June 1978 marked the 40th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. By now, Superman was more of a joke than anything else. Considered a square Boy Scout in tights, he chugged along in his comic books, trying hard to still be relevant. He was still on TV, though not in a live action series. After George Reeves’s death in 1959, live action Superman just didn’t happen. There’d been a Broadway show, which had been televised as a special, and a few small attempts in kiddie-fair specials, but mostly Superman had been relegated to cartoons on the small screen. He had his own cartoon from 1966 (the year another DC Comics megastar returned in live action) to 1970, and was a star in Super Friends, beginning in 1973, but live action? No. The late-1960s belonged to Batman, with Adam West bringing the Caped Crusader to the small screen, as well as the big screen for one movie. That show never even made it to the 1970s. Between the high camp of Batman and the general sour disposition of the Vietnam War, not to mention the civil unrest that was going on in the United States at the time, who cared about Superman?
Well, Ilya Salkind, that’s who. The young movie producer convinced his father, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler to purchase the film rights for Superman in 1974. At that point, the task was to make the movie. I’m not going to get into the rest of the story. It’s readily available (and, honestly, fascinating) throughout the Internet as well as a myriad of documentaries for various versions of the movie. Suffice it to say that five months after the 40th anniversary, on December 10th, Superman: The Movie premiered.
I was aware of this movie before I saw it through Superman II trading cards. Because I was almost a year-and-a-half when the movie came out, I wasn’t aware of it, nor did I see it. It wasn’t until the movie debuted on TV that I saw it the first time. I feel like it was a yearly Movie the Week until home video killed that tradition. I feel like it ran for three hours on TV. I feel like George Reeves stopped being Superman for me at the moment of watching t this wonder-to-the-eye of special effects and…well, wonder, and the man my mother told me was Christopher Reeve, who was also not really flying, but was hanging by wires, and lying on tables, became Superman.
Like Star Wars the year before it, Superman: The Movie may have failed if had come out sooner. It may have failed had the producers gotten a Big Name Star to fill in the blue spandex. But it didn’t. Oh, boy, it didn’t.
The cast is superb. You know this, I know this, I should just stop. But I won’t. Brando is convincing as Jor-El, member of the Kryptonian Council as well as major scientist. Susannah York as his wife Lara isn’t in much of the movie but her pathos is undeniable. She does not want to give up her only child, no matter the consequences, but does so anyway. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen also shine. And while she’s a little goofy at times, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is spot-on. It’s really a surprise her career didn’t take off after this movie. Gene Hackman is an interesting, diabolical, and sometimes chilling Lex Luthor. The inferiority complex that Luthor must have in shown with his choice of sidekicks, the bumbling oaf Otis, played by the always-great Ned Beatty, and the sultry, sexy Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine. Her outfits and very presence would be enough to send many boys into puberty, even in this movie. And don’t forget Glenn Ford or Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Ford’s death scene chilled me as a little boy (and, truth be told, does so now, too). All these actors are great in their parts, chewing up the scenery and getting the viewer to believe in the world of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. But the center of the movie, the spoke on which this wheel turns, is–
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. I went back on forth about giving Reeve a paragraph to himself instead of lumping him in with the rest of the cast–after all, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves were both placed with their casts–but I had to. The choice of the unknown, too-skinny classically-trained actor to embody the Man of Steel in the flesh was a bold one. When Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman/Clark Kent, George Reeves was still planted firmly in everyone’s mind as Superman, even though he’d died when Reeve was only six years old. Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a classic screwball klutz, think Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Yet, Kent never really feels like a farce. There’s a real-world simplicity and charm to him that sells him. Reeve had said that one of keys to playing Clark Kent in the way he chose was to make sure he didn’t walk into every door, but to make sure Clark got through the door with aplomb nearly as often. If anyone has ever been able to sell that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people, it was Reeve. As far as Superman is concerned, Reeve gave him an earnestness that was almost dorky, but never made it seem like he was better than anyone. Reeve’s Superman wanted to be human, and it could be read on his face. But this Superman wasn’t simply the do-gooder as presented in previous incarnations, and he was nobody’s wise uncle. He was the older brother you trust, but he also had an edge. Take the following exchange: Lois is interviewing Superman on her balcony and says, “Clark said you were just a figment of somebody’s imagination…like Peter Pan.” After some back-and-forth on who Clark is, Superman replies, “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” Who knew that Superman had game? The implication, of course, was that they weren’t children. This was no fairy tale. The line would be a hard sell but it works, and I give credit to Reeve.
