REVIEW: BATMAN 1960'S TV SERIES - THE JOKER
Not everyone learns about super-heroes from comic books. Not even today. Back in the 1940's, there were radio serials for Batman, and other super-heroes. In the 1950's, television brought us Superman, in the form of George Reeves. And then we come to the 1960's.
As a very young child, I enjoyed watching the George Reeves Superman show, which was in syndicated reruns by then. I also remember being rather frustrated about how it seemed to switch from black-and-white to color every so often. I had little understanding of television production, had no idea that Superman was one of those shows that had been produced in both black-and-white and color over the course of its run, much like any number of other TV shows of the time. I just found it very annoying, and thought that there was something wrong with the TV. I mean, I knew we had a color TV, which was a relative rarity at the time. What good was it if it didn't work properly!?
There was no question, however, about the colorful nature of another TV show that came along in the 1960's -- BATMAN! And unlike Superman, who mostly went up against gangsters in suits and the occasional mad scientist, Batman brought along his entire retinue of comic-based super-villains, not to mention a host of others that were created specifically for the TV show. Penguin, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman -- King Tut, Egghead, and plenty of others.
The show was intentionally campy -- not that I really recognized it at the time. I just got a huge kick out of the show.
To date, I've secured Batman, Robin, the Riddler, and now, the Clown Prince of Crime himself -- THE JOKER!
Let's consider a bit of history on the TV series, and of the character of The Joker from the comics, and then his TV incarnation.
Batman starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin -- heroes who defended Gotham City from an astonishing miasma of bizarre villains. It aired on the ABC network for three seasons from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968. The show was aired twice weekly for its first two seasons, resulting in the production of a total of 120 episodes.
In the early 1960s, Ed Graham Productions optioned the television rights to the comic strip Batman and planned a straightforward juvenile adventure show, much like Adventures of Superman and The Lone Ranger, to air on CBS on Saturday mornings.
Around this same time, a night club in Chicago was screening the Batman serials (1943's Batman and 1949's Batman and Robin) on Saturday nights. It became very popular. East coast ABC executive Yale Udoff, a Batman fan in his childhood, attended one of these parties, and was impressed with the reaction the serials were eliciting.
He contacted ABC executives Harve Bennett and Edgar J. Scherick, who were already considering developing a television series based on a comic strip action hero, to suggest a prime time Batman series in the hip and fun style of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. When negotiations between CBS and Graham stalled, DC Comics quickly reobtained rights and made the deal with ABC, who farmed the rights out to 20th Century Fox to produce the series.
In turn, 20th Century Fox handed the project to William Dozier and his Greenway Productions. ABC and Fox were expecting a hip and fun — yet still serious — adventure show. However, Dozier, who had never before read comic books, concluded, after reading several Batman comics for research, that the only way to make the show work was to do it as a pop art camp action-comedy. Ironically, the Batman comic books had recently experienced a change in editorship which marked a return to serious detective stories after decades of tales with aliens, dimensional travel, magical imps and talking animals.
Originally, espionage novelist Eric Ambler was to write a TV-movie that would launch the television series, but he dropped out after learning of Dozier's camp comedy approach. Eventually, two sets of screen tests were filmed, one with Adam West and Burt Ward and the other with Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell, with West and Ward winning the roles while Waggoner would get his chance to appear in a superhero series 10 years later as Steve Trevor in the TV series Wonder Woman.
By that time, ABC had pushed up the debut date to January 1966, thus forgoing the movie until the summer hiatus. The film would be produced quickly to get into theatres prior to the start of Season Two of the television series. Lorenzo Semple, Jr. had signed on as head script writer. He wrote the pilot script, and generally wrote in a pop art adventure style. Stanley Ralph Ross, Stanford Sherman, and Charles Hoffman were script writers who generally leaned more toward camp comedy, and in Ross's case, sometimes outright slapstick and satire. Originally intended as a one-hour show, ABC only had two early-evening time slots available, so the show was split into two parts, to air twice a week in half-hour installments with a cliffhanger, originally to last only through a station break, connecting the two episodes, echoing the old movie serials.
By Season 3, ratings were falling and the future of the series seemed uncertain. A promotional short featuring Yvonne Craig as Batgirl and Tim Herbert as Killer Moth was produced, since the Batgirl character had made her major debut in a 1966 issue of Detective Comics. The producers, wanting to keep up with the comic book, added her to the TV series. The short was convincing enough for ABC executives to pick up Batman for another season, and for Dozier to introduce Batgirl as a regular on the show in an attempt to attract more female viewers.
