Mike Gold: Alfred, Master of the Butlerverse!

alfred the butler 1943When it comes to the world of heroic fantasy, there have been a hell of a lot of really great butlers. We’ve got such luminaries as Ram Singh (The Spider), Bernardo (Zorro), Cadbury (Richie Rich), Ianto Jones (Torchwood), Lurch (The Addams Family), Max von Mayerling (Sunset Boulevard), two different Smitherses (Veronica Lodge and the Simpsons), Fritz Brenner (Nero Wolfe), Birmingham Brown (Charlie Chan) and of course Edwin Jarvis (The Avengers or Agent Carter – take your pick). There were the Green Hornet’s Kato, but that dude was more of a partner/sidekick than a butler, and Jack Benny’s pal Rochester was only technically a butler. He was actually Benny’s arch-enemy.

But head and shoulders above all other butlers, the king of the mountain of butlers is Bruce Wayne’s own Alfred Pennyworth. You can tell from the actors who played him on film and television – Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gough, Sean Pertwee, David McCallum, Alan Napier, to name but a few.

However, the actor who most looked like the Alfred Pennyworth of comic book and newspaper strip fame was a gentleman named William Austin, and he didn’t even receive screen credit.

Austin played Bruce Wayne’s gentleman’s gentleman in the 1943 serial, aptly named Batman. If you’re curious, you can check him out on TCM Saturday mornings at 10 AM Eastern. In fact, Alfred plays a major role in this coming Saturday’s episode, “Poison Peril.”

If you’ve never seen a movie serial, well, for most these days that’s an acquired taste. Imagine a movie with the budget of Doctor Who. The original 1963 version of Doctor Who. Now imagine spreading that budget out over 260 minutes carved into 15 spine-tinglingish parts. Worse still, Batman was made by Columbia Pictures, which at the time was Hollywood’s bargain basement so we’d better cut that budget in half. If you enjoy wonderful cheapness – and I do – then movie serials should be right up your alley.

This 1943 production starred Lewis Wilson as the title character, and when not in costume he truly looked like the Bruce Wayne of the comics. In costume, he truly looked like an idiot. But he came off a lot better than Douglas Croft’s Robin, who, according to IMDB, was 17 at the time. In costume, he looked like a 40 playing the lead in Eraserhead.

The remarkable J. Carrol Naish played the ominous villain Dr. Daka, the yellow peril of the week as mitigated by World War II. Naish was a world-class character actor with a list of performances as long as your arm. Longer.

The 1943 Batman serial was pretty damn close to its comic book origins, perhaps closer than any other filmed incarnation. But for today’s comic book fan, it is William Austin’s performance as Alfred that is most arresting. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Jerry Robinson drew him.

The interesting part to this is that it is quite possible that Alfred was redrawn to look like Austin. Introduced in comics shortly before the serial as a short, kind of goofy unmustachioed fat guy, Wikipedia   reports “when the 1943 Batman serial was released, William Austin, the actor who played Alfred, was trim and sported a thin moustache. DC editors wanted the comic Alfred to resemble his cinematic counterpart, so in Detective Comics #83 (January 1944), Alfred vacationed at a health resort, where he slimmed down and grew a mustache.” Wiki isn’t always accurate – they’re doing better – but I’d like to see more in the way of evidence.

There are two reasons why you might want to check this out. The first is that it is fun – slightly goofy fun, but far less goofy than the mid-60s teevee series.

The second is that this Saturday’s episode only runs 17 minutes. It’s worth that much of your life if the only thing you like is the logo.