I'm a long-time fan of the cliffhanger serials, a love stemming from my interests in both superheroes and film. Masked radio, pulp, and comic book heroes circa the time period were perfect fodder for the studio serial department machine for nearly two decades, and I've always loved the 1943 attempt at Batman. An evil "yellow peril" mastermind, zombies in goofy metal helmets, atomic ray pistols....what's not to love?
Well....there is that li'l bit of World War 2 era blatantly racist propoganda dialogue....yes, kids, before we learned to hate the dirty pinko Commies (when we weren't hatin' each other), we dished it out to those nutty "Japs" and "Ratzi Krauts". Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, and all that jazz...
Interesting story about that. Seems that at some point in the mid-1980s, Sony (the Japanese company that currently holds the leash on Columbia Pictures and its repertory) did some serious editting to a video cassette master of said Bat-adventure for use by Goodtimes Home Video, specifically to the voice track, dubbing over several lines of dialogue deemed offensive. This master was then used for the only licensed prerecord VHS release, circa 1990, during the second Batmania merchandising craze that was a result of the 1989 Tim Burton-directed Bat film. For years, the only way folks could see an uncut version of the 1943 serial was if they somehow lucked into seeing a repertory showing.... which, to my knowledge, was never.
Fast-forward to 2005. After hearing about the original unaltered version of the serial for years, I hear about the DVD release. I pick it up at the local Wal-Mart...and then I watch the first disc....
Not five minutes into it....I realize something's different from my prior viewings of the film (via the Goodtimes release)....there's a different voice narrating. And then... there's some hate for the Orientals showing it's ugly head. Isn't this age of DVD mastering wonderful, where those doing the transfers are forced to seek out the original elements to get decent stuff? My only question is: Does Sony (translation: Japanese company who went through the effort nearly two decades ago to try and smooth over the situation) even realize or know about this....or is this a situation akin to the Texas "MGM Swamp Thing DVD" case a few years back, in which an enraged mother discovered that the DVD she bought for her kids at a Toys R Us clearly labelled as PG rated was actually transferred from a more racy international cut print (mmmmm....Adrienne Barbeau nudity)? That situation caused MGM to recall that disc, and "Swamp Thing" wasn't made available again until just a few months ago by the manufacturer. And the Batman disc? Not a disclaimer in sight...which seems to be the thing that Disney (see Leonard Maltin's stuff on the recent Disney Treasures sets) and Warner Bros. (see Whoopi Goldberg's contributions to the LOONEY TUNES Golden Collection sets) have resorted to, gladhanding any of the racial stereotyping and ridiculing those respective studios have done in the past.
A very interesting and ironic situation indeed, if this isn't a case of preserving and/or presenting the original uncut film warts and all.
The plot? Standard serial fare....a lot of fun, very thin holes script-wise when it comes to the "daring escapes" at the beginning of the next chapter. J. Carrol Naish portrays Daka, an evil Japanese mastermind bent on destroying America's war efforts, while doing the worst impression of a Japanese accent I've ever heard. Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Douglas Croft as Dick Grayson/ Robin obviously seem to be having a blast with the roles and are genuinely funny at times....and alot of unintentional humor stems from Batman's slightly ill-fiting costume and droopy Bat-earred cowl. Don't think too hard and try not to wince whenever there's any hate-talk goin' on, and you'll find yourself having as much of a good time. Look for Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless of Buster Crabbe "Flash Gordon" fame) in a small role as a radium mine owner.
Head and shoulder above the Goodtimes release, the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment two disc set looks great. The transfer's crisp and clean, a nice change from Goodtimes' fairly murky and scratched VHS release. The elements show their age, but the revelation that this is the first time since the 1960s that this film is available to a mass audience in an uncut and uncensored form should take the sting from that.
None to speak of, not even a theatrical trailer. Nifty menus, though.
A nice package and a fun film, if you're willing to forgive some of the ignorance of the past that went into demonizing the enemy.
Anthony Conn, aka The Hong Kong Cavalier, 11/27/2005