Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9 &10: Zelda the Great/A Death Worse Than Fate

Season 1 Episodes 9 & 10
Original Air Dates: 2/9/66 & 2/10/66
Special Guest Villainess: Anne Baxter as Zelda the Great
Guest stars: Jack Kruschen, Barbara Heller
Written by: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Directed by: Norman Foster

Synopsis: A series of bank robberies, once a year each April 1st, has the Gotham City Police Department baffled. Even Commissioner Gordon's crack squad of octogenarian officers can't seem to find a clue at the scene of the crime to lead them to the perpetrator. At his wit's end, Gordon has no choice but to call the man who pulls his fat out of the fire on a weekly basis while he plays golf: Batman. The Caped Crusader hatches a plan to convince the looter that the money stolen was counterfeit. We soon learn that the crook was master magician Zelda the Great. Zelda needs to steal the money to pay for new gimmicks provided her by Albanian inventor Eivol Ekdal (Kruschen). Enraged by the phony money, Zelda kidnaps Aunt Harriet and threatens she'll drop the poor old woman into a vat of flaming oil if not paid $100,000. After a series of evil deeds, we learn that the illusionist has a heart of gold when she rescues Batman and Robin from certain death.

JS: We kick things off with another shaky-cam explosion. I love that when no one's around to answer the Batphone, the Commissioner just waits on the line indefinitely.

PE: Interesting that Robin offers up Catwoman as a possible villain since she's not appeared on the show yet.

JS: I keep forgetting that he's a 'boy' wonder. I don't think of him as a kid you'd find playing at the playground, but apparently Aunt Harriet did.

PE: Is it my imagination or do I see high rise lights around Wayne Manor in the balcony scene? That would be odd since I've always had the idea that Wayne Manor was isolated on the outskirts of Gotham (the sign reading Gotham City, 14 Miles may have been the tip-off) and it would be an odd sight for the Batmobile to burst out of the side of a mountain in the middle of a metropolis. 

JS: I liked Foster's use of the Bat-shadow to strike fear into the heart of Zelda. 

PE: This is an odd episode in that it breaks from many of the traditions set in the first eight episodes. Oh, I know what you're saying: "Peter, there must have been five or six times we cut to the same shot of Batman and Robin climbing into the Batmobile," but bear with me a moment. There are no garishly dressed villains (unless you count those horrid gold slacks on Zelda), no henchmen, no ZONK!, BAM! or POW!. It's lacking in the action department and yet I liked it quite a bit. Aunt Harriet hanging above a pot of boiling oil is a nicely sadistic scene (and the old lady seems to be pretty spry, running a marathon over that oil) that's stuck with me since childhood even though this episode, rightly, didn't (I'd have been bored with all the talk and no action). Semple Jr.'s idea to have Zelda "break the fourth wall" and let us in on her plan is a campy delight and a gimmick I'm surprised it took so long to use. While obviously lacking the novelties that made Penguin, Joker and Riddler household names, Anne Baxter does a decent job making Zelda alternately evil and tender.

JS: Batman leaves Robin with the cops while he goes off in search of Bruce Wayne. The kid flies off the handle when Chief O'Hara speculates what millionaire Bruce Wayne is up to, and the Commissioner tries to settle him down. But that doesn't excuse the Commissioner's inappropriate grip on Robin?

PE: The signed and notarized letter from the bank manager, asserting that the cash Zelda stole was actually real, looked legal to me but I'd have to see the fine print. Oh, there wasn't any fine print. Just a ribbon.

JS: Nice of the Commissioner to point out the ribbon for emphasis.

PE: Classic Bat-dialogue:
Batman: Alert your task force to be on the lookout for a woman in an orange dress.
Gordon: Good heaven's, a woman? What has the world come to?
Batman: We can't stop to worry about that now. Our task is to fight crime.
JS: When all is said and done, Zelda is just one more Bat-Babe notch in Batman's Utiliy Belt.