Batgirl's alter ego was Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon's daughter – a mild-mannered librarian at the Gotham Library. The show was reduced to once a week, and production values plummeted, especially in set design, with mostly self-contained episodes, although the following week's villain would be in a tag at the end of the episode, similar to a soap opera. Accordingly, the narrator's cliffhanger phrases were eliminated, with most of the episodes ending with him saying something to encourage viewers to watch the next episode.
Near the end of the third season, ratings had dropped significantly, and ABC canceled the show. A few weeks later, NBC offered to pick the show up for a fourth season and even restore it to its original twice-a-week format, if the sets were still available for use. However, 20th-Century Fox had already demolished the sets a week before – likely one of the worst instances of "lousy timing" in the history of pop culture television. NBC had no interest in paying the $800,000 for the rebuild, so the offer was withdrawn.
As to the Joker, he was one of Batman's earliest villains in the comics. His real name has never been revealed, but his origin has. He was a crook (sometimes portrayed as someone forced into crime), known as the Red Hood, who was pursued by Batman into a playing card factory, where he accidentally fell into a vat of chemicals. Surviving the experience, the chemicals gave him white skin, red lips, green hair, a maniacal grin, and pretty well robbed him of his sanity. He became a maniacal killer, using a toxin that forced a grin onto his victims' faces.
As comics softened in the 1950's, so did the Joker, becoming more a "Clown Prince of Crime", who always wanted to commit his crimes with a comedic flair, but he was nowhere near as lethal as he had once been.
When comics returned to a more serious vein in the early 1970's, the Joker regained his more manical personality and homicidal tendencies. He became regarded as not only the Batman's greatest foe, but one of the most dangerous men around. During the "Underworld Unleashed" storyline, one of the Flash's adversaries, the Trickster, remarks that the Joker is "someone no one wants to be in the same room with", and "When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories."
Needless to say, the Joker of the Batman television series was a more lighthearted sort, although he was certainly capable of coming up with some murderous traps for the Dynamic Duo, laughing all the way out the door.
The Joker was one of the most prominent villains in the series, played by actor Cesar Romero, who certainly had a decent acting pedigree of his own before getting his face painted white and wearing a green wig.
Cesar Julio Romero, Jr. (February 15, 1907 – January 1, 1994) was an American actor who was active in film, radio, and television for almost sixty years. His wide range of screen roles included Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas, characters in light domestic comedies, and as the Joker in the Batman television series, which was included in TV Guide's 2013 list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time.
Romero was born in New York City, the son of Maria Mantilla and Cesar Julio Romero, Sr. His father, a native of Italy, was an importer-exporter of sugar refining machinery, and his mother was a Cuban concert singer. That lifestyle, however, changed dramatically when his parents lost their sugar import business and suffered losses in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Romero's Hollywood earnings allowed him to support his large family, all of whom followed him to the American West Coast years later. Romero lived on and off with various family members, especially his sister, for the rest of his life.
In October 1942, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. He reported aboard the Coast Guard-manned assault transport USS Cavalier in November, 1943. According to a press release from the period he saw action during the invasions of Tinian and Saipan. The same article mentioned that he preferred to be a regular part of the crew and was eventually promoted to the rate of Chief Boatswain's Mate.
Romero played "Latin lovers" in films from the 1930s until the 1950s, usually in supporting roles. He starred as The Cisco Kid in six westerns made between 1939 and 1941. Romero danced and performed comedy in the 20th Century Fox films he starred in opposite Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable, such as Week-End in Havana and Springtime in the Rockies, in the 1940s. He also played a minor role as Sinjin, a piano player in Glenn Miller's band, in the 1942 20th Century Fox musical, Orchestra Wives.
In The Thin Man (1934), Romero played a villainous supporting role opposite the film's main star William Powell. Many of Romero's films from this early period saw him cast in small character parts, such as Italian gangsters and East Indian princes. He also appeared in a comic turn as a subversive opponent to Frank Sinatra and his crew in Ocean's 11.
Romero was also a romantic if aggressive leading man in films such as Allan Dwan's 15 Maiden Lane (1936) opposite Claire Trevor, in which he spins Trevor around in a dance sequence, and played the key role of the Doc Holliday character in Dwan's Wyatt Earp saga Frontier Marshal three years later.
20th Century Fox, along with mogul Darryl Zanuck, personally selected Romero to co-star with Tyrone Power in the Technicolor historical epic Captain from Castile (1947), directed by Henry King. While Power played a fictionalized character, Romero played Hernán Cortés, a historical conquistador in Spain's conquest of the Americas.
