The First Screen Versions of Batman

80 years ago this month, the Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. As we’ve written in the past, we think creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger may have drawn inspiration from early screen version of Mary Roberts’ Rinehart’s The Bat, and we also had the good fortune to know one of the earliest Batman artists Jerry Robinson during the 1990s.

As we wrote in our recent Superman post, while we spent plenty of quality teenage time with vintage reprints of the early Batman comics, our primary bailiwick here is performing arts, so today we provide a brief look at the earliest cinematic adaptations of Batman.

The first Batman serial was made in 1943, five years before a live action Superman made it to the screen. Made by Columbia Pictures, the 15-chapter story altered the situation somewhat to fit the needs of wartime, changing Batman (Lewis Wilson) to a government secret agent fighting Japanese spies. Same costume, same alter ago, Bruce Wayne, but a far cry from the battles against colorful costumed supervillains we are more familiar with. Here, the bad guy is J. Carrol Naish as one Dr. Daka. Like much of the fare of the time, the script is full of Japanese slurs. The serial’s low budget make for a gritty, lower depths kind of feel that is not inappropriate for a story of this time and place. A special reward in episodes 6-8 is the presence of Charles Middleton, best remembered as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. 

The second serial Batman and Robin was released by Columbia in 1949. In this one the Caped Crusader (Robert Lowery) battles a villain named the Wizard (Leonard Penn) whose superpower is taking over cars and trucks using a remote control device. The biggest star in this one is Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon. This was the last Batman product for the screen for a decade and a half.

Public screenings of the old serials in 1965 revealed their potential as camp entertainment, resulting in the Batman TV series. But as enjoyable as that show is, there is nothing like going back to the source material. I am a particular fan of how the ears on the Batman’s mask are always flopping down, kind of like a bunny rabbit’s. Possible inspiration for Bat Mite? Both versions are available to watch on Youtube at this writing.