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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Catwoman

It took almost a half century, but Fox and Warner Bros. finally put aside their film rivalry to co-release Batman: The Complete Television Series last month. It makes me want to drag my parents back together and sit them down on my living room couch to watch.

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I had no idea why they were laughing the first time we watched the show together. It seemed like a pretty serious situation to me: Batman facing down that dastardly cowboy villain “Shame.” They were sitting with me on the couch in the den, enjoying the apparently hilarious subtleties of Adam West’s superheroic performance. If I can trust the episode guide I skimmed online, this is February 1968. Which puts me a little under the age of two. So maybe we were watching a rerun?

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Whatever my extremely prepubescent age, I’m sure I had zero idea what Eartha Kit was doing in that slinky Catwoman costume. Nowadays I squirm just hearing the late Ms. Kit’s “Santa Baby” rasping from my favorite Christmas mix. I assume Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was equally incomprehensible. No smoldering voice, but the same cartoon-tight faux leather.

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I don’t know when a kid’s sexuality kicks in (“When did you first suspect your might be straight?”), but I must have had a thing for good girls early on. Because Batgirl I noticed. Yvonne Craig in costume still produces an impressive Google search.

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I sat through an entire episode of That Girl waiting for Marlo Thomas to open that secret compartment in her apartment wall and motorcycle out of the alley with her cape fluttering (I swore my mother had said the show was Bat Girl). But when Ms. Craig appeared on Star Trek as a green-skinned seductress who lap dances for Spock and lures Kirk onto a dimly lit bed, nothing in me recognized her. Apparently my pre-pre-adolescent id didn’t go for scantily clad She-Hulk types.

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“Spidey,” PBS’ mute Spider-Man mutation, premiered on The Electric Company when I was seven. I was too busy blinking at my first full TV crush to take notice of him. I’m relieved to report no nostalgic reactions to The Electric Company cast portraits I just scrolled through. I can’t even figure out which actress arrested my attention. Rita Moreno is my best guess. According to her online bio though, she would have been around forty at the time. I’m even more surprised looking back at the shows advertising slogan:

“We’re going to turn you on!”

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This may also be the year I started first grade, the year of my first crush on a non-TV entity. Her name was Marisa Moesta. Not quite as snappy as Lois Lane, but I understood the allure of comic book alliteration from an early age. I can’t picture Ms. Moesta, just the pink poodle key ring she gave me after I’d given her my own trinket of affection—what I can’t remember. But I carried her poodle in my utility belt for years. Though not, thankfully, to the Batcave of my current home.

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Wonder Woman premiered next, with Lynda Carter “In your satin tights / Fighting for your rights.” I had less interest in her underoos than my own. Ditto for Isis. Even I knew they’d only made her up to give the Shazam! Hour‘s Captain Marvel a girlfriend.

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My wife remembers Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, a female spin on the old Batman and Robin gag. I must have been too lazy to stand up and channel surf. Which is just as well since Dyna looks like she might have been my type. Those brunette ponytails. Electra’s Farah Fawcett curls still horrify.

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I’m sure I was continuing to miss subtleties, but my parents weren’t beside me on the couch anymore. When I set my smiley face alarm for cartoons one Saturday morning (Batman and Robin had recently guest starred on Scooby-Do), my mother was sleeping on the fold-out mattress in the den. I don’t know when they told my sister and me they were divorcing, but it was on that couch, the TV off for a change.

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When Batgirl and Robin showed up on a 30-second public-service announcement, it was some other guy in the Batman costume. Adam West was gone, desperate to escape his Caped Crusader’s shadow, a mission he would never complete. If Batman hadn’t been cancelled back in 1968, ABC would have broken up the Dynamic Duo anyway. Robin was to be replaced by Yvonne Craig’s more popular Batgirl. But bad ratings killed them all.

Congress had passed the Federal Equal Pay Act a decade earlier, but employers were still ignoring it. I don’t know if that included the University of Pittsburgh. After moving out, my mother got a job as an assistant in one of their research labs. My sister and I helped her feed rats on weekends. It couldn’t have been much above minimum wage. I doubt Batman: The Complete Television Series includes the PSA, but I remember every second:

Batman and Robin are tied to a warehouse pillar.

NARRATOR: A ticking bomb means trouble for Batman and Robin.

Batgirl swings through a window.

ROBIN: Holy breaking and entering, it’s Batgirl!

BATMAN: Quick, Batgirl, untie us before it’s too late.

BATGIRL: It’s already too late. I’ve worked for you for a long time, and I’m paid less than Robin.

Robin sneers.

BATGIRL: Same job, same employer means same pay for men and women.

BATMAN: No time for jokes, Batgirl.

BATGIRL: It’s no joke. It’s the Federal Equal Pay law.

ROBIN: Holy act of Congress!

Batgirl moves the minute hand forward on the ticking bomb.

BATGIRL (voice over): If you’re not getting equal pay, then contact the Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor.

At least Yvonne Craig and Robin actor Burt Ward were paid the same for the commercial: $0. The PSA started airing in 1973, when Craig was thirty-six. My mother was thirty-four. Craig’s final appearance as Batgirl also marked the end of her acting career. When she couldn’t get parts, she moved on to producing and then real estate.

Lynda Carter held on to her magic lasso for four seasons, but it didn’t matter. The joke was over. The Incredible Hulk was the new, angsty breed of superhero. No camp, no gratuitous display of women in swimsuits and bodystockings, just the brooding Bill Bixby wandering away alone once a week. By the time The Greatest American Hero premiered, I’d already turned off the TV.

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The list of superhero movies made since the 1978 Superman continues to grow exponentially, but I try to give a quick visual nod to each while lecturing in my Superhero course. After class a student told me I made the same remark three times:

“I never saw this, but I hear it’s terrible.”

