None of those movies, however, is the reason I want to focus on Lorenzo Semple Jr. Rather, it's a TV show, one that Semple adapted from a comic book.
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, BATMAN!
(How in the world did they see in those masks?)
I know I'm in treading on thin Otto Preminger here. For a certain type of person, the 1960s TV version of Batman is the most controversial thing to ever appear on American television. All in the Family? Merely a re-tread of The Honeymooners. The episode of MASH were Henry Blake dies? A healthy McLean Stevenson guest hosted The Tonight Show a week later. The final episode of St. Elsewhere, where the whole series proved to be an illusion? Hey, nobody bitched when Newhart did the same thing. Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction? In the john when that happened (between the game and the commercials, something's got to give.)
But the TV version of Batman? That show committed one of the most horrible, inexcusable, morally repugnant sins of all times.
It made light of superheroes.
Good guys who wear costumes fighting bad guys who wear costumes? How can something like that be treated with anything but profound seriousness?
Before we go any further, I should say I like superheroes, both when they're done seriously (The Watchmen) and humorously (Underdog). I'm one of those rare people who like the dramatic Batman--the original 1940s comic book created by (ghost) writer Bill Finger and signature artist Bob Kane, writer Dennis O'Neil and artist's Neal Adam's 1970s revamp, the 1980s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, the late '80s-early 90s Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series of movies, all of which featured Pat Hingle and Michael Gough as, respectively Commissioner Gordon and Alfred the butler, and the recent trio of films starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolen (jeez, I should really go back and look up all the screenwriters)--as well as the fun Batman . You really want a superhero that all work and no play? C'mon, the dude drove a muscle car.
How did the TV show come about? Originally, the ABC network wanted a hip, eye-catching action adventure series. This was the era of James Bond in the movies (er...I guess that counts as this era, too) and The Man From Uncle on TV. Rather than yet another secret agent show, an art form beginning to glut the airwaves, they felt a superhero program could offer the same qualities, but which superhero? The 1950s Superman series was still too fresh in everyone's minds, and the late George Reeves still too identified with the role. All the brand-new heroes coming out of Marvel were gaining in popularity, but not yet the icons they would soon become. So Batman seemed the best bet. The network hired a producer named William Dozier to turn the idea into reality. Dozier went and got himself a bunch of Batman comics, and found them to be the silliest damn things he ever read in his life.
Now, Semple could have gone the Get Smart route, and had a bumbling hero who was always saying "Sorry about that, Commissioner!" Instead, he came up with an ingenious alternative: all the characters would play it straight. What's so funny about that? The characters would play it too straight. The poker face as punchline. Camp, it was called.
To be sure, Semple was adept at more traditional forms of comedy. There were occasional puns and pratfalls (the crooks, not our heroes) during Batman's three-year run, but the show mined most of its mirth from mediocre melodrama, its heckles from hokum. The story holes, the lapses in logic, the non-sequiturs that abound in third-rate (and are hardly unknown in first-rate) fiction were now not merely a lazy means to an end (which is why they're so often overlooked) but the ends themselves, demanding your attention. There was a joke there, sometimes a very nuanced joke, now let's just see if you're smart enough to get it. In its own way Batman was every bit a thinking man's superhero saga as anything that's come from Alan Moore (the Orson Welles of comics, if you must ask.)
The prototypical Batman joke, often cited by Semple himself in interviews, had the hero walking into a restaurant decked in cape, tights, and mask, and asked by a maître d where he'd like to sit. Our hero's reply:
"In that corner over there. I don't want to draw attention to myself."
And I don't know that he ever did. After all, people in Gotham City could be pretty clueless at times:
Batman: Have you seen any unusual looking people around here?
Librarian: Unusual? In what way, unusual?
Batman: Their garb. For instance, a man wearing a bright green suit with big black question marks on it.
Librarian: Let me think a moment. No, I can't say that I have offhand, but then I see so many people in the course of a day.
However, the show was at its funniest when it was just Batman and Robin talking among themselves:
Robin: Boy! That was our closest call ever! I have to admit that I was pretty scared!
Batman: I wasn't scared in the least.
Robin: Not at all?
Batman: Haven't you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarement of our enemies?
Robin: Yeah, because we're smarter than they are!
Batman: I like to think it's because our hearts are pure.
Robin: [to a villain] You can't get away from Batman that easy!
Batman: Good grammar is essential, Robin.
Robin: Thank you.
Batman: You're welcome.
Here's my all-time favorite exchange between Batman and Robin. In a hurry to catch up with the Catwoman before she can carry out some nefarious scheme, they discuss how to make maximum use of the Batmobile's capabilities:
Batman: The green button will turn the car a la izquierda o a la derecha.
Robin: To the left or right. [smiling] Threw in a little Spanish on me, huh, Batman?
Batman: One should always keep abreast of foreign tongues, Robin.
Now, it wasn't the writing alone that made Batman such a stylish hoot. Pop art sets, surf rock theme music, a whirling bat logo between scenes, and acts of violence that you could read all contributed to show's sense of flair.
