“Hi Diddle Riddle” and “Smack in the Middle” were the first two half-hour length episodes of BATMAN. The two-parter marked the first appearance of Frank Gorshin as The Riddler.
“Hi Diddle Riddle”/”Smack in the Middle” was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by Robert Butler. They were first broadcast on Wednesday January 12 and Thursday January 13, 1966 respectively on the ABC television network.
In January 1966, the first wave of Batmania hit the world in the form of the Adam West starring BATMAN, a series which never really left the public consciousness, despite being disavowed several times in the ensuing decades by Batman fans desperate for a more serious take on the character. Yet, without the boost the series gave to the sales of the comic books, there may not have been a series of comic books to darken the character to his original roots in the first place. Such is the complicated history of Batman which often finds the character shifting with the times and that very malleability ensuring his survival.
Some of those shifts in Batman have been lost in time. Others have stuck around. The fact that 50 years after the series debuted that it’s finally being released, looking better than ever in high definition, to much fanfare should tell us all that the series struck some chord that continues to resonate. You can write about the live action history of Batman while giving a cursory mention to the serials of the 1940s, which apparently inspired the development of the Adam West series. You can’t address the live action history of Batman without discussing the Adam West series, the highs and lows, and trying to assess its place in the multimedia history of Batman. That’s something that we here at Batman on Film are going to do, taking a look at every episode of the series and offering our commentary. It’s something we’re all excited to do, perhaps because the show has stood up to time while the latest rumor about an upcoming movie has a shelf date.
BATMAN has one of the greatest pilot kickoffs of all time as it hits the ground running in look, structure, tone, performance, and many of the little details that made the show a groundbreaking instant success. Keith Phipps of The Dissolve recently noted, when discussing the 1980 comedy classic AIRPLANE!, that “Much of Airplane!’s genius comes from it being THIS close to what it’s sending up.” The same sentiment applies to BATMAN, which preceded AIRPLANE! by a full 14 years. Heck, we can go further, the big joke conceived by William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple Jr. is that BATMAN is exactly what it’s sending up only with little to no allowance for the live action medium of television compared to the medium of comic books. Short of superimposing comic book gutters on the screen, it looks like a Carmine Infantino drawn comic of the time, with primary colors abounding, a sleek modern Batmobile, helpful labels for the unknown equipment in the Batcave, a square jawed hero at the center of the action, the tilted angles, and an emphasis on action scenes complete with superimposed sound effects. You can step right from the television series to the comic books of the time and earlier, and not miss a step although it will read differently in its native medium and proper context. By not making concessions to the new medium, BATMAN stood out then as something different and it stands out now for the same reasons.
The conceit of BATMAN being what it’s sending up also brings up one of the strengths of the series, we care about how the plot is being developed and how it’s resolved. Sure, we all know children took the adventure seriously while adults were laughing with the show. But, I’d also suggest that the laughter wasn’t completely of derision, but of some honest child-like joy at seeing things that thrilled us as children come to life and engage our inner sense of wonder. (I’d suggest that many of the Marvel movies play to a similar sense of joy while taking themselves a little more seriously than BATMAN.) The stories are designed to be engaging and challenge the audience to see if they can outsmart Batman. There are riddles to solve and cliffhangers to escape with our wits, and if we figure out the answers before Batman we’ve accomplished what the villains are ultimately seeking. When BATMAN is doing that, I’d argue it’s at its strongest, and when it cheats by whipping a deus ex machina out of the utility belt or having the Batcomputer spit out the answer, it’s unsatisfying.
Which brings us around to the actual episodes that launched the show, and which I find very satisfying. Both episodes are loose adaptations of BATMAN #171 “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler”, the Riddler’s first appearance since the 1940s. Obviously the creative team picked up a handful of comic books for inspiration and that issue and Carmine Infantino’s artwork must have struck a chord. Basing it on an actual comic book story gives the episodes a solid spine to hang their gags on.
As this is the first installment, and these episodes set up the whole series, I’ll be breaking the episode down in more detail than subsequent entries as it will define the mechanics for much that comes after.
Even back in the 1960s, an origin story was not out of place as a pilot episode. Not here, as everybody jumps right into the world of Batman and the adventure at hand while it efficiently sets up all the relationships, establishes that Batman has been doing this for a while and this is not his first encounter with the Riddler, and makes the episode something that could air at almost any time. Lorenzo Semple Jr. gets a lot of credit for his jokes, but structurally this is a very efficient script as well. Before the credits roll we’re introduced to the idea of the Riddler and the fact that he’s too much for the police, meet Chief O’Hara and Commissioner Gordon, have the ever polite Alfred (played by wonderful character actor Alan Napier probably most famous for his role in the classic haunted house movie THE UNINVITED) pickup the red phone and notify Bruce Wayne, who’s entertaining an anti-crime charity committee and regretting that if it only could helped prevent the murder of his parents, introduces the exuberant Dick Grayson and the clueless Aunt Harriett, and reveals the Bat-pole entrance to the Batcave. It’s a breathless pace. It tells us what it needs to tell us, shows us things that don’t require explanation, and gets us off to the races to see Batman and Robin versus the Riddler.
