Dream casting happens all the time on the internet, usually after the announcement of some new incarnation of a favorite character hits the fiberoptic cable. Fans love to envision their favorite stars taking over their favorite characters, and sometimes, it even happens. X-Men die-hards always saw Patrick Stewart in the lead role of Professor X, even though he’d had little film experience and was primarily known as a TV star. That didn’t stop Bryan Singer from casting him, and Stewart has earned raves ever since.
Still, thanks to time and age, a good number of Hollywood icons will never get to step into iconic roles, including the vast majority of the screen’s most influential actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Consider for a moment a place where time and age and technology didn’t matter. Imagine a Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s as beholden to superheroes as the tinseltown of the modern day. What amazing movies they could make!
That’s where we begin. Batman comics took off in the 1930s and 40s… so just imagine what great stars could have inhabited the Bat-family and Gotham Rogues in those days! Here’s a look at what if, and the dream casting for a Classic Hollywood Batman. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to the real thing, at least in this life!
Fonda’s bright eyes and brooding personality made him great casting for roles in films like The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. He always projected intelligence and inner conflict, so who better for him to embody than the Riddler! Fonda would best take on the bowler & sport coat Riddler rather than the onesie-leotard type; though, thanks to his gaunt figure, he could actually pull that off too. His Edward Nygma would exude torture and frustration, while Fonda’s gentle spirit would make the character somewhat sympathetic. Besides, let’s face it, the Riddler is a bit of a silly character. What criminal genius would lead police and a detective vigilante on a scavenger hunt just to get caught!? Fonda has the gravitas to make the role work as best it can, playing Edward Nygma as a man who just can’t help himself. Besides, his cropped hair and giant head would look great in a green bowler!
Who, you might ask? You’re missing out!
The son of a doctor, Hardwicke forsook the family profession to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a long and prestigious stage career in Britain and the US, he acquiesced to films, where he specialized in playing aristocratic and dignified roles, working with great directors like Cecil B. Demille in The Ten Commandments (as Pharoh Seti) or William Deterle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (as Frollo). His deep, basso voice also made him an ideal narrator for movies like The War of the Worlds.
Hardwicke’s performances in horror films like The Ghost of Frankenstein best predict his casting here. Always aristocratic, continental and well-spoken, he also imbued his characters with dry wit. The humor and cultured manor make him perfect casting for the sarcastic and loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Those familiar with Hardwicke’s work should not have a hard time picturing him in a tuxedo and white gloves, dusting the Batcave and rolling his eyes at his boss.
One of the most rugged men to ever grace the screen, Gable, the star of Gone with the Wind and It Happened One Night (for which he won an Oscar) had a reputation as a “man’s man,” a rough and tumble guy dripping with machismo. While his on-screen persona didn’t totally follow his true personality - Gable loved reading and politics - the man did have something of a difficult reputation. A hard drinker, he had director George Cukor fired from Gone with the Wind for being gay, and openly feuded with co-stars Charles Laughton, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe.
Despite the macho image, Gable also had a thoughtful, sensitive side. The actor never recovered from the shock of wife Carole Lombard’s sudden death. His drinking increased after the loss, as his health began a long and steady decline. That frayed image of a man who loved life but found himself defeated by it suggests him for the role of Jim Gordon. It’s not hard to picture an exhausted Gable sitting at his desk in a trench coat, glass of scotch next to him, deciding what to do about Gotham’s crime.
Years ago, internet rumor held that Hollywood sleuths had uncovered a lost project of the great Orson Welles - an adaptation of Bat-Man in which he would play the title role alongside Marlene Dietrich, Basil Rathbone and Joseph Cotton. It turned out to be nothing more than a hoax, though the prospect of a Welles-directed Caped Crusader adventure still generates online chatter.
In truth, Welles would have made for some awesome casting in a Batman movie, though not as the title character. Instead, picture him as the hulking presence of Mr. Freeze, voice booming over the rooftops of Gotham. Welles’s silky bass voice alone would have made him a great choice for the part. Welles also had a great physical presence, if an occasionally obese one, though in the 1940s he looked more robust than fat. Couple that with the fact that he looked great bald, and Mr. Freeze comes alive.
Like the Riddler, the Penguin is a bit of a silly character. A squat man who waddles around with an umbrella making bird jokes? It doesn’t get more ridiculous than that.
Writers also have a hard time adapting the character (see also: Batman Returns) to make him serious enough to seem plausible. In the comics, Penguin is always at his best as something of a crooked plutocrat - less a man plotting to take over the world than one with illegal business practices. That image is not all that far off from the scheming Ferrari in Casablanca, so why not just tap the same actor: Sydney Greenstreet!
Greenstreet’s croaking voice and rotund figure make him great casting as the Penguin, as do his effete mannerisms. The actor specialized in playing layered, scheming characters and oozing slime (both literally and figuratively - he was the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt!). Give him a top hat and an umbrella, and watch Oswald Cobblepot come to life.
The master of fear has great potential as an on-screen Bat-baddie, as Cillian Murphy no doubt proved in the Dark Knight trilogy. In the 1930s & 40s though, most of Jonathan Crane’s terror would be intimated rather than shown in graphic detail. For that reason, his casting is a delicate matter. The actor taking the part would must look terrifying just standing around. For that reason, Richard Widmark would make a perfect Scarecrow. For proof, look no further than his performance as the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Widmark is nothing short of terrifying in the part, gaunt, wide-eyed and giggling while he commits murder. Such relish of evil might suggest Widmark for the Joker, and while that casting could work, the Joker needs to be much more than scary. At his best, Widmark exuded unadulterated terror and loved every moment of it - just as the Scarecrow should.
