By Gary Gerani
INTRODUCTION: WE WERE MORE THAN READY FOR THIS
Sherman, set the Way Back machine for early 1966… Okay, so I was more of a Monster Kid than a superhero geek; but anything fantastic, over-the-top or weirdly menacing had tremendous appeal to us reality-challenged boomers of the day. We were still in the midst of the James Bond-inspired spy craze and Marvel’s four color renaissance when BATMAN was announced as a new TV series – part of ABC’s much-ballyhooed “Second Season.” Given how fanciful and outrageous the mid-‘60s were, this seemed perfectly logical. We hadn’t had a live-action comic book crusader on the screen, large or small, since the late George Reeves hung up his red cape a few years earlier. The reason for this is culturally amazing in retrospect: Hollywood’s producers were simply embarrassed. Comic books were generally viewed as junk fiction created for little kids or drooling, socially-maladjusted misfits; they had been adapted into various ‘40s serials (a disrespected medium) and a famous kiddie show, Adventures of Superman, produced by Kellogg’s, not to mention a bunch of animated cartoons.
But live-action? In a relatively ambitious production? How could this inherently worthless material be taken seriously? Reflecting its era, BATMAN came to TV as a superficial, deliberately light self-parody devised by mainstreamers who never even suspected that a rich timeless fantasy was lurking underneath. Playing a fully-costumed prime time superhero straight was ludicrous to the Greatest Generation-types in charge circa mid-‘60s, no-nonsense adults with both the Depression and WWII behind them. This stigma would continue for years to come, so much so that many popular critics praised the BIONIC shows of the ‘70s for providing a credible superhero who didn’t fly or wear an outrageous costume, fanciful elements that were deemed passé and idiotic for viewers of any age. This is why Warner Bros. had no choice but to recruit thespian heavyweights like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to give their 1978 SUPERMAN movie-chop credibility. Today, our popular tastes seem to have come full circle: with aging Boomers and Generation Xers calling the shots, comic book adaptations are handled with unflinching respect, as if they were Shakespearian tragedies of the highest order.
But hey, back to 1966… Every kid worth his Creature Soaky remembers where he was when he first saw Batman on TV, so overpowering was ABC’s promotion. My parents had just split and reconciled; I was back in my old bedroom in Brooklyn, watching the show on that same b/w portable that had placated me with first-run Outer Limits a few years earlier. Batman, however, I watched alone, having betrayed the less-than-satisfying Lost in Space on CBS to do so…
WEDNESDAY’S SHOW: “HI DIDDLE RIDDLE”
First thing I noticed was footage from the World’s Fair – OUR World’s Fair – doubling for a similar Expo in Gotham City. In the original 1966 presentation, btw, producer Bill Dozier provided some spirited opening narration (“…it’s time to cheer Batman and hiss his diabolical enemies…”), which clarified the show’s campy intentions and style. Curiously, this verbal introduction is missing from most current prints, suggesting that it was added at the last minute on a separate track. No matter: it was there in 1966, and we were off and running. Ben Astor, that funny character actor who usually plays Russians (he was hilarious in BYE BYE BIRDIE, accusing Dick Van Dyke of being in cahoots with Senator Goldwater) survives an exploding cake at the Moldavia pavilion, and a parachuted riddle literally falls into the hands of Gotham’s finest. Next thing we know, Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamiliton), Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) and a roomful of grim law enforcers conclude that only one man can nab the nefarious Riddler, so it’s time to call their Caped Crusader on his red phone. I always found the inclusion of Inspector Basch (Michael Fox, the worried scientist from BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) among these equally-worried officials to be interesting; he’s identified by name in the follow-up scene, and I always wondered if this dry, super-straight detective was intended as a regular, perhaps someone for Batman to exchange theories with. Whatever; phone-calling Gordon and his minions happen to be in luck, we are told, because Batman is at home.
