Monday, December 23, 2013

Re-connecting to my inner Joker: The Sixties' Batman

Reflection on the 1960s Batman series. For a reflection on later incarnations of "The Joker," see my article Jokers at the Gates

Cesar Romero and Julie Newmar, ca. 1966
Good old "Batman!"  For a white middle class kid in the 1960s, the war in Vietnam and the racial violence across our country were distant storm clouds; reality was brightly colored and peopled with the reassuring presences of Batman, Robin, Charlie Brown, Samantha and Endora, Jeannie and Major Nelson, Space Family Robinson, and Walt Disney characters.  No one ever bled or died;  every situation was ripe for a punchline; every dire problem would be resolved after the final commercial. 

Older now than most of the people who were involved in putting on the Batman series, I can see how much fun they were having.   I just watched a couple of episodes on YouTube:  "The Joker is Wild" and "Drat! the Catwoman."  Nearly half of each episode is boilerplate:  the Batphone scene at Commissioner Gordon's office,  the scene at stately Wayne manor, "to the Batmobile,"   the stock footage of Gotham City streets, the first fight (POW! BAM!)  when the villain gets away, and the second fight when Batman and Robin are knocked out and placed in some outlandish trap.  Of course, these were the tricks of studio writers and directors working under strict time constraints and tight budgets. But when I was a kid, the stock scenes had the comforting quality of ritual for me, heightening anticipation  The creative team's playing around with our expectations was part of the fun, as when Robin turns to slug Batman during the fight scene (blame it on the drug "catzophrenia"), and when Catwoman rides shotgun in the Batmobile.   

The stock scenes are like tent poles, supporting the flimsy story and a half-dozen gags.  The Joker is "sprung" from jail on a giant spring concealed in a softball;  Batman takes a moment to consider moving the Batmobile when he notices a "no parking" sign at the curb;  girls in bouffants squeal when Robin, the teen idol, delivers a graduation address at a high school;  the crooks take time out for an impromptu lip-synching concert by "Pussycat" (Leslie Gore in pink kitten costume).  Batman wonders if he's being lured to a trap when he passes signs, "This is Catwoman's Secret Lair!"  "Catwoman in Here!" at the entrance to her hideout.  When Catwoman falls off the roof and disappears into the West River, Batman pulls out a black cloth labeled "Bat-Handkerchief" to wipe tears.

Yet, when I was seven or eight, this was all so real for me.  Even now, certain moments got my heart-rate up.  Batman drops onto a TV soundstage during a live performance of "Pagliacci" and, for me, it's still a thrill to see the singer's rubber clown mask come off to reveal a close-up of Cesar Romero's gleeful Joker face. (One clown face under another: Holy Irony, Batman!)  Catwoman, impossibly leggy and lissome, runs in those high heels across the roof top with Batman in pursuit, and I was rooting for her, vaguely aware that she would fall -- a dim memory from, OMG, 48 years ago!

Part of the explanation for the excitement has to be Neal Hefti's music. I don't mean the blatant title theme, those three elementary blues chords played by a California beach band.  I mean the dissonant fanfare that accompanies the Joker's entrances, and the sliding "meow" that Hefti somehow pulls out of his band whenever Catwoman is on the move.  (In those pre-synthesizer days, how did Hefti make that sound?  I suspect he scraped bows over a vibraphone.) 

Another part of it is the charisma of the stars.  As much as I once wanted to be the Joker, boss-man in violet tails, I can't imagine a grown man cavorting the way Cesar Romero does, laughing at nothing.  The darker Jokers of early comics and later movies notwithstanding, Romero's Joker still seems most fun, yet still unpredictably dangerous.  I appreciate now how much fun Julie Newmar had with her character. Around half of her lines are energetic, assertive, flirtatious;  for the other half, Newmar is rolling her eyes with exasperation.  When she proposes a partnership with Batman (because she'd rather die than go back to prison), he asks, "But what about Robin?"  She rolls her eyes, momentarily nonplussed, then brightens: "I know!  We can kill him."

Of course, Adam West and Burt Ward both play their parts with earnestness that makes every banal or sententious line hilarious.  I especially enjoyed their transformations into "bad men" in this Catwoman episode:  "Where to, Cat-Baby?"  Batman asks.  A producer of the show once commented, "If Adam ever realizes he's funny, we're sunk." 

Is there any of that Batman world left inside me?  I can't pinpoint manifestations of my inner super-villains, but the way my heart so readily leapt to see the old gang is a sure sign that they're in there.  I wonder if some of my deep-seated confidence that things will turn out okay comes from Batman as much as from religion?

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