REVIEW: THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 1-6

 

MAIN CAST

George Reeves (Gone With The Wind)
Phyllis Coates (Gunsmoke)
Jack Larson (Young Paul Baroni)
John Hamilton (Captain America 1944)
Robert Shayne (The FLash 90s)
Noel Neill (Superman 1948)

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RECURRING NOTABLE GUEST STARS

Herbert Rawlinson (Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe)
Stuart Randall (Laramie)
Aline Towne (Send Me No Flowers)
Frances Morris (The Big Clock)
Danni Sue Nolan (FLame of Youth)
Tom Fadden (Empire of The Ants)
Robert Rockwell (Our Miss Brooks)
Jeffrey Silver (The Young Stranger)
Maudie Prickett (Hazel)
Allene Roberts (The Red House)
Pierre Watkin (Meet John Doe)
Effie Laird (House By The River)
Tristram Coffin (King of The Rocket Men)
Richard Benedict (Ocean’s 11)
Milton Kibbee (In Old California)
Dan Seymour (Key Largo)
Veda Ann Borg (Guys and Dolls)
Leonard Penn (Batman and Robin 1949)
Gloria Saunders (O.S.S.)
Jane Adams (Batman and Robin 1949)
Billy Curtis (The Terror of Tiny Town)
Jeff COrey (Conan The Destroyer)
Jean Willes (Gypsy)
Hugh Beaumont (The Mole People)
Eve Brenner (Walk of Shame)
Norma Varden (The Sound of Music)
Dona Drake (Road to Morocco)
Sterling Hollowy (Alice In Wonderlan 1951)
Doris Singleton (I Love Lucy)
Ruta Lee (Funny Face)
Mickey Simpson (Wagon Master)
Herb Vigran (Benji)
Trevor Bardette (Gun Crazy)
Chuck Connors (Airplane 2)
PhilTead (Six of a Kind)
Elizabeth Patterson (Pal Joey)
Gloria Talbott (All That Heaven Allows)
Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin (1949)
Joi Lansing (Touch of Evil)
title1032For a 1950s kids this program was astounding brilliant adaptation of iconic character. first season of Adventures of Superman was previously unseen by Savant except through the theatrical pilot show Superman and the Mole Men. By the time I found out the series existed it was already 1959 and the 104 episodes had probably all been recycled three times in reruns. As it turns out, this first season has an unfamiliar but good Lois Lane in Phyllis Coates and plays much more like a crime serial than the later color seasons.
The disc set tells the whole tale of Superman on television. According to New Wave’s making-of interview documentary, producer Robert Maxwell filmed Superman and the Mole Men with the cast and crew planned for his TV show. It was released by Lippert films and was a moderate kiddie success; Daily Variety’s review called the film “sock moppet bait.” Then Maxwell had to film the entire first season — 26 episodes — before landing a network spot. Copyrighted in 1951 and ’52, the show didn’t premiere until 1953.

As pointed out in the documentary, Adventures of Superman was more crime-oriented than science fiction. Some episodes feature strange inventions, as with a mind-control device in The Mind Machine. More often than not Lois or Jimmy Olsen is held by despicable gangsters, a problem solved when the news finally reaches Clark Kent. He leaps into a ‘storeroom’ and zooms off to the rescue. That stirring anthem blasts in along with a flying sound effect that reminds us of Dorothy Gale’s tornado. Crook confrontations usually include a demonstration of Superman’s invulnerability in the form of a bent knife or “bullets have no effect” scene (no animated bullet ricochets yet). Our hero often trades blows with the bad guys, who fall as if kayoed by your average serial hero. The way Reeves throws the punches we expect to see their heads come off!

Phyllis Coates is a spunky Lois Lane. She takes no guff from anyone and also tries her hand at beating up on bad guys. She comes off as essentially humorless, with only a few wonderings why she’s never seen Kent and Superman together. The jokes are all reserved for Reeves and his literally closeted alter ego. The ‘mild mannered’ Clark Kent is forever smiling and seems to derive plenty of satisfaction from knowing a secret nobody else does.

Capable actor Jack Larson plays Jimmy Olsen as an immature clown with a good heart. Forever clueless, he can be depended on to ask the dumb questions so that Clark Kent can dispense plot exposition. Several episodes center on Olsen’s personal adventures, which play like Hardy Boys stories featuring one rather dense Hardy Boy.