Still, someone had to write that line, and the writers were Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. And after Richard Donner came onto the film as director, Tom Mankiewicz did a tune-up to the script, though his credit is “creative consultant.” The story and script are great. Because the producers wanted to film Superman and Superman II together, the original story was quite large. With Richard Donner on as director, the feeling that this was a fantasy for children went away. The director of the horror classic The Omen might be doing Superman, and he knew it would be seen by children, but his intelligence and that of the writers was not to make a kid’s movie. They took Superman fairly seriously. After a great black-and-white prelude that features a little boy speaking and opening an issue of Action Comics, as well as a Daily Planet building with rotating globe, after the opening credits with John Williams’s wonderful music, the first line of the film is Marlon Brando as Jor-El saying, “This is no fantasy.” Brilliant. We’re reminded of this throughout the movie. This is no fantasy, no fairy tale. Superman is made plausible and, in some ways, is the most realistic character in the entire movie.
And while I’m talking about Richard Donner, his direction is great. The actors inhabit the roles entirely and seem at ease. Technically, the movie looks great and has Donner’s touches as an activist as well as a storyteller. One rather adult moment that I caught (that may only be in the extended version) happens in the scene when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent. Lois’s desk in outside Perry White’s office amongst six other desks, three facing one way, three facing the opposite so the occupants can look at each other over their typewriters. Lois shows Clark where his desk is, which is across and kitty-corner to her own. In typical Clark Kent fashion, he needs to squeeze behind her in the tightly packed, busy newspaper office, just as she bends over. He brushes against her and she shoots up, eyes wide, shock on her face. Clark mumbles something, pushes his glasses up, and quickly gets to his desk. Her look at him is over in an instant, but it’s a priceless scene that proves that he is the Man of Steel…everywhere.
John Williams once again creates a classic theme. As he did with Star Wars, he created a symphonic story that matches the beauty of some of the scenes, as well as the heroism of the character. The music is as important to this story as anything else in the film.
Superman flies! The tagline on many of the posters and advertising of this movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And for the first time in live action, that was a promise nearly kept. Using masterful wirework as well as technology developed for Star Wars, Superman really appears to fly, which not only serves the story in general, but gives us one of the classic scenes of cinema: Superman and Lois Lane flying. It is a scene that is beautiful and filled with wonder. Sure, 1978’s special effects don’t hold a candle (or an iPhone) to what is capable now, but its beauty isn’t in its realism but in what goes down in the scene. Two people are falling in love though they know they can never really be together. For the first time, Clark Kent actually has found someone he can be comfortable with, and Lois Lane has found something that’s more important than her career. It’s a scene that should be silly, hokey, but works.
Otis is a bit too dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ned Beatty and his role as Otis, but it’s a bit of a stretch that Lex Luthor would keep around such an idiot. I like the idea that he would have those he deemed lesser than him as henchmen but Otis seems borderline retarded. Even Miss Teschmacher is a little too dumb for Lex, though she has much more realism than the bumbling oaf. Now, I hope I’m not coming across as one of those fanboys who feel that every superhero/science fiction/space fantasy/nerdmovie should be serious with no comic relief, but I think it’s a little much. The joy of this movie is the decision to move away from the 1966 Batman‘s camp but Otis almost belongs there. As a result, so does Lex Luthor. That said, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 35-year-old. The 5-year-old thought Otis was great, so I guess that really settles this minor gripe.
The ending. The idea of having the movie end with Superman changing the rotation of Earth and thereby changing the course of time brings the movie straight into fantasy, which is great considering the first line of the movie. That said, I leaves too much open. When the world went back and saved Lois, did everyone get saved? Did the missiles not hit anything? Because it seemed that Superman didn’t bring time back far enough to erase their launch. And if he did, and there was no launch, when Superman picks Lex Luthor and Otis up, do they even know why, or are they befuddled because they never launched their plan? And if they launched the missiles, then wouldn’t they strike anyway? Or did Superman in essence make a copy of himself that took care of the East Coast missile and then is erased when time catches up again with post-Earth spinning Superman? Because if that’s the case, then maybe he disposed of the West Coast missile offscreen and understood the other one would vanish and become him.