Among many television credits, Romero appeared several times on NBC's The Martha Raye Show in the middle 1950s. He played the role of Don Diego de la Vega's uncle in a number of Season Two Zorro episodes on ABC.
In 1958, he guest starred as Ramon Valdez, a South American businessman, who excels at doing the Cha-Cha with Barbara Eden in her syndicated romantic comedy, How to Marry a Millionaire in the episode entitled "The Big Order". He performed the mambo with Gisele MacKenzie on her NBC variety show, The Gisele MacKenzie Show. He guest-starred in 1957 on CBS's The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour on the first episode of the seventh season ("Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana"). He also played a card shark on the episode, "The Honorable Don Charlie Story," of NBC's Wagon Train.
On January 16, 1958, Romero appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
In 1959, Romero was cast as the title character, Joaquin, in the episode "Caballero" of the CBS western series, The Texan, starring Rory Calhoun. Veteran character actor Whit Bissell appears in this episode as Shep Crawford.
In 1960, he was cast as Ricky Valenti in the episode "Crime of Passion" of the CBS sitcom, Pete and Gladys, starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams.
In 1965, Romero played the head of THRUSH in France in the episode "The Never Never Affair" of NBC's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
From 1966 to 1968, Romero played the Joker in ABC's television series, Batman. Romero also appeared in an episode of Daniel Boone as Spanish army captain, Esteban de Vaca in 1966.
In the 1970s, Romero portrayed the absent father of the Freddie Prinze character Chico Rodriguez in Chico and the Man, and later Peter Stavros in the television series Falcon Crest (1985–1987). Among Romero's guest star work in the 1970s was a recurring role on the western comedy Alias Smith and Jones, starring Pete Duel and Ben Murphy. Romero played Señor Armendariz, a Mexican rancher feuding with Patrick McCreedy (Burl Ives), the owner of a ranch on the opposite side of the border. He appeared in three episodes. He also appeared as Count Dracula on Rod Serling's Night Gallery, and guest-starred in an episode of Bewitched.
Apart from these television roles, Romero appeared as A.J. Arno, a small-time criminal who continually opposes Dexter Riley (played by Kurt Russell) and his schoolmates of Medfield College in a series of films by Walt Disney Productions in the 1970s. He also appeared in a sixth-season episode of The Golden Girls, where he played a suitor named Tony Delvecchio for Sophia.
That's an impressive career, really.
So, how's the figure? Really excellent. I would expect that this figure was one of the greater challenges for the designers. It couldn't look too much like Cesar Romero. It had to look like Cesar Romero as the Joker.
Among the regular villains of the Batman series, Romero was one of the more heavily made up. Burgess Meredith needed a prosthetic nose to become the Penguin, and a padded suit, but his skin color remained normal. All Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar needed to become the Riddler and Catwoman were fancy costumes and masks.
But Romero needed his entire face painted white, the Joker's red grin put into place, and a green wig on his head. That was fairly extensive work.
It was made a little more difficult by the fact that Romero refused to shave his mustache for the role, and so the Joker's white face makeup was simply painted over it when playing the character throughout the series' run, and in the 1966 movie. However, the mustache can still be seen in some shots.
Nevertheless, the role didn't really involve any prosthetics, unlike, for example, Jack Nicholson's Joker in the 1989 Batman movie, where a decidedly forced grin was plastered into Nicholson's face through the use of prosthetics -- that he probably didn't even really need that much.
Romero was more than capable of manic behavior and a crazed laugh that was second only to the Riddler's completely insane giggle, and was able to stretch his face into enough of a wild grin so that all the make-up needed to do was paint his lips red and turn upwards a bit at the corners of his mouth, which is how it was designed and implemented.
The headsculpt is an excellent likeness of the character, with a typical open-mouthed laugh, which is pretty much a trademark of the Joker whether he's being played by an actor or not. I've owned any number of Joker figures over the years -- Mego, Super Powers, DC Universe Classics -- and they've all got the same, and entirely appropriate, open-mouthed laughing facial expression.
The Joker wig worn by Romero was a sort of olive green in color, and quite wavy. That's been very effectively duplicated on the figure.
But there IS the matter of Romero's mustache. The fact that he refused to shave it off for his appearances in the show has become as much an iconic part of Batman lore as anything else. Even the Joker's appearance in the comic book based on the series gave him a few wisps above his lip. Is there a way for a 6" scale action figure to accommodate this?
Well, credit to Mattel -- they tried. They painted the area between his nose and his upper lip light gray. Then they even airbrushed a little light gray along the jaw line, as if Romero had completely forgotten to shave that day.
