“Gives a feller a good feeling knowing they’re up there doing their job.”
Before Christian Bale, before George Clooney or Val Kilmer, before Michael Keaton, there was Adam West. A minor actor, still somewhat struggling in Hollywood, he was taking small roles in television episodes and doing commercials when producer William Dozier noticed him in a Nestle Quik ad as a secret agent, and decided West might be a good fit for the lead role in his upcoming Batman television series. Coincidentally, West had heard of the series being produced, and had been pushing for his agent to try and get him the role. The two came together, and Dozier’s dream of a comedic take on the Caped Crusader started to become a reality. Adam West was cast with very little competition, but Dozier had West do screen tests with the various actors trying out for the role of Dick Grayson, Batman’s sidekick Robin.
Dozier hoped to find a candidate with whom West had the right chemistry, and they found it in Burt Ward; reportedly any time the two were together, it was a constant struggle for the crew to not bust out laughing. The two actors became fast friends and remain so decades later. Dozier told Ward to simply be himself in the role; his personality and mannerisms were already what Dozier had pictured for the Boy Wonder. Of course, a minor snafu in communication led to Ward not knowing for several weeks that he had gotten the part; his agent thought the studio had informed him, and the studio thought his agent had. As Ward tells it, he’d receive occasional calls over the next four weeks asking him details like his shoe size and the circumference of his head, and wonder if meant that he was being seriously considered for the role. He was on the verge of taking a job as a gas station attendant when he was finally informed that he had gotten the role almost two months prior.
Though a television show was Dozier’s primary goal, it was not his initial plan to start with the show. Dozier planned a Batman movie to show the television networks how successful the idea could be, and sell the series based on the reception of the film. However, ABC, facing low ratings decided to purchase the show as a mid-season replacement, before Dozier was able to put the plans for the movie in motion. The cast and crew set to work on the first season of Batman, airing in 1966. But the film idea was not shelved. Instead, it was shot after the first season concluded (and after the second season was shot, but before it aired), with the intention of using it to sell the series to an international market. In 1966, Batman, sometimes called Batman: The Movie to distinguish it from the series, hit the big screen. It was the first time a superhero was in a color feature-length picture (and only misses out on being the first feature-length superhero movie if one counts the hour-long Superman and the Mole Men as being feature-length).
“Hand me down the shark-repellant Bat Spray!”
Viewers who have not grown up on Batman reruns, and who are unfamiliar with the campy, even corny tone of Batman comics from the 1950s and 1960s, may be surprised to find the tone the movie and series take with the Caped Crusader. The movie opens with a dedication to law enforcement and crime-fighters, and to “lovers of adventure… of pure escapism… of unadulterated entertainment… of the ridiculous and the bizarre.” And it means it. Under producer William Dozier, the television series took the absurdity inherent in a man fighting crime in a rodent costume and ran with it, and the movie, directed by Leslie H. Martinson, wholeheartedly embraces the same tone. It’s two-fisted crime-fighting adventure and feats of derring-do and theatre of the absurd all rolled into one seamless whole. And in large part it works because of the absolutely deadpan delivery of the lead actors; as Adam West has commented, in order to play Batman he had to play him with a deadly earnestness. It was at its funniest when Batman was making the most ridiculous statements in absolute seriousness.
“A trans-Atlantic yacht approaching the city simply disappeared.”
“Nonsense. How could a yacht simply disappear?”
“You mean it isn’t true?” “I stand on my answer.”
The movie opens with Batman and Robin racing to rescue the yacht of Commodore Schmidlapp, only to find the yacht has vanished from the location of the distress signal. Realizing they’ve been duped while the real yacht was hijacked, they discuss the matter with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara; as a direct spin-off from the TV series, the roles are played by series regulars Neil Hamilton and Stafford Repp, just as Alfred is played by Alan Napier. The degree of cooperation Batman has with the police varies in different portrayals, but this is undoubtedly the highest level of cooperation seen in film; here, Commissioner Gordon not only condones Batman’s behavior, but has made Batman and Robin fully deputized agents of the law, and bristles at the suggestion that they are vigilantes. Working together, the four crime-fighters realize — through a hilariously illogical series of deductions — that four of Gotham City’s most notorious super-criminals have teamed up to take over the world: The Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman.
“The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!”
