Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Dark Knight Lightens

Lorenzo Semple Jr died a few weeks ago at the age of 91. He started out in television, then moved on to movies. I see his second film, Pretty Poison, is considered a cult classic. I try to see all the cult classics whenever possible, but didn't even know about that one. When I saw it listed in Semple's bio, I thought it was the one with Drew Barrymore, Sara Gilbert, and Cheryl Ladd until I saw it was made in 1968, before Barrymore or Gilbert were born, and Ladd was still in high school. No, this film starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld as demented lovers on the run. That right there makes me want to see it, no matter who wrote the screenplay (incidentally, the other movie was titled Poison Ivy, a predictable but, thanks to Barrymore and Gilbert, still compelling film noir.) Getting back to Semple, I did see the paranoid thriller classic he penned, The Parallax View, which I highly recommend (or else I wouldn't have prefaced it with the word "classic", duh.) Other good films to emerge from Semple's typewriter include The Super Cops, The Drowning Pool, Three Days of the Condor, and Papillion (co-written with  Dalton Trumbo.) Semple also wrote the 1977 remake of King Kong,  but I don't blame him for the mechanical monkey. A sock puppet would have worked better.

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.

Before you all you Batman fans out there get bent out of shape over that last sentence, you should know what the comic book was like from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. Prior to that Batman was a gritty look at the dark underbelly of Gotham City, no different from other gritty looks at the dark underbellies of America's urban centers in pop culture at the time other than the bank robbers, mobsters, and serial killers all tended to dress like it was trick-or-treat. Then a shrink named Fredric Wertham wrote a book decrying  violence in comic books, Congress held hearings, a code of conduct was established, and Batman was turned into a giddy fantasy with talking mites from the fifth dimension. Who could blame Dozier for not taking it seriously? So he asked Semple to write a funny pilot.

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: Easily.
Robin: Easily.
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.

Where the show most closely resembled Get Smart and other conventional parodies was the way it extrapolated reality into the unreal proceedings. Investigating a crime at a nightclub, Robin is not allowed in because he's underage. Motorists bitch, and rightly so, when they see the Batmobile run a red light (the cop directing traffic takes the Caped Crusaders side.) Best of all is the many scenes of Batman and Robin scaling a skyscraper (Gotham City criminals always seem to favor penthouse apartments as hideouts.) As would happen in real life if such a curious thing took place,  heads pop out of windows. That those heads belong to celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Edgar G. Robinson, and Sammy Davis Jr. ("I caught your act, Batman, now try and catch mine!"), may make it less realistic, but it's not like to be famous is be fictional. Well, there's also Lurch from The Addams Family, Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes, and, depending on what your belief system tells you is fictional, Santa Claus (Andy Devine, doing a fairly good job hiding his trademark squeak.) 

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.

None of which would matter if not for the acting. Burt Ward as the hyperactive Robin, aka Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne's ward, always eager to state the obvious ("Holy ashtray!" "Holy hors d'oeuvre!" "Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods!"). Alan Napier as the faithful, elderly butler Alfred, the only character who sometimes seemed in on the joke, and thus didn't mind the odd things he was asked to do in the name of duty (in one episode Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne have to be in the same place at the same time, so, despite the age difference, Alfred dons the mask and cape instead; observing the butler from a distance, a character remarks, "Batman look a little under the weather.") Madge Blake as clueless Harriet Cooper, Dick Grayson's maternal aunt, who basically functioned as a housekeeper, though, unlike Alfred, she wasn't let in on her nephew's secret. Neil Hamilton, a second-or-third choice Hollywood leading man back in the '30s as the easily rattled Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon, a rather lofty title given that he had to rely on a couple of guys in tights to do all his crime fighting for him (in one episode in which Batman and Robin are seemingly unavailable, he says to an underling, "I guess we'll just have to solve this one ourselves.") Stafford Repp as the befuddled, Irish-accented Chief of Police Miles O'Hara. So Gotham City had both a police commissioner AND a chief of police. Another layer of bureaucracy. The only first-season character not to come from the comic book, O'Hara was created by Semple as someone for Gordon to talk to. Maybe they should talk about what they're going to do if the Gotham City taxpayers ever find out they getting paid to farm out their crime-fighting duties to a couple of guys in tights.