You see what I mean? Time travel is not for the faint of heart! Only aliens in blue police boxes and teenagers in Deloreans should attempt it! It feels like a cop-out. Originally, this was to be the ending of Superman II. The ending for this film would have Superman getting the missiles in time and sending them into space, where they’d explode and meet up with the Phantom Zone inmates, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, and free them. The final shot of Superman was supposed to be the three evil Kryptonians flying toward Earth, which is why they’re at the beginning of this movie. Richard Donner was convinced by others that his original ending was too small and to put the Earth spin at the end of the first film.
And speaking of offscreen, we never actually see Superman get Lex Luthor or Otis. He is overjoyed to see he saved Lois (who is upset that her car ran out of gas and that he couldn’t be her taxi service or something), then flies away. Suddenly, Luthor and Otis are carried into the penitentiary’s courtyard. What about Miss Teschmacher? Well, if you happen to own the 2000 extended cut of Superman, you get the answer about Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher…in the bonus features. In the nearly 10 minutes of restored footage to the actual movie, that was kept out. I received the Superman Anthology Blu-ray set for Christmas last year so saw this feature, though it may be on the 2000 DVD (I’d need to check but am way too lazy).
After the Battle
Superman: The Movie is a masterpiece. It’s one of the first adaptations of a comic book character that took the whole thing seriously. It was a movie not just for the kids but also for the grown-up kids who’d been fans at all in the forty years Superman had been around at that point. When the movie came out in 1978, it was big. Suddenly, Superman was cool again. It had intelligently set up the second movie in its first few scenes. It couldn’t be long before Donner and the rest would provide Superman II. With the way this movie turned out, what could possibly go wrong?
With barely a year having passed since Atom Man vs. Superman finished its 15-week story, the Last Son of Krypton made his return to the silver screen in Superman and the Mole Men, released by Lippert Pictures. According to my research, the film was meant as a test for a planned Superman television series. Since the late-forties, televisions had begun popping up in homes, and while it still wasn’t considered a mandatory appliance like a refrigerator, it was well on its way. The success of the serials no doubt made National Publications (later DC Comics) and producer Barney A. Sarecky think that television would make a great home for the Man of Steel.
Superman and the Mole Men introduces the two most important cast members of the 1952-1958 series The Adventures of Superman, notably George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.¹ The runtime is only 58 minutes, which (in my mind) shows that it was conceived as a way to get two episodes for the series in the future.²
For many, George Reeves was the first Superman they knew. He was my first live-action Superman, though he’d been dead for 18 years before I was born. The Adventures of Superman were still rerun all the time when I was little. While Christopher Reeve donned the cape a year after I was born, it took awhile before his movie to come to television so was essentially unknown to me. George Reeves in his badly padded suit with the cape that, for some reason, had a neck that hung down to mid-back, was the first “real” Superman I experienced. He was the reason my mother felt the need to tell me that Superman wasn’t real, that he was played by an actor named George Reeves who wasn’t really flying, but was lying on a table and made to look like he was flying. And before anyone decries my mother as being a party-pooper who was trying to kill the magic inside me, please note that she was trying to save herself the heartache of attending her little boy’s funeral, or visiting his broken body in the hospital, after he’d put on his blanky and jumped off the second floor porch trying to fly.
I wasn’t much older when I found out Reeves was dead. Still, this is his first go at the Man of Steel and worthy of a looksee.
George Reeves is Superman. That’s the thing with this character, it seems every actor who has portrayed him has done so perfectly for the time in which their doing so. Well…almost every actor. But George Reeves definitely catches the 1950s Superman perfectly. He gives this vibe of being the uncle you love and who will always have the right answer for you, but will also kick some ass if needed. Reeves was 37 when he first donned the cape in 1951, which is actually a year younger than Kirk Alyn in the first Superman serial. Reeves’s Superman wasn’t as enthusiastic as Alyn’s, though. Reeves was cooler, laid back. When I watched Alyn, his Superman had a look that said, “I’m Superman, mofo! Let’s dance!” Reeves’s Superman is more, “Yes, I’m Superman, and heed my warning. If you don’t, I will easily and nonchalantly kick your ass.” In Superman and the Mole Men, his Clark Kent is seen onscreen almost as much as his Superman and Kent is no bumbling fool. He is intelligent and sure of himself. If he happens to be a little cowardly, well…who can blame him? Superman is as wise as he is powerful, and acts as a counsel to humans as much as a one-man police force.
Phyllis Coates is very good as Lois Lane. This Lois is much more serious in this incarnation than she was for the serials. She exhibits intelligence and strength. I would think that playing Lois Lane would be something actresses at this time would appreciate.
