Ten years after his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman returned to the big screen in the Columbia Pictures serial Batman and Robin. This go-around, Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by Robert Lowery and Robin/Dick Grayson is played by Johnny Duncan. Alfred (Eric Wilton) returns and Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) make their debuts. This time, Batman and Robin are up against the enigmatic Wizard, who plans on using a massive remote control to take over the world. I think. I can’t really remember what his overall scheme is.
Like the 1943 serial Batman, Batman and Robin is fun to look at nearly 70 years later as a relic of a time gone by rather than any mastery of filmmaking. As with the first serial, one gets the sense that the producers are chomping on their cigars, not worrying about plot or realism because children (boys, mostly) are the main audience.
Batman and Robin is a sort-of-sequel to Batman. In the first episode, it actually shows clips from the previous serial as the narrator explains who Batman and Robin are, yet I don’t know if it is an actual sequel. This serial was released five years after World War II and any mention of Batman and Robin being secret agents for the U.S. are gone. They are crimefighters. It was also released six years after its predecessor, which would mean many of their original target audience might have outgrown their anticipation for such a release. And with different actors playing the roles, it makes the strong case against this story being a sequel that much stronger.
Robert Lowery is a better Batman in some ways than Lewis Wilson. He’s a tad more Batmanish. The costume is even slightly better…I think. Batman doesn’t get rescued as much and he also doesn’t get his ass handed to him as often.
Vicki Vale making an appearance is good and she’s only the damsel-in-distress a couple of times over the 15 chapters.
No uncomfortable racism. Political correctness may suck sometimes, but what was going on in the first serial was over-the-top.
The overall storyline isn’t that bad, I guess. I’m stretching here…
Robin is too old. Douglas Croft looked like a kid in the first serial. Johnny Duncan looks like a man in this serial, but is forced to be the Boy Wonder. His voice is almost as deep as Batman’s! His acting is all right, maybe even better than Lowery’s, but it’s odd seeing this man play Robin.
Batman is an asshole. I mentioned in the last essay that Batman/Bruce Wayne plays mean jokes on Alfred, and is very flippant about his girlfriend’s concerns. She needs help and he comes up with some lame reason for not helping her so he can run off and help as Batman. In this serial, Batman is just…well…an asshole. His (ass-)holiness pops up throughout. An especially great asshole moment is in episode 8. Someone points to Vicki Vale and asks, “Who’s this?” Batman smiles and responds, “Oh, don’t mind her. She’s always taking pictures nobody ever sees.” I mean, how much more of a douche can you be? Well, this Batman has ways. Alfred is the butt of jokes again. He ribs Vicki Vale tirelessly. He’s just an asshole.
Vicki Vale is a fairly strong woman character in this serial, but she does very little. There’s a point when The Wizard has turned himself invisible that Batman and Commissioner Gordon ask if she can use her camera to take The (invisible) Wizard’s picture with an infrared bulb. She asks, “And just how do you focus on someone you can’t see?” To which Basshole–I mean Batman–replies, “That’s up to you to figure out.” And she accepts this asshole’s “help.” She does what’s she’s asked to do, even so far as being able to have the picture not only see the invisible Wizard, but through his mask as well! Still, I wish she had more to do.
Plot inconsistencies. Of course. Moving on…
Guns. Again, there are guns that no one uses except for sometimes.
Batman and Robin are horrible at hiding their identity and the world around them are morons for not figuring it out. They drive Bruce Wayne’s car. At one point, they pull into his driveway, and jump out, running into the house. They are spotted several times in and out of costume. The bad guys do believe Wayne is Batman at one point, only to get thrown off when Alfred dons the batcostume so Bruce can escape. The funny thing is that Alfred also manages to change his body to wear the suit perfectly. Well…as perfectly as this suit fits anyone.
The costumes are horrible. All of them.
The city streets (i.e., the Columbia backlot) never has anyone walking on them. All the cars are the same, Mercuries, even the police cars, which don’t look any different than civilian cars. The backroads and country around L.A. is as prominent as in the first serial, and…and…and…
The mind spins. Again, the fun of watching these serials is seeing a piece of cultural history on display. These are not perfect films. The acting is shoddy, the writing is bad, and the production has little value or art. I can recommend this only to the hardcore Batman fan who wants to see a piece of the character’s history. After these 15 chapters played out, it would be seventeen years before Batman hits the silver screen again. Inspired by…these serials.
