Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bat-Month: "Fine Feathered Finks"/"The Penguin's a Jinx"

Continuing my reviews of classic "Batman" episodes, I bring you some thoughts regarding the Penguin's debut two-parter.

First, it seems that opening the show with Dick taking some kind of lesson, finding it pointless, and being admonished by Bruce that it's key to world peace, is a theme (or a running gag). This time, it's French.

We're introduced to Warden Crichton and his "progressive penology" here. They keep harping on the word "progressive," while also showing how silly (and ineffective) the Warden's policies have been. I suspect a subtle political subtext.

In this case, Crichton's policies include allowing criminals to wear their civvies the week before they're released, to better acclimate them to normal society, and secretly videotaping them in their cells. Now, the former is kind of strange, but the latter seems to me to be a gross violation of civil rights. Even a criminal like the Penguin still has rights, and if I were Oswald, I'd be phoning my local ACLU and Amnesty International chapters as soon as I walked out of the penitentiary grounds.

It's interesting to note that the show--intentionally or otherwise--exposes the problem with constant surveillance (one which persists to this very day). Even though this tape is days old, and even though it shows the Penguin plotting his first post-release crimes--which he has already started committing--it's clear that no one has watched it. Big Brother is watching, but he only has so many eyes.

Robin wonders aloud why they're even releasing the Penguin, and both the Warden and Commissioner Gordon are taken aback. "Ours is a rule of law, Boy Wonder," says Gordon. "When a man has paid his debt to society, he must be released." Poor Robin; with everyone from Aunt Harriet to Commissioner Gordon constantly scolding him, it's clear that he's the show's very own Wesley Crusher.

Speaking of Commissioner Gordon, there's another fine example of Gotham City's tax dollars at work. Since they know the Penguin's plan involves umbrellas, Batman suggests they start by looking for any umbrella factories that have opened in the last three days. Now, I can think of several ways of obtaining large quantities of umbrellas quickly that would be better than opening an umbrella factory, but I guess that's why I'm not the World's Greatest Detective.

Anyway, after they've pored over the city records for a whole commercial break, Commissioner Gordon comes back with this gem:
Gordon: Three new umbrella factories, none of them unfortunately in the name of Penguin. It's a dead end!
Ladies and gentlemen, your Gotham City Police Department.

I don't know what's more surprising: that Gordon expects a criminal to open up a front in his own name, or that the umbrella industry in Gotham City is so booming that it can support three factories in the last three days alone! What, is the rainy season approaching?

It gets worse:
Robin: Could he be using an alias?

Batman: Good thinking, Robin!
Ladies and gentlemen, the World's Greatest Detective.

The Penguin's scheme here is actually very clever. He's going to release a bunch of senseless umbrellas into the city, then let Batman draw connections between them, thus planning his crime for him! It'd be ingenious if it weren't for the fact that Batman would necessarily know about the crimes before the Penguin was going to commit them, which ought to make it really easy to get caught. But otherwise, a crime wave by way of pareidolia? Good show, Mr. Cobblepot.

Penguin is really impressing me here. Batman decides to bug the Penguin's factory, in order to discover his real plans, but goes as Bruce Wayne, so he'll be incognito. No sooner has he placed the bug, when an alarm sounds and a net drops on him. Two of Penguin's goons come out of the back room to restrain him while Penguin knocks him out with some gas from his umbrella, mentioning how glad he was to have put an anti-bugging system in. The Penguin is turning out to be a genuine mastermind here.

And this is basically how the first episode ends, with an unconscious Bruce Wayne, mistaken for a rival umbrella company's industrial espionage agent (what the hell is going on with Gotham's umbrella industry?), tied up and placed on a slow-moving conveyor belt heading for the furnace they use to forge the umbrella core and spokes.

Naturally, Bruce escapes. He returns to the Batcave, where he and Robin continue trying to puzzle out the Penguin's latest scheme. Back at the umbrella factory, though, the Penguin remains one step ahead. The umbrella that the Dynamic Duo has been examining--the one most clearly styled as a clue--is itself a bug, allowing the Penguin to eavesdrop on Batman and Robin's investigation!

Which brings up several questions: if the Penguin is this smart, how does he ever get caught? Why doesn't the Batcave have an anti-bug system like the Penguin's hideout? How can a series deconstruct itself in the second story?

I have seriously underestimated both the Penguin and this series.

Batman and Robin, true to Penguin's predictions, deduce that Penguin's planning to kidnap a movie star, and discuss in detail how he plans to do it. The Penguin decides to give the Batman a little surprise when he arrives.

Incidentally, Batman calls Robin "old man" periodically. It's an interesting nickname, and one that, just by existing, lends some depth to their relationship.

We cut to the starlet's penthouse (at the Pelican Arms), where she's doing a sultry photo shoot on a pink shag rug in a gold jumpsuit for "Funboy" magazine. Oooh, racy.

