Friday, February 1, 2013

The Dark Knight Lightens Up: Batman (1966-1968)

A few nights ago I stumbled upon the first Michael Keaton Batman movie on some cable network. I was in the minority in thinking it was lousy back in 1989, when it was a huge success and earned mostly positive reviews. I haven’t changed my opinion, and watching it again only confirmed my belief that Keaton was miscast and Jack Nicholson was a lousy Joker.

More recently we’ve had the three Christopher Nolan ‘Dark Knight’ films starring Christian Bale. They’re impressive, no doubt, and they have bestowed a gravitas on the superhero film genre that had not taken hold even after the successes of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. But as the end credits rolled on The Dark Knight Rises, I was more exhausted than entertained. 

Shouldn’t watching Batman make you happy? If not, what’s the point?

Watching the Batman series (1966-1968) always makes me happy. Sixty-some years into the TV medium and it’s still hard to find another show as unique as this unapologetically camp take on one of the comics’ most dour superheroes. It’s like someone put The Lone Ranger, Rocky & Bullwinkle and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In into a blender and hit the puree button. That "someone" was actually executive producer William Dozier, who masterminded this eccentric superhero serial and also provided the breathless narration for each episode (“Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”)

Adam West rarely receives sufficient acclaim for his ability to don blue tights and deliver lines like “Riddler, you can’t buy friends with money,” in a monotone that rivaled Joe Friday’s. His underplaying was perfectly balanced by Burt Ward’s high-spirited enthusiasm and the flamboyant antics of Gotham City’s assorted evildoers. 

It’s a series with enduring appeal to all ages, though not for the same reasons. Kids love the action-packed fight scenes punctuated by comic book panel POWs and BAMs, the brass-driven theme song and the rogues gallery. Older fans will appreciate Adam West’s aforementioned deadpan line readings (“Let's go, Robin. We've set another youth on the road to a brighter tomorrow”) and the satiric references to everything from politics to pop culture.

When I recall the show now, my first memory is of bright, bright colors. The animated opening credits sequence, the silky midnight blues of Batman’s cape, the reds and yellows in Robin’s costume, The Riddler’s bright green tights and The Joker’s hot pink suit, Batgirl’s red hair and the rich hues of the library at stately Wayne Manor – they all seemed to pop off the screen so much more vividly than other color TV shows of that era.

What are the five best Batman episodes? Here are my picks.

1. “Hi Diddle Diddle/Smack in the Middle”
The pilot introduced the series’ most popular villain, The Riddler. Frank Gorshin earned an Emmy nomination for his inspired portrayal, which was inspired by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death and the staccato tough-guy moves of James Cagney. This episode also featured the famous “Bat-dance” sequence at the What a Way to Go-Go discotheque.  

2. “True or False Face/Holy Rat Race”
Probably the series’ best episode, and the only one to give an indication of whether this cast could have played the material straight and still make it work. The camp content is dialed back in favor of action and a particularly slippery villain (played by veteran TV heavy Malachi Throne). 

3. “Hot Off the Griddle/The Cat and the Fiddle”
My favorite of the many outstanding Catwoman stories written by Stanley Ralph Ross and featuring the wonderfully droll Julie Newmar. Eartha Kitt could purr all she wants, but Newmar was the preeminent Catwoman and for me remains so to this day. The cliffhanger finds the Dynamic Duo covered in margarine and tied to griddles under giant magnifying glasses, where they are to be cooked by the sun. “Holy oleo!” exclaims Robin, to which Catwoman replies, “I didn’t know you could yodel.” 

4. “A Piece of the Action/Batman’s Satisfaction”
Not a great story, but it’s a must-see for the showdown between Batman and Robin and visiting heroes the Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee). The story goes that Lee refused to lose the fight, script or no script, and there’s no question the intensity of the dueling masked heroes is amplified during their standoff. 

5. “The Sport of Penguins/A Horse of Another Color”
The Batgirl shows of season three were a mixed blessing. Usually they meant a dumber-than-usual story or a lame villain like Milton Berle’s Louie the Lilac. But there was also the unforgettable vision of former Ballet Russe dancer Yvonne Craig poured into a skintight batsuit, high-kicking her way through a fight until she is inevitably captured by the evildoer of the week. This was arguably the best of her adventures, as The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) concocts a horse racing hoax assisted by heiress Lola Lasagna (Ethel Merman). Sadly, however, we never do get the answer to that immortal question, "Whose baby are you, Batgirl?"

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