Four years after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman and Robin hit the big screen for the first time in a Columbia Pictures movie serial. The story is told in 15 chapters and is amusing to watch with 70 years distance. The plot concerns Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) trying to foil a scheme by the evil Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish).
This movie serial came out at the height of World War II and there is quite a bit of propaganda and outright racism. Dr. Daka is a Japanese spy whose goal is to use a radium-powered ray gun to help overthrow the United States. Batman is employed by the U.S. government to stop Daka’s plan. This involves Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Paige (Shirley Patterson), her uncle, and zombies. Not risen-from-the-dead zombies but mind-controlled people controlled by Dr. Daka. Batman triumphs with the help of Robin and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (William Austin).
(Did I spoil that for you? I’m sorry. But in my defense, this is a 1943 movie serial aimed at kids and featuring a comic book superhero. This is 43 years before Frank Miller’s game-changing Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One stories where anything could–and does–happen).
Until I decided to do these essays, I’d never seen this version of Batman. I knew of it, of course, but hadn’t seen it. (Nor had I ever seen a movie serial). So my first viewing of this serial was as a 34-year-old adult.1 It must have been pretty cool, though, to be kid in 1943 and seeing these chapters. Yes, there are some changes from the comic book (Batman as government agent is but one) but it must have still be pretty nifty (or whatever the slang was back then) to see Batman and Robin fighting bad guys on the big screen. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft seem to work well together as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin. You get the sense that they’ve been working together a while. Wilson is pretty good as Bruce Wayne, giving him an arrogance that is almost mind-blowing at times. Croft gives Dick Grayson/Robin just enough boyish charm to appeal to the boys in the audience but is tough enough to hold his own. As a matter of fact, Robin tends to save Batman more often than the other way around in this serial.
William Austin as Alfred Pennyworth is also quite enjoyable, though not in a serious manner. Alfred is the comic relief of this story which is essentially about the Japanese taking over the United States, turning Americans into zombies.
Shirley Patterson as Linda Paige, Bruce Wayne’s oft-suffering girlfriend. Yes, she has moments of eye-rolling “I’m a woman and am therefore helpless” but she doesn’t hold back from putting Bruce Wayne in his place. Her uncle had just been released from prison and is kidnapped and she wants to look for him. When she asks Bruce for his help, he essentially tells her he can’t because he has some sort of inconsequential thing to do. She gets angry, tells him to buzz off, and then leaves. More on this later.
The action. Ranging from 26 minutes to 13-and-a-half, every chapter has at least one fist-fight, some have two. And because they comprise a serial and they wanted the kids to spend their dime next week, too, each chapter has a cliffhanger that puts Batman in some sort of jeopardy.
For modern audiences, this serial is an interesting look back on an artform that helped inspire what television series would become. It is also an interesting look at that time period and what entertainment was like. One of the charms of the serial is the low-budget feel. In one fight scene, Batman’s cape falls off in one shot and reappears on him in the next. In another chapter, Batman is climbing off a fire escape and some stuff falls out of his cape. After rewatching it multiple times I still don’t know what it is. This is low-budget, let’s get it done filmmaking.
Lewis Wilson may have been pretty good at getting Bruce Wayne’s “devil-may-care” attitude down, but he also plays Wayne/Batman as a jerk. This is not his fault, though, rather the writers Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, as well as the director’s (Lambert Hillyer). By the end of the first chapter (“The Electric Brain”), Batman and Robin have gotten their hands on Dr. Daka’s ray gun. In the second chapter (“The Bat’s Cave”), Bruce Wayne decides to scare Alfred, winks and nods at Dick Grayson, and then blasts something right near Alfred. The older man looks like he may have a heart attack while Bruce and Dick yuk it up. This kind of behavior happens throughout. Alfred is often the butt of the joke, or Linda is basically told she’s second fiddle to whatever plans Bruce has that day. Her uncle is missing and she keeps getting in trouble, but Bruce shrugs it all off so he can run off and be Batman. And as Batman, he’s kind of weak.