Then we cut to the very memorable credits, which sums up much of the show with the driving Nelson Riddle theme. Even people who haven’t seen the show in years know the theme. It’s perhaps slightly notable that while the actual show itself reflects the art style of Carmine Infantino, the actual style of the credits reflects a Dick Sprang / Sheldon Moldoff / Bob Kane aesthetic. You can also tell that they were still figuring out character designs when they put together the credits as The Joker and, especially, Catwoman look off model. Not complaints, per se, but just observations.
The fast pace continues as Batman and Robin arrive in the Batcave, run to the Batmobile and it’s trademark rear jet flame that will be an influence on every subsequent live action Batmobile, and then race to the police headquarters. You’d expect a fairly static scene as Batman unravels The Riddler’s first riddle “Why is an orange like a bell? Because they both need to be peeled.” Instead of just standing around, director Robert Butler has the characters pace and criss-cross back and forth in the frame which again underlines the show’s sense of movement.
It’s also worth noting that Batman’s first real action is a display of his mental prowess. Subsequent first appearances of Batman will stress the action element first, but the television show structures itself around the villains attempting to outsmart the seemingly infallible Batman. Beyond the camp, that’s one of the most defining characteristics that subsequent iterations aren’t duplicating which makes watching BATMAN a unique experience even if you’re more a fan of the dark iterations.
And again we’re off, after efficiently visiting all of the major standing sets, to the Peale art gallery where Batman is sure that the Riddler has set up a trap. They even receive a riddle via Bat-phone “There are three men with four cigarettes in a boat but no matches. How do they smoke?” At this point, the show finally decides to slow down some. And we get our first real gags. The show started out light and a bit cartoony with the Ambassador of Moldavia, the exposition heavy dialogue, and the idea that the police that can’t solve a fairly obvious riddle, but has generally played it pretty straight. That ends with the first Bat climb as Batman and Robin hold a conversation while climbing a building at the trademark canted angle. It continues with Batman pulling a handy Bat-hook out of his utility belt to hang a metal barred grate he cut with a laser instead of throwing it to the ground, because of a danger to pedestrians, even if there are no pedestrians around.
It’s at this point we get our first look at Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, he’s all lean and wiry in a snazzy suit instead of tights. His first appearance is apparently holding a gun so he actually cuts a fairly menacing figure. Which of course results in Batman and Robin leaping in, in a nicely composed shot, and quickly apprehending the giggling madman. The level of energy and insanity that Gorshin brings to the role shouldn’t be understated as it sets the tone for all the guest villains to come.
At which point the show takes a turn irreversibly for the silly as the Riddler’s plan all along was to be falsely arrested, with convenient photographers to document Batman’s actions. It turns out that the gun was a cigarette lighter, dramatically lit in Batman’s face, and the answer to the second riddle is “They threw one cigarette overboard and made the boat a cigarette lighter.” All in the name of the Riddler slapping Batman with a lawsuit for false arrest with the threat that Batman will have to remove his cowl in court to testify, effectively destroying Batman’s secret identity. That sounds a lot more serious than it plays, and even then it sounds not very serious. But, it’s also a piece of plotting that’s fairly clever. What looked like a straight story of Batman following clues reveals itself to have unexpected layers.
It’s a fairly long setup for the show revealing itself for what it truly is. Something that you can’t pull off in anything other than a pilot. Perhaps looking at the show in the context of syndication doesn’t allow one to clearly see how the show was structured to reveal its layers gradually, but it slowly works its way towards its campy heights and doesn’t look back much once it’s fully gotten there.
Like an onion, another plot layer reveals itself later as it turns out that there’s a pair of riddles hidden in the papers the Riddler served Batman which leads Batman and Robin to the “What a Way to Go Go” club. Which is all part of a plot by the Riddler, now in a full blown comic book style body suit further revealing it’s camp, as he leads the Mole Hill gang through the sewers with henchwoman Molly, the gorgeous Jill St. John, to spring the latest trap. It’s here that Adam West fully reveals his comic chops, as without the underage Robin he enters the disco and interacts with the patrons, deadpanning that he’d like to sit at the bar as he doesn’t want to attract attention, which is patently ridiculous. Things continue on with Batman drinking a drugged orange juice, and dancing with Molly doing the famous Batusi, something that would stick in popular culture long enough for John Travolta to imitate it in PULP FICTION.
