Holy United Underworld! The Baddies of 1966’s Batman Movie

The Great Villain BlogathonThis post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, a week-long salute to cinematic evil hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings.

Babylon 5 creator and comics scribe J. Michael Straczynski once postulated in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that Marvel’s superheroes have a tendency to attract as villains their natural counterparts: the X-Men fight evil mutants, Thor battles rival gods, Captain America tackles Nazis and would-be dictators, and Spidey’s rogues gallery consists of octopi, lizards, rhinos and other animal-themed adversaries. A version of this symbiotic relationship seems to also extend into the DC Comics on-screen universe, at least as far as Batman is concerned: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was pitted against deeply troubled, asocial outcasts; Tim Burton’s Caped Crusader faced flawed individuals scarred-emotionally, if not physically–by trauma; even Joel Schumacher’s entries in the field were peopled by garishly over-the-top foes who may or may not have had nipple fetishes. All of which brings us to 20th Century-Fox’s 1966 feature Batman, which found TV’s Dynamic Duo of Adam West and Burt Ward stoically defending Gotham City against three veteran actors and a former Miss America…all of whom were having the time of their lives.

Originally planned to hit theaters before the series’ premiere as a way of introducing the characters, Batman: The Movie (as it’s sometimes referred to) wound up playing between seasons one and two in the summer of 1966, after ABC–following one of the network’s then-typically disastrous fall premiere rollouts (anyone else out there remember O.K. Crackerby?)–rushed the show out the preceding January. Along with debuting such new bat-paraphernalia as the Batcopter, Batcycle and Batboat, this also marked the first time that West and Ward’s costumed alter egos would face a gathering of their most dangerous arch-enemies: The Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin).

BATMAN 1966 7The film’s plot was as typically outlandish as the TV show: combining their sinister forces as the United Underworld, the villains kidnap eccentric inventor Commodore Schmidlapp and plan to use his dehydration device to turn the nine members of the United World Security Council (any resemblance to the U.N. was clearly coincidental) into dust, then demand a cool billion-dollar ransom from each of their victims’ respective governments. Along the way, they also make myriad attempts–based on each gimmicky crook’s modus operandi, of course– on Batman and Robin’s lives. Not to be outdone, Catwoman poses as a visiting Soviet journalist by the name of Miss Kitka and winds up romancing Batman in his secret identity of millionaire Bruce Wayne. This, however, is not intended to be a review of Batman: The Movie per se. No, What I want to focus on are the wonderfully campy performances of the criminal quartet.

One of the best moments in the picture comes right during the opening credits, when the fearsome foursome is introduced under colored spotlights as their signature music is played…trust me, it’s as atmospheric as anything you’d see in later Batman movies.

BATMAN 1966As befits such a calamitous combine, however, the United Underworld members do not always get along well together: the Joker mocks the Riddler’s penchant for leaving clues for Batman to solve in his wake; the Riddler berates the Penguin when his “trained exploding shark” (don’t ask) fails to do in the crime fighters; and all three male villains cower when Catwoman threatens to sic her pet kitty on them! The back-and-forth bickering between the baddies helps to make this once-in-a-lifetime team-up memorable. As for the evildoers themselves:

BATMAN 1966:  The villains of Batman: Cesar RomeroLee Meriwether as Catwoman: 1955’s Miss America (and a future The Time Tunnel and Barnaby Jones co-star), Meriwether was a last-minute replacement for TV Catwoman Julie Newmar, who had already committed to co-star in the Gregory Peck western Mackenna’s Gold. While she may not quite have measured up to the statuesque Newmar height-wise, Lee manages to make the part her own, purring and hissing throughout the film. In fact, during one fight scene when she’s disguised as Miss Kitka, Meriwether starts making clawing gestures before catching herself (of course, no hero worth their salt should have been fooled by Catwoman’s “Russian accent,” but that was the point). And then there’s the scene when the villains are cruising up “Gotham East River” towards the United World building in Penguin’s web-foot-ruddered submarine, and Catwoman starts to meow and writhe while looking through the periscope, causing one of the pirate-costumed flunkies alongside her to do a double-take stare.