More than weak, Batman sort of sucks. While it must have been great to see the comic book character on the big screen for the first time, I wonder how the boys (and girls?) in the audience took to their hero being so ineffective. Batman is picked up by the bad guys and either thrown over the edge of something or nearly thrown over the edge of something in almost every chapter. In chapter 14 (“The Executioner Strikes”), Batman is trying to save Linda in an obvious trap (he knows it’s a trap) and the thugs walk in. One thug immediately walks up to Batman and hits him with the butt of his revolver, knocking Batman out, quicker than it took you to read this sentence. I understand this is a movie serial and putting the hero’s life in danger at the end of each chapter is supposed to get kids involved enough to want to come to next week’s show, but making your hero look no better than the average man goes against why you’d do a Batman story anyway.
The racism in this serial is mind-blowing, especially in the ultra-politically correct 21st century where one is offended by anything. The first chapter begins in a desolate part of Gotham City known as Little Tokyo. The narrator assures the audience that it’s safe because the “shifty-eye Japs” have all been “rounded up.” The narrator is referring to the Japanese-American determent camps that the U.S. government forced its own citizens to live in during WWII in case they decided to align with their former homeland. Of course, there were no German-American determent camps because it was harder to tell those of German ancestry than those of Japanese. Dr. Daka is played by a Caucasian man á la Warner Oland’s portrayal of Charlie Chan. His headquarters is hidden within a cave-of-horror funhouse-type ride that depicts wax Japanese people performing atrocities to White people. In chapter 8 (“Lured By Radium”), going out to the country, the thugs stop by a Native American on the side of the road selling “Indian Artifacts”. One thug says, “Hey, Sittin’ Bull,” before asking whatever question he needs to. Chalk that up to the thug being a bad guy and all. But when Bruce, Dick, Alfred, and Linda stop, the old Native American speaks in that Hollywood Indian dialect, “Me don’t know…Me this and Me that.”
Plot consistency. I know, this happens all the time (and will pop up throughout these essays) but they’re pretty bad here. At one point, one of Daka’s thugs say, “Hey, what if this Bruce Wayne is Batman!” Daka replies that Bruce Wayne couldn’t possibly be Batman because he’s too stupid and this and that. But by the 14th chapter, Daka says something about the possibility that Bruce Wayne may be Batman. Now, if this kept coming up, it wouldn’t have been a surprise, but it just came out of nowhere. Oh! And there’s the Radium ray guns plotline. After the small ray gun is confiscated by Batman, most of the serial is about Daka scoring more Radium to build a bigger, better ray gun to overthrow the United States. He eventually gets his Radium and has a ray rifle/cannon/thing. And then…. I couldn’t tell you what happens because it seems to be forgotten, either by me or by the filmmakers.
The fights. Oh, man, the fights. They are refreshingly not as slick as we’ve come to expect from Batman, but they are almost too realistic. If Batman is supposed to be one of America’s great secret agents, we’re in trouble. The fights are sloppy and usually end with Batman having his ass kicked so he can be saved by Robin in the next chapter.
Guns! Robin, the Boy Wonder, is given a gun at least twice in this serial. He usually fires into the air to scare the thugs working for Daka but in at least one chapter he holds the gun on them to keep them at bay. Now, it’s well-documented that Batman sometimes used guns in his early days, but by 1943 he hadn’t used a gun for 3 years, and Robin definitely wouldn’t have.
Speaking of guns, this is another thing I noted that can be placed in this section, the thugs only seem to have one pistol between them, and they use it to shoot only when Batman and Robin can find cover. There are several times in this serial when they have knocked out Batman (see above) and just leave him for whatever the cliffhanger will be. I know, I know, this happens all the time in movies and on TV, but considering their orders are to kill Batman, you’d think they might, well, kill Batman when they had the chance.