PE: At the climax, Bruce Wayne steps up to the plate and promises the convicted Zelda (in a nicely-fitting zebra suit) that, because she had saved the lives of Batman and Robin, he's setting up a job for her at one of his Wayne Hospitals when she's paroled. I suspect he forgot that Aunt Harriet was Kentucky Fried Chicken-bound.

JS: Clearly there's no love lost between Bruce and Aunt Harriet. Just look at the way he clarified to Alfred that it was more important that he be dusting the Batcave than worrying about her safety.

PE: The whole TV press conference with Bruce Wayne, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon, complete with stock Cowboys and Indians footage and black and white newscaster interruption, is a hoot. 

JS: Perhaps they figured enough of their viewers were watching black and white sets and would never know that the newscaster was broadcast in black and white while the news conference and preempted Cowboy and Indian movie they showed were in color.

PE: Batman's such a great detective he doesn't even question why Aunt Harriet would have a book of matches on her when she's found. Perhaps he took it for granted that the old bird asked for a final cigarette before walking the oil plank?

JS: Most folks probably didn't know that every good Egyptian sarcophagus has a machine gun port.

PE: Is that King Tut's sarcophagus we see in Ekdal's super secret workshop? Look closely, when the hoods gun each other down, and you'll clearly see a wire pulling the coffin down. And speaking of that scene: Our Official Batman Death Tally is now at 3.

JS: One more take-away from this episode—you need a license to practice magic in Gotham City.

PE Rating: 

JS Rating: 

Next up... The Riddler! Same Bat Time, Same Bat URL!


  1. Good morning, everyone. "Zelda the Great..." is a tad different from most BATMAN eps, as you folks have rightfully pointed out. Could this be why the show was delayed a few weeks after being officially announced and scheduled? In any event, it's a sorta kinda interesting segment, even though the camp extremes were beginning to eat away at our respect for the characters. Aunt Harriet's deathtrap cliffhanger was somehow appropriate yet over-the-top and irritating at the same time. Robin's emotional plea to Zelda via TV reminds us what a weird character he is -- a teenager behaving and being treated like a pre-adolescent toddler from an earlier era (the same is true of mega-nerd Dick Grayson, perhaps even more so). And yep, Commissioner Gordon does seem obsessed with grabbing and squeezing Boy Wonder's arms -- he does the same thing in the pilot. I imagine this was staged to show fatherly concern for the young hero, rather than... well, you know. Most fascinating thing about this episode? It was based on an actual DC comics story that had only come out a short while earlier (BATMAN or DETECTIVE COMICS). I happened to have read that story, still had the issue, and was absolutely amazed that a live-action adaptation could be filmed so quickly. If memory serves, I believe only Batman is trapped in the "Inescapable Doom Trap" (name of the story), there's no Zelda the Great, and that Egyptian sarcophagus-with-gunport business forms the climax of the comic book version as well. I realize Dozier and his team were on a crash schedule at this point and desperate for stories. Even so, I'm amazed they took so much specific material directly from this comic book tale, given their total contempt for the creative medium that spawned their new hit TV series.

  2. I suppose this may be obvious, but I'm pretty that's a stuntperson suspended above the boiling oil and not Madge Blake.
    I remember reading that when they needed somone to do a tough stunt dressed as an old lady, they either went to Frankie Darro or Harvey Parry.

  3. Greetings, Citizens:

    I am out of town and unable to connect to a server than will power my viewing of today's two episodes. I want to see these again before weighing in. My distant memory of them is that they were not great, but not bad.

    Until later—

  4. Yet another valuable Bat-lesson to note: "Astronomy is more than mere fun, Dick...It helps give us a sense of proportion. Reminds us how little we are, really. People tend to forget that sometimes." This billionaire is surely not hanging out on his yacht, eating sherbet and changing his clothes.

