of the best worst kisses ever to be captured on screen. Ward, meanwhile, is simply a master of playing it straight. Most would have taken lines like, “Holy marathon! I’m getting a stitch, Batman!” and pushed them over-the-top, but with Ward it’s like listening to someone who would actually say that. Of course, Batman’s pitch perfect response of, “Let’s hope that it’s a stitch in time, Robin, that saves nine – The nine members of the United World Security Council,” easily shows the kind of humor and absurd logic behind the film and its screenplay. Even worse (in the best way possible) are the completely random logical leaps behind The Riddler’s riddles.
Then there are the villains. The TV show itself was actually driven by the villains, and while the film gave Batman and Robin a lot more play it’s still the four bad guys who steal the show. What’s so great about the villains of Batman is that they’re all played by well respected actors who are clearly having the time of their lives in these roles. The Joker was played by Cesar Romero, who famously refused to shave his mustache off to play the character. Instead of casting someone else the creators decided it fit perfectly with the camp of the show and simply painted it white with the rest of his face. Romero’s Joker is nowhere near as disturbing as Heath Ledger’s or Jack Nicholson’s, but there’s a certain insanity to him that’s more than just fun to watch. Unfortunately in the movie he’s stuck as a fourth fiddle to the other three villain’s larger roles.
More impressive is the fact that Burgess Meredith played The Penguin. Meredith waddles around the screen with a purple top hat and cigarette holder delivering a Golden Age Penguin ripped straight from the comics (with a bit more humor, of course). Frank Gorshin on the other hand takes The Riddler up about 100 levels of insanity until he’s almost a giggling fool. It’s clear to see the influence of Gorshin on Jim Carrey’s take of the character in Batman & Robin, but Gorshin does it so much better. There’s a restraint that’s missing from Carey’s performance and Gorshin can simply ham it up more seriously (a contradiction, I know) than almost anyone. Finally, Lee Meriwether took over the role of Catwoman for Jule Newmar who had other obligations at the time. Sadly, Meriwether didn’t have the bombshell aesthetics or the camp sentimentality of Newmar and as such her Catwoman is more something pretty to look at than fun to watch. Still, she does throw a cat at Batman forcing him to have a lengthy fight scene while holding the cat in one hand. It’s the kind of fight PETA would go crazy over these days.
Adding to this mishmash of satirical writing, camp acting, and great performances is director Leslie H. Martinson’s absolute refusal to do anything subtly. The camera is as manic as the people its shooting, and Martinson refuses to scale anything back. When the villains are in their lair hatching plots he doesn’t just skew a few shots to make things seem off-kilter. Instead he tilts the camera almost 45 degrees for almost every shot, tilting the entire set and all the actors like a fun house mirror. The infamous bomb scene where Batman is running around Santa Monica pier with a large, round bomb over his head was originally supposed to be a few simple shots of Batman running. Martinison stretched it out into a groan worthy gag that to this day cannot be challenged for sheer absurdity. The bomb scene ending in a pitch-perfect delivery of the line, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” It even goes further than just playing for camp and laughs. Despite the fact that Batman filmed on location Martinson at one points films West and Ward running in front of a screen with moving background even though the same shot could have been easily accomplished for real. In the twisted world of Batman logic, however, any scene of Batman and Robin traveling needs to be in front of hilariously fake screens.
It’s hard to actually say that Batman is anything more than camp, because it isn’t. It is exactly how you make camp, though. Far ahead of its time, Batman actually strove for camp and nailed it. With camp being almost a genre unto itself these days and very few people actually able to master it, it’s a lesson in how to play for laughs while taking everything seriously. From the Ka-Pows to the ridiculously illogical riddles everything about Batman is horribly cheesy, and yet it all works. While Nolan’s Batman films may truly be masterpieces it is amazing that the character of Batman has this almost completely opposite film that is just as masterful in its own way.
I’d like to conclude with a simple statement: Best Batmobile Ever.
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