Monday, June 7, 2010

Night of the Bat. Film # 12: Batman (Jun 6th)


1966, 105 min.
Directed by Leslie H. Martinson

"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

Well, I was never one of those "comic book kids," but let me tell you, I have ALWAYS been a huge Batman fan. Many lazy afternoons were spent watching the '60s television show in syndication, and you better believe I was bat-crazy in 1989 (along with the rest of America) when Batman merchandise made a bajillion dollars. A good portion of that was likely from me, by the way. T-shirts, books, caps, buttons, posters, trading cards... I was neck-deep in Batman stuff. Yet as the movies got progressively worse over the years, my enthusiasm cooled. Five years ago, when Christopher Nolan relaunched the series, I was a happy bat-camper again because Batman movies were always a staple of my moviegoing experiences. Except for one; I had never seen the 1966 Batman film. So June 6th was another red letter day on the calendar of the Summer Film Series, and I was ever so excited at the prospect of seeing some Bat-mania first hand and possibly meet Adam West, the 1960's (and to many, the "definitive") Batman.

Alas, Sunday was another scorcher. That means I couldn't wear my batsuit to the screening of Batman. Just kiddin'. I don't have a batsuit, just pajamas. Ha! Gotcha again. Don't own any of those either. Although I'm willing to bet I did have some underoos though; you know, back when I was a wee pup. I do currently own a Batman glow-in-the-dark shirt ("I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R Us kid"), but decided to act a little more grownup and opted not to wear it that day.

I approached the theatre from where I parked and could already see a crowd from two blocks away. "Goodness," I thought, "are all those people waiting to get inside?" Traffic on Congress Ave. blocked my view of the street, and I was curious as to why so many were congregated outside. As I got closer and closer, I saw that people were crowding around something in front of the theatre. "Was there an accident?" I wondered as I continued forward. Seeing no ambulances or paramedics, I figured it wasn't anything serious grabbing all the attention. From about 40 feet away, I finally could see what the big deal was. My eyes were agape and my jaw hung slack as I realized what was in front of The Paramount... THE BATMOBILE.

Holy crap! All kinds of folks were hovering around this icon of pop culture. Freaks and geeks of all ages were gazing, pointing and posing next to Batman's ride. Yours truly had a grin as big as The Joker plastered on my face. Snapping photos of Batfans big and small. I also had a tinge of pity for the poor blokes in costume as Batman. It was after all, pretty damn hot out there. At least Robin's costume is mostly just a domino mask and exposed legs. Batman's cape and cowl does not equal comfortable summer attire. Here's hoping Gotham City has a much cooler climate than Austin.

Despite the fun and revelry by the crowd outside, I decided after 10 minutes or so that air conditioning was preferable to dehydration. As I entered the building, I found many others shared the same thoughts. The lobby was full of enthusiasts and fanboys. Make that thirsty fanboys, judging by the Batman t-shirts and long lines at concessions.

In the lobby was a display by Austin Books and Comics, a local comic book store that had tables full of Bat swag. Want a new t-shirt of vintage comic images? You got it. How about a book of Alex Ross art? You got it. Craving a couple of new Batman action figures? You got it. It was like I was 13 years old all over again. Luckily, I didn't bring a lot of cash with me, or I would've tried to clean them out. No matter, I googled the store and know where to go now to get my fix of Gotham's heroes.

I knew there was much to see and little time to do so. Venturing upstairs, I happened upon a display by Bat Conservation International, where a lovely lady was answering questions about our winged friends. She held a tiny Mexican free-tail bat in her palm as she told us about the animals and the efforts of the organization. The Mexican free-tail, as you may or may not know, are the very critters that roost beneath Austin's Congress Bridge and fly into the night by the thousands at dusk.

But I gotta tell you, it was hard to concentrate on what she was saying because I was eyeballing Zoe, a rather large flying fox hanging upside down in her cage. Zoe was calm as a cucumber, and the kiddos around the presentation oooed and awed at the flying mammal. Those with cameras and cell phones were snapping away pictures of the nonchalant creature. Heck, I was impressed myself. After grabbing some literature and some temporary tattoos of bats for the kiddos in the family who couldn't attend, I snapped a few photos of Zoe also.

As I proceeded to the mezzanine level of the auditorium, I found the place was packed. I glance up and see the Bat logo is shining upon the ceiling of the theatre, high above the gawking moviegoers.

Playing on the screen are interviews with the cast of Batman, filmed during the original premiere of the film in 1966. Little known fact: The world premiere of Batman took place at The Paramount Theatre, right here in Austin, TX. The local CBS affiliate sent Jean Boone to question the cast. This archival footage was projected before the show began, featuring the clips of Boone with Adam West (Batman), Lee Meriwether (Catwoman), and Cesar Romero (The Joker). The complete footage can be seen here.