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.

Dissatisfied with the actors he had audition for the part, Dozier decided to just do it himself, even if he had no acting experience, and in fact had to go out and get himself a SAG card. The results were memorable. Possibly a parody of the squawky, urgent, narration Walter Winchell used for The Untouchables, Dozier, in the guise of Desmond Doomsday (as he was called in the liner notes of the soundtrack album based on the show), added a touch of apprehensive incredulity to the proceedings. He often got the best lines, usually right before the cliffhangers:




(Can you guess the evildoer in that last one?)

 A word about those cliffhangers. Batman was originally meant to be an hour show, and the first few episodes were written and filmed with that in mind. However, ABC discovered it didn't have a full 60 minutes on its schedule to spare. What they did have was two half-hours, same bat-time, but a bat-day apart. so it became a twice-a-week show. Once they knew they were going to do it that way, the cliffhangers became grander, much more audacious. Batman and Robin would usually (and with surprising ease, given what otherwise suburb crimefighters they were) get knocked, gassed, or doped unconscious, then revived only to find themselves strapped to some Rube Goldberg-like execution contraption. The Dynamic Duo would inevitably escape, more often than not with the aid of their utility belts, which the criminal masterminds never thought of removing once they had the two unconscious. For that matter, they never thought of removing their masks to discover their true identities. Gotham City criminals had a lot of flaws, but nosiness wasn't one of them.

Those Gotham City criminals, and the actors that played them, were an interesting bunch. Cesar Romero buried a quarter century of Latin typecasting, as well as his mustache, under a ton of makeup as the Joker. Character actor Burgess Meredith had achieved a kind of quasi-stardom in the 1930s and '40s with such roles as George in Of Mice and Men and war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of GI Joe, so his portrayal of the quacking, waddling, aristocrat-wannabe villain with an umbrella fetish Penguin probably wasn't the highlight of his long career, but he was fun to watch. Of all the actors who appeared on Batman, he's the only who got a second shot at a movie career (albeit in supporting roles) thanks to the crotchety fight trainer he played in Rocky. Impressionist Frank Gorshin, got a chance to use his real voice as the Riddler. Well, maybe not the maniacal laugh. The Riddler was the only villain to wear two different outfits, often in the same episode, except that only one has a mask! So what, he was he only worried about being recognized part of the time? That's one riddle I can't solve.  As the Catwoman, Diana Rigg--oops, wrong curvy '60s siren in skin tight black leather--Julie Newmar added a bit of sex to the show (and some frat humor as well, her episodes often an exercise to see many times the writers could get the word pussy past the censors.) Portly character actor Victor Bueno played a Yale Egyptologist who, after getting conked on the head during a campus demonstration (the first season's rare nod to current events), think he's King Tut, and heads straight to Gotham City, the place to be if you're a costumed crook. New Haven obviously had no such cachet. As the Egg Head, Vincent Price proved even breakfast could be scary (I wonder if he competed with Christopher Lee for the role.) And if you didn't get the Mr. Freeze reference earlier in this piece, I suggest you stop watching superhero shows on TVLand and switch over to TCM. I hear they're playing both The Man With the Golden Arm and Stalag 17 tonight.

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...

...Adam West.

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

In his autobiography, West writes the producers wanted him to be more like Burt Ward and shout his lines. However, he convinced them that a more subtle approach would provide a better, and funnier, contrast to all the theatrical histrionics whirling about him, and so it did. Other than Alfred the butler, his was the most soft-spoken character in the whole series, a Batman who seemed to carefully measure every platitude to come out of his mouth, who put so much thought in his banal expressions, who gave so much consideration to his trite meanderings. He seemed almost transfixed by the hoary cliches that governed his life, to the point where he'd turn away from the crook he had just beaten to a pulp, and deliver some simplistic soliloquy, Hamlet of hokum that he was.