There was another actor of sorts who never appeared on camera. Though the Batman plots were not terribly hard to follow, and mere excuses for the set pieces anyway, it was decided the show needed a narrator, to both mimic the comic book, and to give it the feel of an old-time 1930s-40s movie serial.
CAN IT BE? THE DYNAMIC DUO CRUSHED TO DEATH BY AN EIGHT TON METEORITE??
WILL THE JOKER'S PROPHECY COME TRUE??
ARE THEIR HOROSCOPES CANCELLED??
IS THIS THEIR LAST STAR...??
TUNE IN TOMORROW! SAME TIME! SAME CHANNEL! SAME PERIL!!
MR AND MRS BATMAN??!!
THE DYNAMIC DUO MAY BECOME A TRIO!!
THE QUEEN OF DIAMONDS AIMS HIGH!
FIND OUT TOMORROW, WHETHER SHE MISSES...OR MRS.!!
SAME BAT-TIME, SAME BAT-CHANNEL. AND HANG ON TO YOU RICE!!
IS THEIR GOOSE REALLY COOKED?
WILL BATMAN AND ROBIN STEW IN THEIR OWN JUICE???
ARE ALL THEIR PLANS AND DREAMS TO GO UP IN SMOKE??
THE ANSWER TO THESE AND OTHER BURNING QUESTIONS TOMORROW!
SAME CAT-TIME, SAME CAT-CHANNEL!!
(Can you guess the evildoer in that last one?)
Still, neither the special guest villains nor the rest of the supporting cast wouldn't matter much if not for the man charged with bringing the title character to life...
As I said before, the rap against the TV show is that it didn't take the main character seriously enough. Maybe the show didn't, but West certainly did. Or, rather, Batman, as interpreted by West, did. Subsequent Batmans--Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christopher Bale all feel the need to growl their way through the role, partly, I think, to differentiate themselves from West (so much so they forget to differentiate themselves from each other.) I just don't know that any of them have taken the character as seriously, or played the character taking himself as seriously, as West, even as they appeared in more serious-minded vehicles
Pointy-headed intellectuals will try and tell you that the superhero concept is inherently fascist. Not West's superhero. No sir. The fascist leader is one who derives glory and power from the admiring, fearful masses hopelessly caught under his sway. That in no way describes out humble hero. Heck, in one episode the Riddler slips a mickey in Batman's drink, leaving him disoriented. A Gotham City cop (one earning his pay for a change) forbids the Caped Crusader from getting behind the wheel of the Batmobile, telling him he's in no condition to drive. Batman woozily replies, "Yes! Yes! Of course!" Now, I ask you, would Mussolini be so accommodating? I think not!
No, West's Batman was out for neither glory nor power. He merely wanted to do good, and it saddened him that so many others failed to see Good as the Greatest Good. It was never personal. Oh, he might raise his voice (sometimes a whole octave) and call a villain "dastardly" during a moment of stress, followed by an immediate apology to Robin for setting such a bad example, but once his foes were defeated all the anger just melted away, and he had nothing but pity for them. A gun moll once tried to seduce him, to which he ponderously replied, "You poor, deluded child." That's how Batman regarded his many enemies, as children that had lost their way, lambs that had strayed from the flock. He yearned for the day when the scales would fall from the Joker's or the Penguin's or the Riddler's eyes, so that they would see the errors of their ways, get 9-to-5 jobs, keep their lawns trimmed, coach Little League, and otherwise rejoin the Gotham Family of Man. In many ways, West's Batman was a Christ figure, albeit one with a utility belt that could have gotten him off any cross.
Adam West played the character with such conviction, such earnestness, the suspicion has arisen that he never figured out it was all just for laughs. He refutes this in his autobiography and in the many interviews he's given, asserting yes, he knew it was a comedy, and I, for one, believe him!
I kind of believe him. I sort of believe him. I 96% believe him...95%.
For all you Adam West haters out there who remain unconvinced by what I've just said, who believe that by taking Batman too seriously he allowed Batman not to be taken seriously at all, what would you have preferred? A Batman that didn't take himself seriously? A costumed comedian uttering an endless stream of one-liners while engaged in battle with a deadly foe?
(Come to think of it, that's Spider-Man, and people do take him seriously.)
Batman: What took you so long, Batgirl?
Batgirl: Rush hour traffic, plus all the lights were against me. And you wouldn't want me to speed, would you?
Robin: Your good driving habits almost cost us our lives!
Batman: Rules are rules, Robin. But you do have a point.
Batman: It'll be easier if you just ride along with me and Robin in the Batmobile.
Batgirl: Sounds cozy.
Robin:[looking at a sleeping Batgirl] You know something, Batman?
Batman: What's that, Robin?
Robin: She looks very pretty when she's asleep.
Batman: I thought you might eventually notice that. That single statement indicates to me the first oncoming thrust of manhood, old chum.
Merv seemed to like Batgirl.
