Wednesday, November 12, 2014

BATMAN - TV series: Blu-ray (Greenway Productions 1966-68) Warner Home Video

The 1966-68 Batman television series is an acquired taste. If one can set aside the diehard affinity for the DC Comic books, and also, to pretend all subsequent Batman incarnations, including the Dark Knight graphic novels and the movies have not occurred, then perhaps it’s still possible to glean a modicum of appreciation and respect for all the campiness actors, Adam West and Burt Ward have wrought. Personal opinion, of course, but I was never able to set aside my prejudices – nee, expectations – for the pre-Dark Knight Batman I grew up with as a DC Comics devotee. So, to see a decidedly un-muscular and, in fact, somewhat paunchy West, squeezed into two-tone gray spandex and wearing a skull cap/mask, more deliciously resembling an effete kitty than a virile bat, left me cold and unimpressed. Yes, the series was designed to be camp/comedy rather than action/adventure; and yes, to a certain sect of prepubescent tots, it had its appeal and, undoubtedly, has remained a touchstone for Batman completionists around the world, who have been clamoring at the gates of Warner Bros. ever since, demanding the series come to home video in any format. Oh, those pesky ‘rights issues’!
Apart from the more than competent reoccurring supporting cast, including Alan Napier as Bruce Wayne’s ever-devoted butler, Alfred; Neil Hamilton, as the vigilant – though decidedly impotent police chief, Commissioner Gordon, and Stafford Repp, as an even more foppish, Chief O’Hara, the series was justly famous for keeping alive the sex-kitten reputation of 50’s pinup, Julie Newmar (appropriately cast as Catwoman). Batman was always in danger of succumbing to Newmar’s feminine charms; equally challenged by his reoccurring arch nemeses, The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and, of course, The Joker (Cesar Romero), among several others. While there remain loyalists to the series who will profess none of the aforementioned have ever been better, I’ll simply offer the alternative theory, I suspect each did their best work elsewhere.
Meredith’s guttural quacking always seemed slightly panged and quietly perverse, as though he had just accidentally penetrated the seat of his pants by inadvertently sitting hard on a very sharp object, while Romero’s Joker more closely resembled a reject from the Barnum & Bailey clown school than the mad criminal genius as written in the DC Comics. As for Gorshin’s punster; frantically hopping about like a spritely/brightly attired Leprechaun runaway from Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People  (1958); he repeatedly fumbled the cream of his jests in the eleventh hour; reverting to a frightened man/child.  None of these…um…villains, were ever a threat to our hero, leaving the feral Catwoman in charge of igniting Batman’s sensory perceptions in manipulative ways. This, I do confess, Julie Newmar convincingly did, although even she was forced to concede her seductively feline charms as no match for Batman’s superior crime-fighting prowess. (Aside: Catwoman was never the same once Eartha Kitt assumed the role. Ditto for the series trading in George Sanders for Eli Wallach as Mr. Freeze.) For me, at least, Batman might have worked had producers, William Dozier, William P. D'Angelo and Howie Horwitz gone the route of casting an actor who physically looked the part of a Charles Atlas knockoff.
Let us step back for a moment to recall that the Batman of DC’s original comic series was hardly the testosterone-injected, steroid-abusing mutant he later became (as, tragically has become the case with all the ‘superheroes’ we once idolized – mostly, as men – who kept themselves in tiptop physical conditioning, but were still relatively natural in appearance; their taut muscle tissue, the result of rigorous diet, exercise and a daily regime of adventurism that tested their crime-fighting agility). Today, there isn’t a one – Batman included – who doesn’t look like the proverbial juicehead from Gold’s Gym, his musculature egregiously blown out to freakish proportions. As such, and by the standards of masculinity circa 1966, perhaps Clint Walker or Steve Reeves would have been excellent choices for Batman; Walker, in particular, a veritable mound of muscle that could have been poured into spandex and still rippled in the part. But no: producers went with West, who looks rather laughably feminine in his stretchy tights and black satiny cape. With Burt Ward’s Robin at his side, this ‘dynamic duo’ takes on a decidedly gay subtext that, even in the ‘let it all hang out’ generation of the show’s incubation, was unintentional.
Worse, is the way the veritable army of writers brought into the series seem to have concocted one episode after another where our caped crusaders inadvertently bumbled and stumble into crime follies, predictably always foiled in the last ten minutes of the show when West and Ward’s moxie suddenly kicks into high gear. Pow! Whack! Thwack! Thump! Bang! Bam! You get the picture. Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na: Batman!  In hindsight, the episodes appear to be a case in support of the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’. Some episodes very much resemble a series of loosely strung together sight gags and vignettes – killing run time, as it were – until the inevitable eleventh hour rescues/exoneration of our heroes.