Though classified as one of Golden Age’s 'Classic Hollywood Starlets', Bacall was actually much, much younger than most of her contemporaries. She had barely entered her 20s by the mid 1940s, making her the perfect age for Barbara Gordon and her alter-ego Batgirl. Moreover, Bacall’s cool dignity and bombshell looks give her the right attitude to don the cape and cowl. For proof, look no further than her scenes with hubby Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Not only does Bacall exude sex appeal and intelligence, her unwavering resolve against one of the screen’s great giants sends a simple message: she’s fearless. That combination of sex, toughness and smarts is exactly what Batgirl needs. She’s a woman not afraid to fight with the boys, with help or by herself, and undaunted in the face of tragedy. Picture her in scenes with on-screen dad Clark Gable, toying with his suspicions and allaying his fears. Bacall could match Gable every step of the way.
The casting notices for Batman & Robin had a simple description for the character Poison Ivy: the most beautiful woman in the world. While most of that movie is best forgotten (not to mention burned, shredded and exorcised by a holy man), the billing of Ivy is dead-on. Pamela Islely, ruthless bioterrorist and vamp, needs to embody seductiveness and fanatical devotion to plants. Cue one of the screen’s great redheads: Rita Hayworth. Watch her dance (wearing sheer green, no less) in Down to Earth and picture her slinking up to Batman, or using her chemical wiles to seduce men. Could any other woman ever hold a candle to her? Could any man or woman ever resist her perfect legs, red tresses and glittering smile? Needless to say, Hayworth often performed wearing little to nothing even in the mega-censored days of film, and her raw sexuality, husky voice and comfort with her body would make her blossom as Poison Ivy.
Though by all accounts a gentle, quiet man, Cagney became notorious as one of the great on-screen gangsters. His work in The Public Enemy made him one of the great movie villains, in particular one notorious scene where he smashes a grapefruit in the face of actress Mae Clark! For all his gangster roles, Cagney also showed great versatility, winning an Oscar for playing composer George Cohen in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. The extreme, polarized nature of his film outings make him ideal for the role of Two-Face.
Remember, Two-Face began as a sensitive, law-abiding man before his disfigurement turned him into a mass-murdering psychopath. Harvey Dent/Two-Face is always at war with himself, and needs an actor of considerable range to work on screen. In the 30s and 40s, James Cagney was that man, fully capable of playing a monster and a white knight at the same time.
Bob Kane always said he based the character of Selina Kyle/Catwoman on film noir siren Hedy Lamarr (Anne Hathaway also used Lamarr as inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises). Lamarr certainly had the body to pull off the famous catsuit, but her acting chops weren’t quite strong enough to get past the silliness of it all. For that, an equally beautiful, more intelligent and imperious actress would need to take up the whip. Look no further than Scarlett O’Hara herself, Vivian Leigh.
Leigh specialized in forceful, if conflicted women. By turns, she could come off silly, depressed, flirty, seductive and always intelligent. Besides her considerable dramatic talent, Leigh’s raven hair and slinky body made her a sex bombshell, and in her career, she showed no fear. Leigh took on dynamic and unsympathetic roles in A Streetcar Named Desire and Waterloo Bridge, picking up two Oscars in her career. Selina Kyle is a character of seductive beauty, raw ambition, ruthlessness and inner demons, and few actresses could ever play her as well as Leigh.
Like Riddler or Poison Ivy, Robin is a tricky character to bring to the screen. What does it say about Batman that he lets a teenage boy in pixie boots run around Gotham City at night? That doesn’t make casting the role impossible, though, given the right approach to the character. Given the Golden Age time period, Dick Grayson emerges as the most likely candidate to don the duds of the Boy Wonder, an all American boy with acrobatic talent and a quick wit. It may seem silly now, but in the 1940s Mickey Rooney embodied all those facets.
Audiences familiar with only Rooney’s later work picture him as a bald, fat, aging buffoon, but in 1940, Rooney sported great looks, a full head of hair and boy next door charm. Moreover, Rooney had considerable athletic talent, able to cut a rug alongside some of the screen’s great hoofers. Rooney’s small stature also made him perfect to look perpetually young alongside the Caped Crusader, and his popularity as a box-office draw would have made him a great anchor for the film’s success.
At first glance, the Joker might seem like an easy character to play: boisterous, outrageous and constantly amusing himself, an actor could go as far over the top as he wanted in the part. To make the role work, however, the Joker needs real pathos, and moments of quiet horror to balance out his extroverted mayhem. Both Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson knew that, which is why their performances remain popular today. To work, the part needs a great actor in the part.
For that reason, Laurence Olivier wins the part. Critics often cite him as possibly the greatest actor in history, and his body of work only supports that conclusion. By turns, he could play silly charmers (The Entertainer), tortured heroes (Hamlet, for which he scored an Oscar) and raging psychopaths (Marathon Man). To go toe to toe with the Dark Knight, Olivier would inject the Joker with his considerable screen presence, and would not ever hold back or shy away from the character’s loathsome behavior.
Casting the villains of a superhero film can sometimes upstage the casting of the hero, which poses a danger: the casting of the hero is far more important. In the case of Batman, an actor needs dashing good looks, strong physical presence, an intelligent posture and eyes the convey the inner turmoil of the character. Of all the actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Burt Lancaster best embodies all of the above.
Lancaster was fearless. His Oscar-winning performance as a con-artist turned preacher in Elmer Gantry sparked as much criticism as accolades. Audiences and crtitics alike often cited him alongside Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier as the greatest actor alive, and Lancaster enjoyed great box office success in dramas and action pictures like Birdman of Alcatraz. Off camera, he practiced gymnastics and had a reputation as a ladies man. Few actors fit the bill the way Lancaster does. As bold, talented and fearless as any actor, his donning the cape as Batman would have made for an incredible film.