Saturday, March 21, 2020

Batman, "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time"

(This blog post is part of the 6th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

It has often been said that the Sixties were dominated by the Three B's: Bond, The Beatles, and Batman. Today it might be difficult for many to understand just how huge the TV show Batman was. The show debuted on January 12 1966 to phenomenal ratings. What is more, it maintained those ratings throughout the winter and spring of 1966. In 1966 alone Batman accounted for $150 million worth of merchandise sold. 

For those unfamiliar with the TV series Batman, it was essentially a spoof of the comic book character that was nonetheless faithful to the comic books in spirit, if not in tone. When ABC called upon William Dozier to create a TV show based on the comic book character Batman, he figured there was little way adults of the time would take a show about a man who fights crime dressed as a bat seriously. He then decided to approach Batman in such a way that it would work on two levels: for children it would be high adventure, while for adults it would be high comedy. In reality Batman was millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Adam West), who took to fighting crime after his parents had been murdered by a mugger. Batman was assisted by his sidekick Robin, who was in reality Bruce Wayne's youthful ward Dick Grayson (played by Burt Ward). Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred (played by Alan Napier), knew the Dynamic Duo's identities and was often called upon to help them on cases. The two often came to the aid of the Gotham City Police, headed by Commissioner Gordon (played by Neil Hamilton) and Chief O'Hara (played by Stafford Repp).

Of course, much of the appeal of the TV show Batman was the supervillains played by big-name celebrities. Cesar Romero played The Joker. Burgess Meredith played The Penguin. Frank Gorshin played The Riddler.  Among the most popular villains on the show was The Catwoman. Ultimately Catwoman would be played by three different actresses: Julie Newmar in the first and second seasons of the show; Lee Meriwether in the 1966 feature film spun off from the TV series, and Eartha Kitt in the third season of the show. Through the years the best known and most popular of the actresses to play Catwoman has remained the original, Julie Newmar. She made her debut in the first part of a two part Batman episode titled "The Purr-fect Crime," which aired on March 16 1966. It was followed by the second part, "Better Luck Next Time," which aired the following night, on March 17 1966.

In "The Purr-fect Crime" The Catwoman steals a pair of Golden Cat statuettes from a museum. As it turns out, the pair of statues are only the start of Catwoman's scheme. Her real goal is the lost treasure of notorious pirate Captain Manx. "Better Luck Next Time" features the Dynamic Duo trying to foil Catwoman's plot. While "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" is the first episode to feature The Catwoman, from dialogue in the episode we know that it is not the first time she has crossed paths with Batman. In fact, when Batman first encounters Catwoman in the episode, she says to him, "Aw, is that any way to greet an old friend, Batman?."

Catwoman in Batman no. 1
In the comic books, Catwoman had been one of Batman's longest running opponents. She first appeared in Batman no. 1, spring 1940 (the same issue in which The Joker first appeared). In her first appearance she was simply called "The Cat." It was with her second appearance in Batman no. 2,  summer 1940, that she was first called The Catwoman. Over the years she would become one of Batman's most frequent opponents. There can be no doubt that much of her popularity was not simply due to the fact that she was a woman, but because she differed from the rest of Batman's opponents in other ways. Unlike The Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face, Catwoman never committed murder and she was not evil in the way that Batman's other enemies were. What is more, she had a flirtatious relationship with Batman, to the point that the Caped Crusader was always trying to reform her. In the end, Catwoman would become Batman's longest lasting love interest.

Unfortunately, the late Forties and early Fifties would see a moral panic over comic books, spearheaded by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham. In his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Wertham attacked Catwoman in particular, referring to her as "vicious" and and noted that she "...uses a whip." While Catwoman certainly used cat o'nine tails, Dr. Wertham's characterisation of her as "vicious" was far off the mark. Ultimately the moral panic over comic books would lead to the formation of the Comics Magazine Association of America and the creation of the Comics Code, a set of rules by which the comic book industry would censor itself. Between Dr. Wertham's attacks and the Comics Code, Catwoman would cease appearing in comic books in 1954. By the time Julie Newmar played her in "The Purr-Fect Crime," Catwoman had been absent from comic books for nearly twelve years.

Although Julie Newmar may still be the actress most identified with the role, she might not have played Catwoman if not for her younger brother John Newmeyer, who would later achieve fame as an epidemiologist, author, and winemaker. Dr. Newmeyer and five of his friends from Harvard were visiting Miss Newmar in her Manhattan penthouse when she received a phone call from the producers of Batman asking if she would play the role of Catwoman. John Newmeyer and his friends told Julie Newmar that Batman was their favourite TV show and that they would actually cut class or take a break from homework to watch it. 

Julie Newmar then found herself flying to  Los Angeles at the last minute on the weekend. As Miss Newmar recalled in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, she got a script and went in for a costume fitting on Monday and they were already at work on the episode on Wednesday. Being unfamiliar with Batman comic books, much less the character of Catwoman (who at that point hadn't appeared in the comic books since 1954), Miss Newmar drew upon other sources to play the role. Much of this was her training as a dancer, which allowed her to move in ways most humans can't. Much of it was simply acting like a cat. While Catwoman is now Julie Newmar's best known role, she had already had a considerable career before Batman. She played Dorcas in the classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and she had a memorable role as Stupefyin' Jones in the musical Li'l Abner (1959).  In 1964 she received her own show, playing the robot Rhoda (designated by the Air Force as AF 709) in the sitcom My Living Doll. While My Living Doll would last only one season, it would be remembered by many.

Among other things Catwoman is remembered for the costume that Julie Newmar wore on the TV series. Unlike the costumes worn by Cesar Romero as The Joker and Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Catwoman's costume was dramatically different from what the character had worn most of the time in the comic books (a purple dress with a cowl, complete with ears). On the TV show Catwoman wore a form-fitting, black bodysuit. The costume was made from a fabric called Lurex and was designed specifically to Julie Newmar's body. Miss Newmar would have some impact on the design of the costume. She added the gold belt that went around Catwoman's hips and the inside seams were sown to her specifications. Of course, it must be kept in mind that Julie Newmar stands 5' 11". With the costume's high-heeled boots, then, as Catwoman she stood well over 6 feet.

Gemini 8 launch
"The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" aired when Batman was at its peak. The second part of the episode, "Better Luck Time," aired on Thursday, ranked no. 3 for the week in the Nielsen ratings. The first part of the episode, "The Purr-fect Crime," came in at no. 22 for the week. It was as "The Purr-fect Crime" aired that something happened that made it all too apparent just how popular Batman had become. On Wednesday, March 17 1966, the NASA mission Gemini 8, manned by Neil Armstrong and Major David Scott, experienced problems with its control system. Both NBC and CBS pre-empted their primetime programming to cover the emergency. ABC went ahead and aired Batman. That having been said, they interrupted the broadcast three times to report on the Gemini 8 emergency. While all three networks received complaints, ABC received over 1000 phone calls protesting the interruptions during Batman. Many of those calls came from  adults making it clear they were not calling on behalf of their children.

As might be expected, many commentators at the time were critical of those who had complained about ABC's news updates during "The Purr-fect Crime," expressing the opinion that some viewers were more concerned about a television show episode than the fate of the two astronauts. Newspaper readers were divided in their response to the commentators. Some took offence at being criticised for being upset that Batman was interrupted by news updates, with many saying that it was more because the two later news updates were repeats of the first. Others agreed with the commentators and were similarly dismayed that anyone would be more concerned with a fictional television show than a real life emergency involving astronauts. Regardless, the controversy was more proof of just how big the TV show Batman had become.

It is mark of the popularity of  "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" that "The Purr-fect Crime" served as the basis of a View Master reel. It was also perhaps due to the popularity of the episode in part that Catwoman would make several more appearances on the show. Catwoman appeared in the 1966 feature film Batman, although because Julie Newmar was unavailable the role was played by Lee Meriwehter. Julie Newmar would reprise her role as Catwoman in five more episodes during the second season. In the third season Catwoman was played by Eartha Kitt.

It would be Catwoman's appearances on the TV show Batman that would ultimately lead to her reappearing in Batman comic books. As mentioned above, Catwoman had last appeared in comic books in 1954. With the popularity of the character on television, she returned in comic books and she has remained a part of Batman comic books ever since.

Of course, there is little wonder why "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" should have proven to be one of the more popular episodes of Batman, as it is also one of the best episodes of the show. Julie Newmar lights up the screen as Catwoman. What is more, the traps she sets for Batman and Robin are truly original. And while the episode lacks the level of flirtation that would appear in later episodes with Julie Newmar as Catwoman,  there still appears to be a good deal of affection between Batman and Catwoman. One gets the feeling that Catwoman does not mean to kill Batman with her traps and it is more just a way of playing with him. And when Catwoman is in danger, Batman expresses genuine concern over her in a way he would not if it had been The Joker or Penguin in danger. While the level of flirtation between the Caped Crusader and the Princess of Plunder is less than in later episodes and Julie Newmar's performance is not quite as refined as it would later be, "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" benefits from more realistic traps than would be seen during the second season and a level of seriousness that actually makes the episode simultaneously funnier and more suspenseful.

Since "The Purr-fect Crime"/"Better Luck Next Time" first aired in March 1966, several other actresses have played Catwoman, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Anne Hathaway, and Camren Bicondova. That having been said, it seems likely that for many Julie Newmar will remain the definitive Catwoman. I have to think that much of this is due to the fact that her debut episode on Batman numbers among the best episodes of the show.


Caftan Woman said...

A grand article that took me back in time and taught me some things of which I was unaware. Batman is perfection in bringing its idea of appealing to both kids and adults to fruition.

Julie's performances as The Catwoman impress me more as I rewatch the show. She brought levels to her characterization that makes it truly classic, as well as great fun to watch.

KC said...

I liked this post, lots of background on the show I didn't know. While Ms. Kitt will always be a born catwoman to me, it impresses me that all three ladies were amazing in that role. My kid and I made the classic catwoman costume for Halloween one year. It was almost as much fun making it as it was to see finished. It turned out great!

Evil Woman Blues said...

Batman was the only show I can remember that aired on consecutive nights twice a week, Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, it ran against Lost In Space, another campy classic. I don't remember what opposed it on Thursday. Catwoman was sort of a throwback to the femme fatale of the film noir era. You can almost see a strain of Barbara Stanwych or Jane Greer in her persona.

18 Cinema Lane said...

What an informative and interesting read! You did a great job detailing the importance of this episode and the show as a whole! Will this blogathon return in 2021? I'd like to talk about 'Highway to Heaven', but I'm still trying to decide when to write about it on my blog. By the way, I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award! Here's the link:

Terence Towles Canote said...

Yes, the Favourite TV Show Blogathon will be back in 2021! Anyway, thank you!

18 Cinema Lane said...

You're welcome! Looking forward to writing about 'Highway to Heaven'!