Again, the irony is not lost on me. TV’s Batman was never intended to be anything more than delirious camp. But it’s a curiosity of sorts and even more of an oddity because it chronically fails, even in this respect, to rise to the level of a wicked satire/booby-hatch funny; instead resorting to a kind of daft silliness, bordering on the absurd. What we are essentially left with, then, is not even a loose adaptation of the DC Comics hero; but a series merely borrowing the iconography from the comics and recasting it as a sort of wannabe Batman knockoff, who gets the job done in spite of himself. In a nutshell, TV’s Batman and Robin were set up as the renegade salvation of Gotham, besought by an ineffectual Commissioner Gordon, via the ‘Bat Phone’ to take up the cause of ridding its streets of crime.  Bruce Wayne’s ever-loyal butler, Alfred is aware of his millionaire/philanthropist’s alternative ‘lifestyle’ – nee crime-fighting hobby. Not so for Dickie’s benign Aunt Harriet Cooper (Madge Blake, vamping as though she has just stepped out of a 30’s screwball comedy); an enthusiastic of this dynamic duo.
Batman is one of those series that suffered from a near chronic inability to discover its niche in its own time. It ran 34 episodes during its debut year; a near record 60 for season two, and a scant 26 for season three. Even its format went through an upheaval of sorts; seasons one and two running as weekly adventures split over two nights, with a fairly predictable ‘cliffhanger’ airing at the end of part one. For its final season, this exercise was pared down to one episode per week, the cliffhanger replaced by an epilogue promo, introducing the audience to ‘next week’s villain’. Season three also attempted to marginalize the feminization of Batman and Robin by introducing Yvonne Craig into the mix as Commissioner Gordon’s seemingly benign and bookish daughter, Barbara – who joined the pair in their crime-fighting adventures as Batgirl (though inevitably, had to usually be rescued/protected by either Batman or Robin).  
Despite its popularity with kiddies mostly – and, an ever-revolving roster of A-list big screen talents, brought in to appeal more directly to the adult TV viewer - Batman only lasted three seasons on ABC; its perennial syndication ever since, far more lucrative for the network than its initial debut. Actors, Julie Newmar and Frank Gorshin became minor celebrities, thanks to their manic turns as Catwoman and The Riddler respectively. Other prominent actors to don the role of the villain included Carolyn Jones (TV’s Morticia Addams, here cast as the slinky Marsha, Queen of Diamonds) Vincent Price (looking Dr. Phibes-ish as Egghead), Milton Berle (as oily gangster-land styled thug, Louie the Lilac), Ethel Merman (Lola Lasagne), Bruce Lee (Kato), Edward Everett Horton (Chief Screaming Chicken), and, in reportedly the most widely watched and highest rated episode, 1966’s The Devil’s Finger; Liberace as Chanell. I have to admit, the ‘look who’s here’ quality of the episodes is a lot of fun, and the stylistic elements have their way and place within the general narrative structure.
Alas, I still cannot forgive or excuse Adam West’s lethally wooden depiction of Bruce Wayne/Batman. For me, at least, the joie de vivre in West’s performance has never gone beyond a stick of very brittle/very dry kindling. Again, an obvious muscle man might have done more for - and with - the part: physically, at least. You can forgive a bad actor his bad acting on occasion if he, at least, ‘looks’ the part. West doesn’t. He’s lanky, narrow-hipped, and even more tragically narrow-shouldered. No pecs, no lats, no biceps, no sale! As such, it’s laughable – in a bad way – to watch him take a crack at Cesar Romero’s Joker (Romero having been something of a swarthy and robust Latin heartthrob in Fox musicals from the 1940’s). And West’s grimace, as he throws a punch, or stammers at a kick, looks not as though he’s putting his all into the fight itself, but rather shying away from it in a sort of ‘get away from me you baddies - yuck! How repulsive! I need a new line of work!’
Still, I confess I have seen every one of these episodes more than once. Like a train wreck, there’s a hypnotic quality to Jack Martin Smith’s cartoon-colored psychedelic art direction; veritable eye candy, a la the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse flavor. But honestly, revisiting the series once more on Blu-ray, and from the vantage of our present-day reevaluation and re-envisioning of the Batman franchise – with weightier talent, tales and tomes extolled in service of the graphic novel’s ‘dark knight’, its increasingly a challenge – if not quite impossible – to get into this old series, even as a time capsule of how far we’ve come; despite its iconic Batmobile (whose modified Lincoln Futura design by George Barris every art director working on a subsequent Batman movie since has had to emulate). There are those, I am sure, who will slam me for my ‘inability’ to appreciate these satirical elements. Oh well; to each his own. And yes, there remains a modicum of truth-ringing social commentary to be gleaned herein as well; the sarcasm and wicked lampoon later picked up by the team of Jim Abrahams, Jerry and David Zucker for their Airplane and Naked Gun franchises.