None if this means the 1967-68 season was problem-free. The comedy had become very broad, with jokes, some good, some not, that loudly, insistently, announced themselves as jokes. Also, the show was no longer considered hip, a problem the producers tried to rectify by making a blatant, desperate play for the counterculture crowd. Psychedelic lettering began appearing in profusion, even on broom closets, and in one episode, Alfred goes undercover as the world's oldest hippie. Whatever happen to not trusting anybody over 30? Lorenzo Semple Jr. had left the show by then, his subtler approach kept alive mostly by Adam West, who continued to play it straight.
Speaking of Lorenzo Semple Jr., I kind of forgot about him, didn't I? He was the original subject of this piece, then I got off-track. Oh, well, as a screenwriter who regularly saw his scripts turned into movies, I'm sure Semple was well aware how a piece of writing starts as one thing, and then becomes another.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre--To funlovers everywhere---This picture is respectfully dedicated. If we have overlooked any sizable groups of lovers, we apologize.--THE PRODUCERS
Probably the funniest scene in the movie, and the one that cuts right to the beating heart of West's Batman, has the costumed crimefighter desperately trying to rid himself of a bomb with an unusually long fuse. As he frantically sprints about a seaside park and marina, dodging nuns, children, senior citizens, drunken sailors, and even a family of ducks, none of which he wants to see come to harm, he can't help but shout out:
"Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb!"
Don't worry. He does.
And there's plenty of Semple's so-straight-it's-tilted dialogue. Batman and Robin come across a badly disguised Penguin:
Penguin: Ahoy there! Could you chaps direct me to a policeman? Commodore Schmidlapp's the name. Big Ben Distilleries, you know.
Robin: [Batman and Robin turn away] Holy costume party! That's the Penguin!
Robin: I wonder what his game is.
Batman: [to the Penguin] What's your game, Penguin?
What was his game? Better ask, what was their game? Remember, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman are also playing. The foursome's diabolical scheme involves the kidnapping of a scientist-distiller (played by Reginald Denny) who has just invented a machine that dehydrates matter, essentially reducing things into dust (instant booze; just add water.) The abduction turns out to be fairly easy as the clueless scientist is kept locked up in a submarine, unawares that he's even been kidnapped! Easier still, despite some interference early on from Batman and Robin, is how the rest of the plot is carried out. The Joker sneaks into the Gotham City equivalent of the United Nations, here called the United World Organization, slips into a meeting of the Security Council, where ambassadors from a dozen or so countries sit around a table yelling at each other. The Joker quietly--well, not really, he's laughing maniacally, but for once is drowned out by all the quarreling--turns each ambassador into dust, until there's only one left, and he's yelling at nobody! Before the remaining diplomat has a chance to figure it all out, he, too, is turned to dust.
The members of the Security Council now bottled up in separate test tubes aboard the submarine, a fight between the Dynamic Duo and four villains ensues. As various participants get knocked about, it looks like the test tubes might topple over, but either Batman or Robin prevents this from happening. Once the evildoers have been finally defeated, the scientist/distiller walks into the room, takes one look at the good guys and the bad guys, and, in yet another extrapolation of reality, quite reasonably asks,
"What is this, a masquerade ball?"
Before any one can give him a good answer to that question, assuming there even is a good answer to that question, the scientist/distiller clumsily walks right into the table containing the test tubes, knocking them onto the floor, breaking the vials into pieces, the powdery Security members all becoming mixed up with each other.
"The last hope for humanity!" Batman exclaims .
Batman and Robin gather up all the dehydrated ambassadors and take them back to the Batcave, where they try to figure out whose dust belongs to whom. The Boy Wonder suggests a little tinkering, so as to make them all better diplomats. Quieter ones, anyway. Batman says no, that they shouldn't tamper with nature. Moral dilemma solved. Or is it?
Once all the dust has been sorted, the Dynamic Duo takes it back to the Security Council chambers, putting each little powdery pile in the appropriate chair. All of which is breathlessly announced by Commissioner Gordon, who seems to be doubling as TV news reporter. Gordon even cuts away to Washington D.C., where we hear best wishes in a Texas accent from a government official whose back is turned from the camera, petting two beagles as he speaks.
"I don't have to tell you who that was, ladies and gentleman", Gordon reports.
Since this movie is now 48 years old, I feel I really should tell you who that was. Lyndon Johnson, or rather, an actor playing Lyndon Johnson, 36th President of the United States.
The above picture's not from the movie, but the beagle on the right probably wishes he had a stunt double.
On with our story. Batman walks around the table and re-hydrates the various ambassadors, and soon they're back to arguing with each other, just as before. The world rejoices.
On a second look, however, something's not quite right. That's not English coming out of the U.S. ambassadors mouth. Or Japanese from the Japanese. Or Italian from the Italian. Everyone's speaking the wrong language! Despite our heroes best efforts, nature has been tampered with, anyway.
Batman, as always, remains philosophical:
"Who knows, Robin? This strange mixing of minds may be the greatest single service ever performed for humanity! Let's go, but, inconspicuously, through the window. We'll use our Batropes. Our job here is finished."
R.I.P. Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Well, that's all I have to say about the 1960s TV/movie Batman. And please, please, let me reassure you that I like the more serious, more reverent versions of the character as well.
As a matter of fact, I hope Frank Miller also makes it to 91.
And if you don't know that name, you're just not serious about superheroes.