There’s nothing so pleasantly humbling as a student spotting my professorial shortcomings. I make no apology for not seeing EVERY superhero film in existence, but the three I dismissed—Supergirl (1984), Cat Woman (2004), and Elektra (2005)—all feature female protagonists. In fact, my student noted, they are the ONLY superhero films to feature female protagonists on my list. I could blame Hollywood (is it really that hard to make a Wonder Woman movie?), but as a belated apology, let me offer a corrective instead.

I have seen and thoroughly recommend cinemas’ first catwoman. Not Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer—not even Lee Meriweather from the 1966 Batman spoof. The original bodysuited catburglar padded across screens a century ago. Silent age actress Musidora played the anti-heroine Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s seven-hour serial Les Vampires back in 1915.

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Vep (her name’s an anagram) is not a vampire of the blood-sucking variety but the leading member of a crime syndicate terrorizing Paris. Technically Philipe Guérande, the “star reporter” investigating the Vampires, is the serial’s hero, but after debuting in the third episode, Vep dominates. She’s the Vampires’ second in command, out living each of the four Grand Vampires she works beside. They all have their nefarious skill sets—disguise, poisons, paralysis glove, hypnotic eyes, even a retractable cannon fired from an apartment window—but none are as memorable as Musidora in a black bodysuit. She has a bit of the shapeshifting Mystique in her too, since she assumes the identities of her aristocratic victims so seamlessly. She and her Vampires also push the limits of early twentieth century technology, recording a millionaire’s voice on a wax cylinder and playing it over a telephone to authenticate a forged check.

But they’re not thrill-seeking pranksters. Episode one opens with the report of a police inspector’s decapitated body found in a swamp. Thirty minutes later, Philipe is opening a box with the missing head. Vep and her crew later dispatch a businessman with a hair pin through the back of his skull then shuck his body from a moving train. They murder a ballerina because she’s rumored to be Philipe’s fiancé.  They also have a knack for lassoing nooses around people’s necks and yanking them from balconies.

But the image that most haunts me is the ball thrown by a baron for his niece—really the Grand Vampire and Vep in disguise. The Parisian aristocracy gathers for the baron’s midnight “surprise” to find the windows boarded and toxic gas flooding through the vents. Feuillade’s camera is more stationary than many silent film directors’, but he’s a master of deep focus, staging a cascade of background and foreground action within a continuous frame. The gowned and tuxedoed guest flail and wilt across furniture and floors in a tableau of slaughter—followed by the silhouetted Vampires entering through a pair of backlit doors in the distant wall to plunder their jewels. When the police tear the planks from the windows the next morning, the guests miraculously revive (contradicting the verb “asphyxiate” in the translated intertitles).

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Despite the mayhem, Feuillade seems to be rooting for Vep. When Philipe and his comic sidekick capture Vep, she looks like a classic damsel-in-distress.  If you watched episode nine out of sequence, you would mistake her for the heroine, valiantly struggling against her kidnappers. In fact, Vep, more than all the plundered jewels and bank accounts, is the serial’s prize. The first and second Grand Vampires battle against the rival criminal Moreno not just for control of Paris but of Vep. Moreno falls for her, hypnotizes her into loving him, and next she’s gunning down her former boss. When the captured Moreno is executed between episodes (I suspect the actor was called away on war duty), the next Grand Vampire, Venomous, proposes.

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Philipe’s wedding (Feulliade, apparently filming on the fly, introduces his fiancé with equal haste) occurs between episodes, but the final, “The Terrible Wedding,” features the Vampires in rambunctious celebration (I rewound the bodysuited dance duet to watch twice). Again, if watched out of sequence, the gangs looks like a fun-loving pack of pals—until Philipe and the police break in and gun them down. Some scramble for the balcony, but Philipe has sawed the floor so they plunge to the cement below where they writhe and die. It’s a surprisingly brutal ending. Only Vep escapes, sneaking to the basement where the heroes’ captured brides are imprisoned. But Philipe has already lowered a gun to them, and his wife shoots Vep dead just before the heroes enter, embracing their wives before Vep’s corpse. The End.

Feulliade may have been shooting for gritty realism (Paris had recently suffered the reign of the very real Bonnot Gang), but the accumulative effect is surrealism. He also established a host of action tropes still being duplicated— a chase atop a moving train, a hero yelling “Follow that cab!” as he leaps into a backseat, a bad guy swallowing a hidden cyanide capsule, and (since the capsule only induced a temporary comma) a prison break.

Feulliade had ventured into crime serials with Fantomos the year before, but Les Vampires inspired him further, shooting with the same cast for Judex and The New Mission of Judex. The effect is further dizzying, since it’s Musidora, not the titular hero, in the opening scene. Despite the name change, Vep is back, plotting more impersonations and seducing Santanas, the second Grand Vampire—only now he’s some evil banker. Philipe’s been demoted to the hero’s extraneous brother, but his comic sidekick is front and center as a bumbling detective, the proto-Clouseau. It’s like watching the latest Joss Whedon production, waiting to see witch Buffy or Firefly or Dollhouse actor is going to appear next.

Despite hiring a playwright to give Judex relative continuity, Feulliade repeats a few of his Vampire tricks—like throwing a sack over a good guy’s head so when he switches bodies and escapes the bad guys murder one of their own. Sadly when Musidora’s body washes ashore in the final episode, Feulliade doesn’t reprise her for the sequel—so maybe it’s just as well all the prints are lost. The closest we have to a Les Vampires remake is fellow French director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep—a meta-film about the making of a remake (which I also recommend). So pay attention Hollywood. Cinema’s original supervillainess is waiting for her reboot.

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