The four villains were chosen because of their popularity in the first season; the idea was to take advantage of the movie format to allow for a team-up that may have been unfeasible for a normal two-part episode (a few episodes of the show’s third season would have two-villain team-ups, but the film was the only time four villains came together in a single plot.) Most of the villains were played by their usual series actors, reprising their roles. Burgess Meredith, whose popularity as the Penguin was such that the writers always had a script handy in case he happened to be in town, effectively took the lead role among the villains, as the Penguin directs most of the scheming on board his decommissioned naval submarine. Meredith, who had quit smoking twenty years before he took the role, improvised the Penguins “wark wark” tic to cover up the coughing caused by the character’s ever-present cigarette; he also improvised the waddle. The nose was a prosthetic, which apparently got caught in the periscope on at least one occasion. According to Adam West, Burgess Meredith hated being greeted as the Penguin out in public “for about ten minutes”. Then he realized how much people loved the role, and him, and the boost to his career and popularity that came from being recognized from the show; he wouldn’t be the only one, as after the first season, guest starring on Batman became a bit of a status symbol for Hollywood celebrities, and everybody wanted in.
“Sharpen your cutlasses! There may be skullduggery ahead!”
Cesar Romero, the “great Latin lover” was the Joker in the series and the movie. He refused to shave off the mustache that had given him his career, so the makeup artists simply painted over it. It’s obvious in close-ups, but is easy to ignore in distant shots. But what he brings to the role is an enthusiastic glee at mayhem, cheerfully cavorting around the set and mocking both the good guys and his fellow bad guys. He is outshone only by the Riddler, played by Frank Gorshin, perhaps the only man to ever make the Joker look tame by comparison. Gorshin plays the Riddler with such manic intensity that he is said to have intimidated the crew with his performance, no small feat in a comedy, and frequently fires off a maniacal laugh that puts even the Joker to shame. In the movie, he wears both the traditional spandex costume of the Riddler, as well as the question mark-bedecked green suit that Gorshin had the costume department design for him. Gorshin found the spandex uncomfortable, and preferred to be in a different outfit whenever possible. He wasn’t the only one; one of Adam West’s requests for the film was more screen time for Bruce Wayne so he could get out from under the cowl.
“We’ll play each of our treacherous trumps in one hand!”
The one newcomer to the rogues gallery of villains was Lee Meriwether as Catwoman. During the first season, Julie Newmar had played the role, but she had committed to filming Mackenna’s Gold before being informed of the Batman movie, and was thus unable to make the filming (this same scheduling conflict would lead to the role being recast again in the final season of Batman, with Eartha Kitt taking the role.) Meriwether was a former Miss America who had been uncertain of her chances of being cast for the film, but who wowed the producer and director with her audition, helped by her studying her cat’s mannerisms and incorporating them into her performance. This helps greatly in the film, as she has one of the larger roles among the villains, with Catwoman’s false identity as “Miss Kitka” factoring into the villains’ schemes. As she slinks around like a cat and purrs her lines, it prevents her from standing out as a more novice actress among the veteran Meredith, Romero, and Gorshin. Meriwether was intimidated by working with the more experienced cast members, but they made a point of easing her nerves, with Romero being noted (in Adam West’s commentary) as being particularly friendly to her, and Burgess Meredith regularly taking her to movies.
“You’re going to see the purrfect crime when I get Batman in my claws!”
The producers took advantage of the film’s larger budget to increase the number of expensive and extravagant props. Not, mind you, for special effects — the film still cheerfully uses a painted-on cartoon appearance for sound effects and some explosions. But the feature film provided them with the opportunity to create a few more items to use in later series episodes (even if, as Adam West notes, they didn’t use them very much after.) While the custom Lincoln Futura Batmobile had been around since the start of the show, the Batboat and Batcopter used in the film were completely new, as were the umbrella rockets that the criminals use to fly around on in one scene. Adam West relates that the script had called for jetpacks, but director Martinson decided to go for broke with the over-the-top designs. Scenes with the Batboat and the Penguin’s submarine were mostly shot on a studio-owned lake, with the ocean horizon matte painted in. The lake was not very deep, and the frequent diving in they had to do during one of the fight scenes was a bit risky due to the close bottom; one of the stuntmen hit his head and nearly drowned before anybody realized he wasn’t coming back up on his own. However, this was the only major injury reported on set, which may be notable considering the number of stunts done by the actors themselves. While they had stuntmen, and used them for some scenes (West, a champion diver, regretted not being allowed to perform one dive from a building himself), they often used the stunt men simply as choreographers for their fight scenes. Further, some scenes had to be done with the actors themselves because the camera had to be too close to the character for it to fool the audience. Burt Ward often jokes that the studio had a policy of “if it’s really dangerous, make Burt do it”; the upside-down ladder-hang Robin does to hand Batman the shark repellant Bat Spray was performed by Ward, as were most scenes on the Batboat.