I found Batman to be rather enjoyable, though not for the reasons the filmmakers meant. It’s a slice of history and made me think about what going to the movies must have been like for my father’s generation. It’s apparent that Columbia made the serial to cash in on the comic book craze that was in its infancy but didn’t really care about the source material. There is no Commissioner Gordon, instead there’s a Captain Arnold. There are no villains from the comic books and Batman and Robin are government agents, not just crime fighters. There’s no Batmobile. Batman and Robin are actually chauffeured by Alfred most of the time (or drive around as Bruce and Dick and then change in the back seat). However, this serial introduced the Bat’s Cave, which we all know now as the Batcave. It may have even had Alfred in its planning stages before he appeared in comics and may be the reason Alfred was in the comics. If you’re a modern viewer who is easily offended by the mistakes of our forefathers in terms of race and ethnic portrayals, then this serial isn’t for you. But as a way to view Batman in a way you probably haven’t yet, check it out. The serial is available on DVD, though I watched it here. Just don’t expect to do so in one sitting. The entire serial is about 4 hours 15 minutes.
1 I originally wrote this essay a year before I did the Superman series of essays, so while the two Superman serials appeared on this blog over a year ago, it was two years ago that I watched this first Batman serial.
Based on the overwhelming success of 1948’s serial Superman, Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Katzman decided to get the gang together for a sequel. So in 1950, children found that the Man of Steel had returned to their local movie houses in Atom Man vs. Superman. With a screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, and directed by Spencer Bennett, the original cast joins with Lyle Talbot as Luthor to tell a sprawling new story.
Like its predecessor, this is an interesting look back at a time when entertainment was more innocent and more naïve. This is a serial that is unabashedly for children and says “To hell with the adults!” It makes me wish I’d been a child back then to see it and other serials of its ilk.
Once again, the cast is really good. This shouldn’t come as a shock since Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return as Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. With the exception of Ms. Neill’s hair and hat (her hair is shorter and black this time, more like her comic book persona) nothing about the actors has changed in two years. Most of their performances are as good, if not better, than they were in the previous serial. Alyn once again dons the cape with gusto and enthusiasm. This is a Superman who revels in being Superman. Clark Kent is just as lazy and cowardly as before, with that twinkle in the eye that lets the kids in the audience know that Superman is just around the corner.
Lyle Talbot as Luthor is possibly the closest Lex Luthor has been to the comic book version on the silver screen. He’s intelligent, mean, and more than willing to do what it takes to become powerful and destroy Superman. While everyone gets hung up on Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, Talbot’s is certainly not going to surround himself with the likes of Miss Teschmacher and Otis.
The story is once again quite epic. I guess it’s difficult not to make an epic story at 15 chapters of 15-to-20 minutes in length (nearly four-and-a-quarter hours). With the mysterious Atom Man to contend with, and the newly “reformed” Luthor suspected to behind him, Superman is kept busy. The story is grander, including a place called The Empty Doom (which is a lot like The Phantom Zone) that we actually go to, a spaceship for Luthor’s escape from Earth, a flying saucer that shoots Clark and Lois down (cliffhanger!), ray guns, synthetic Kryptonite (that’s missing one element to truly work–sound familiar?), and– Well, you should just trust me on this. It’s massive.
All right, in the last essay, I pretty much bashed the writing and direction of Superman (1948). In many ways, the same problems persist. While there are very entertaining parts of Atom Man vs. Superman, there are some show-stoppingly bad parts. The serial is off to a pretty fast start, since Superman’s origins were told in the last movie (chapter 1), so we get to see our Metropolitan friends going about life and our Kryptonian hero do heroic things. Somewhere around the halfway part of the series, though, things begin to go wrong. Chapter 7, “At the Mercy of Atom Man”, the story stops dead as Luthor tells his aide the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins. Now this came as a shock because the way the story was told in the first serial, even Superman was unaware of where he came from. He suspected it was the planet Krypton because Kryptonite had an ill effect on him. Not only does Luthor retell the origin, but the audience is given much of the Krypton scenes from the first serial’s first chapter all over again. If you didn’t see it the first time back in 1950, this was probably great–especially if you were a kid–but even back then, an adult would’ve rolled their eyes at the strange nature of the backstory. And how does Luthor know? He was the only person on Earth who was able to decode a message from Jor El, sent out across the universe to get help for his doomed planet. From this point, the story gets weird. Lois Lane quits the Daily Planet after one insult too many from Perry White and she goes to work for Luthor, who now runs the local TV station. He says he’s reformed but Lois and Clark and Jimmy and Superman have spent the first half of the serial not believing him. But now she believes him. To make matters worse, her journalistic integrity is thrown to the curb because she’s a girl-on-the-street stopping pedestrians to ask them about the weather or if they prefer country life or city life. The one news story she’s sent on as a TV reporter–a major flood in the upstate town of Lawnville–she messes up because she refuses to take heed when the police tells her to move, the flood was on its way. There are other strange things, too, and stupidity on the part of the characters so the story will keep going.