The introduction of Bruce and Dick, along with Alfred and Aunt Harriet, is handled with ingratiating style and charm. Adam West plays Wayne squarely, but with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, as he chats with fellow philanthropists and briefly mentions the murder of his parents by “dastardly” criminals, the “d” word delivered casually and with a minimum of self-conscious camp. Indeed, if West had been allowed to play his character throughout the series with this winning balance of light humor and self-aware sophistication, Batman might’ve lasted more than its two-and-a-half seasons. But that all-important twinkle was laid to rest early on, orders from Mr. Dozier himself, ultimately causing viewers to laugh at their hero instead of being in on his private joke. When Wayne coyly asks his teenage ward Dick Grayson if he’d like to do a little “fishing,” West holds on the word to emphasize its double meaning, but smartly underplays his reading for a rare moment of reality. This makes all the difference in the world. Dick’s introduction is appropriately gung-ho (“Holy barracuda!”), but even he is directed to respond realistically with his tempered follow-up line, meant to keep Aunt Harriet in the dark (“Sure Bruce, why not. Sounds like fun…”). As this was the first Batman we ever saw, us kids had no idea that Bruce and Dick answering the red phone, getting briefed on the latest criminal assault (“Him again!”), sliding down the Batpoles and zooming to Gotham City would be part of every week’s formula. This was essentially to drive home the simple-mindedness and predictability of comic book plotting in general, part of Batman’s parody recipe; providing our hero with an impossibly handy “bat” device to handle any emergency is another example of Dozier goofing on lazily-written DC comics of the day.
THE OPENING CREDITS, AND THAT MUSIC
Yep, it was exciting to see the animated figures of B and R running toward us and clobbering a small army of villains, all to the infectious beat of a driving, one-word theme every child in the world would be humming in the weeks and months to come. Once experienced, Hefti and Riddle’s Batman music is never forgotten!
ACT ONE: SO THAT’S WHAT A SUPER VILLAIN IS ALL ABOUT
Nonstop thrills galore: The Dynamic Duo, in full costume for the very first time, dash from the Batpoles and race to their drop-dead gorgeous Batmobile in an awesome (for ’66) Batcave. Then the damn mountain opens up as this magnificent car zooms through it and heads for Gotham, the filmmakers using a spinning bat graphic as a transition device… I mean, this was imagination overload for us eager boomers, something you didn’t exactly see every day – or ever. Once in Gordon’s crowded office, a nicely-staged discussion scene unfolds, with even the most absurd of revelations played with a relatively involving semi-seriousness. And then there are little stylistic touches, some so subtle that they almost go unnoticed (Batman’s voice echo-filtered when he advises O’Hara’s boys not to stake out the Peale Art Gallery, for example). It’s this attention to clever detail and a smart camp/straight balance that would distinguish Batman’s pilot from all other episodes of the series.
Batman’s initial confrontation with the Riddler (after we are treated to our first “Bat climb”) is darkly memorable, mainly because impressionist/actor Frank Gorshin seems born to play this manic character. Dr. No and Goldfinger may have been offbeat, but Gorshin’s Riddler is a raving question mark with a perverse sense of black humor…and a suggestion of evil that none of the later Bat-villains were capable of achieving. Significantly, he outwits and humiliates his opposite number with a viable criminal lawsuit, establishing the “Batman must face cliffhanger after cliffhanger before catching his quarry” formula that enabled each week’s guest villain to dominate the proceedings. “This series is the only adventure show built around the villain, not the hero,” Dozier stated with pride in a ’66 interview. And with an unrestrained Gorshin as their premiere baddie, BATMAN was certainly off to a rousing start.
ACT TWO: WHAT A WAY TO GO-GO
Gloom for our heroes in a straightly-played scene where ways of combating Riddler’s lawsuit are discussed in the Wayne Manor living room, with effervescent Dick hitting on a new direction: maybe there’s some secret writing on the subpoena Batman was served with. A quick trip to the Batcave instantly follows, as our dauntless heroes analyze this all-important document. A startling optical zoom initially commands our interest, but for the most part director Robert Butler covers the scene in objective long shot, emphasizing the super hi-tech nature of the Batcave and its amazing anti-crime capabilities. Tighter, relatively powerful views of the masked men working their computer and finding important clues confine campy sensibilities to the bizarre riddles themselves. And while Robin’s energetic verbalization of the “two-two-two” (Glover Avenue) discovery may play as goofy to some ears, it’s actually a pretty sharp melding of precocious young character and offbeat revelation.
