DC Comics’ super villain the Penguin was first played on screen by Burgess Meredith in the 1960’s Batman television series. His portrayal stays faithful to the original Penguin of the comic books, a short, well rounded, gentleman villain in a tuxedo with a love of birds and umbrellas. Meredith’s slightly camp performances will be most remembered for his iconic squawky laugh.
After several reincarnations on screen the Penguin memorably reappears in Tim Burton’s 1992 movie Batman Returns. Burton’s vision of the Penguin was much darker and more grotesque. He imagined a repulsive and deformed figure with a sharp intellect and a rabid craving for revenge. This Penguin came into the world as a reviled and hideous blob as opposed to the DC original who was merely shunned as a child for his short stature, rounded build and beaky nose.
Burton felt that the Penguin was, of all the Batman villains, the character who made the least sense. ”I mean, what is the Penguin supposed to be anyway? I felt that if somebody was going to be called ‘The Penguin’, there should be a reason for that.” He then set about creating a new history for the villain from an unfortunate birth to freak show performer carrying an enormous chip on his shoulder, seeking revenge against the glitterati of Gotham. The new characterisation retained the prominent nose, umbrellas and monocle of the original Penguin but now had webbed hands and Gothic clothing. This Penguin even had an appetite for fish !
Burton chose Danny DeVito to play his Penguin. Devito was excited by the new take on Batman’s old rival. Before he could throw himself into the role a physical transformation was required. Using concept art by Mark McCreery, Stan Winston, who had worked with Burton on Edward Scissorhands, designed the make-up to create a typically outlandish Burtonesque look. The make-up was applied by Ve Neill and Ronnie Spector, the trio winning an Oscar nomination for their work.
DeVito’s own features were not entirely lost under the prosthetics, crooked teeth and white skin but the overall effect was so intimidating that Burton recalled “No one would talk to Danny on the set because he scared everybody”. In fact DeVito himself recalls that when in make-up and costume, a look that included a fat-suit and webbed flippers, he could not communicate with anybody as he was so absorbed in the part that real-life conversation seemed ridiculous. DeVito altered his voice, without electronic intervention, to give the Penguin a rasping sound as if always struggling to breathe.
In Batman Returns the Penguin is a truly sad character. A Hideous monster literally thrown away by his parents who rises from the sewers of Gotham to wreak revenge on the city that shuns him. He fails in each and every endeavour and moves inexorably towards his own demise. It is odd to think that we may be able to empathise with a character so utterly monstrous, as opposed to laughing at a comic book creation, but I think we actually do !
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Dave F writes on a large range of subjects, from travel, music and technology to popular culture. Dave is a fan of the original penguin as played by Burgess meredith as well as retro comics of all types.