Tuesday, July 01, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 52: Batman "Hot off the Griddle"/"Cat on the Fiddle" (1966-1967)

Hell hath no fury like a Fan Boy scorned (or not taken seriously...), I guess. Although for years (and for a generation...), it was the standard-bearer for comic-book film and TV adaptations, the campy 1966-1968 Batman TV series has fallen into disfavor with superhero fans today; a precipitous fall that coincides, not surprisingly, with the national shift in entertainment preferences from the theatrical and artificial to the naturalistic, gritty and "realistic."

I thought this might be a good time to remember the original Batman TV series of the 1960s since The Dark Knight is bowing in cineplexes shortly, and advance buzz suggests the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. If you gaze at Batman Begins (as well as the upcoming sequel, one supposes), you can detect how the same mythos depicted in the old Batman series has been revamped for an age where demands for increased reality carry such currency and import.

Everything about the (impressive) first Nolan feature suggests a dedicated, even radical attempt to place "the Batman" firmly in a world that audiences can believe thoroughly in. The new Batmobile, for instance, appears more like a modern Hummer than a futuristic hot rod. It's an all-terrain vehicle known as a "Tumbler" and described as an experimental military "bridging" vehicle, one that can jump over rivers (with towing cables) in a combat zone. Similarly, Batman's uniform is a modified "Nomex Survival Suit," another example of experimental military hardware that seems ultra-believable and realistic. Even Batman's amazing fighting abilities have been retconned to reflect his training in the Ninja Arts. I'm not complaining about any of these inventive flourishes; on the contrary, Batman Begins remains one of the best superhero films ever made by my estimation; but it is interesting how it seems to be exclusively a Batman for our War on Terror time.

And ultimately, that's the same reason I have no hate in my heart for the Batman TV series of yesteryear. It is simply a reflection of another time; a superhero production for a (vastly) different age and audience. To expect it to play by today's artistic standards is ridiculous; just as it is ridiculous to expect Nolan's interpretation to live by the 1960s standards. No, it is clear from even a cursory viewing that the 1960s Batman is campy, satirical, colorful, and over-the-top but -- and here's the fact some comic fans won't admit -- not at all disrespectful of the comic-book source, as has often been argued.

For, as the 1950s dawned, Batman as he appeared in DC comics was indeed drifting, nay veering, toward self-parody. How else to explain the appearance of "Bat Hound" in 1955 or Bat-mite in 1959? In fact, one can study the production design of the Batcave for the 1960s TV series and judge just how remarkably faithful it is to the art of Batman comics from that epoch. The anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive labeling of arcane crime-fighting devices (like the "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City" or "The Bat Analyzer" or "the "Bat Tape Reader,") had clear, obvious antecedents in the comic book; for instance the cover of Batman # 65, which depicted the Dymanic Duo standing in front of assiduously labeled file cabinets that read "Rogue's Gallery" or "Undercover Police Agents."

So it's not totally fair (nor accurate) to demean the Batman TV series of the 1960s as unfaithful to the comic book tradition. On the contrary, the Adam West series is merely reflective of a pre-Dark Knight Returns continuity and style. Again, this is not so stylish or "in" fashion right now; but it was considered very, very hip at the time....even urbane. Also, who can deny the truth as spoken by Batman creator Bob Kane, to star Adam West: that the Batman comic was on the verge of being canceled in 1965...until the ABC series revived interest in the title. There might be no Dark Knight Returns; no Batman Begins, no Dark Knight, without this colorful, pop version of Batman that some fans today dislike so vehemently.

Even the critics of the day found much to laud in the 1960s Batman. Robert Lewis Shayon, writing for Saturday Review (February 12, 1966) suggested that "Historians of culture in the future may well say that television's early attempts at art were smaller-than-life drams of Chayefsky, Nash, Mosel and Foote, but that the medium attained full stature as an art form with the larger-than-life comic, Batman."

The New Yorker agreed, noting that this adaptation of the comic was "sure-footed, full of nifty gadgets and ridiculous costumes, and with at least a couple of lines that could pass for wit on a foggy night" (November, 12, 1966).

The series was a sensation with viewers too. “Batmania" swept the youth culture. In Detroit, a hairdresser invented the “Batcut,” a hip new hairdo, and at a nightclub called Wayne Manor, youths danced "the Batusi" with the Joker as their Maitre’d, while Wonder Woman served drinks. The Federal Communications Commission Chairman at the time, E. William Henry, joined the “bat”-act too, donning a Batman costume to attend a Washington benefit. Series-related merchandise sales totalednearly eighty million dollars in 1966, and because Batman aired twice a week, on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8:00 pm on ABC, it became the first show in history to hold two spots on the season-end Nielson top ten.