Production values are on the dire side but they were generous for Televsion in 1952. It’s not unusual to see characters throw bold shadows onto sagging theatrical backdrops. Overall the direction is pretty peppy; if I remember correctly the added expense of color made the later seasons much more static and primitive-looking overall. In keeping with the crime theme, many episodes have nice low-key lighting schemes.The minimal effects range from “okay” to “so-so” to “what the heck was that?” Reeves is good on the springboard launches and gymnastic one-point landings. Some flying shots are acceptable but a lot of others simply matte a sideways image of a standing Reeves into whatever background is handy, and look like embarrassing mistakes. When one makes 26 TV episodes on spec there is no room for second tries, let alone R&D.


There are some questionable plot points as well. The docu extra covers an amazing blunder in an episode in which two crooks find out Clark Kent’s secret identity. Superman parks them on a high mountain while he sorts out the rest of the plot, telling them to stay put ’til he gets back. They try to climb down instead, and fall … to their deaths! The show offers nothing more about them – they’re just forgotten!

The first episode is called Superman On Earth and covers the familiar ground shown in the first act of the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve 1978 effort … on 1/1000th the budget. Krypton is one throne room and Jor-El’s lab and it’s all pretty perfunctory, but the cornball drama still tugs on the heartstrings when old Mrs. Kent finds the baby in the rocket. Events are rushed through so quickly that young Clark Kent has time to grow up (“Gee, why do I have to be different from everybody else?”), come to Metropolis, get hired and rescue a man clinging to the underside of a blimp all in 25 minutes. Don’t ask. It’s all quite charming.


The TV show reprises Superman and the Mole Men as a first season ender, breaking it into two parts. I wonder if this example gave Walt Disney some ideas! The feature takes an interesting liberal point of view, with an anti-vigilante civics lesson. The Mole Men are midgets from the center of the Earth that show up and are immediately judged by some irate townspeople (including blacklistee-to-be Jeff Corey) as hostiles to be eradicated. Superman’s only role in the movie is to defend the American Way, which in this case includes protecting innocent aliens from paranoid, trigger-happy yahoos. With that sensitivity, it’s suprising that so little is made of the fact that Kal-El himself is an alien immigrant to the United States. He’s from another galaxy, yet he appreciates our freedoms. I guess he has to count himself lucky that he was in human form, specifically Anglo human form. Superman may be corny, but its sentiments ring true … he’s a hero championing values we still cherish, theoretical though they may be.

Like the first season, episodes play like single-chapter serials, crammed with action, mystery and intrigue. Superman (Reeves) “fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way” with the help of his alter-ego, “mild-mannered” reporter Clark Kent (also Reeves), who works for gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton) and alongside perky Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson).

Adventures of Superman – The Complete Second Season is much like the first. Compared with those that followed, Year Two is in black and white, and is slightly more adult in terms of content. The big difference from the first season is the series’ single major cast change: Noel Neill replaced Phyllis Coates in the pivotal role of Lois Lane. Neill had played Lois before, in two 15-chapter Superman serials produced by Columbia: Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Unlike Coates, Neill has remained very actively involved in Superman fandom after the show ended, appearing at comic book conventions and making cameos in the 1978 Superman movie, and again this year in Superman Returns.

Despite being too heroic as Clark, Reeves’ Superman is unfailingly appealing. In a decade of iconic heroes – The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers – his Superman fit right in. Jack Larson’s Jimmy is also dead-on, with just the right balance of enthusiasm, naivete, and gregariousness. The later films reinterpreted Clark/Superman and Lois, but their scripts were wise in keeping the flavor of the television Jimmy and Perry White largely unchanged.

Episodes run the gabit from inspired to flaccid. Some are exciting and imaginatively conceived, while others seem content to simply play out a relatively simple idea in flat medium shots on colorless sets. One can forgive the constant recycling of sets and the rudimentary special effects given the budgetary limitations of early television, especially for a syndicated (non-Network) series such as this, but the same drab angles of the Daily Planet’s offices and hallways do become wearisome. Instead of filming one episode after another, a batch of shows were apparently shot at the same time, with all of the scenes in Perry White’s office for a bunch of shows shot one day, then all of the scenes in Clark’s office shot the next, etc. For this reason, the actors rarely change their wardrobe, and understandably struggled remembering what was going on from one script to the next. This more than anything accounts for the occasional stylistic schizophrenia apparent in shows like “Panic in the Sky,” which is dynamically shot in some scenes, barely adequate in others.