Meanwhile, we meet henchbabe Molly and Riddler’s thugs for the first time in the catacombs of a subway tool room. I love the pre-sexual logic here; of what possible use could a hottie like Jill St. John be to her associates if she eats too much caviar and can’t fit through a manhole, to assist in various crimes? Can’t imagine. Next, there’s the mildly curious image of Riddler in his question mark-laden body stocking… and traditional bandit’s mask, which makes no logical sense, but looks cool anyway. Regardless, both heroes and baddies promptly converge on that new discotheque, What A Way to Go-Go, for the next significant plot development…
Batman in the disco: Here’s where we lose many comic book purists. Batman’s infamous “I shouldn’t wish to attract attention” line almost works as a peculiar form of self-effacement. The non-fan creators of this show adore this statement, because to them, it defines just how idiotic BATMAN as a creative property actually is, and how much fun they’re having sending it up. It doesn’t stop there, of course. After ordering a “large, fresh orange juice” at the bar, West must summon inner reserves of natural charm to recover his dignity in a relatively sly conversation with Molly (“Well well,” he offers in a knowing, low-key voice. “What master taught you how to riddle?”). 007 couldn’t have said it any better.
Of course, Bond wasn’t forced to do the Batusi a few moments later (the “Bond-tusi?”). High camp at its most surreal, crossing the line for many of us. And yet the stylishness of Butler’s direction pulls us through the gaudy scene, especially since it’s cross-cut with Robin’s rather exciting kidnapping, and Riddler’s ambitious attack on the self-saving Batmobile. What? Batman’s drunk as a result of that doped OJ? Yikes. He’s slurring his words as he hands over the Batmobile keys to a concerned young police officer, and Gordon’s impressive Batsignal (first time presented) will go unanswered. “Where have they got Robin?” asks the drugged-out Caped Crusader, his voice becoming a despairing whine as he pounds futilely on his steering wheel. You’ve gotta give Adam West credit… the man is absolutely fearless.
EPILOG: THE FIRST CLIFFHANGER
An unconscious Robin seems in very real jeopardy as Dr. Riddler and his cohorts prepare for a grisly “operation,” the teen’s head in a vise. Again, Frank Gorshin commands our interest; “At last, Boy Wonder Robin,” he states with considerable menace, “You and Caped Crusader both… are set for the final bow!” What follows is an amusing and very specific take-off on the old Columbia BATMAN cliffhanger finales… a “voice of doom” (in this case, Dozier’s) saying things like “Will Robin escape?”/”Can Batman find him in time,” even as these statements appear on-screen, cocked and full of campy glee. “Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel” was a serial-inspired gimmick better suited to this TV show than, ironically, CBS’ rival adventure fantasy Lost in Space, which had invented a variation of the device six months earlier.
THURSDAY’S SHOW: SMACK IN THE MIDDLE
First, a recap of Wednesday’s first parter, made up of still images and narrated by Dozier. Then, animated opening credits and theme music to die for. Finally, we’re back on the trail of arch-nemesis Riddler and his dastardly Mole Hill gang…
ACT ONE: HOLY LOSS OF CLEAVAGE!
As Batman desperately tries to locate Robin – there’s realistic, semi-disturbing concern on display when he asks Alfred to fib to Aunt Harriet about Dick’s current whereabouts -- Riddler makes a plaster cast of Robin’s face (with Robin’s mask still on!) and has statuesque Molly impersonate the Boy Wonder in order to entrap you-know-who. “This used face makes an excellent first impression,” observes Riddler in the episode’s best line of dialogue. Now it’s time for a reasonably exciting chase sequence, as the Batmobile pursues Riddler and Molly while Neal Hefti’s bouncy theme plays full-out in the background. We get a thrilling Bat-turn and a Bat-beam attack (first time for both) before the villain’s car is wrecked, Mr. Prince of Puzzlers escapes, and “Robin” (played by Burt Ward with mildly effeminate body moves and a cape draped over his/her boobs) is rescued and apparently not recognized by… ahem… the world’s greatest detective.
Back in the Batcave, we realize that Batman actually did see through Molly’s disguise, not because he noticed that a voluptuous adult woman was impersonating a teenage boy, but because a pair of nostril holes in the bogus Robin face mask caught his attention. Even as a 12 year-old I rolled my eyes at that one. But hey – before you know it foiled Molly’s trying to escape, getting dangerously close to the cave’s bubbling atomic reactor. Batman’s attempted rescue has a certain welcome urgency to it, and the henchgirl’s semi-ghastly death plunge would never be repeated by other villains in the series (Catwoman comes close a couple of times). Indeed, what a way to go-go…
Some interesting moments as Batman deduces his captured partner’s location by recognizing subway sounds in the blackmail tapes sent to Commissioner Gordon. Nailed, the Riddler manages to escape again, this time leaving his enemy watching helplessly behind a plexiglass wall. Nice seeing our hero throwing a heavy rock at the impenetrable shield, even if that effort leads nowhere in particular…
ACT TWO: ZAP! POW! BAM!
