Episode Title: Zelda the Great
Original Airdate: February 9, 1966
Batman has always had one of the most colorful rogues gallery of any comic book hero. The 1966 series was the first opportunity for many of these villains to be portrayed in live-action form. But the series also took a few opportunities to introduce new villains, original to this series. This week’s episode brings us our first new villain…and he’s a SHE! Get ready to meet Zelda the Great!
For the past three years, a clever crook has been striking the banks of Gotham City on April 1st, each time stealing only $100,000 while leaving thousands more in the vault. Batman hatches a plan to draw out the crook. Batman plants a story in the local newspaper that the money stolen in the most recent robbery was, in fact, counterfeit. Meanwhile, his analysis of a bullet fired at the robbery leads him to the conclusion that the thief was, in fact, a woman.
Meanwhile, in the back room of a strange occult bookstore we find Eivol Ekdol (Jack Kruschen) maker of stage illusions for magicians. Eivol is visited by one of his most prominent clients, magician Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter). Eivol’s illusions do not come cheap, $100,000 in fact, which is why Zelda has had to take to robbing banks to fund the purchase of a new illusion each year. She is wanting to purchase Eivol’s newest and greatest illusion, the inescapable doom trap. But he now believes the money she brought is counterfeit (because of the newspaper headline)…so she needs to come up with more funds. The answer lies in the newspaper: the giant Star of Samarkind emerald will be on display at a local jeweler…and it is ripe for the picking.
Turns out, though, the jewel is part of a plot by Batman to catch the crook…and Zelda is hip to that possibility. The Caped Crusaders stake out the shop and Zelda shows up to steal the jewel, disguised as an old woman. She uses some of her magic tricks to escape, but it turns out the whole thing was just a distraction. The real crime was the kidnapping of a prominent Gotham citizen, whom she plans to hold for ransom. That citizen: one Harriet Cooper….aka, Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet. Now, Aunt Harriet hangs suspended over a tub full of flaming oil until the ransom of $100,000 is delivered. Our heroes have just one hour to save her. Cue the cliffhanger narration:
Holy backfire’s right!
Aunt Harriet has just one hour!!
What’ll it be??
Splash or salvation??
Hold a hopeful breath for Aunt Harriet until tomorrow..
The two episodes that make up this story represent quite a departure from the usual formula for this series, and I gotta admit, I kinda dug it. Zelda is not like the other villains. She doesn’t have some sort of criminal organization that she heads, there aren’t a bunch of loyal henchmen with bizarre names like our other bad guys have had. She’s just a gal who’s a bit short on the cash she needs to keep her little magic show fresh, so once a year she resorts to crime to fund her little enterprise. Anne Baxter does a nice job of giving Zelda a level of subtlety that we don’t see in many other Batman villains. Her schemes are not as wild or extreme as those we’ve seen from the other baddies, yet she manages to outwit Batman and Robin a few times. She’s a bit more clever villain that what we’ve seen in previous episodes.
I know I’ve tended to focus more on the villains as we’ve worked our way through this series, but this episode really has some wonderful moments for our two heroes. Not from an action standpoint, mind you, but in giving us a fun glimpse into the way their minds work. Early on, as the Dynamic Duo meet with Gordon and Chief O’Hara, the four do-gooders lament over the motives of this April 1st bandit. Suddenly O’Hara has an idea about the timing of the robberies, it’s so the crook can pay his income taxes. Batman replies in a wonderfully incredulous tone, “A loyal taxpayer stooping to criminal methods?” There’s also a wonderful scene as our heroes deal with the swooning jewelry store owner and assure her that behind their masks they are just regular people. Their unusual garb is simply a weapon in their fight against crime and shouldn’t disturb anyone who obeys the law. Classic!
This episode does also give us the first appearance of an iconic Batman prop…the Bat Signal. It comes in handy this time since Bruce, Dick, and Alfred are on the roof of Wayne Manor gazing through their telescope when trouble hits, and thus couldn’t hear the bat-phone. We should also point out that this episode is actually inspired by an issue of Detective Comics…#346 “Batman’s Inescapable Doom Trap.” Though Zelda the Great was not a character in that comic, Eivol Ekdal was.
All-in-all this first episode in the saga of Zelda the Great is a real treat. Our heroes better hurry though, Aunt Harriet is about to get her shoes melted off over that flaming pit of oil. Find out what happens next time in A Death Worse than Fate. Same bat-time, same bat-channel (superhero).
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