 The villains of Batman Cesar Romero as the Joker: Yes, I was able–even as an eight-year-old in 1966–to spot the mustache under Romero’s make-up (famous for playing playboys and “Latin Lovers” in movies from the 1930s to the ’50s, Cesar refused to shave off his trademark facial hair). Everyone could. That was part of what made his interprertation of the Harlequin of Hate so much fun to watch: this Joker apparently wasn’t scarred like Heath Ledger or had his skin bleached by a fall into a chemical vat à la Jack Nicholson. No, he just loved looking like a clown, and must have thought keeping the ‘stache was too “delicious” (one of Romero’s Joker’s favorite words) a jest to pass up. It obviously freed the actor to cut loose in front of the camera; everyone involved in the show talked about how much fun Cesar had hamming it up in the role. Other example of this Joker’s twisted logic comes when the crooks enter the United World Building and they’re all wearing domino masks…including the Joker, who apparently thinks such a disguise will keep him from being picked out of a line-up with a group of other white-skinned, green-haired suspects! Delicious!

BATMAN 1966Burgess Meredith as the Penguin: Those raspy “Kwack, kwack” noises, which seem more duck-like than penguin-like, that the “Pompous, Waddling Master of Fowl Play” constantly made under his breath? Those were sounds which two-time Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominee Meredith, who had given up smoking decades earlier, made to cover up coughing from his omnipresent cigarette holder! The cagey bird seems to be United Underworld’s transportation expert: along with the “surplus, pre-atomic” sub he buys from the Navy (with a check signed “P.N. Gwynn”), he furnishes the gang with giant flying umbrellas which they ride like witches’ broomsticks. Meredith himself also supplied a great ad-libbed line when he and Meriwether are scooping up five dehydrated henchmen he plans to sneak into the Batcave. As Catwoman pours the piles of dust into test tubes, Penguin mutters “Careful, careful! Every one of them has a mother!” Oh, and if you thought Catwoman’s  impersonation of a Soviet reporter was a little less than authentic, wait until Penguin unleashes his “best” Cockney accent to pose as Commodore Schmidlapp and smuggle his quick-dried quintet of underlings to Batman’s lair.

BATMAN 1966 6Frank Gorshin as the Riddler: Meredith may have been the only Oscar nominee among the quartet, but Gorshin’s frenetic interpretation of the Pernicious Prince of Puzzlers in the TV series’ first two-part adventure earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy (“Comedy?”). He brought this same small-screen intensity to his turn as the Riddler here, going from cool and business-like to maniacally laughing and leaping around in the blink of an eye (it makes you wonder how Gorshin would have handled the role of the Joker). Speaking of unplayed roles, there’s a piece of dialogue that may have been meant for Frank; when the submarine full of villains is being pursued by the Batboat, Penguin tells his navigator to “run silent, run deep.” It’s an obvious reference to the 1958 Clark Gable/Burt Lancaster sub drama of the same name, but what you may not know is that Gorshin had been up for a supporting part in that film, but was injured in an auto accident while en route to Hollywood and spent several days in the hospital. By the time he was released, the role was given to Don Rickles.

Nearly 50 years after its debut, the Batman TV series–which will, we’re told, finally be officially released on home video sometime this year–still influences pop culture and how we perceive superheroes on the small and big screen (Admit it, fanboys; near the climax of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, when Christian Bale was flying across Gotham City with an about-to-blow nuclear device in tow, your minds flashed back to 1966 and Adam West running around a pier exclaiming, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”). Fox’s Batman movie was never intended to be taken as a serious drama…at least, not totally as a serious drama. That the crooked collective bedeviling the Caped Crusaders managed to come off as both menacing and fun to watch was certainly a testament to the men, and woman, behind the not-always necessary masks.