Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shirley Patterson/Shawn Smith (B-Movie and serial starlet)


Shirley Patterson (1922-1995), from Winnipeg, Canada via the San Fernando Valley, enjoyed two distinct screen starlet careers: under contract to Columbia and then free-lancing, she was Shirley Patterson and appeared 1942-'48 opposite the likes of Charles Starrett, William Elliott, Russell Hayden, Johnny Mack Brown, and Eddie Dean; then, as Shawn Smith, she co-starred in several science fiction “classics” in the 1950s courtesy, loose lips insisted, of a boyfriend “high up at Universal.” Prior to that she had been a champion archer (!) and won the obligatory beauty pageants (although apparently not “Miss California” as her publicity insisted). The first part of her career ended with marriage to the socially prominent real estate developer Alfred Smith. Bel Air matron-hood didn't last long, alas, and she reinvented herself as Shawn Smith, looking a bit older, of course, but essentially playing the same kind of roles in genre films as she had as Shirley Patterson. A skiing accident in 1958 that resulted in multiple broken bones put the kibosh to the second part of her career and she retired for good. Divorced from Smith and remarried, the former Shirley Patterson enjoyed appearing at Western fairs in the 1980s before, sadly, falling victim to cancer. In her final years, she resided in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Batman (Columbia, 1943)

Columbia's comic-page-to-serial version of Batman earned a surprising resurrection in 1965 when youthful audiences, most likely influenced by something more potent than milk duds, were treated to midnight showings of the entire serial in one sitting. The reaction to "An Evening with Batman and Robin," alas, was almost wholly derogatory. The camp-craze of the 1960s spawned the fondly remembered television series starring Adam West and we have since witnessed the emergence of a string of highly profitable Batman blockbuster movies. In contrast, the original chapter play version and its 1949 sequel, Batman and Robin, never earned the respect of, say, the Flash Gordons, among serial buffs. But if you can get beyond leading man Lewis Wilson's ill-fitting tights, Douglas "Robin" Croft's enormous head of hair or J. Carrol Naish's sometimes over-caricatured delivery, Batman is a rollicking good show with plenty of noir touches, a memorable arch villain, a typical tough-looking and talking Columbia stock company, and a great comic sidekick in the nervous butler, Alfred (William Austin). Add to that a credible performance by Wilson in the title role, especially when portraying Bruce Wayne's other alter-ego, gangster "Chuck White," complete with putty nose and a slouchy nonchalance. If you are so inclined, you may discover some (probably unintentionally) homoerotic undertones, mainly due to the fact that Douglas Croft is younger than anyone succeeding him in the role of Robin. Is Bruce Wayne in reality a child molester? Did the makers of the serial imply anything by having Robin devour a banana in one scene? Well, you be the judge.

The New York street at the Burbank Columbia ranch, today Warner Bros.

Batman is even more interesting in the official 2005 Columbia/Sony restoration, which bravely refurbishes the serial with its original WWII soundtrack and eliminates the politically correct dubbing by Gary Owens and Don Pardo heard since its release on home video in 1989. Not that I approve of calling anybody a "shifty-eyed Jap" or any such derogatory language but Batman was produced in 1943 partially as a propaganda piece and should be viewed in that light. Today, even a Japanese viewer will probably accept Naish's performance for what it is, a wonderfully over-the-top exaggeration belonging to a specific time in history with vastly different motives and sensibilities.

One of Columbia's very best chapter plays, Batman was produced during the Rudolph Flothow regime at the studio, a brief but prime period for the serial department sandwiched between the often bizarre era of James Horne and the penny-pinching years of Sam Katzman. Yes, Batman is cheaply made, too, but it is easy to see what kept young audiences coming back every Saturday for 15 weeks. Although this serial is often listed as "The Batman," the title credit is Batman and narrator Knox Manning refers to the character without the definitive article. In the serial itself, only the villain, Dr. Daka, addresses Bruce Wayne's alter-ego as "The Batman."

About the production

Actor Lewis Wilson (1920-2000) enjoyed very little success in his chosen profession, other than starring as the original movie Batman and a supporting role in the 1950s television series Craig Kennedy. His legacy, however, is somewhat more impressive. When Wilson’s first wife, Dana Natol, married Anglo-American film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, his son, Michael Wilson, became the de facto heir to the James Bond franchise and is today the executive producer of the most recent installments starring Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.

PC Score Card

Until Columbia/Sony released the unedited version of Batman on DVD in 2005, this wartime serial was shown without the overt anti-Japanese language that has kept it off television for more than 50years. For readers with access only to the censored VHS print, here is what you'll be missing: Narrator Knox Manning and a later substitute (from chapter 7) using the word "Jap" at the drop of a hat; Manning, explaining the empty storefronts of Little Tokyo: "Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street"; Martin Warren to Dr. Daka: "No amount of torture conceived by your twisted Oriental brain will make me change my mind." (Chapter 1.) Foster, warned of Daka's displeasure after failing to kill Batman and Robin: "I did my best. Anyway, I'm not afraid of him and any other squinteye." Foster, in the mistaken belief that he has Daka at a disadvantage: "That's the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin." (Chapter 3.) Linda, face to face with Daka at long last: "A Jap!!" Daka: "Please to say Nipponese. That is the courteous way of addressing one of the future rulers of the world." (Chapter 13.)

Cameo Appearance

The newsboy selling Bruce Wayne an extra edition featuring Batman's newest exploits in the opening chapter is Bob Kane, "Batman's" creator who in his autobiography had little good to say about either Lewis Wilson or his portrayal.

Serial verisimilitude

Although Batman is supposedly set in fictional Gotham City, a letter addressed to Bruce Wayne bears a Los Angeles address.

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