By Tom Ward
This week, in honor of the 75th anniversary of “Batman”, I thought I would take a trip back to the early days of the caped crusader and tell you about the classic movie serial based upon the exploits of Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. In 1949, a movie serial hit the big screens called “Batman and Robin”, starring actors Johnny Duncan as Robin and Robert Lowery as Batman. Back in the golden era of films, a movie serial was a short subject originally shown in theaters in conjunction with a feature film. They were extended motion pictures broken into a number of segments called “chapters” or “episodes”. Each chapter was screened at the same theater for one week, and ended with a cliffhanger, in which the hero and heroine found themselves in a perilous situation with little apparent chance of escape. Viewers had to return each week to see the cliffhangers resolved and to follow the continuing story.
Serials were especially popular with children, and for many kids in the first half of the 20th century a typical Saturday at the movies included a chapter of at least one serial. In the “Batman and Robin” serial, the plot involved the super hero team assisting Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) battle the Wizard, a villainous madman who steals a top secret device allowing him to control all the moving vehicles in Gotham city. Between the Wizard trying to destroy them and Bruce Wayne’s love interest Vicky Vale (Jane Adams) working to uncover their secret identities, the dynamic duo careened from one nail-biting cliffhanger to the next as they set out to save Gotham and foil the Wizard’s plans for world domination.
So I thought who better to talk to than the man who actually played the title role of Robin in the movie serial to get his thoughts on playing the iconic character and the 75th anniversary of “Batman”. I got in touch with eternally youthful-looking Johnny Duncan (age 90) who these days lives down in Florida with his wife Susan. A few years ago I first touched base with Duncan and found him to be very gracious and a great story-teller. I asked Duncan to tell me how he got the role of Robin.
“I had done a couple pictures with the producer Sam Katzman from Columbia pictures,” recalled Duncan. “When plans for a ‘Batman and Robin’ movie were made, he mentioned me to Bob Kane (the creator of the Batman comics). Kane says, ‘How old is he?’ Katzman says, ‘Well, he’s in his 20’s.’ Kane said, ‘That’s too old.’ They ended up looking at about 400 kids to play the role of Robin. It turns out that Kane didn’t like any of them and he was the one that would pick who played Robin and Batman. Katzman called me up on the phone one morning and told me to ‘dress as young as you can and come into my office’. So I did and when I opened the door to go into his office Kane and Katzman were sitting there. Kane says, ‘Jesus Christ that’s Robin!’ So that’s how I got the part. I was 26 years old at the time.”
I asked him if he had read the “Batman” comic books prior to being hired as the Robin. “Oh Yeah!” replied Duncan. “On my honeymoon in 1944 I remember reading the ‘Batman and Robin’ comics.”
In 1943 they did the first “Batman” movie serial. I wanted to know what he thought about that first rendition of the caped crusader. “It didn’t go over too well,” said Duncan.
During our phone conversation I asked Duncan about his co-star Robert Lowery, who played Batman. “Bob Lowery and I were both born in Kansas City,” said Duncan. “We were both the same age, 26, when we made the picture. I did a picture with him called Campus Rhythm in 1943. It was good to work with a guy like Bob because we were already friends.”
“What about the costumes, particularly Batman’s because it looked cumbersome?” I asked. Duncan laughed saying, “He had a helluva time doing it. The mask kept slipping down his face. The ears kept falling down and they would have to glue them up with scotch tape. My Robin costume was okay to wear and it wasn’t that uncomfortable, but we both had a hard time keeping our tights up. Listen, when you run around in tights and a mask for a 2 ½ to 3 months mentally you want to get the hell out of there. But, through it all we did have a lot of fun. They asked us if we wanted our costumes because they had 6 of them. We told them no because we had no plans on ever wearing those outfits again. I never kept anything from the film and I wished I had them because they’re worth a lot of money now. The top part of one of my outfits sold on E-bay for $6,000.”
“Were there any other memorable experiences working on that film?” I inquired. “Not really,” replied Duncan. “Except we did end up wrecking 6 cars. They were all 1949 Mercury convertibles. We were sliding down these damn roads in Simi Valley at Iverson’s ranch where we did most of the filming. There were a lot of dirt roads and a lot of woods. We would come around these curves real fast and come into a broad slide and end up hitting a tree.” He added, “It took about 2 1/2 to 3 months to shoot the Batman movie. I believe each short film in the serial was about 22 minutes long. There were 15 chapters to the serial. By the time we finished with all the sound dubbing and all that it was close to 3 months.”
“How was the film received by the movie-going public when it came out in 1949?” I asked. “It did really well,” said Duncan. “I know I did a lot of personal appearances for it. Bob Lowery (Batman) didn’t like to sign autographs or do personal appearances. I made a personal appearance in north Hollywood at a little theater there and kids [came] along with their mothers and fathers. Honest to God it was over a block and a half long of kids and they had a cop at the stop light to make sure kids got across the street. It was very popular and I have some great pictures of that event.”
“Were you type-cast at all after the serial came out as Robin?” I inquired. “No,” replied Duncan. ” A few people recognized me like when I was on Hollywood boulevard shopping and would come up to me and say ‘Geez you’re Robin, right?'”
Sadly, Robert Lowery, who played batman in the serial, died of a heart attack in 1971.
“What did you think of the re-incarnation of ”Batman and Robin’ when it came to television in 1966 starring Adam West?” I asked. “I didn’t like it at all,” stated Duncan. “I thought mine was corny, but this was terrible. In 2001 or 2002 I think, I’m in Branson, Missouri where I had a home on the golf course there and I get this big envelope in the mail. I opened it up and it’s from Adam West and it’s a picture of him and Robin and on the picture it says, ‘Johnny, you’re the greatest Robin ever’ signed Adam West. So I sent him a picture of Bob Lowery and I [sic] in our costumes and I wrote on it ‘Adam West you’re the greatest Batman.'”
“What about the Robin character in the TV series?” I asked. “It was terrible. I thought he looked like a skinny little kid,” answered Duncan. “These days he weighs about 300 pounds. I’ve been able to stay about the same weight all these years at around 130 pounds so I’m doing alright.”
“Batman” re-emerged decades later on the silver screen with Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale playing Batman. “What did you think of those films?” I asked Duncan. “I liked them,” he said. “I thought a couple of them were shot too dark, but other than that I liked them.” “What about actor Chris O’Donnell’s portrayal of Robin in two of those films?” I continued. “I thought he was alright,” he said.
Prior to landing the coveted role of Robin in the movie serial, Duncan had a busy and successful career in films working alongside great actors like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracey and Jimmy Stewart. He had roles in movies like “The Caine Mutiny”, “The Pride of St. Louis”, “30 seconds over Tokyo”, “Action in the North Atlantic” and “Million Dollar Kid”. While speaking with Duncan, he told me about some of his famous friends. Duncan reminisced saying, “There were about six really good friends of mine like Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and Audie Murphy. You see back in the old days in the 1940’s actors like Alan Ladd was 5 foot 3 inches tall. Bogart was 5 foot 4 inches. Cagney was 5 foot 3 ½ inches. So we all worked on the same pictures. They would hire me because I was 5 foot 4 inches, so they hired short actors to make everyone look like they might be 6 foot tall on the screen.”
Duncan did a few of the popular East Side Kids movies, which later became known as the Bowery Boys starring Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey. Duncan told me he’s got a new book out called “Hollywood Legend: The Johnny Duncan Story”, which is available at his website www.johnduncanoriginalrobin1949.com. The book chronicles the amazing story of his life, which sounds like something right out of a movie. He was a real-life boy wonder because of his impressive tap dancing abilities. During the depression years in the 30’s, Duncan learned to tap dance at the age of 9. Duncan’s dad would give him 10 cents to go to the picture show while he cut hair. Instead of going to the show, he started tap dancing in a little bar named the Sugar Bowl. There was a jukebox in the Sugar Bowl bar, and people would put nickels into the jukebox and Duncan would tap dance to the music. The people would throw pennies, nickels and dimes at his feet.
One year Duncan will never forget. They didn’t have the money to make the farm payment, which was $125.00 per year. His mother and father did not know what they were going to do. They were all gathered around the kitchen table. His mother was crying, tears were running down his father’s cheeks. His mother was sure they were going to end up in the poor house. Duncan got up from the table, went into his bedroom and got two socks in which he had been saving his money from tap dancing at the Sugar Bowl. He dumped the money on the kitchen table. His mother and father could not believe their eyes. They said, “Where did you get this?” Duncan replied, “I got it from the Sugar Bowl tap dancing”. Duncan’s dad got up from the kitchen table, went over to him and kicked him in the butt and then grabbed him and hugged him and said, “Thank you, son.” They didn’t have to go to the poor house after all.
Duncan’s dad decided to give him tap dancing lessons for 25 cents/hour and that is how he learned to professionally tap dance. Duncan later teamed up with a little girl by the name of Lou Fischer and soon became the dance act of Duncan and Fischer, from 1933 to 1938. They were doing a Vaudeville show at the Tower Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. A talent scout from 20th Century Fox was in the audience one night, unbeknownst to them, and watched their dance act. That evening he came back stage and spoke with Duncan and his parents. Duncan was only 15 at the time. The talent scout signed Duncan to a six month contract at 20th Century Fox for $50.00 per week (about $2,000 dollars per week now). They put the farm up for sale with an auction and went straight from the farm to California.
“That had to be an exciting time in your life!” I said. “Oh, it was!” exclaimed Duncan. “From going barefooted and the only time I wore shoes was when I tap danced. The rest of the time back in Kansas I was running around with cow manure on my feet working on the farm. I danced because I didn’t want to be on the farm all my life because I hated it. Well, by God I did it.” The rest, they say, is history.
After he ended his acting career, Duncan went in to the real estate field. “I was in real estate for many, many years,” he said. These days Duncan and his wife Susan live in Florida, about 30 miles from Orlando. Duncan was a long-time golfer. He took up the game in the 1960’s, but he doesn’t play anymore. He usually shot in the 90’s he told me. A typical day for Duncan includes going out to dinner or visiting with friends at their house. “We live a nice life,” Duncan said. “My wife is in the real estate business where she does escrows for time shares. We have a ranch up in Missouri that has a house on it. We have 22 acres there and it’s beautiful, but I can’t work it anymore because of my age. We moved to Florida because my wife loves it here and I couldn’t stand the winters up there.”
Before ending my call with Johnny Duncan I told him that it has to be a great feeling to know you’re a part of this famous franchise like “Batman”. Duncan paused for a moment and said, “I got to tell you something it really is! Last month I did an opening at a mall and I’m doing another next month and they paid me good money for 3 hours of work, which is pretty good for 90 years old!”
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com