Honestly, in my opinion, it's overkill. Romero's mustache wasn't THAT apparent. The make-up artists did their best to conceal it. Sometimes it worked better than others. But I don't think it ever really looked gray like this. It looked -- well -- fuzzy, in certain close-up shots, but that was about it. And certainly his jawline always appeared clean-shaven.
I recognize that Mattel felt they had to accommodate this part of this particular portrayal of the character. I get that. But at the very least, I think they should've picked a slightly lighter shade of gray, and left the jawline alone.
Moving on to the figure's wardrobe. Let's face it, the Joker was made for color television. In the comics, the character has traditionally worn a purple jacket, purple trousers with vertical pinstripes, a green shirt with a black string tie, and an orange vest. It's like that dip in the chemicals that altered his face and drove him nuts also robbed him of any fashion color sense whatsoever.
The television Joker traded in the orange vest for more purple -- maybe somebody figured that as colorful as the show was, there had to be some limits -- but was otherwise outfitted like his comics counterpart.
However, there's always been a little bit of -- I think "controversy" or "dispute" are perhaps too strong terms to use -- but some difference of opinion regarding the specific shade of purple that the Joker wears.
In most of his modern comic appearances, the Joker's jacket and trousers have been a fairly dark purple. However, there are a handful of earlier appearances where it was more of a magenta-purple. Both are considered valid, however, I'll admit a personal preference for the darker purple. I just think it suits the character better.
And, most of my Joker action figures reflect this color. My original Mego Joker figure had the darker purple. So do my Super Powers and DC Universe Classics Jokers. One oddball in the lot is a 9", cloth-costumed Joker produced by Hasbro when they had the DC license. The back of the package showed a Joker figure clearly dressed in the darker purple, but somewhere between photographing that prototype for the package and starting actual production, they switched to the more magenta shade. Weird.
And somebody must have been a fan of the TV series, because Romero's Joker always wore the magenta-purple color, and of course, that's the color given to the outfit on the figure. The coat, vest, trousers, and gloves are all magenta-purple. The trousers have been imprinted very effectively with narrow black pinstripes. The shirt is dark green, also visible at the sleeve cuffs, and he has his black string tie.
Detailing is impressive. All of the coat buttons, including six on the front, three on each sleeve at the cuffs, and two on the back, have been painted black, as have four buttons on the vest. The Joker is wearing black leather shoes, nicely detailed complete with laces, and superbly "polished" with high gloss black paint.
The coat was achieved by a standard means of providing non-cloth-costumed action figures with coats, jackets, and robes. The main body of the coat is a vest made from flexible plastic that is slipped onto the figure's body during assembly, and the actual arms of the figure are the arms of the coat. Sometimes it works well. I've seen a few occasions where it didn't work that well. Generally speaking, when it's been done on any of Mattel's DC figures, they've worked superbly well, and this Joker figure is no exception. He looks great. The coat is held in place in the front a bit by two pegs that insert into the body.
Articulation is outstanding. The Batman TV line takes most of its articulation cues from the DC Universe Classics/Signature Series line. Joker is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivels, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivels, knees, and ankles.
The line is not quite size compatible with the main DC Universe line, however. The figures are very slightly shorter. Joker is 6-1/4" in height, and is actually slightly taller than the Batman figure in this line. But he's still shorter than the more or less standard 6-3/4" of the DC Universe figures. Not a big deal, really. I'm not sure how the Justice League would react if Adam West showed up instead of Bruce Wayne, anyway...
The Joker doesn't come with much in the way of accessories, but he does have a display stand, a half-circle with the word "POW!" printed on a sticker and applied to the base, referencing the practice in the show of providing visual sound effects during a fight, and a card back for the display stand that's a photo of Cesar Romero as the Joker. The photo appears retouched, possibly to enhance the detail. I have to say I've seen better work, but who knows what the original photo looked like? So I'm not going to criticize overmuch.
So, what's my final word? Where were these figures when I was a kid? Ah, well, they're here now, and I'm greatly enjoying them, even if they're not the easiest things to track down -- like far too many action figure lines at the moment. But they're definitely worth it. Mattel's done a really outstanding job with these figures. They capture the look of that classic, campy TV series superbly well, while at the same time treating it with the retro-respect it deserves. If you're any sort of Bat-fan, you'll definitely want to add any of the Batman TV series figures to your collection, and that certainly includes the malevolent master of mirth himself, the Joker!
THE JOKER from the BATMAN TV SERIES line definitely has my highest recommendation!