Leslie H. Martinson dead: Director of first Batman movie dies at 101
One scene explains everything great about the Caped Crusader's first big-screen outing
As an epitaph, “Consistently Employed” is underrated. Steady work is hard to come by. That’s true everywhere, and it’s true in Hollywood. And of all the big dreams that power Hollywood — dreams of fame and fortune, dreams of an Oscar in every room of your home security compound, dreams of knowing that the selfie an ordinary citizen takes with you will be the only photo they ever post on Facebook to get over 200 likes — the first big dream is just to work at all, on anything, for money if possible, salary negotiable, no perks expected.
And say this for Leslie H. Martinson: He worked in Hollywood for a long, long, long time. Originally a Boston newspaperman, he started working at MGM as a script supervisor right after World War II. The small screen beckoned. He became a TV director, and he worked across TV history. He was there when fading movie stars sought second life, The Mickey Rooney Show and The Roy Rogers Show. He was there for the Westerns, Colt .45 and Cheyenne and Lawman. He directed episodes of Brady Bunch and Mission: Impossible, CHiPs and Diff’rent Strokes. He directed 18 episodes of Maverick, and then 20 years later he directed one episode of Young Maverick.
Forty-plus years of working as a TV director: That’s enough reason to honor Martinson, who died this past weekend, age 101. Another reason: Martinson was the first man ever to direct a Batman feature film. The job came his way 50 years ago. Martinson directed a couple episodes of the Batman TV show’s first season. (“The Penguin Goes Straight”: Spoiler alert, he doesn’t actually.) The show was a big hit. They wanted to race a movie into theaters, in the summertime between seasons. Decades later, in an interview, Martinson would recall the film’s fast pace. “Show it in 27 days, for not very much money,” he explained. “They wanted to see that picture in a hurry, the executives.”
Batman: The Movie is a film in a hurry. It starts with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson driving a cool car down the open road; they arrive at Wayne Mansion, head straight to the Batcave, then drive the Batmobile away, driving another cool car down another open road.
This takes a minute, and the film hasn’t even finished getting started. As scripted by Lorenzo Semple Jr., Batman: The Movie is unquestionably a goof, possibly a parody, maybe a Pop Art masterpiece — but the opening sequence is pure bliss, filmed by Martinson with a droll steadiness. Batman and Robin drive the Batmobile to the airport, where their trusty engineers have prepared the trusty Batcopter.
They fly off, taking a tour of quote-unquote “Gotham City,” rendered here as a dream of Los Angeles worthy of Grand Theft Auto V. They fly over Westwood, where (for no obvious reason) there is a squad of bikini-clad women on the rooftop of the Kirkeby Center. The women wave at the heroes. They fly over Century City, where a squad of LAPD officers, presumably in the middle of what Thomas Pynchon would call “a busy day of civil rights violations,” salute the heroes. A Jack Klugman look-alike picnics with a Lady Bird Johnson look-alike in a park. “Gives a feller a good feeling to know they’re up their doing their job,” says faux-Klugman, mid-sandwich.
And then Batman and Robin fly out to sea, and then Batman punches a shark, and then the shark explodes.
Even factoring in inflation, it cost a ludicrously tiny fraction of what later live-action Caped Crusader films would cost. The film reflects a complete unseriousness about its subject matter, maybe because circa 1966 the mere idea of a man dressing up in a Bat-costume was still prima facie ridiculous. (We’re much smarter now; or, maybe, we’re whatever “smarter” isn’t.)
But there’s a truly glorious energy in this opening sequence, and throughout the movie, that goes beyond low-budget silliness, or “so bad it’s good” sarcasm. Cheap as Batman: The Movie was, what you can feel in this opening sequence is the film’s wonder at its own hyperbole. Was there time for Martinson to enjoy filming this stuff? Maybe not — four weeks to film a feature means four weeks without sleep — but you can feel how much this movie glories in its own panoramic muchness. One cool car, and another cool car, and a helicopter! Women love them, policemen approve of them, heteronormative American domesticity depends on them! Automobiles, aircraft, seacraft, oh my! The best joke in the opening sequence isn’t that Batman and Robin have “Shark Repellent.” It’s that they don’t just have Shark Repellent:
What wonder in that opening sequence, what droll joy! The speed, the money, the sex, the special effects, the fetish for new technology (helicopters!), the chance to see everything you never get to see in the real world. Leslie H. Martinson was a steady presence, a trusted hand, a proven professional. Batman: The Movie is madness bottled: The wonder of movies filmed by the consummate TV man.