Now, you'll find plenty of Batman faithful who claim that this sixties version of Batman actually mocks their hero by making him a stolid, square figure of total morality and decency. Indeed. And the police in the show, Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) are utter incompetents to boot! Again, however, one must view this work of "pop art" (that's what producer William Dozier called his series...) in historical context to understand this interpretation of the mythos.

It was a highly turbulent decade in terms of politics. It was the era of the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights battles, and so forth. The emergence of the counter-culture (which questioned such American pillars as nationalism, respect for elders, respect for the military, and respect for the law enforcement), would not accept (nor admire) a superhero played straight, belonging to a bureacratic system that seemed old and corrupt. The purpose of the 1960s superhero, it seems, was to mock the innocence (or naivete...) and values of the 1950s, and it was here that Batman truly excelled, as parody, as satire, of the square-jawed hero and his ilk. So this Batman was sure to buckle his seat belt while riding in the Batmobile. This Batman was chronically un-hip (like all those people over thirty you shouldn't trust). "I never gamble," he asserted in one episode. "Good City Government is its own reward," he deadpanned in another. "Good grammar is essential," he says to Robin in one episode, and so forth.

The second season two parter "Hot off the Griddle"/"The Cat and the Fiddle" (which aired in September of 1966) reveals this pop-comic in all its counter-culture, colorful 1960s glory. The story involves Catwoman, played by the sexiest woman of the 1960s -- Julie Newmar -- stealing a variety of "cat"-themed objects before Batman and Robin set a trap for her at Gotham's Museum of Natural History.

She double crosses them and then, using Cat Darts, poisons the heroes and and places the unconscious Dynamic Duo on giant hibachi ovens(!), under over-sized magnifying glasses...where they will be burned to a crisp. A combination of calculus and happenstance (a convenient solar eclipse) help Batman and Robin escape this danger from the "Hateful Hussy." It is in this sequence that -- ever self-reflexive -- Robin asks Batman why these cliffhanging traps always threaten them, but never seem to succeed. An in-joke about the structure of the series ("same Bat-time; same Bat-station" and all), this comment acknowledges the absurdity of the format (and of television as an art form to an extent...), but Batman -- about to break the fourth wall -- comments that he and his ward keep surviving because...they have "pure hearts." Uh-huh. Nothing to do with ratings.

This episode is filled with those small, delicious moments that parody the form, and will likely infuriate the modern-minded who want their costumed heroes served up with ABSOLUTE SERIOUSNESS. For instance, on his way to stop Catwoman at the Gotham State Building, Batman pauses to pay the parking meter. "Good citizenship, you know," he says. At another point, Batman looks skyward to see what Catwoman is doing on the roof of the building and his cohorts ask (of the criminals): "Are they birds? Are they planes?..." Again, supremely silly, but that was mission assignment for 1966. And don't even get me started on the visual pun about "turning the tables" on Catwoman at her "front" restaurant, The Pink Sandbox.

A generation (my generation...) grew up with Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's Robin. As youngsters, the "camp" aspects of the show didn't really register for us, and the series was merely a great adventure featuring noble heroes, colorful villains and the most awesome set of gadgets and vehicles anyone had ever seen. But as adults, we found that this Batman -- played for laughs -- was worth a second look because the series was clever, irreverent, witty and utterly ridiculous. Again, these aren't the virtues of today -- believe me, I get it -- but for Cult TV Flashback 52, I thought this would be a "groovy" remembrance; especially with The Dark Knight rising. You can enjoy this show thoroughly if only you remember it is a product of the 1960s, all right?

Ultimately, there may be as many interpretations of Batman as there have been of Hamlet (or in terms of genre: Dracula). We had pure, straight-faced innocence in the form of Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan's 1943 Batman. We had colorful, over-the-top camp in the Adam West version of the 1960s. We had an "Outsider" vision of Batman in a rotting, post-Reagan urban blight; from Tim Burton's 1989 feature. We even had a fetishist (and gay?) interpretation in Schumacher's 1995 and 1997 franchise entires (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin). Now, we have entered the Age of the Ultra-Real and have Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The characters, situations and locations remain the same, but with each new writer, each new director, each new lead actor, the interpretation of this legend evolves. In forty years, I wonder how the Bat-fans of that time will look at Nolan's work?

I'm curious to see what the next step in this legend will be; even as I find myself humming that memorable theme song (by Neal Hefti) from the Batman I grew up with.


  1. John:

    I absolutely love the 1960s Batman TV series! Not being a hardcore Bat-fan, I don't see anything wrong with the series. It's basically a comic book brought to life. There are LOTs of great lines (some you mention) with a HUGE helping of classic guest stars. Having caught the "classic film bug", I've been watching many, many classic films lately. To recognize some of these classic actors from having seen them originally as a kid on Batman is a real hoot!

    Don't like the 1960's Batman? Turn the channel!

  2. Tony:

    I totally agree with you. Batman (1960s) is great pop art; just not the kind of pop art that is in fashion in 2008. Personally, I'll take the series over The Dark Knight.