    I guess orange dresses were not in fashion that season, or lots of ladies would have been rounded up by Batman's police alert. I did enjoy the bit of classic dialogue Peter shared. I also liked Batman's, "Hardly a lady, Robin, but female, yes!" as well as the classic, "The tricky little she-devil!"

    Aunt Harriet doing the bicycle over the boiling oil was lackluster. She sure was awful quiet while doing that fire dance.

    Zelda had potential while she was being a she-devil, using her superpowers of feminine intuition to best Batman, but then she got all soft and teary and ruined it. Can she help it if she's a woman? I guess not.

    Peter, you surprise me.
    I'm with John's rating on this one.

  5. <<Gary Gerani said...
    Most fascinating thing about this episode? It was based on an actual DC comics story that had only come out a short while earlier (BATMAN or DETECTIVE COMICS). <<

    Given that Comic Shops as we know them wouldn't really exist until after the show was cancelled, and that many of the actual comic book stories retold on TV seemed to have only just appeared within the past year, I always wondered whether Dozier and company merely adapted whatever odd issues they happened to find lying around at the barber shop.

    Most surprising thing I've learned here today is that Eivol Ekdal is actually FROM a comic book, and not some goofy Dozier-ism. I keep wanting to spell it backwards, but never got the joke.

  6. I vaguely remember Dozier or another key producer saying that a bunch of recent BATMAN comics were given to him early on, so he could get some sense of the property. He checked them out on a plane trip, then joked that 'reading' a comic book ("...if 'reading' is the right word...") was an extremely humiliating thing to do in public -- interestingly enough, there's still a stigma attached to this, even in the fan-friendly 21st Century. Anyway, I'm sure the 'Inescapable Doom Trap' issue was among those comics he "experienced," which is why it was adapted so quickly when the show was rushed into production earlier than expected...

  7. Just re-watched the show, which, if I have this straight, was actually the third to be produced. That was before the Bat-arteries had hardened, which is why I like this two-parter. It's neither off-the-wall farce nor peopled by truly wacko villains; it's a soft pretzel plot, bending in some unexpected directions—not least by jeopardizing Aunt Harriet in the cliffhanger. There's enough story here to sustain two parts without padding: Part One, the bait and switch; Part Two, the Doom-Trap. And Anne Baxter was a honey, in or out of zebra stripes.

    Gary: I also remember reading this story. (I think it was a Detective Comic, which I still have in a box somewhere.) It's my recollection that BM captured the hoods in the sarcophagi. If that's right, then the adaptation was the very rare case where the show was more violent than the source material.

    JS: "I love that when no one's around to answer the Batphone, the Commissioner just waits on the line indefinitely." Obviously you've never placed a call to your cable provider for repairs.

  8. If you can get your hands on these original early scripts, all written before Burt Ward was cast as Robin, you'll notice that they're written for a much younger actor in the role. Batman spends lots of time correcting and admonishing the Boy Wonder, and reffers to him as "boy" a great deal, also! I think once the older Ward was cast, they tailored the Robin scenes to an older actor!

    Al Bigley

  9. Since Burt was hired at the same time as Adam, in fact they were both in the same screen test. The only script written before Burt or anyone was cast was the pilot. Anything thing else as to being written before Burt was hired is not plausable. Robin was supposed to be a high school kid, Burt's age had nothing to do with it.

  10. I only have one small complaint - I know that on Batman almost everyone is supposed to have a naive streak, but when that news story broke about the bills being counterfeit, I kept waiting for either Baxter or Kruschen to REALIZE it was a trick.

  11. I'm surprised you didn't mention that one of the two henchmen, Victor French, was also the agent who hid in lockers and closets and grandfather clocks, on the brilliant spy spoof show Get Smart. Would you believe Get Smart ranks up there with Batman itself, as one of my favorite comedy TV shows, from the 1960s? Other actors who've been on both Batman and Get Smart include Victor Buono, Sid Haig, Cesar Romero, Julie Newmar and Vincent Price.