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.)

Trust me, when it comes to 1960s TV superheroes, you could have done a lot worse--in terms of the irreverent treatment of costumed crimefighters--than Batman. Two such shows come to mind, Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific, neither of which lasted more than half a season in 1967. It's not that the shows weren't funny. The problem, I think, is that the title characters were portrayed as comic bumblers, a turn-off not for adults but their kids who took Adam West's heroics seriously. I must have been 4 or 5 when I first saw Batman, and I had no idea I was watching a comedy, and neither did anybody else my age. I think I started first having suspicions when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, by which time the show was in reruns on the local UHF station. As an older, more discerning 10-year old, I began to wonder why no other action-adventure drama found it necessary to animate the sound a left hook makes.

That so many children took Batman seriously did not go unnoticed by the captains of industry, either here or in Japan, and they began filling the store shelves of America with Batmobiles (the kind you wind up) and Bat-action figures and Bat-board games and Bat-lunch boxes and Bat-coloring books and Bat-pajamas and Bat-kites and Bat-banks and Bat-trading cards and even Bat-sponges. It was a merchandising phenomenon, the likes of which would not be seen again for another decade when Star Wars came out.

Yet nothing fades faster than a phenomenon that becomes too familiar. Ratings began to slide. For its third, and what turned out to be its last, season, Batman was cut back to just once a week. The same bat-time was now the only bat-time. I'm not sure its stature as a passing fad had anything to do with it, but there were some changes in villains that year. John Astin replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and Julie Newmar was succeeded by Eartha Kitt, whose deep-throated purr was both seductive and sinister. And that's just singing "Santa Baby". Imagine how she sounded as the Catwoman.

The biggest change, however, was the addition of Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. By day she was librarian Barbara Gordon, the Police Commissioner's daughter. Having long admired Batman's crimefighting abilities (as opposed to her father's) she decided to become a member of the team, without bothering to ask first. She even constructs a mini-Batcave of sorts, a dressing room/passage way leading to an underground garage where she kept her Batcycle. To my knowledge, her landlord never found out about all her renovating. And no one knew her secret identity except Alfred, who finds out in the season opener. He shrugs it off. Another day, another superhero. The spunky heroine was a good addition to the show, and not simply because she was good-looking. Batman's and Robin's otherwise pure hearts had yet to be cleansed of sexism, an all-too-common sin in that day and age. They simply did not want this girl tagging along, and discouraged her whenever possible. Batgirl took these slights with good humor (a large part of her appeal) and proved her worth by rescuing the Dynamic Duo from imminent death time and time again, eventually winning their grudging respect. For the first time, really, the stories were character-driven, the conflict between the heroes themselves now propelling the narrative. Suddenly, it mattered less how the bad guys would get their comeuppance, but how the good guys and good girl would reconcile their differences while dishing that comeuppance out. I like that.
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.

Even after he became a successful screenwriter, Semple never entirely left comics behind him, writing film versions of Flash Gordon and Sheena. The Super Cops, directed by Gordon Parks of Shaft fame, wasn't based on a comic book but was the true story of a couple of Brooklyn policemen who used often acrobatic methods to break up a drug ring. Their nicknames? Batman and Robin. Nor was that the first time Semple used those names in a movie script. In fact, his very first screenplay was titled...Batman, based on the very show we've been talking about. Hastily filmed as the first season was drawing to a close, it's not quite as visually inventive as the small screen version, but still worth your attention. It has the the same regular cast, and four semi-regular villains--Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman (former Miss America Lee Meriwether subbing for Julie Newmar, her catsuit likely even more tight fitting than what she wore in the swimsuit competition.) And, of course, Semple's screenplay. Part camp, part parody (yes, there's a qualitative difference between the two; haven't you been paying attention?) with a bit of geopolitical satire thrown in for good measure. The following is from the opening credits (I'm still trying to figure out if it's camp or parody):

 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.







Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Actor. Entertainer.

(Sorry this one took so long, folks. My time management skills ain't what they used to be. Also, I wanted to choose my words carefully. In fact, I'm rewriting as we speak--KJ)

“The audience and I are friends. They allowed me to grow up with them. I've let them down several times. They've let me down several times. But we're all family."

From 1927 to 1936, Mickey Rooney played the cigar-smoking title character in the Mickey McGuire comedies, a moderately successful series of two-reelers. That's a very young Billy Barty to Rooney's right in the above picture. Ostensibly based on a character in Frank Fontaine's Toonerville Folks comic strip, the McGuire series was really a knock-off of the popular Our Gang shorts (Little Rascals when shown on TV.) Original or not, I find them just as funny. Here's a look at a few, both from the silent and talkie eras:

The Browns could have used Barty last season.

According to Rooney, always eager to take credit for the whole of Hollywood history, Walt Disney named his famous mouse after Mickey McGuire. Rooney only made this claim after Disney was dead and buried (or frozen solid), so I don't know that you want to put too much stock in it. One thing is certain, Rooney got his first name after Mickey McGuire, having been born Joseph Yule. His stage mother changed it to capitalize on the series. She couldn't use McGuire without infringing on a copyright, so she changed that, first to Looney, and then, fearing that might get in the way of future dramatic roles, switched the L with an R, saving Bugs, Daffy, and Porky the trouble of filing their own copyright infringement suit.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934). This particular photo isn't from the movie itself, but one taken behind the scenes, possibly a publicity shot. Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney both played Blackie  Gallagher in the film, at different ages, obviously. Art didn't imitate life, as Rooney grew up looking not even remotely like Gable.

Manhattan Melodrama played at this theater in Chicago, where John Dillinger caught it. What he thought of Rooney's performance remains unknown.

As forest sprite and mistake-prone matchmaker Puck in the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other than when he played the same character a year earlier at the Hollywood Bowl (on which the movie is based) I believe this is the only time Rooney ever performed Shakespeare. He does it well, coming off better than some the adult actors in the film. Laurence Olivier, no stranger to the Bard, considered Rooney "the greatest actor of them all."

Mickey Rooney and fellow child actor Freddie Batholomew appeared in five films together, including the very exciting (if somewhat waterlogged) Captains Courageous (1937), pictured above. Batholomew was the bigger star when he made that, and some earlier movies. By the last two, he had been eclipsed by Rooney. The young actors are said to have been very good friends, no matter who got top billing.

As Father Flanagan, Spencer Tracey looks ready to wring some absolution out of teenage delinquent Rooney in Boys Town (1938). Edward Flanagan was a priest who ran an orphanage/experimental town for underprivileged youth outside Omaha, Nebraska, still in existence today. Whether the real Father Flanagan ever captured a bunch of gun-toting gangsters as he does in this film seems doubtful, but it certainly lifts the movie out of the realm of Sunday sermon. In fact it was a huge hit, and is still highly regarded today. While I generally like Boys Town, I find it a bit disjointed at times, thanks to a comic subplot involving a school election that has Rooney going back and fourth between hardened delinquent and lovable goofball. He's good playing both, a little too good, as it doesn't always seem like he's the same character. I think MGM may have been trying to walk a thin line here, wanting to show that their young star was a capable dramatic actor, but not at the expense of the lovable goofball. And why exactly was the lovable goofball part so worth preserving? For the answer to that, we have to go back a year earlier.

Due to space considerations, I've skipped over Ah, Wilderness, a film based on Eugene O'Neill's play, but it had some success at the box office, and MGM decided to reunite most of the cast for A Family Affair, a comedy-drama about a judge and his family, who went by the last name Hardy. As you can see on the poster, Lionel Barrymore gets top billing. He plays the judge. Then, in slightly smaller letters, there's Celia Parker and Eric Linden. This is highly appropriate as she's in love with Linden, to the consternation of her magistrate father. Mickey Rooney's name is below all that, in much smaller letters, though he does fare somewhat better than Charles Grapewin, whose billing he tops. A Family Affair was meant as a one-shot film, but better-than-expected box office returns convinced the powers that be at MGM to turn it into a regular series, but not with Barrymore, a big star who wasn't going to waste his time doing "B" pictures, i.e., the low-budget film you saw first in a double-feature.

