Full disclosure: I love the 1966 Batman series. Yes it is campy. Yes it is over the top and often stupid. But nevertheless it is one of the few shows which really hold up. Well, the first two seasons do. I think the third one is kind of lacking. There is a very fine line between “stupidly funny” and just “stupid”, and the third season was more than once at least three steps over it.
I have though a lot about why this show works so well. And then I remembered one incident, when I was watching the show and my mother entered the room. She took one glance at the screen and said something along the line of “What a nonsense. Those people are just driving around with their car and their mask in broad daylight and nobody cares.” And I said: “Yeah, that’s kind of the point.”
Thinking back at this incident I realized something: No matter how stupid the show got, the cast always took it seriously and played it that way. Oh, they knew that the show was a pile of nonsense, but they didn’t make the mistake to believe that they should treat their characters as anything less than people who believed in what they did. I think the show would only be half as funny if not for Adam West and Burt Ward playing their roles so straightforward. It didn’t matter if Batman delivered an overly preachy speech, made an off-the-wall conclusion or how often Robin said “holy something”, it was always done in a serious tone. No matter how over-the-top the text was, the delivery never was. And the narrator (I am partial of the German one, though) always managed to sneak in a vibe of true danger, even though everyone know that Batman and Robin would free themselves out of the trap of the week by the next episode.
The villains were just as enjoyable. Even though they acted frankly ridiculous, most of them managed to come off as threatening nevertheless. My favourites were always Frank Gershin as The Riddler and Catwoman, played by Julie Newmar. For me, she defined what Catwoman should be like. And her absence is another reason why I am not into the third season of the show. While Lee Meriwether, who took over the role for the movie, was at least not grating in the role, even though she was just a weak copy of Newmar, the casting of Eartha Kitt always puzzled me. I usually like Eartha Kitt, but the sudden shift to a very aggressive and physical Catwoman never worked for me. She lacked the natural grace Newmar had.
So, what made this particular Catwoman so great that the character went from a minor villain to one of the most important characters in the Batman comics? The short answer is sex appeal. To clarify, a very special kind of sex appeal.
Sex sells. And because it does, there are a lot of female characters in the Media whose main job is to look sexy. None of them will ever made it into my blog. So why do I make an exception for Catwoman?
Well, for one, context matters. Is the 1966 Catwoman a layered character? No. But none of the characters in this show were, especially not the villains. As I already pointed out when I wrote about Gamora, a villain doesn’t have to be layered to work. Catwoman with her playful nature, and her aggressiveness towards Robin (whom she apparently perceives as an obstacle) has actually more going for her than any other character in the show.
In addition there is a huge difference between some boob shots and true sex appeal, and I think it starts with the actress herself. Word is that the look of Catwoman’s costume, especially the idea with the hip-belt, was her idea. She decided that adding some spice was the right way to go with the character. But she never fell into the usual stereotypes for a character like this. She was neither the helpless damsel, nor stupid, nor a femme fatale. While she was flirting with Batman, sex was never truly a weapon for her. She always gave up the vibe that she was alluring because she felt very comfortable in her own skin and enjoyed to show the fact off.
Newmar even managed to work the lack of physical power to her advantage. Now, none of the Villains back then were truly fighters. They had henchmen for that. But Catwoman took this to another level. When hell broke loose around her she was just laying there, doing her nail in a manner you could practically see the “Only brawn and no brain” thought-bubble over her head. And with her I had never any doubt that she could take out Batman if she really wanted to, unlike the other villains she just was not truly interested in doing so. The elaborate traps were mostly a game for her and whenever she lost, she took it with aplomb. With her I always got the impression that she was not really interested in money or jewellery, the only thing she cared about was the game and the loot was just a way to count the points.
For me Newmar set the standard for Catwoman, a standard so high that it took decades for any actress to capture the role to my satisfaction. But that’s a topic for the next post.
Quote: The early cat catches the bat-man.
If you haven’t already just watch a Batman episode (preferable with one of the big villains in it). You either like it or you don’t. Now, some people claim that the Schumacher Batman movies are a modern version of the series. I disagree. They are clearly inspired by it, but there is no understanding why this show worked in the first place. It was not about selling toys or doing something supposedly kid-friendly (honestly, I would rather show my kid any of the Batman movies than exposing them to this kind of brain melting nonsense), it captured a certain era in Comic book history with a lot of love and a wink in the eye. The true spiritual successor is for me the animated series “Batman: The Black and the Bold”.