“Holy Captain Nemo, Batman!”
One stunt which the director was unable to convince West and Ward to do was at the end of the film, when Batman and Robin exit the United World Building (the Gotham City equivalent of the United Nations) via the window. According to West and Ward, Martinson had wanted them to stop and wash the windows on their way down, as one final gag, but the actors balked as the stunt was nerve-wracking enough for them as it was. It’s too bad, as it would have been a great last joke.
This comic sensibility permeates the rest of the film, though, and Martinson filled it with numerous gags, both verbal and visual. The fancy restaurant where Miss Kitka and Bruce Wayne dine is named the Folded Arms, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pun on the regal airs some restaurants give themselves. Bruce Wayne drinks milk from a brandy snifter. Anything and everything used by the heroes or villains is conveniently labeled. Alfred wears a mask under his glasses while out on patrol. And scenes focused exclusively on the criminals are filmed in a Dutch angle, canted; the characters are crooked, and so is the camera work.
“United Underworld? Ha! We’re about as united as the members of the United World Headquarters!”
The plot similarly runs more on comedy than on sense. Contrived coincidences abound to bring heroes into and out of trouble, and both sides have to revise their plans on multiple occasions to deal with the interference of each other. A porpoise heroically sacrifices itself to save Batman and Robin. Robin’s sense of decency causes him to look away from Bruce Wayne’s date just at the moment he’s kidnapped. The Riddler accidentally shoots Batman and Robin out of the sky with one of his skywriter missiles, and they’re saved by landing in a display for a foam rubber sales convention. Nothing is out of bounds as long as it’s funny, and director Les Martinson kept throwing in more things to keep the laughs coming, most notably adding several unscripted obstacles to the famous sequence where Batman has to dispose of an inconvenient explosive. (You knew it had to be mentioned. Come on, say it with me:)
“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”
There is also a subversive undercurrent to some of the humor, that seems a little anti-authoritarian. The police come off as reasonably intelligent; indeed, Chief O’Hara fares better than he usually does in the series. And President Lyndon B. Johnson (identified by his beagles, and played behind a chair by Green Hornet star Van Williams) is left unscathed by his bit part in the film. But there are a few other authority figures in the film, and each of them seems to get some subtle, or unsubtle, mockery at the hands of the filmmakers. Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny), the former British navy man turned business magnate whose extreme dehydrator is the instigator of the plot, is a bumbling old man who is so clueless that he spends several days in a rundown room at an inn, and then a submarine, without ever realizing he’s been kidnapped. The United World security council, the highest international body in the movie’s world, bicker with each other so ferociously that they don’t notice when a quartet of supervillains walks into the room — nor even when their fellow members start disappearing right next to them. And then, of course, there’s Vice Admiral Fangschliester at the Pentagon (Milton Frome), who spends his day playing tiddly-winks with his secretary and sold a used pre-atomic submarine to a Mister P. N. Guin, with only a post office box as a forwarding address. Even the normally-stoic Batman can’t keep the reproach from his voice on that one.
“Avast and belay, Batman. Your tone sounds rather grim. We haven’t done anything foolish, have we?”
Today superhero spoofs are starting to become a genre of their own, with Kick-Ass, Defendor, Super and other films looking to parody and/or deconstruct the genre. The 1990s had its share as well, largely spawned by the success of the Batman franchise in that era, with Blankman, The Meteor Man and others. There were even a few during the 1980s, probably inspired by Superman, such as the John Ritter vehicle Hero At Large. But most such parodies are forgotten almost immediately upon release (Kick-Ass being the biggest modern exception). It is strange to say it, but the most successful superhero comedy may be the one that predates virtually all superhero movies. There was no film franchise to make fun of, and the only genre television show at the time was the series the film was spun off of. Batman: the Movie made the audience laugh, and is remembered decades after its release, solely on its own merits. It’s fun for the children and children-at-heart who want to watch a superhero fight supervillains. It’s a laugh riot from start to finish. And it has great performances from actors who look like they could have walked right out of the comic books.
It’s a comic masterpiece, in both senses of the word comic, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“Let’s go, but, inconspicuously, through the window. We’ll use our Batropes. Our job is finished.”