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The Riddler Wore Tights

Riddle me this: What does Batman's Riddler have to do with America's vaudeville and film noir traditions?

By James CampbellPublished 7 years ago 2 min read
Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in Batman: The Movie (dir. Leslie H. Martinson, 1966).
"I was simply meant to be in theater."The Riddler, Batman: The Riddle Factory (Matt Wagner, 1995)

Some time ago my Nan called me over to put on one of her films: the 1947 Technicolor musical Mother Wore Tights. So I put on the DVD, made us both a cup of tea, and then sat down and watched the first twenty minutes of it with her. My curiosity was straightaway piqued by the character of vaudeville performer Frank Burt (played by Dan Dailey). Just take a look at the outfit worn by Dailey during one musical number:

Dan Dailey as Frank Burt in Mother Wore Tights (dir. Walter Lang, 1947).

It’s something, isn’t it? Now fast forward nineteen years to "Smack in the Middle," the second episode of the ABC network’s Batman television series (1966-1968), starring Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. For the episode’s final battle Gorshin swaps his iconic Riddler outfit for one that looks remarkably similar to Dailey’s:

Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in Batman, "Smack in the Middle" (dir. Robert Butler, ABC, 13 Jan. 1966).

Okay, so it’s not an exact match. The pink gloves, bowler hat, and rubber mask are notable additions. But setting those aside, the green tartan suit, pink waistcoat, and oversized pink bowtie strike me as too closely resembling Dailey’s outfit for this to be a mere coincidence. When coupled with Gorshin’s bizarre stand-up comedy routine during this scene it suggests a deliberate attempt to connect the Riddler to the world of vaudeville.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, what exactly is vaudeville? To answer this question allow me to quote from that esteemed academic resource, Wikipedia. Vaudeville is "a theatrical genre of variety entertainment... especially popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s." Typical acts included "popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies." Vaudeville grew out of "the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary American burlesque," and for decades was considered to be "the heart of American show business."

Had Frank Gorshin been born a few decades earlier, exhibited the same talent for mimicry and pursued a career in showbiz then he almost certainly would have been performing in vaudeville. Like other forms of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular entertainment that were either extinct or in decline by the middle of the twentieth-century (the circus springs to mind), vaudeville continued to exert a powerful influence upon American popular culture going forward. This influence could be seen in the mediums of film and television that artists like Gorshin increasingly relied upon.

Gorshin would receive an Emmy award nomination in 1966 for his performance as the Riddler in "Hi Diddle Riddle," Batman's first episode. The award in question was for "Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy." Outstanding, because the performance itself was in no way comedic. Gorshin based his portrayal of the Riddler on Richard Widmark’s performance as gangster Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, a 1947 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway. Compare the scene below with any one of Gorshin's Riddler episodes and you can see just how closely he mimicked Widmark’s performance using his skills as an impressionist:

The Riddler, ladles and jellyspoons. He's funny—just not ha-ha funny.


About the Creator

James Campbell

Hi! I'm a former academic-turned-freelancer and all-round geek with degrees in English Studies and ‘The Gothic Imagination’. I specialize in the American Gothic in US/global pop culture: literature, film, television, comics and games.

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