Lois Lane isn’t herself in this serial. Look, Noel Neill is Lois Lane. She played the reporter through these two serials and all but the first season of the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman. And she was spunky and dead-on in the first serial, but in this serial I think she could have been better. Not only is the part written pretty poorly, but she sometimes goes through scenes as though she’s sleepwalking. Now, I don’t think it’s her. I think she was directed poorly. Maybe it was the huge amount of work filming a serial for a low budget took. I don’t know, but this Lois Lane is good sometimes, and other times she’s just blah. I wanted to like her but just didn’t care. Again, I think it was the way she was directed. I hope it was.
Atom Man was lame. His costume was horrible and he was confusingly lame. The big reveal on his secret identity was silly, too (thought surprising).
The reusage of footage got to be annoying. In the last few chapters of the first Superman serial, I noticed that when Clark changed in the Daily Planet closet, it was the same shots used. The same can be said for Superman’s take-offs out the Daily Planet’s window. This serial uses it, too. Over and over and over. They reuse a lot of footage from that first serial, actually. I guess over two years and 15 weeks, a child wouldn’t notice it. Still, I think it’s lazy.¹
The budget seems better on this one than on the prior one, though not much. It could just be a trick, though. Either way, lack of a budget means silly-looking stuff. The animation is even greater this time around. Though I give kudos to them showing us Superman flying up-close, so Kirk Alyn could be seen “flying.” The animation doesn’t only go to Superman flying, but also the flying saucer and spaceship I mentioned.
After the Battle
My feelings of Atom Man vs. Superman are pretty similar to my feelings on 1948’s Superman. They’re both great fun if you go into it with the sense that you’re time-travelling. If you’re looking for a deep, modern Superman adventure, you’ll hate these. If you want to see adults essentially do with Superman what you would’ve done with your action figures at six or seven years old, then you’ll enjoy them.
I’m really glad I watched these serials. They were only the third and fourth serials I’ve seen and they made me want to see more. They’re also fun to see from a historical perspective, like when Lois Lanes is annoyed with her “newfangled typewriter,” which looks like a manual office model except is electric. Also, seeing an early TV is pretty cool, too.
Overall, I recommend the serials, but only if you’re willing to play along. Take them for what they are: stories meant for young fans in a different world, a world before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Reaganomics, terrorist attacks, and overt cynicism.
¹ In rewatching The Incredible Hulk TV series for the past year (I’m almost done!), I noticed footage reused over and over again, sometimes completely out of context.
Ten years after Superman made his historic debut in Action Comics, and five years after his final Famous Studios adventure “Secret Agent,” Superman returned to the big screen in his first live-action adventure. Simply titled Superman, Columbia Pictures released fifteen chapters of Superman’s struggles with criminal mastermind the Spider Lady. Unlike the animated adventures before it, which were not just meant for the kiddies who went to the Saturday matinees but also for the boys World War II, Superman was meant to appeal to the kiddies in the movie theaters waiting for whatever adventure they’d paid their 40¢ to go see.
I don’t know when I’d become aware of the Superman movie serials, maybe my teen years, but I’d never seen them before I’d decided to write these essays (and as of this initial writing, I’m only four chapters into the subject of next week’s essay, the second Superman serial Atom Man vs. Superman). I wish I’d seen these as a kid, a young kid, before Star Wars ruined simple special effects for me, before seeing Christopher Reeve in the suit. Still, it was interesting to see this, only my third go at watching a 1940s movie serial (the other two will be subjects in a future essay series and involves a different DC Comic hero) and it was interesting. So, here we go….