 Well, they look like a cheerful bunch, don't they? I guess they're not any more happy about appearing in a B picture than Lionel Barrymore. The old dude sitting down is Lewis Stone, who replaced Barrymore as Judge James K. Hardy. Seated next to him is Fay Holden as his wife Emily, who does seem a bit please to be there. Maybe it was a big break for her, B picture or not. Standing to her right is the aforementioned Celia Parker as daughter Marion. There's a kind of look of self-importance on her face. She had a lot of screen time in A Family Affair, and probably expected that to continue in this new series. We'll just see about that. Sara Haden played the spinsterish Aunt Millie. She's not in this picture. Maybe she's out on a date. As for Mickey Rooney--for the time being, I'm not going to tell you his character's name-- standing to Stone's left, there's a look of self-importance on his face, too, but it's a comical, mocking self-importance. Just another acting assignment for the growing (we'll just see about that) boy. Within a year he'll have a whole lot to smile about. Really, they all would, as this series ended up being some of the most successful B pictures of all times. And almost the most successful of ANY type of picture made in the 1930s and '40s. The series was a cash cow for MGM, one that they used to promote their contract players, usually females (Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams) to full-blown stardom. Odd that the series was so popular, given their modest budgets, that they weren't particularly cinematic, and had the ordinary feeling of a TV sitcom (an art form that had not yet come into being.)

OK, I'm being facetious here. I know full well why they were popular. The series was officially titled Judge Hardy's Family, but nobody but MGM ever called it that. And even they ended up subverting the whole concept by putting the moniker "Andy Hardy" in 10 of the 15 titles put out between 1938 and 1958. As the good magistrate's son, Mickey Rooney was a cinematic art form all his own and far from ordinary. So who was this Andy Hardy? A teenage screw-up basically. No, it wasn't drugs. I don't think Carville, the small Midwestern town the series took place in, had any dope pushers (alcohol does rear its numbing head in a number of films, but the drunks all date Andy's sister, who attracts them the way email attracts Nigerian billionaires.) Nor did he get anyone pregnant. How could he, given that he pissed off every female, from the frequently dumped Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) to whatever new girl in town just got dropped off by the moving truck? Not only couldn't he get to first base, he was shut out of the game. Still Andy meant well, which is why he was so appealing, as he fumbled about trying not to let down his his folks, his teachers, his friends, and his dates, only to be continuously sabotaged by his financial needs, ego needs, and carnal needs. He could have also used a few spare parts for whatever junker he was driving. Judge Hardy, a prototype for the wise father types that would later pop up in TV shows like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch (though those dads looked considerably younger) would bail his son out of what ever trouble he was in, set him straight, and made sure he learned an important life lesson. A life lesson Andy would promptly forget as soon as the next film in the series had begun. Good thing, too, or else you'd have no movie.

That's my view of what made these sometimes sentimental comedies work. Others saw much, much more in them than that. For instance, in 1942, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed on the series a special Oscar "for its achievement in representing the American way of life."

A world war was waging folks. Things could get a little hyperbolic at times. Even Hollywood award shows.

At some later date, I'll provide you with a more in-depth look at the Andy Hardy films, which I for the most part like (even if watching one doesn't quite make me want to hum the National Anthem.) For now, I'll just give you two clips that should give you some idea what the series was like.

