50 Years Ago This Week – Batman!!!

January 12 1966 was a momentous day in television history, as perennial third-place network ABC unleashed Batman, with the first of 120 episodes that would air during its brief but glorious run.  Like Get Smart (which also negotiated an ambitious blend of comedy and drama), Batman straddled the cultural shifts of the mid-1960s, with one boot firmly planted on either side of the decade’s divide.  Its good-guys versus bad-guys confrontations (with the straight and narrow always prevailing over the crooked and wide) was served with heaping portions of liberal patriotism, civics lessons, and the American Way—but the show set those white picket fence notions side-by-side with Pop Art, daring expressionist sets, camp sensibility, and, for the adults in the room, more than winking innuendo. 

Creator and Executive Producer William Dozier, who was also the series’ narrator (“same bat-time, same bat-channel”—that’s him), came to the show with an impressive Hollywood resume: the one-time head of Paramount’s writing department, his production company backed Letter from an Unknown Woman.  (This means, of course, that the great Max Ophuls was but one handshake away from Bruce Wayne – who knew?)  Co-creator Lorenzo Semple Jr., in addition to writing sixteen episodes, kept a hand in on the scripts and stories throughout the series’ run.  Semple would go on a to have a distinguished role in the New Hollywood, with writing credits for Pretty Poison, The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, Papillion, The Drowning Pool, and . . . your attention please . . . The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.

Batman was often silly, and its enormous popularity streaked implausibly across the airwaves.  And when the fad started to cool, the network suits inevitably did their worst: budgets were slashed, characters diminished, cliffhangers abandoned, and, worst of all, the humor broadened and the drama scaled back.  (Shedding a sense of real danger in favor of broader and increasingly desperate humor would also contribute to the final decline of Get Smart.) 

But what a great ride it was—and it turned out the show was no passing fancy; Batman eventually thrived in reruns for years, developing a loyal following after the fact in a Star Trek/Odd Couple sort of way.  It’s still a pleasure to watch today (yes, I mean that), and available on DVD, making it possible to enjoy once again the tilted-angle hideouts, excessive signage, logic-defying escapes, truckloads of double-entendres and inside jokes, and the singular brilliance of how Adam West indeed does play Batman and Bruce Wayne as two entirely different characters.  And to appreciate with new eyes the impossible straightness of Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton was in his sixth decade of performing at the time—he once appeared alongside Ivor Novello, in D. W. Griffith’s 1923 silent The White Rose), and imperturbable dignity of Alfred (look for Alan Napier in two great noirs of the forties: Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear and Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross).   

Beyond the core cast, however (and like James Bond movies), the sweetness of any particular episode rises and falls on the shoulders of its villains, as the regulars are more or less trapped within the established dramatic confines of their characters.  And here Batman soared.  There were of course the Big Four: Catwoman (Julie Newmar, purrrrfect), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin, outstanding), the Joker (Cesar Romero, wouldn’t shave his moustache), and the Penguin (Burgess Meredith, a great actor, but not his best work—for that turn the dial to Preminger’s Advise and Consent).  But they are just the tip of the villain-berg—consider also semi-regulars Victor Buono (King Tut), Vincent Price (Egghead), and Cliff Robertson (Shame), and so many of the great one timers, including Ida Lupino, Joan Collins, Roddy McDowell, Art Carney, Walter Slezak, Shelly Winters, Van Johnson, Anne Baxter, Eli Wallach, George Sanders, Otto Preminger, and the extraordinary Tallulah Bankhead, in her final screen appearance. 

Batman got them all.  And always by the book.  Beyond reproach – beyond beyond reproach – but surely there was there was something hiding just behind that cowl.  About Bruce Wayne’s private life, we can only speculate.  But it was the sixties out there.  In Adam West’s memoirs he tells of spotting Frank Gorshin across a crowded room – at a Hollywood orgy – a tale that ends with both men tossed from the premises for spontaneously breaking into character.  Holy eviction, Batman!


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