Sure, The Dark Knight Rises may have cost a reported $250 million, but for all that money, will it have underground lairs, secret submarines, zombie henchmen and killer crocodiles? Will there be a chase every 15 minutes, and cliffhangers that leave you wondering if Batman died in the fiery car wreck, or just jumped out before it went off the cliff? Will our hero drive the Batmobile, or will he opt instead for a sleek, stylish Mercury?
In a pair of 15-chapter serials that played in weekly installments at movie theaters in the 1940s, the dynamic duo fought all manner of evildoers on a fraction of Christopher Nolan's budget. In 1943's Batman, a World War II propaganda effort, our heroes fought a Japanese spy who turned Americans into zombies. In 1949's more politically correct Batman and Robin, they faced off against 'the Wizard,' a masked villain with an electrical device that controlled Gotham's cars and trains. Long before Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, and even Adam West donned cape and cowl, Gotham's avengers saved the day dressed in nylon and felt for largely pre-teen matinee audiences.
The plots were ridiculous, but the actors played it admirably straight. "If you love acting, you're gonna do whatever it takes to make the character believable," says John Duncan, who played Robin in the 1949 serial. "So that's the way I know Bob [Lowery, who played Batman] and I both looked at it. We laughed and laughed between scenes and everything, but when it became the scenes, we became very serious. And in fact, after doing about three months of this, wearing a mask and tights, you become what you're acting. So we thought L.A. was Gotham City."
Duncan, now 88, was a character actor throughout the '40s and '50s, with bit roles in everything from Spartacus to Plan 9 from Outer Space. He was 26 by the time he played the "boy wonder," but still looked youthful enough to win over Batman's skeptical creator, Bob Kane. "I was raised on a farm outside of Kansas City, and when I was 16 years old, I'd come from the farm to the motion picture business," Duncan says. "And I had a contract with 20th Century Fox, a six-month contract, to do parts with Shirley Temple and Jane Withers, they needed a little guy. So, you've got to understand, in that period of 10 years, I went from a kid on a farm to Robin. That's a big culture shock. So, you have to really love what you're doing to do these things, and Bob and I loved every minute of it."
Granted, The Dark Knight Rises might have slicker production values. In 1949, Batman and Robin kept their costumes in a file cabinet and kept getting their capes tangled in the fight scenes. The Batcave set reappears as the Wizard's lair, and yes, instead of the Batmobile, the caped crusaders drove a convertible (Batman kept the top up, Bruce Wayne kept it down). The 263-minute production was cranked out in about a month by Sam Katzman, a prolific B-movie producer who once said, "Lord knows I'll never make an Academy Award movie, but then I am just so happy to get my achievement plaques from the bank every year."
None of these imperfections mattered much when I watched the serials on VHS as a kid. I knew the later Batfilms were a little slicker, but I never understood those who described Robert Lowery as "simplistic" or Adam West as "campy" or Michael Keaton as "disturbed." To my 6-year-old eyes, they all seemed like the same heroic crusader. "We were just like as Bob Kane said: a dynamic duo fighting crime," Duncan says. "And as corny as it was, that's the way it is."
Seen today, the serials have a charming innocence, recalling a time before the superhero genre was the dominant mode of blockbuster filmmaking. They also made contributions to the Batman legacy: actor William Austin's portrayal of Alfred the Butler in 1943 inspired DC Comics to change the character from short and overweight to tall, thin, and mustachioed, and the cliffhanger/resolution structure directly inspired the '60s TV show's format.
Duncan says, "In the old days, when we did the film, Bob Lowery and I had so much fun doing the film that we didn't even think about what people thought, y'know, whether they thought, 'It's just for kids,' or something like that. We just had a ball making that." When I mention the remarkable durability of the Batman brand, Duncan turns reflective. "I'm a skip and a hop from 90 years old. Y'know, I'm still walking and talking and all my friends are dead, and most of the actors I knew are passed away. So it's kinda lonely up here, it really is. But yeah, I'm surprised it keeps going on and on. I'm thankful — I'm thankful for it, that the recognition is still there."