Batman, having not yet developed the grapple gun, has to use the Batzooka to fire a grappling hook up to the penthouse window. It's about as stealthy as it sounds like it would be. The heroes warn Dawn Robbins about the kidnapping plot, then plan a trap for the Penguin. Eventually, the Penguin--who's been watching the whole scene--enters the room and knocks out Dawn and her agent with some knockout gas. Batman and Robin enter with gas masks, but the Penguin's still a step ahead, having rigged an electromagnet which pulls the Dynamic Duo inexorably toward the wall by attracting their utility belts. And there is no way this scene could be filmed without looking ten kinds of wrong:

So the kidnapping goes off, just as Batman planned, while he and Robin struggle to remove their belts. We find out the next day how they managed to escape:
Robin: If that room service waiter hadn't come in at midnight, we might still be stuck there.
The more I think about this image, the funnier it gets.

The Penguin asks for a ransom, and for some reason he wants the trade to go down in the front hall of Wayne Manor, since it's a neutral location. Batman and Robin plan to hide in suits of armor in the hall, ready to pounce when the deal is made.

Penguin, of course, hears all this, because Batman was kind enough to bring the umbrella along. I certainly hope at this point that Batman's figured out it's a listening device, because otherwise this is just getting sad.

The Penguin and his goons enter Wayne Manor, gassing Alfred, and then Batman and Robin in their suits of armor, immediately. Then they take the ransom money and leave the girl. At least he's true to his word.

Upon returning to the umbrella factory, though, the Penguin makes a startling discovery: Batman and Robin! They figured it out when Penguin used the exact same words at the penthouse to describe his caper that Batman and Robin had used in the Batcave. They discovered the transmitter and set the trap, using dummies in the suits of armor and hiding out in the hideout the whole time. Naturally, next comes the battle.

It starts amusingly enough as a fencing match with umbrellas, which the Penguin's crew wins quickly. Once it turns to fisticuffs, though, the fight's over pretty quickly. The police arrive, and Batman makes a clever quip. We might expect the episode to end there, but it doesn't.

For some reason, there's an upper-class dinner party at Wayne Manor the week after the crime spree. There, we get our first glimpse at Bruce Wayne, playa:

He leaves this bevy of beauties to welcome starlet Dawn Robbins, but she's cold and distant. As it turns out, though she only saw him for a moment, she's fallen hopelessly in love with Batman. Ah, if only she were Kim Basinger, Batman could take her in his cape and...hang upside-down or something. God, Tim Burton was weird.

So, the overall verdict? This was a great story, at least for the Penguin. Batman and Robin don't come out looking quite so good, since Penguin effortlessly outsmarted them in every step except the last, and the Gotham Police Department is apparently staffed by certified imbeciles.

It's worth noting that I've watched four different stories since I acquired these episodes, and each one begins with some crime, after which the Gotham Police officers stand around talking about how useless they are, and how the only people who can possibly solve the crime are Batman and Robin. At first, I thought this was particularly demeaning to the GCPD, but after seeing a few of these, I think it might just be an honest assessment of their complete inneffectiveness.

I mentioned in the last review that I wanted to pay more attention to the fight scenes, and I'm glad I did. The real stand-out of this episode is the umbrella fencing match, in which the Penguin and his men handily disarmed the Dynamic Duo. As with the rest of the episode, Batman and Robin come out on the bottom of the situation, and it serves to demonstrate that there are at least some things at which the Penguin is better than Batman.

Which brings us to Burgess Meredith's Penguin. Maybe it's just the strength of the story, but Meredith is fantastic, and the character is great. As much as I saw elements of Romero's Joker that may have made their way into later portrayals, it's clear that every subsequent version of the Penguin stands in Meredith's shadow1. I'd even go so far as to say that Meredith's Penguin is the most well-remembered character--or at least villain--of the series. Part of that might be due to our most recent former Vice President, who bore various striking resemblances to the character and allowed for eight years of photoshopping and impressions. But then, there's a good thirty-odd years in-between, and I suspect a lot of the endurance of the character in the public consciousness owes to that distinctive catch-phrase (or more accurately, catch-quack), "waugh waugh waugh." There's been a trend recently in the comics to bring the "waugh" back, but I think it just tends to look silly on the page. Strangely, I don't have a problem with hearing it. Meredith is a real treat here, and is as close to threatening as I can imagine happening in this show. He is believable as a criminal mastermind (again, partially due to the quality of the story), and makes a credible adversary for Batman.

Anyway, this is a fantastic story, and really makes me reconsider the capabilities fo the 1966 Batman series. If you get a chance to watch this two-parter, take it.

1. I say this with a caveat: I'm not sure what the Penguin was like pre-Meredith, so I'm not sure how closely his portrayal mirrors the comic series. Even so, I suspect that Meredith's version has had a major impact on other Penguins, either through homage or response.

1 comment:

Anthony Strand said...

This is such a fun series of posts. Makes me want to track down some episodes of the show, which I haven't seen in probably a decade (I've seen the 1966 movie several times in the last few years, however). Anyway, here's hoping you do a Riddler story soon!