 First up, a little father and son talk. Judge Hardy didn't just dispense wise advice to his teenage son, but to everybody: other family members, his daughter's boyfriends, the people who appeared before him in court, lodge brothers always trying to give him investment tips (which, to his later regret, he sometimes took), and he could get a little overbearing while doing so, even if the recipient had the wise advice coming. In the father and son scenes, however, Lewis Stone and Mickey Rooney play off each other perfectly, the good Judge often finding Andy's juvenile glibness--as well as his slang--too mystifying to become properly overbearing in response:

 I don't know Judge Hardy's exact age, but the man who portrayed him, Lewis Stone, was born in 1879, which should help explain the above clip. How can you tell the young folks anything when you've grown up with the horse-and-buggy, and they with the automobile? As for his confusion about the term "gal", who knows? Maybe it was a new word in 1938. Yesterday's slang is today's cliches, you dig?

Speaking of gals, the other wheel that drove the series, if not always in the direction our adolescent hero would have liked, was Andy's relations with the opposite sex. I've shown the following clip before, when Ann Rutherford (Polly) passed on a few years back, but it's worth showing again. Here's the set-up. Andy's fallen in love with his high school drama teacher, only to find out she's engaged to a fellow closer to her own age. Polly is there to mend the gaping wound in Andy's heart, but not without first throwing in some salt:

I think that's the closest Andy Hardy's ever come to an on-screen orgasm. 

The Andy Hardy series didn't just turn Mickey Rooney into a star but into THE star. He was the box office champ three years in a row. "A" movies now came his way, though he continued making the "B" Andy Hardy films, unusual for a major star, but the public, as well as Louis B Mayer, demanded it. I haven't been able to track down exactly how these films were exhibited, but, as I said before, B movies were usually shown before the A ones. Since he was now appearing in both, is it beyond the realm of imagination to think Mickey Rooney opened for Mickey Rooney? 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) If Mickey Rooney wasn't the perfect Huck Finn, it's due more to a preachy screenplay--something Mark Twain avoided in the novel on which it's based--than his own performance. I will say that no other actor who's paddled down the Mississippi has been better.

A Yank at Eton (1942) Mickey goes to England to get an education, and ends up being caned by a young Peter Lawford.

Incidentally, this was last film Freddie Bartholomew, left, made with Rooney. See how he towers over both him as well as the man in the center, Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.) Yet scroll back up to the still from Captains Courageous, and you'll see that Rooney's the taller of the two boy actors.

To put it all in perspective, here's a kneeling Rooney along side former Mickey McGuire costar Billy Barty, probably taken in the 1990s. Height is relative.

 As a World War II-era telegram boy in The Human Comedy (1944).


Helping 12-year old equestrian Elizabeth Taylor win a steeplechase in 1944's National Velvet. In real life, Rooney was no stranger to racetracks, either, though he spent most of his time there tearing up tickets.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland never married, but I bet there was more chemistry between the two than with their multiple spouses. On camera, anyway. They appeared in 9 movies together. The first, Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, was made before either achieved much in the way of stardom. There were three Andy Hardy films, in which Garland plays the semi-regular character Betsy Booth. She does a cameo as herself in the Rodgers & Hart bio Words and Music (in which Rooney played the latter songwriter.) That leaves the four "backyard musicals": Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, and Girl Crazy. The plots for these films can aptly described in one oft-quoted sentence, "Hey gang, let's put on a show!" That exact line doesn't actually appear in any of these films (believe me, I've looked) but that's exactly what they do, thereby saving their parents mortgages, a friend's life, a settlement house, and a desert collage. These shows saved the movies themselves, the scripts of which could be so so incredibly hokey that they made a typical Andy Hardy film look like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not that it matters. The plots, dialogue, character development were all just filler, mere linking devices between one great Busby Berkeley directed and/or choreographed musical number after another. 

OK, one of those musical numbers wasn't all that great. In fact, it was downright embarrassing. You know the number I'm talking about. 

The one where the participants wear a little too much "make-up."

(Political incorrectness will rear its ugly head a few more times before we're through.)

