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.
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!