I was mesmerized by the interviews and enthralled with how media relations have progressed (or perhaps regressed) since the 1960s. Everything in the archival footage seemed so candid and off-the-cuff. No canned responses, no diplomatic non-answers, no shame. Because of the candor and the absence of PR spin, I was fascinated by the fact that these actors actually had interesting things to say about themselves.

Romero's interview in particular was like a conversation with an old friend. And oh, he's a charmer. But I was most taken by Lee Meriwether's interview, and not because she's easy on the eyes. Who knew that she worked for The Today Show? Not I. Who knew she studied acting under the famous Lee Strasberg? Not I. Nor was I privy to the fact she had two children already when she played Catwoman in the film. Yes, there were some talk of typical behind-the-scenes jargon (much we find on DVD featurettes today), but most talk was about her personal life. That was refreshing.

As the 10 minute clip kept replaying, I found myself watching over and over to drink in any detail I may have missed. How sad is the fact that most interviews now are the kind of crap that populates E! television? Call me simple, but I don't care about what clothes celebrities are wearing at a premiere. And in this case, it was much more fun that they were in character costumes. That was the purrr-fect touch. Unless Christian Bale shows up in costume at the premiere of the next Batman film, I won't be impressed with him.

Riddle me this. Who goes to the Batman screening and meet-and-greet party and doesn't meet Adam West? Me, that's who. It's sad but true. I was so taken by all the events that I never made it downstairs to meet the man himself. By the time I realized, it was too late. The interviews stopped playing and The Paramount's Frank Campbell came out and introduced the man of the hour... Mr. Adam West.

Let me tell you something about Adam West. I refuse to believe he's almost 82 years old. He was remarkably spry onstage, reminiscing and fielding audience questions. Coy yet clever, his wit sizzled inside the snappy answers he provided. You can't help but but smile while beholding West's presence. What a personality on this guy! He's a self-effacing pop icon. Kind of like William Shatner, only Adam West is soooooo much cooler. I wanted desperately to race downstairs to get a better photo of him, but I didn't want to miss a single second of his rapport with the full auditorium.

After several questions and anecdotes (including one about how Burgess Meredith upstaged his Batman co-stars at Austin's airport), he thanked us all for the love and the lights went down. The movie was about to begin.

Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed...

Okay, I won't lie. The 1966 Batman is far from being a good movie. In fact, it's bad. Pretty bad. And yet, It is not as far on the Suck-O-Meter as 1997's Batman and Robin. I'd place it on par with 1995's Batman Forever. It's corny, it's cheesy, and it's camp-tastic in its tone.

Full of intentional and unintentional humor, Batman is a campy exercise that will either leave you grabbing your sides from laughter or rolling your eyes in frustration. At times, I found I was doing both. Quite unlike Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, no one will ever ask of this 1966 film, "Why so serious?" The entire film is tongue in cheek.

The secret to enjoying it is to watch it as a comedy rather than an action movie. Think of it as the prototype for those Zucker-style spoofs. You know, the Airplane films or The Naked Gun series. Imagine Leslie Neilsen as Commissioner Gordon, if it helps. And in many ways, the campiness and corniness of Batman make it the mother of all Zucker comedies to come in the '70s and '80s... the Mother Zucker, if you will. Hardy har.

The plot is unimportant in movies like this. It has something to do with kidnapping a tycoon, dehydrating henchmen, ransoming the United Nations, abducting Bruce Wayne, etc, etc. Basically, the writers must've started most scenes with "bad guys steal _____." It's writing screenplays by way of Mad Libs, and it's not terribly effective.

Of course, this was made in an era where comic books were thought of as "kid's stuff." Before Dennis O'Neill, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, or Alan Moore brought their dark touches to the comics. Heck, "graphic novels" weren't even coined as a term yet. It was all merely "the funny papers," and this movie dwells in such a simpler time for Gotham's crime fighter. Colors are bright, sets are loud, and the villains chew up the scenery like sharks. Luckily, this Batman has shark repellent (seriously). Despite all the goofiness, Adam West carries a real charm in his goody-two shoes persona.

Subtlety is not one of the films' strong points; often hitting you over the head with hokey plot points (BAM!) and stale jokes (POW!). Even a minor subplot about Bruce Wayne's lovelife is syrupy, and goes over like a lead balloon (THUD!). And the fight sequences? Jeez. You know what? Just see for yourself. Below is the climatic battle. Words simply can't describe.

All in all, a great afternoon. A fun feast for everyone involved Sunday at The Paramount, even though the movie itself was as appetizing as uncooked dough. Nevertheless, I will have fond memories of this afternoon for many months and years to come. As I left the theatre, I couldn't help but smile. Driving back home, I was thinking of what Batman items to hunt for on eBay. Maybe some underoos (you know, for the kids). Finally, I realized that the radio wasn't on, and I was humming that familiar tune...

Na na na na Na na na na BATMAN!

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