Considering how little Reeves’ appearance changes from Clark Kent to Superman, why Lois and Jimmy don’t instantly recognize Clark as Superman is one of television’s great mysteries. Season two shows, however, broach this subject now and then. In one episode Clark and Lois are involved in a car accident; his suit is torn, revealing his Superman costume underneath, requiring some fast-thinking on the superhero’s part. In another good show a criminal tries to blackmail Superman with a photograph showing Clark changing into Superman in an alley. How this is resolved is cleverly handled.


These Superman episodes are the ones we remember from. The characters are charmingly inconsistent. Lois is sometimes given cute or revealing business to conduct, but her part is just as often limited to little more than a handful of grumpy dialogue lines. Perry White is still after Jimmy Olsen to stop calling him “Chief”, when the real head-scratcher is wondering why Olsen still has a job. Jimmy only intermittently takes photos. He seems a total dimwit incapable of holding a thought more than a few minutes, or even writing a sentence on paper. The stories vary in charm and interest with the usual juvenile ideas — silly crooks, over-eager “gee whiz” children — but for every middling plotline there’s an episode with a clever idea. One invention makes people think they’re upside down, enabling crooks to do their stuff. In the color opener for the third season, a professor’s time machine takes the principal players back to the Stone Age for some forgettable dramatics. We also see an interesting demonstration of Political Correctness from the early 1950s. When Superman finds himself in the company of an impressionable adolescent (the actor must be at least 20!) he sternly states that only Superman can fly, and that nobody should try to do something so dangerous. Shades of the old Peter Pan furor about children imitating their fantasy heroes!

The usual buzz about the color Supermans is that they’re cheap, and the style of filming bears that out to some degree. With color film rolling through the cameras every budgetary corner seems to be cut. The cave and jungle sets from the Time Travel show are recycled for the “pirate adventure” episode and another about helping an old Indian pass a qualifying test for Chief-hood. A vault door appears several times as a trap, whether to hide Lois and Jimmy or to freeze Superman. Interestingly, nuclear bomb shelters figure in several of the stories.

The most obvious budget shortcut is the re-use of special effects sequences. Superman’s flying scenes in season one consisted of rather pitiful rear projection setups, perhaps mandated by Reeves’ insistence after an early accident that he not be suspended by wires. Seasons 3 and 4 re-use the same four or five process shots ad infinitum through the ‘magic’ of optical duplication: Get a good take of Supe flying in front of some buildings, an empty sky; up and down, and print up enough dupe negs to last the season. Whether he’s flying across town or to Alaska, it’s always the same shot. When Superman carries someone with him in flight, we’re never shown the key action. George Reeves performs rather adroit trapeze landings for entrances (he never looks too out of breath) and vaults out of scenes with the aid of hidden springboards. After watching Chris Reeve gazelle out of shots like a flying Nureyev, those champion-diver launches now seem funny. We wonder why George Reeves doesn’t smash through whatever floor he’s bouncing on.

Producer Ellsworth skimps everywhere he can. Clark Kent almost always enters the storeroom to change costumes in the same duped stock shot peeking around an office corner, and the same goes for his Daily Planet landings. It looks as though scenes for multiple episodes taking place on the same set were filmed at the same time where possible — all the Perry White office material, all the time-wasting in Clark Kent’s office. Jimmy Olsen gets his usual three or four signature episodes, as when he wins a million dollars or gets to play a Burgonian prince in a story about baddies de-stabilizing a European monarchy. He even does the ‘evil twin’ routine, playing himself and a criminal look-alike. Some of the stories are on the weak side. Crooks try to fleece people by running a rigged jelly bean counting contest, and a wild west bully threatens to shoot Jimmy by sundown. In the freezer-threat episode, Superman takes sides with Daily Planet editor White on a local election. Kal-El insures that gangster thugs aren’t intimidating the voters, and then makes his prejudices known by asking a voter for whom he’s voting!


Even John Hamilton’s Mr. White and Robert Shayne’s Inspector Henderson get spotlight episodes, although they’re not the most imaginative either. Crooks make White think he’s crazy by conjuring up Great Caesar’s Ghost, while bad guys frame Henderson. Old favorite George E. Stone is a weasely crook in a few episodes, along with Myron Healey, John Doucette and Paul Burke as more fumbling thugs. The best surprise guest actors are Gloria Talbott I Married a Monster from Outer Space as an heiress tricked into decoying Superman away from a robbery, and Chuck Conners, who makes an excellent yokel with the name Sylvester Superman.

The wildest episode by far is The Wedding of Superman. Lois hasn’t been given much attention all season, but here she’s the center of a dream identical to the wish-fulfillment plotlines in the comic books. The whole show turns out to be a figment of her unconscious, as Lois imagines that Clark, Superman and even Inspector Henderson are gaga over her. The critical altar scene is handled very well, although there must have been many a groan as the dream gag (actually extremely transparent) was revealed. Lois tells the story directly to the camera, and it’s quite odd that she’d come to the obvious conclusion about Clark’s secret identity in the dream, only to dismiss it when she wakes up. It’s the only episode where Lois doesn’t have a sour or defeatist remark to make, somewhere. As an added fillip, in a brief bit part the show features none other than Ed Wood’s angora paramour Dolores Fuller!

By the time Adventures of Superman began production on its last two seasons (that aired during 1957-58), the series more or less had overcome its tight budgetary restrictions by evolving into a veritable universe unto itself. And it was a wacky universe indeed, operating under its own screwy story logic often totally disconnected from any semblance of reality. That gangsters would watch their bullets bounce off Superman’s chest then, having emptied their cartridges, throw their empty guns at the superhero, as if that would stop him, or that Superman’s pals never seemed to realize that the Man from Kypton and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent were one and the same, mattered not one iota to its legion of young viewers.


For fans of the comic books, the big-budget movies and TV shows of recent decades, Adventures of Superman rightly appears quaint and at times depressingly cheap, but if you stick with it, chances are you’ll find that it has a peculiar but very real charm all its own. The film Hollywoodland, about Superman actor George Reeves’ last years as a struggling actor and a private eye’s investigation following Reeves’ death (barely a year after the last show aired), adopts a curiously contemptuous attitude toward the show and especially its fan base. Though young children took its wild stories at face value, for many adults the very charm of the show is its good-natured goofiness.

Adventures of Superman is one of the most iconically ’50s/Eisenhowerian programs of its era. Superman was, after all, fighting not only for truth and justice, but also for “the American Way.” Instead of super-villains like Lex Luthor, Superman’s foes were more likely to be communist types, and ironically enough union activist Robert Shayne, the actor who played Superman’s ally Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis Police, was during its run subpoenaed to appear before The House Un-American Activities Committee and nearly lost his role were it not for members of the cast and crew who rushed to Shayne’s defense. A wonderful example of this very ’50s tone is “The Atomic Captive,” a Cold War masterpiece. After Russian fifth columnists fail to bring back a Russian-immigrant nuclear scientist (and loyal naturalized American citizen), Daily Planet reporters Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson) and Lois Lane (Noel Neill) drive out to the desert to interview him. However, the scientist is dying of radiation poisoning, and so “hot” his mere touch is likewise fatal. Jimmy and Lois rush in, and naturally ignore his pleas not to go near him, each pawing the man with reckless abandon.

When the scientist tells them they’ve just given themselves a fatal dose of radiation, all Jimmy can do is turn to Lois and say, “Golly Miss Lane, I guess we’re done for.” Making matters worse, they then drive out into the desert, taking a short cut through “ground zero” at a nuclear test site, wrongly figuring they wouldn’t possibly reschedule that H-Bomb test they had flown out to cover in the first place. Well, they were wrong, and take the full force of a nuclear blast, just like Glenn Manning in The Amazing Colossal Man.  This complete lack of common sense on the part of Lois and Jimmy is used throughout these later seasons, apparently as a kind of shorthand to propel the narrative forward without the need for lengthy (and logical) character motivation. In “The Perils of Superman,” an imposing man in a lead mask (Michael Fox) shows up at the Daily Planet to grimly announce that he’s devised fiendishly imaginative means to “liquidate” Lois, Jimmy, Clark, and Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton). Within a minute or two after he leaves, Lois and Perry are blithely off to a meeting, business as usual. It’s no surprise then that they’re kidnapped the minute they get into Lois’ car. Then again, if nothing happened to them, there’d be no show.

The budget precluded Superman actually performing feats as grand as “changing the course of mighty rivers,” but the production values on these later shows is better than those when the show began. Seasoned B-movie directors like Lew Landers and Howard Bretherton helmed episodes, as did star George Reeves.

Though the Adventures of Superman’s scripts leave all logic at the door, stories in these last 26 episodes are pleasingly close in spirit to the light-hearted tone of that era’s comic books.

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