But Robin is finally rescued, and it appears that the Boy Wonder – who has been solving Riddler’s mind twisters faster than his mentor for most of this pilot story -- has figured out the arch-villain’s next move. Significantly, Robin has drawn the wrong conclusion, and the Mole Hillers zero in the Moldavia pavilion once gain, where this particular adventure started.
Riddler intends to steal Moldavia’s signature mammoth and the priceless used postage stamps contained therein (or something like that). He slays officials and visitors -- figuratively speaking -- with a few terrible jokes, sending everyone in the pavilion to dreamland with a potent combination of laughing/sleeping gas. But wait – Batman and Robin, protected by gas masks, dramatically burst out of the bogus elephant and face their stunned foes. Robin screwed up – but Batman correctly unraveled Riddler’s taunting enigmas and set in motion a “Trojan Mammoth” counter-plan. Some nice explosions and effective staging as the baddies begin by laying their civilian victims low, then engage in the first full-out Bat-fight of the episode. “Get them boys,” Riddler announces with silent era panache, “get them or it’s curtains!” Great delivery, energetic fight. But nothing, I repeat NOTHING could’ve prepared us ‘60s kids for the jaw-dropping outrageousness of those animated sound effects titles, superimposed directly over live-action footage as fisticuffs ensue (the one with a tongue wagging out of an ‘O’ has a special place in my heart). Granted, this was the ultimate gimmick in a show designed to be gleefully over-the-top with wild gimmicks. But it was a groundbreaking creative concept nonetheless, ideally-suited to Dozier/Semple Jr.’s unique vision of BATMAN as a “so bad it’s good” pop art experience.
EPILOG: ALL THIS, AND ALGEBRA TOO
The wrap up at stately Wayne Manor establishes that the Riddler has disappeared, his lawsuit against Batman now apparently caput. Only one regret, laments Bruce… Deceased, deluded Molly, of course, her lovely image floating before him in a comic panel-like composition. But hey, after an acceptable mix of metaphors (“two ships passing in the night, vanished like a puff of smoke”), Bruce regains a well-adjusted hero’s composure and offers youngster Dick some help with his algebra homework. All is right with this half-real world… until next week, same Bat-time and channel, when a certain waddling criminal known as the Penguin will be making his series debut. No trailers, but a memorable head-on view of Burgess Meredith that seemed to cannily disguise the fact that Mr. P’s honker was enormous. We newly-minted Batfans would find that out soon enough!
Brooklyn kids were almost evenly divided on Batman (“It’s funny, that’s all” said my disappointed best pal, Bobby Varone), but most of us couldn’t resist watching, even in b/w. Sure, I’d cringe when camp seemed to be taking center stage, but I was hooked on the heroes, the car, the wild villains, the fights… even Robin’s holy-isms. Batman became appointment television years before that annoying phrase was invented. And the costumes? Man, they were flamboyantly accurate…to a fault, some critics felt. But in a full-out parody of an excessive genre created for kids and nerds, why the hell not? Okay, so Boy Wonder Robin wearing what appeared to be girl’s stockings (in reality, flesh-colored leotards) gave me some pause, especially after my obnoxious cousin Joe filled me in on all those (ahem) “rumors” about B and R. But Batman’s cowl? The coolest and the greatest hero headpiece ever! I remember fabricating my own version out of cardboard, just like every kid in America probably did, and getting frustrated that I could never achieve the necessary “rounded” look for the back. Sigh. We’ve come a long, long way from ABC’s Second Season, haven’t we?
So that’s Batman for the moment, or at least “Hi Diddle Diddle”/”Smack in the Middle,” the first and in my view the best episode of the series. This is partially due to freshness, the better-than-usual budget, Frank Gorshin’s startling performance and the sharper way West and company were balancing camp/straight elements. For us youngsters in the ‘60s, it was the next logical step after Bond, Flint, Herman Munster and Napoleon Solo. Indeed, with no other comic book adaptations around for comparison, TV’s intrepid Caped Crusader ruled… campy warts and all.
Gary Gerani is the author of the seminal Fantastic Television. Keep current on Gary Gerani’s movie, television, and art-related books: