James Neil Hamilton (1899-1984) rose through the ranks of acting to star in the silent movies of Hollywood, and then successfully transitioned to talkies. Alas, by the 1940s, he was out of work and out of money, and (according to some sources) close to suicide. Faith and grace carried him through, however, and eventually he found a second act to his career in the new medium of television, taking on supporting parts in dramas such as 77 Sunset Strip and Perry Mason. He eventually landed the one role that survives him: Commissioner Gordon in the Batman series.
You can find Batman episodes and accompanying commentary all over YouTube and other Internet sites. The shows remain watchable and popular because of the ridiculous characters of Batman and Robin, whose staid and upstanding demeanors come with the counterpoint of brightly-colored capes and tights, and because of the even-more-ridiculous and over-the-top villains, like the Joker and the Penguin and King Tut and Vincent Price as Egghead, all of whom are filmed at slanted camera angles while they hatch their schemes and chew up the scenery. In contrast, Commissioner Gordon is as straight an arrow as they come. He and his sidekick, Chief O’Hara, the twin figureheads of the establishment, aging and impotent, serve to introduce the conflict of the week, then step out of the way and let the more exhilarating characters take over. Unlike all other cast members, Hamilton plays his role with utmost seriousness and propriety. Barely will he crack a smile; never will he crack a joke; always is his diction precise and impregnable.
I think the Gordon scenes served an important function for the audience of the time. When the police commissioner in the gray suit swallows the absolute absurdity of a situation, when he ignores or is oblivious to the crazy plot and cheap props and homosexual subtext, then he gives permission for the viewers at home to do the same. His speeches about his unwavering faith in the Caped Crusaders, to whom he gladly surrenders his authority, seem less like cartoon dialogue and more like religious testimony.
Today, we have lost this version of Commissioner Gordon from our lives, both real and imaginary. We have lost him because we can and do suspend our disbelief a lot more easily, and the lines between fantasy and reality are more blurred. Who is Donald Trump if not a Batman villain, full of bluster and bravado, and perpetrator of all sorts of nefarious deeds undertaken in the shadows, as well as in plain sight? Let us recall that his inauguration speech closely quoted lines from a Batman movie, as you can check out here. As for the citizenry who claim this man to be their hero, I think they see him in the broad strokes and bright colors of comic-book artistry. Even if they disavow or disagree with many of his specific policies, they deem that he is “someone on my side” or similar sentiments for which (sorry, Trump folks) I see little basis in logic or evidence.
In the real-life horror/dramedy that our politics have become, the nearest inheritors of the mantle of the Commissioner are the civil servants and military officers who had been toiling quietly and anonymously in the State Department, and who now are stepping forward and testifying about assorted high crimes and misdemeanors. They can’t fire up the Bat Signal, though, because a Batman for our times has not yet revealed him- or herself. Which is too bad, because I think Trump would relish an opponent of equal but opposite stature and moral compass, someone with whom he could trade barbs, engage in staged fisticuffs (Pow! Splat! Oomph!) and then, upon victory, suspend on a rope that slowly lowers into a vat of boiling battery acid while he cackles off camera. Trump has several enemies who are candidates for such treatment: Congressman Adam Schiff, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and perhaps anyone else who has said nasty things about him. However, apart from the limits of his office and various remnants of decent society, which together serve to prevent the brutal execution of political opponents, the main dilemma for Trump is that none of his enemies are truly worthy of his full wrath. They’re all Little People, and beating them to a pulp is poor optics, and not very satisfying.
Now that I mull over the matter, perhaps there is a hero who will emerge to confront Trump and save us from this morass. My candidate is the Whistleblower, who already has a cool code name and a secret identity. Picture him or her in a secret lair, undergoing metamorphosis, soon to emerge in full costume, maybe with a big red W on the chest and an oversize coach’s whistle around the neck, ready to vanquish all who disgrace the U.S. Constitution and the rules of common decency. Hey, stranger things have happened, like the election of 2016.
A lot of us liberals and good-government types entertain the hope that during the next few months, Trump will be impeached, convicted, jailed, etc., or at the minimum, be retired to play golf until he keels over from an abused heart, liver, or central nervous system. Alas, with his Republican enablers in control of the U.S. Senate, none of these events seem likely to happen. How anyone—ANYONE—with a straight face and more than a dozen brain cells can stand by their support of the impeachment of a past president over a sexual affair and some lies to cover it up, and then shrug off and excuse the current president for commandeering U.S. foreign policy and oodles of public dollars for a clandestine effort to help his re-election…well, that’s just beyond me. Best of luck, Republicans, in the hell that awaits you, or the hell that you seem to want to sink this country into.
It’s not easy to live in the real world. Not with Batman, Superman, and many, many other entertainments at the ready on our computer screens, their colors as vibrant as ever, their deeds infinitely rewatchable by whim and command. Anybody else enjoy “Tubbin’ With Tash” on YouTube? I really like the antics of Natasha Leggero, and I have no idea why. I liked her before she married Moshe Kasher, a middle-aged Jewish comedian. They’re now on tour together, cracking jokes and getting laughs from happy, pleased, distracted audiences, coast to coast.