While the series still rates about a D+ in my not so humble opinion, there’s nothing shoddy or second rate about Warner Home Video’s new hi-def Blu-ray limited edition box set. All 120 episodes have been lovingly remastered for maximum eye-popping clarity. Prepare to be dazzled, because Batman was originally photographed on film; so contrast, color saturation and fine details are all superb. There are extremely minute traces of film-related artifacts present – so inconsequential they’re not even worth mentioning, except to say they’ll be noticed because the rest of the image is razor-sharp and breathtakingly realized with its inherent grain structure preserved. Really good stuff here. One sincerely wishes Warner Home Video would give other vintage – and better – TV series like Dallas (1978-91), The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) and Falcon Crest (1981-90) – among others – similar consideration in the near future. But back to Batman; we get the show’s original mono audio mastered in Dolby Digital – not DTS. Huh?!? Nevertheless, it sounds about right – competently rendered if winning no awards for audio track of the year.  
Special features are confined to a single Blu-ray and include, Hanging with Batman; narrated and starring Adam West. Holy nepotism, Batman! At just under a half hour, it’s jam-packed with archival footage, home movies, vintage stills, press clippings, screen tests, etc. West is congenial enough as he affectionately waxes about the show. Fair enough – it gave him a career…and a legacy. Holy Memorabilia, Batman! is a look at the varied collectibles merchandised to keep the franchise alive these many years. Like the previous featurette, this one too runs just under thirty minutes. Hmmm. There must be something contractual about paying more if it exceeds this time limit. We’re treated to confirmed Batman-phile, Kevin Silva and his enormous private collection; also to Mark Racop, who shows off his custom-built Batmobile replicas. Batmania Born! Building the World of Batman delves into the cultural and historical context of the show, its impact then and now, and its extraordinary use of, then contemporary, pop art. This is, arguably, the best featurette of the lot: a veritable showcase of archival interviews from historians, animated series producers, DC Comics legends, and too many others to list. You’ll get an awful lot of welcomed history in this featurette.  Not so much in Bats of the Round Table. Despite running a scant fifteen minutes short of an hour, and featuring alumni and newbees alike, this one’s mostly a self-congratulatory ho-hum and a yawn. Inventing Batman: In the Words of Adam West is an hour long visual commentary; an opportunity to re-watch the two-part pilot: feature that allows viewers to watch the original two-part pilot: Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle with both audio and picture in picture commentary, and occasional video interruptions from Adam West. One wonders why Warner did not simply include access to this feature on the actual two episodes contained on Disc One. Compression issues, perhaps.
Na Na Na Batman! is, in my opinion – pointless: a fairly benign  ‘appreciation’ of the series put forth from ‘Supernatural’ stars Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins, and Jared Padelecki, and, that show’s producer, Adam Glass. From TV’s Arrow we get Stephen Amell, Willa Holland, Emily Bett-Rickards, Caity Lotz, and David Ramsey, also, that show’s producers, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg. From The Following, comes comments from Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Bacon, and James Purefoy; from The Mentalist; Rockmond Dunbar, Tim Kang, Bruno Heller and Tom Szentgyorgyi; from Shameless, Mike O’Malley, and from DC Animation; director Jay Oliva and creative director, Mike Carlin. With such a string of luminaries you’d expect this featurette to run at least a half hour. Wrong! It’s twelve minutes of sound bites, so inarticulately strung together that there’s precious little time for anyone to do anything except admit how great they think Batman is. Thanks, fellas. We gathered as much!
Lumped together under Bat Rarities! are some curious oddities, including 7 ½ minutes of a Batgirl pilot, screen tests of Adam West and Burt Ward, more screen tests with actors Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell and a benign tribute to James Blakely, the series’ post production supervisor James Blakeley. Warner Home Video has also given Batman some serious physical swag, all of it housed in a fairly lavish cardboard case with a ‘Bat Flap’. We get a die-cast Hot Wheels Batmobile, 44 trading cards and Warner’s usual affinity for putting together card cover, but thoroughly disposable, 32 pg. booklets; more gloss than content. The booklet does detail the content of the 13 discs included in this set. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Batman: the series, you are absolutely going to love this deluxe box set. Holy hi-def, Batman!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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