The Rogues Gallery of Gotham

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The Rogues Gallery of Gotham

Much of the real draw of ‘Batman’ lay in the villains…

It isn’t easy to define that arch blend of irony and low humor we call camp. But as Justice Potter Stewart once wrote of pornography, we know it when we see it. And its presence is unmistakable in the old “Batman” TV series, broadcast on ABC in prime time from 1966 to 1968. The relatively short life of the show—which starred Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as Robin, his young sidekick—suggests that it didn’t generate much impact. In fact, its initial run was meteoric, and the program enjoyed a robust second life in afternoon syndication.


Meredith as the Penguin in the 1960s series ‘Batman.’ Photo: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Since then, though, the show has largely vanished from the public sphere (though not from the memories of its once-youthful fans), replaced by newer iterations of characters first realized in comic books by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and subsequently darkened in that form by Frank Miller and others. Hollywood auteurs like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan drew on Mr. Miller’s work and placed their own distinctively dystopian stamps on the material in big-screen versions. And most recently, on the Fox TV series “Gotham,” the threads have been rewoven into a prequel, with a young version of Batman’s law-enforcement ally James (later Commissioner) Gordon as protagonist.

Strangely, despite the continued interest in the crime-fighting exploits of the Dynamic Duo, TV’s first “Batman” has long been unavailable on home video. It was never released on VHS, nor did it surface on DVD as that medium thrived. But now, at long last, the entire series—all 120 episodes—has arrived on Blu-ray and DVD, in boxed sets from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

“Batman” was not the only television show to embrace camp during the 1960s. “The Wild Wild West” (1965-1969), starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, merged the settings and conventions of the western with James Bond-like gadgetry. And “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965-1971) mixed old-fashioned farce with the ugly truths of World War II in a combination that was not only amusing, but also, somehow, not tasteless. But these shows, despite their flights of fancy, still held firmly to aspects, however mythic, of real life. Not so “Batman,” which inhabited a fantasy world colored by 1960s counterculture—projected most vividly in the often-psychedelic costumes and makeup worn by the show’s array of outlandish villains and the lairs in which they dwelled. Even when the show was at its squarest—in scenes featuring supporting players like the flighty, well-intentioned Aunt Harriet; Alfred, the unflappable and efficient butler; and Chief O’Hara, the apogee of a benignly bungling policeman—an air of dangerous dissipation always hovered just beyond.

Likewise, when it came to the performers, the show’s real draw lay in its villains, a richly textured rogues gallery of 37 top-notch Hollywood character actors (and a few leading men and woman) who breathed outsize life into these outré creations. The agent of this diverse assemblage was the show’s creator and executive producer, William Dozier, who had been a husband of the movie star Joan Fontaine before marrying the actress Ann Rutherford. Fans of the series, though, will recognize him more for his inimitable skills as the show’s drolly omniscient narrator.

Even occasional viewers will recall the most recurring villains: the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin and John Astin) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt). In addition to their signature looks—the Penguin’s purple top hat, monocle and cigarette holder; the Joker’s white pancake makeup, green hair and fuchsia suit; the Riddler’s kelly-green unitard; and Catwoman’s black-leather catsuit and domino mask—these characters radiated personality, often tailored to the fortes of the actors themselves. Mr. Freeze presents a perfect example. Played by three actors over two seasons, the part bore their highly individual stamps: George Sanders a bit too, well, cool; Otto Preminger lending Continental flair; and Eli Wallach affecting a deliberately absurd Teutonic accent.

Many of the most striking villains appear only fleetingly. Take the Archer, who makes an indelibly discordant impression when played by Art Carney dressed like Robin Hood, complete with longbow. Or Minstrel, who blithely sings his way to infamy in the form of a lute-strumming Van Johnson. There is also much to savor watching Vincent Price upend his typically fiendish persona by adopting a sanguine mien and a huge, prosthetic bald pate as Egghead. And though the versatile, bantamweight David Wayne (a two-time Tony Award winner) is a less familiar figure, try forgetting the barmy zest he brings to the Mad Hatter.

Villainesses fare less well in this cosmos—the feline Ms. Newmar (and Kitt, her season-three replacement) notably excepted. Two Oscar winners—Anne Baxter (as Zelda the Great and Olga, Queen of the Cossacks) and Shelley Winters (as Ma Parker)—were not used to ideal effect. Others were luckier, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, who, as Minerva (the series’ final criminal), proved naturally flamboyant. And though one aging leading lady of the stage (Ethel Merman, as Lola Lasagne) accepted a role unworthy of her talents, another (Tallulah Bankhead, as Black Widow, her gray tresses notwithstanding) made the most of a part that would prove her last.

No one in his right mind would classify “Batman” as art, but amusement abounds here. And much of it derives from the ostentatious platform this series offered some of the 20th century’s most talented entertainers. Their portrayals suggest that they found the experience a lark—a chance to strut their stuff without restraint. Now, through home video, their admirers can enjoy such unbound performances whenever they choose.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on television, film and classical music.