The main cast is pretty good for serial actors. Now, not to put the form down, but movie serials are not known for their acting but rather for their adventures and cliffhangers. Still, Superman‘s cast isn’t too bad. Noelle Neill as Lois Lane is spunky and fun to watch. Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen is appropriately a pain in the ass. Even Pierre Watkin as Perry White, who mostly sits behind a desk and snarls at Clark, Lois, and Jimmy is good (though Perry White does get to see a piece of the action. He even gets his own cliffhanger!). Still, without the right person in the lead, this whole dog-n-pony show would fall apart, so enter Kirk Alyn as Superman.
Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent differently and did a pretty good job with each. He will never go down in history as the Best Superman (or Clark Kent), but I daresay he’s better than Dean Cain. Alyn is tall with dark hair and has a heroic air about him. He even does “This is a job for Superman” (or they may have just used Bud Collyer’s voice, because it’s always in voiceover). As Clark Kent, he enjoys playing ‘fraidy cat and pulling off the secret over his friends. Almost too much (but I’ll get to that later). As Superman, Alyn gets an enthusiastic look in his eye, as though he’s having a good time playing the role. In this day and age of morose superheroes, it’s refreshing. While he is padded under the suit, he won’t be the last to be so. And if there are any criticisms I have, I don’t think they originate in his performance.
The nostalgia. Now, I’m hesitant to use this term because having come out in 1948, Superman is 29 years older than me. Still, watching the serial brings one back to a different time period that I’d be interested in visiting. Not living, no way, but visiting. I asked my father, who would’ve been seven when these came out, if he’d seen them and he said he didn’t think so. What a shame. Imagine being seven in 1948, before TV was mainstream, never mind cable, and seeing Superman in live action for the first time! Damn! Here’s a guy you read about in the flesh, being super. This is a Superman for a simpler time, a time when comics were kids’ stuff, a time when all it seemed to take was a man in a cape to solve things. The simplicity in this serial attests to that.
The scope. I’ll hand it to the filmmakers, they didn’t let a small budget stop them from trying to deliver an epic. With a story by George H. Plympton and Joeseph F. Poland, and a screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole (according to the credits, adapted not just from Action Comics and Superman comic books, but also from the radio show), producer Sam Katzman and directors Spencer Benett and Thomas Carr really try to give the fans a sense of who Superman is, much more than the filmmakers responsible for the Batman serials of 1943 and 1949 (okay, I gave it away). The serial begins on Krypton and follows Kal El to Earth, where the Kents find him and raise his as their own until Clark, as an adult, heads off to Metropolis to try to be a reporter as he also saves the world as Superman. With the Spider Lady trying to take over the world (or something), the scope of this tale is pretty big.
The direction. Or the screenplay. Or maybe it’s the budget. Or maybe it’s that it’s 1948 and a serial made for kids about a guy with a cape and so isn’t taken seriously, but I felt like there were a lot of missteps in Superman. Kirk Alyn played Superman rather well, but I had a few small problems with him that I think stem from story and/or direction. Superman can be kind of a jerk sometimes. In hiding as Clark Kent, he occasionally likes to make Lois Lane seem like a lunatic. Considering she’s a star reporter in a major metropolitan newspaper in 1948, she shouldn’t be as dumb as she sometimes is, and Clark Kent/Superman really seems to enjoy fucking with her. He also beats up the bad guys. I mean, here’s a guy who can stop bullets, but he punches bad guys out on several occasions. The kicker is, the punches only hurt the bad guys as much as a normal punch would. So that’s just silly. Superman’s favorite move, though, is picking two villains up by the back of their jackets and smacking their heads together. Another issue I had with Alyn’s performance was that sometimes, he wasn’t very super. He had a tendency to run or walk with his arms out, as though on a highwire. I’m sure this had more to do with direction than interpretation. Either way, the direction and screenplay are sometimes lousy. No nice way to put it.
It’s too simple, too. I know the serial was made for kids, but come on. The simplicity of the story defies logic. A precocious child would surely see problems in logic, even in the “innocent” days of 1948. There is a ray (there’s always a ray) that does something that the Spider Lady wants. And then there’s…there’s… All right, I don’t remember much about the plot, mainly because it’s pretty bad. The intention of the serial, I think, wasn’t to tell a long story so much as to get Superman in live action onscreen. Since 15 chapters were what these serials were about, the story–pretty flimsy to begin with– is stretched to near breaking. Take into account the limits to the serial by budget and quality of special effects, and you have a story that is sometimes too naïve and takes great leaps in logic.
