On the High Camp of “Batman”

While I have already done a post on Adam West, oddly that will not serve as my Batman post. It’s too mired in the special problems of being Adam West, a subject related but not identical to an appreciation of Batman. Instead, we choose the birthday of Alan Napier (1903-88), the guy who played Alfred, for our Batman post, and we have an elaborate argument for why that is appropriate.

There are many approaches to acting in spoof or camp. You can give a broad but expert performance, the tack of Stafford Repp as Sgt. O’Hara. You can not know what the hell you’re doing but make bold choices anyway, the method of Burt Ward as Robin. You can take the subtle, subversive approach, coming close to the real thing and tweaking it just enough for smart people to appreciate (this was what Adam West did to his cost. Dumb people continue to mistake the performance for “bad acting” rather than the brilliant parody of bad acting it was). And lastly you can just play it straight and be the thing itself, trusting the architecture of the machine to make you hilarious. This was Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) and Alan Napier (Alfred). Both men were veterans of old melodramas and B movies. Hamilton had been in Tarzan movies in the ’30s and the western serial King of the Texas Rangers (1941). And Napier had been in stuff like The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Cat People (1942). Older people would have registered the association. Younger people would simply notice that they seemed to have the goods. Alfred Napier had played many a butler in his day. He knew how to sell it.

The original Batman movie serials had come out in 1943 and 1949. The television incarnation (1966-68) was originally intended to be more like The Adventures of Supermanclosely modeled on the comics, radio show and serials. But producer William Dozier took it another direction. Dozier perceived that times had changed drastically in a very short time. The Adventures of Superman had only ceased production eight years earlier, but now it seemed impossible to go that route. For whatever reason, American institutions were now the stuff of comedy. Lenny Bruce had done a scathing routine about The Lone Ranger. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) made military valor in the nuclear age seem like a farce. The sensibility crept into the sitcom. Get Smart (1965) poked fun at spy agencies and the espionage genre. F Troop (1965), made fun of John Ford westerns and the army. This tongue-in-cheek style was not Dozier’s thing per se. Most of his previous work had been melodrama, and he even produced one series Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers (1953-54) that was totally straight, old-fashioned science fiction. In other words, the kind of stuff Batman made fun of. So Dozier wasn’t a comedian (although as the Narrator on Batman, he was mighty funny). He simply had his finger on the pulse of the public. And so he and his writers took the basic serious universe of Batman comics and tweaked it for comedy.

A highlight of the show were its colorful villains, often played by major movie stars now past their prime. The principal ones were the Joker, played with wheezy flamboyance by Cesar Romero; the monocled, top-hatted Penguin, who pretty much swallowed up the public image of Burgess Meredith; the Riddler, which was nightclub impressionist Frank Gorshin’s best-known and best-played role; and the three Catwomen: Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether. After them came Mr. Freeze, portrayed by 3 different actors on different occasions: George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach. And then a whole bunch of others who appeared less frequently: Milton Berle as Louis the Lilac, Vincent Price as Egghead, Liberace as Chandell and his twin brother Harry, Victor Buono as King Tut, Carolyn Jones as Marsha the Queen of Diamonds and many others. The villains generally had costumed henchmen, often two of them like bookends, and the climax of every show would be a fight between the Caped Crusaders and the bad guys, with fun, skewed camera angles and comic inspired titles like “Pow!” and “Oof!” The music (particularly the theme song, a punk staple thereafter) was terrific and overall the show was very stylish. Beyond Catwoman, who was a sort of problematic love interest for Batman, the women in their lives included Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, and Madge Blake as Bruce Wayne’s Aunt Harriet.

Like all satire and parody, the show was widely misunderstood. To this day, there are some people (including some adults) who don’t know that Batman was a comedy at all. And there are other people who hate it for being a comedy show. I’ve heard people call it stupid, when it’s really quite sophisticated in its way. As kids watching in the 1970s, we were thrust into an interesting position towards the show. As I wrote a couple of days ago in my Superman piece, we were in kind of a historical trough at the time. Because there was no serious contemporary version of Batman at the time, we were forced to impose a quality of genuine-ness upon the show which it had never sought to possess. We “played” the Batman characters constantly, and we played with Batman merchandise, action figures, toy Batmobiles and so forth. But we played with this stuff as one plays Cops and Robbers. The goof was beyond us.

When I was old enough to understand, helped along by the very serious Batman comics of the 1970s, I pined for the long announced “serious and real” new Batman movie that was rumored to be in Hollywood development for ages. It didn’t arrive until 1989, but I mostly loved it (subject for a different post). The way back had been paved by TV programs like Shazam, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, and the 1978 Superman movie. Since then, a flood of serious-as-cancer comic book superhero movies. But I’m not a kid anymore. It’s time for someone to play this all for comedy again. Take it down a few pegs. Paging Mel Brooks!