Whatever its achievement in representing the American way of life, the Andy Hardy films completely ignored the United States entry into World War II. It just never comes up. Mickey Rooney's draft number did, however, and in 1944, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood was shipped off to Europe, where he spent most of his time entertaining the troops. 22 months later he returned to civilian life with several medals for a job well done, and did Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. The only film to mention the global conflict that was now happily over, it capitalizes on Rooney the returning vet by making Andy one, too. This would be the only Hardy movie until Andy Hardy Comes Home, a reunion film made in 1958 minus Stone, who had died, and Rutherford, who couldn't see it helping her career much any. It didn't help anyone's career, as it tanked at the box office.

Andy Hardy Comes Home came in the middle of a decades-long career slump, one that started shortly after Rooney returned to civilian life. He now looked his age, which, at 26, certainly wouldn't have been a problem had he been more conventionally handsome. And taller. It may be unfair given his immense talent, but that lack of stature, which had allowed him to play grade-school kids well into his teens, and then allowed him to play teens well into his 20s, now made him look a little ridiculous in any kind of romantic role, a leading lady having to bend over and risk slipping a disk to give him a kiss. Did he have any other options? The MGM musical was still going strong, and would for another decade. You'd think he'd find work there. So I was surprised looking through his lengthy filmography to find that actually he had done very few musicals, for Metro or anyone else. It was as if no one thought he could sing and dance along side anyone but Judy Garland. But Garland was now the bigger star, and moved on to the likes of that hot newcomer Gene Kelly and the still bankable Fred Astaire. Finally, Rooney off-screen activities--drinking, gambling,
skirt-chasing (he was eventually married 8 times)--had landed him in the gossip columns, doing grievous harm to his clean-cut, boy-next-door image. MGM dropped him.

Mickey Rooney ended up getting steady employment in, of all things, the genre that's come to be known as film noir (French for "black film", really just mystery and suspense, but more stylized, with a heightened sense of dread.) The young man who once jauntily strolled the sunny sidewalks of Carville would now furtively skulk the back alleys of the mean city. The girl next would be replaced by the femme fatale. Instead of him taking her to the prom, she would take him to the cleaners, and to his doom. Instead of the wise advice of his father, he'd get the last rites from a father of another kind as he slowly marched down Death Row. And not the gang, but gangsters, put on a show--a show of bullets.

While it's true he never gave more established noir stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, or Robert Mitchum a run for their box office dollars, Rooney was surprisingly good in these films, and had a rather long run, making one crime flick after another right into the 1960s. Among the titles: Killer McCoy, Quicksand, My Outlaw Brother, The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road, Baby Face Nelson (a role the puffy-cheek actor was born to play), The Big Operator, The Last Mile, and Platinum High School. Most of these rather modestly-budgeted films weren't hits, and Rooney was regarded as something of a has-been when he made them. Views change, however. Increasingly, film historians have come come to look more favorably upon these movies, finding that Rooney did some of his best work in them.  

My own favorite Rooney noir is Quicksand, made in 1950. He's a young man not too far removed from high school who needs some money for a big date. OK, we've seen that before. What we haven't seen is his solution to the problem. Instead of asking his father, the young auto mechanic steals $20.00 from his boss' cash register, thinking he can replace it before anyone notices it's missing. Fate, in the form of an unexpected auditor, intervenes, Rooney'c character has to commit crime after crime, so as not to be accused of a crime, egged on by his new girlfriend (Jeanne Cagney, a femme fatale in bobby socks), while being blackmailed by just about everyone he meets! If the name of Rooney's character hadn't been Dan Brady, I'd say an apt alternative title for this film would be Andy Hardy Goes to Hell. 

In case you're wondering, Jeanne Cagney is indeed the sister of James, another song-and-dance man who often found himself on the wrong side of the law on celluloid. You may have also noticed Peter Lorre, no stranger to these types of films. Here the bug-eyed actor plays a sinister pinball arcade owner. No wonder pinball was replaced by video games. You can stay home and not meet such people.

Despite its boxers-and-gangsters setting, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) was more social drama than film noir. It also may have been a more disturbing movie for that reason. In a supporting role, Rooney scores as punch-drunk Anthony Quinn's trainer and loyal friend, albeit one with limited usefullness.