The budget is a problem. I don’t know what the budget for this serial was (I will revise this later should I find out) but I assume that it wasn’t a lot. First off, most serials didn’t have great budgets. Second, this doesn’t look as good or as polished as movies made earlier, like James Whale’s Frankenstein, which was released in 1931. Third, the actors are all B-actors or character actors. They all do well enough but are obviously not going to win any awards any time soon. More than all that the budget hurts because Superman really isn’t a character who is cheap to do. Because of his super powers, he should be larger than life, yet he never really gets there. Yes, Kirk Alyn helps in this department with his enthusiastic portrayal, but everything around him hurts, including–
The special effects. Superman’s powers are abysmally lame in this serial. The first time Superman arrives, he saves a train with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on it by fixing the track–off screen. There are jail bars he bends at one point that are laughable easy (they continue to rotate even after he is through the window). And then there’s the animation. We have grown used to seeing animated special effects. The main difference between 2013’s animated special effects and 1948’s is that we have CGI realistic looking effects while they used hand-animated effects. So when a thug shoots at Superman, the cartoon bullets that bounce off his chest are laughable. And when Superman flies away, the cartoon Superman that takes Alyn’s place takes you right out of the story. Even the sets leave room for improvement. The Spider Lady’s electrified web looks like something out of a suburban Halloween party, all glitter and cheap.
The locations. These serials were obviously shot in and around Hollywood. The same Columbia backlots are used and re-used, and a lot of the action leaves Metropolis for the desert around L.A. These serials aren’t about getting the feel of Metropolis right, they’re about telling a Superman adventure. But the day-for-night that changes between poorly filtered daylight to straight-out daylight is silly.
After the Battle
It’s not difficult to make a Superman story for the big screen, but it’s damn difficult to do well. Superman succeeds in some areas and fails miserably in others. Still, I look back on the experience of watching this 15-part serial with a smile on my face. I’m looking forward to watching its follow-up, Atom Man vs. Superman for discussion next week (or when I can finish it and write an essay about it). I recommend this serial in the way I’d recommend looking into any historical piece, and that’s what this is: history. It is the first time Superman appeared in live action on the big screen. And even though it’s pretty bad, it’s not bad, either.
When Superman debuted in 1938, no one expected the character to become as famous as he did as quickly as he did. But famous he became. By 1940, did he have his own title, but he had his own a radio drama. Like the monthly comics, the show became a hit. Hollywood wanted to capitalize on this success and Paramount Pictures got the rights to bring Superman to the silver screen. The story goes that when Paramount executives approached the famed Fleischer animation studio, at the time second only to Disney Studios, they said no. Their hits, Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man, were hardly realistic in tone or style, and for Superman to work, he had to be realistic. So the Fleischers set a price so high that Paramount would have to say no.
Paramount said yes and the rest is history.
The first Fleischer Studios Superman film, called “Superman”, (but also known as “The Mad Scientist”) premiered in September 1941. It was an instant hit. Over the course of the following year, the studio put out nine Superman shorts. They were all well-received, with the first being nominated for an Academy Award. But trouble brewed for the Fleischers and the studio was dissolved after the brothers’ feuds broke them up. Paramount transferred the property to their other animation company, Famous Studios. Famous released eight more Superman shorts between September 1942 and July 1943.
I was aware of these old cartoons at some point in my late-childhood, early-teens. I even saw one early one morning, though I don’t remember what channel. The “Fleischer Superman” cartoons (as they are most commonly known) were legendary even then. So much so that when Warner Bros. decided they were going to capitalize on the Batman films of 1989 and 1992 by creating an animated Batman series, they wanted the style of the show to be reminiscent of the (then) 50-year-old cartoons.