Superman flies! Briefly, anyway. It’s said that the filmmakers behind the Kirk Alyn serials tried having him fly using wires but it didn’t look good, so they went with the animated flying. In Atom Man vs. Superman, they showed Superman flying in close-ups, meaning, Alyn was in front of a light-colored wall/screen with smoke being blown at him. In Superman and the Mole Men, George Reeves flies away on wire. Now, this apparently didn’t stay the norm. Reeves had a bad experience with the wires, falling and nearly suffering a concussion early in the series. He swore off ever using the wires again afterward and the series resorted to Reeves using a springboard to jump out windows or off screen and then was matted into various backgrounds as he lay on a table or something, arms and legs out before and behind him. In this movie, though, the wires are still in use and the audience gets to see, albeit briefly, Superman fly on film.
The story by Richard Fielding (apparently a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth, producers of the series) is actually pretty good. Yes, there are some silly things that I’ll get to in a bit, but there’s a definite message in this tale. The Mole Men of the title are beings that live far, far, far below the Earth’s surface and are found through an oil well that has drilled deeper than any other drill ever. They come up and frighten the people of Silsby, a small town in Texas. A lynch mob is formed to kill the Mole Men and Superman it there to talk sense to the lynch mob and stop them. In the days of the Red Scare, and a decade before the Civil Rights movement would really do their thing, this tale is about acceptance and reason. It is actually a good message for today, in a world where the Pat Robertsons and Westboro Baptists use their 1st Amendment rights to preach hatred in the name of god, in a world where people with dark skin and beards are often harassed for fear of being terrorists. Superman, in 1951, is telling people to chill out. He stops a lynch mob in a time when things like this happened because of the color of one’s skin. Keep in mind, this movie came out less than four years before 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Superman’s insistence that the townspeople, the lynch mob, leave the Mole Men alone is all-too-real.
No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. No Metropolis, for that matter. What the hell? This is Superman, right? Yet, we’re in a small town and country (read: a backlot) with Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigating the weird happenings around the oil well. Of course, both characters (and the city) would appear in the TV series, played by Jack Larson and John Hamilton, but for Superman and the Mole Men, neither is present.
The Mole Men are, sadly, pretty lame. I’ll give it to the filmmakers that the actors they chose to play the Mole Men are sympathetic–even cute. But the strange bald-cap/wigs and the zipper-visible-in-the-back “furry” suits for their bodies are laughable. Considering how important they are to the movie, it’s sad. Again, there’s a feeling that because this is a movie aimed at little boys the production values didn’t need to be great. The feel isn’t much better than that of the serials, and the Mole Men look almost as lame as Atom Man’s strange bucket helmet.
Superman…flies? Yes, it seems contradictory to have Superman’s flying in both sections, but if you’ve followed me long enough, you know that I do this kind of thing from time to time (dear oh dear). While seeing Superman take off (with the help of wires) must’ve thrilled the little boys in the theaters across the country, never actually seeing Superman fly except for one shot that lasts less than five seconds must’ve been a huge letdown. His “flying” is implied by the camera looking down at people on the streets as the camera flies overhead, with a few pedestrians looking up and pointing. And that one scene where we see Superman actually flying? He’s catching a falling Mole Man in midair. Cool, huh? But both characters are animated. Just like in the serials. It quickly goes to a shot of George Reeves on wires catching the falling Mole Man (an obvious dummy on a wire). Luckily, they worked this out for the series.
After the Battle
Overall, Superman and the Mole Men is pretty entertaining, and at just about an hour long, it’s the right length. It doesn’t suffer from the bloating that the previous Superman serials had, and the story is actually pretty clever. There’s no supervillain in this. The enemy is the frightened, ready-to-kill people. George Reeves debuts as Superman with aplomb and the feeling that he’s not only watching out for us, but is there to advise and teach us. It makes for a good introduction to a Superman who would last until Reeves’s death.
¹ Coates only played Lois Lane for the first season. Apparently, it was unsure the series would survive past its first season and came out nearly a year after its initial shoot. When the series was picked up for a second season (and beyond), Coates was unavailable to return. The producers went to Noel Neill to reprise her role from the two previous serials.
² This is, of course, exactly what happened. The last two episodes of the first season of The Adventures of Superman were the only two-part storyline of the entire series, entitled “The Unknown People.” The movie was edited down for television and any reference to “Mole Men” was edited out.
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.