It wasn't all cops-and-robbers for Mickey Rooney in the late '40s and '50s. As a supporting player, he dodged bullets of a different kind in several war films that were well-received (The Bridges at Toki-Ri, The Bold and the Brave.) More keeping in line with the genres for which he was best known, there were several comedies and several (Judy-less) musicals that flopped at the box office. Some way to be best known. Finally, in 1961, he appeared in a movie that many today regard as a classic:

Ah, yes, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Much to like about this picture. Much to recommend it as a classic. There's the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song "Moon River", some great exterior shots of Manhattan, a very funny party segment, and, of course, the lady above, Audrey Hepburn, in what's now considered her signature role as Holly Golightly. Look closely at the computer screen and into her sunglasses, you can see her eyes! (Hope you didn't damage your own in the process.)

Unfortunately, you can see his eyes, too. The above picture isn't one of the aspects of the film that makes it "classic". Yunioshi does appear in Truman Capote's original novella, but is never described as having the thick Japanese accent that Rooney has in this movie. In fact, the Yunioshi of the book is probably a first-generation Japanese-American (when one character in the novella refers to him as a "Jap", another corrects him by saying he's "Californian.")

 Nor does Capote ever say whether he's in need of dental work.

Rooney, in between Buddy Hackett and Jim Backus, is one of many characters looking for "the big W" in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.


Judy and Mickey, together again on TV in 1963. Neither Rooney nor Garland were primarily known as dancers, and my eyes are too uneducated to tell you how their footwork stacked against Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, but, jeez, they're sure fun to watch:


 Not bad for a couple of kids in their 40s.

Rooney voiced St. Nick both young and old in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).

Rooney turned the lead in this series down, thus possibly delaying his comeback by almost a decade.

 The comeback DID eventually come, in 1979, when he appeared along side leggy Ann Miller on the Broadway stage in Sugar Babies, a revue/tribute to burlesque.

Tilt in the kilt, indeed! Amazingly, though they were both at MGM in the 1940s, Rooney and  Miller  met for the first time while doing this show.

That same year Rooney returned to the racetrack in The Black Stallion. I take it the horse won. Probably more than any horse he bet on off-screen.

Rooney won an Emmy for his portrayal of an aging retarded man in Bill (1981)

There was apparently a turnaround in Rooney's personal life as well. As he told it, sometime in the 1960s an angel in the guise of a bus boy with “blond curls, a white-rose complexion, and shining teeth,” visited him in a Lake Tahoe coffee shop and convinced him to open himself up to Christ. Which he says he did. No word on whether he left the busboy a tip. 

As can happen when a person has a religious experience under unusual circumstances, intemperate remarks began spewing forth from Rooney's mouth, some of which were homophobic:

"If it's immorally wrong, it's not normal. Jesus Christ said, "The effeminate are an abomination to me". Are you aware of that? I don't watch the [Ellen DeGeneres] show. I wish her all kinds of luck. Except that I'm not a fan. But there are a lot of people who aren't fans of Mickey Rooney and you can't please everyone."

If it's "immorally wrong", it's also redundant. And does Rooney and Jesus consider DeGeneres "effeminate"? Too bad he wasn't a fan of her show. Maybe he could have gone on, and found himself another dance partner.

Rooney was an old man. Should we give him a pass? What about appearing in blackface, or as a bucktoothed Japanese? Well, those were just the times. No one back then (other than blacks or Asians) found such things objectionable. The Ellen remark, of course, was more recent. Norman Lear once described Archie Bunker as someone resistant to change. Maybe Rooney shouldn't have turned that role down.

Meanwhile, on February, 16, 2011, Rooney was granted a temporary restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber. According to Rooney's attorneys, and switching to present tense, Aber "threatens, intimidates, bullies and harasses Mickey" and refused to reveal the actor's finances to him. The two eventually settled out of court.

One upshot to all of this is that about a month later, Rooney testified before a special U.S. Senate committee on elder abuse:

Live long enough, and we all face abuse of some kind. Even skirt-chasers.