The animation. I know how that sounds talking about a cartoon but the animation in these shorts are nothing short of astounding. Their likes really weren’t seen for this subject matter until the Warner Bros. Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, and the shows that have followed, including the direct-to-home video movies. This kind of animation of people and objects is a visual treat. In several of the Fleischer stories, which were very science fiction-oriented, machines worked to give Superman trouble and every cog and wheel was animated to perfection. The giant robots in “The Mechanical Monsters” weren’t just silly robots that moved at whatever angle the story needed them to move, but each machine worked in a way that adhered to science and engineering. Their designs were simple but technical. The use of rotoscoping—or using live action film to help animate—helped with some of the movement of the human characters, but many of Superman’s movements couldn’t be replicated in this way leaving only the talent of the animators.
The music is great fun. Sammy Timberg’s music is definitely of its time but makes Superman feel larger-than-life, as he should. Superman’s theme is easy to remember and recognizable. There’s a feeling that one should cheer when his theme comes up towards the end of every segment, just as he’s getting the bad guy.
The voice-acting is also really good. Bud Collyer plays Superman/Clark Kent and Joan Alexander plays Lois Lane to perfection, which should come as no surprise since both played their same characters on the radio. Much is made about voice differentiation between Clark Kent and Superman, and there should be a lot made. Collyer plays Clark Kent in a higher register that is much weaker than his alter ego’s voice. Superman’s voice is lower and much stronger. The most famous line from the cartoons is the same line made famous in the radio show (and went on into other media, as well): “This looks like a job for Superman.” The boldface type indicated the transition from Clark Kent’s voice to Superman’s. Collier is the stand-out but every actor in the films did great work.
The lack of much dialogue. At about 10 minutes per episode, there wasn’t really much need for a lot of dialogue. Generally speaking, what dialogue there was was limited. The majority of each episode had Superman saving the day.
The lack of continuity. Lots of fans love continuity, and I’m cool with that, continuity has its place in series. I’m also one who believes leaving continuity behind to tell a single story isn’t a bad idea. These Superman short films seem to take place in a vacuum. There’s never any reference to previous adventures, there’s never any character growth. Those things were not needed. In 1941-1943, the target audience was the comic book reading boys in movie theaters waiting for that week’s western, crime, adventure, or horror movie to begin and what did they know for continuity? As long as Superman nearly fell but ultimately saved the day, they were happy. As such, if you don’t like an episode, it never happened. Done. End of story.
The Famous Studios shorts aren’t as good as the Fleischer Studio shorts. That’s the general feeling among fans and it’s true. The Fleischer films were very science fiction oriented tales that featured mad scientists, killer robots, and the like. The Famous shorts went between propaganda, crime, and fantasy. I have no problem with crime tales, Elmore Leonard is a favorite writer and I loves me the 1940s crime flicks, but some of these are a bit weak. For instance, in a short called “Showdown”, a mob boss (who strongly resembles Edward G. Robinson) is sending a flunky out dressed as Superman to commit crimes. Of course, the city believes that has Superman turned on them. Superman gets to the bottom of it and a bunch of strange, silly things happen. The worst are the propaganda films. This was during World War II, of course, and there’s a strong anti-Japanese and anti-German sentiment in the films. Of the eight shorts that Famous Studios produced, three were propaganda, two against the Japanese, one against Germany. The rest of the shorts were split between crime and fantasy. Even the animation wasn’t as good, though Famous used a lot of stuff from Fleischer.
The racism. It’s well-known that many older cartoons have a streak of racism in them, but it sticks out more now in the more progressive world. The Japanese soldiers and spies in the tales are every stereotype you can imagine from the time period. In the short “Jungle Drums”, there are Africans that are their stereotypes of the time. While one may be able to turn from those gross imaginings in Bugs Bunny cartoons (since they made fun of everybody), they’re more difficult to ignore in a Superman cartoon. As a result, the timelessness of the earlier stories disappear for an uglier reminder of How Things Were.
After the Battle
All in all, the Superman cartoon shorts from the 1940s work splendidly. The first nine are nothing short of masterpieces, and while most of the stuff I didn’t like came in the second eight, all of them are worth watching, preferably with a child on hand. This is one time when the old saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a real thing (concerning the animation if nothing else).
The Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons are more than just cartoons, though. They’re windows into a time passed, perhaps forgotten by all but a few. And the fact that they introduced Superman’s flying (his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” looked funny) as well as set the template for Superman on film for the next twenty years, make them even more important to watch.