Ultimately the first episode ends on a cliffhanger with the local police taking Batman’s keys away as he’s in no condition to drive, the Batsignal blazing in the night sky, and The Riddler apparently about to perform some operation on Robin. The show will have many silly cliffhangers, but there’s actually an air of menace to this cliffhanger that balances the camp. What’s really funny about a crazy villain about to cut into a teenager?
You can still see that the show is forming itself, as it announces that we should tune in tomorrow, “Same Time. Same Channel.” without the Bat- prefix. But, all the basics are in place and done with style. Similar to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, BATMAN is a snapshot of the 1960s, colorful, irreverent, and full of energy. The first episode set a high bar. Subsequent episodes would have a hard time measuring up. In many aspects, the second episode of the story can’t quite measure up to the energy and pace of the first episode.
Of course, it doesn’t help making a dynamic scene when one of your actors, Burt Ward in this case, is tied down. Still, the second episode shows signs of the weekly grind that limits the imagination that can go into the show as it’s not full of the dizzying array of events, movement, gadgets, and characters that went into the first episode. And the show still hasn’t mastered every one of its trademarks as we come back from the cliffhanger at the start of the next morning, immediately deflating whatever tension that the cliffhanger was aiming for. It turns out that the Riddler was merely interested in making a mold of Robin’s face so that Molly (!) can masquerade as Robin and infiltrate the Bat-cave. If Adam West got his chance to show his comic chops in the go go club, Burt Ward gets to be ridiculous by posing and sashaying as Molly in disguise.
Still, there’s fun to be had. A phone call with a couple of riddles to Batman leads to Batman chasing down the Riddler and Molly in the Batmobile. The Batmobile gets to show off even more of its featuring including a parachute assisted u-turn and Bat-rays that send the Riddler’s car into a crash. If there is a television prop hall of fame, the Batmobile is a first ballot entry.
That leads back to the Bat-cave where Batman reveals that he saw through Molly’s disguise due to the air holes in the mold, with a particularly on the nose pun that there was a hole in their plans. That leads to a chase in the Bat-cave, with a nice bit of wirework as Adam West climbs a bat-line to the reactor, that culminates with Molly falling to her death and Adam West delivering the show defining line “What a terrible way to go go.” in a fantastic deadpan.
It’s worth noting that while BATMAN is knowingly silly and ridiculous, death still exists in this universe and it will through much of the first season. The balancing of the silly with the more straightforward dramatic stakes is one of the things that I make the series works and when it gets out of balance, almost always towards pure camp, I think the series suffers for it. Here in the first story, I think it adds a great deal to the show working.
The show then goes to wrap up mode with Batman rescuing Robin, after analyzing a phone call from the Riddler, and Batman and Robin unraveling the Riddler’s last two riddles. They play up this moment for suspense as Robin misinterprets the riddles, when it leads full circle back to the opening scene and the Moldavian ambassador’s pavilion where the Riddler is planning to steal a priceless mammoth. Although not mentioned, it’s a clever touch on Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s part that the last series of riddles includes a riddle about a circle considering that the story basically ends where it began.
In the leadup to the finale, we spend a good chunk of the time with the Riddler as the point of view of the story shifts while we wonder if Batman has been upstaged. There’s a gag where the Riddler slides down a ventilation shaft located in the basement and emerges on the first floor. And for the first time we see that Bat-villains are basically performing their crimes as performance art, as the Riddler, through the aid of laughing gas has the whole audience at a grand unveiling laughing until they fall over into unconsciousness with the aid of laughing gas.
It’s at this point that Batman and Robin burst forth revealing that they had indeed decoded the Riddler’s clues and we see our first big fight scene and the first time that, like the credits, the trademark biffs, pows, and whams are superimposed on the screen. It must have taken some discipline to set up this joke, but this discipline pays off in a big way. It’s a trick that they save for the feature film version.
Of course, Batman and Robin win, and the Riddler is apparently blown up like in his first comic book appearance, although Gorshin is of course too much fun that there’s never a doubt that he’ll return. But it’s still a classic comic book style ending. There’s an epilogue where Bruce Wayne mourns that he couldn’t save Molly, complete with mixed metaphors and a pun about how she was like someone who disappeared in a puff of smoke, and everything is wrapped up for our next adventure with the dynamic duo.
I’ve compared BATMAN to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT above so let me continue. There’s nothing in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT that prevents someone from admiring The Beatles as serious musicians. There’s nothing in BATMAN that should prevent someone from enjoying the more serious adventures of the character. Serious adventures that we’ve gotten, mostly, for the last 25 years in animation and live action. Enjoy this show for what it is, there’s much to admire for strong visual design and sheer inventiveness, and fault it for its missteps, but it’s long past time to get over the inferiority complex that fandom has suffered from. Batman can be a serious creature of the night. Batman can also be a campy caped crusader having colorful adventures with over the top villains. Batman contains multitudes.- Robert Reineke