Carol Hughes (The Golden Arrow)
Charles Middleton (Dick Tracy Returns)
Frank Shannon (Batman 1943)
Shirley Deane (Kill Me Tomorrow)
John Hamilton (Adventures of Superman)
1.The Planet of Peril
The planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Alexis Zarkov takes off in a rocket ship to Mongo, with Flash Gordon and Dale Arden as his assistants. They find that the planet is ruled by the cruel Emperor Ming, who lusts after Dale and sends Flash to fight in the arena. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, tries to spare Flash’s life.
Kirk Alyn (When Worlds Collide)
Noel Neill (Music Man)
Tommy Bond (Five Little Peppers at Home)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Lyle Talbot (Batman & Robin 1948)
Jack Ingram (Man Without a Star)
Don C. Harvey (The Scarlet Coat)
Atom Man vs. Superman was a Columbia serial of 15 installments. It’s notable as the second live action version of Superman to hit the big screen. It’s penchant for campy sci-fi gadgetry was a precursor to the Silver Age. As with the 1948 Superman serial, the budget is quite low and the special effects have been added in as animation, though some improvements have been made – notably closeups of Superman with his hair and cape blowing while in flight. I like that the first episode, ‘Superman Flies Again’, wastes no time on Superman’s origin. It doesn’t even waste time introducing Luthor, even though he wasn’t in the first serial. It is mentioned that Luthor is Superman’s arch-enemy, but other than that it presumes you know who Superman and Luthor is before it begins – something the modern Superman film franchise could take note of. With the second episode, the series slips quite a bit. There are a number of plot holes (mostly concerning who has a special coin and who knows they have it), and there are several moments of bad acting. There’s a lot of use of gimmicky gadgets, and Atom Man himself looks kind of funny with a giant sparkly head mask. On the plus side, the effects are a bit better than in the last serial, with the film sped up in parts to make it look like Superman is moving at super speed. The ship rescue was a nice touch, showing that Superman still has other work to do besides fighting Atom Man.
The third episode keeps things moving, with Superman rescuing Lois from a fall from a skyscraper, putting out a blazing oil fire, rescuing Luthor from an assassination attempt, and saving Jimmy and Lois when their airplane becomes disabled. Though his part is small, the highlight of the episode is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who is clearly the best actor in the series. And, even though he has a somewhat silly script to deal with, his portrayal of Luthor as a no-nonsense businessman may be the best ever, possibly even superior to Gene Hackman’s version in the 1978 film Superman.
The fourth episode is both good and bad – Superman rescues Lois and Jimmy in a perfunctory sequence, then they go back to the Daily Planet where they celebrate Lois’ birthday – only to have a fake gift transport her into the clutches of Atom Man. The episode has some great ideas – particularly Superman’s plan to get himself ‘captured’ to save Lois, but it seems to move from idea to idea too fast to capitalize on them.
The fifth episode is one of the best written episodes of the series. Superman enlists the help of the Daily Planet to post a fake news story about a shipment of plutonium – a material Atom Man needs for his plans – as a trap. But Luthor is too smart for this and turns the tables, sending a henchman into the trap to be captured and interrogated – thus revealing information about a secret package at the check room at Central Station, knowing that Superman would go there and investigate, inspecting all the packages with X-Ray vision. And leaving an inert material that converts to plutonium when subjected to X-Rays, allowing Luthor to get his hands on actual plutonium!
The sixth episode has a lot of things that really annoy me. There is an appalling lack of understanding of science – in addition to the X-ray vision turning the alloy nails into plutonium – and they just open up the box and look at them with no protection, there is the part where Luthor teleports a henchman wearing just a business suit into outer space, then brings him back a couple minutes later just fine. Later Luthor decides he now needs radium, and so he plans to steel it from a reduction plant. A little of this could be excused by the era, maybe it wasn’t yet common knowledge that space is a vacuum, but it really seems they didn’t even try to be respectful of science.
There’s also a lot of ridiculous plot and action points, for example, Lois escaping some thugs by throwing powder in their faces, the bad guys getting radium from a hospital safe by just asking for it and showing no credentials, the reduction plant having a vault that has a lethal gas booby trap, and Jimmy driving right onto a bombing range (no fence, gate, guard or anything) and there happening to be a bomber on a test run to drop a bomb right on him. There are a few good points in this one too, though. Lyle Talbot’s Luthor is particularly devious – when his henchmen fail him he threatens to sentence one to the vast doom of space and asks them who it will be, then when one of the men volunteers, he says that he’s brave – and then he chooses to sentence the other one instead. Also, unlike most of the chapters where all the Superman special effects are animated, this one actually has a pretty realistic looking scene of Kirk Allen overturning a villain’s car and then ripping out the engine and using it to bar the upright door from opening.
Episode 7 is a great episode – as the rough halfway point, it acts as a summary on Superman. Lex Luthor reveals that he acquired the records of Jor-El’s final pleas. In something that has been copied and re-used in many times in Superman stories since, we find out that Lex Luthor knows more about Superman’s origins than Superman himself. It also has the added twist on the end of Krypton that the planet-wide upheaval was caused by a decaying orbit – a pretty good science based explanation for the time. This is accomplished quite deftly in this episode by using a lot of found footage including natural disaster footage, and clips from the original Superman Serial.
The eighth episode provides something of a twist: we finally learn what exactly the ’empty doom’ is – it’s not so much a place (though it could involve displacement in space as well), so much as it’s a form of incorporealness. Superman is unable to affect the physical world. Though he does somehow manage to find a way to send Lois and Jimmy a message via her typewriter (possibly because it’s electric). There’s a lot of unexplained stuff, from how he types, to what is the empty doom, to more mundane things like why does everyone willingly stand under Luthor’s main arc without restraints, and what exactly does Lois keep in her purse that enables her to club thugs unconscious with it… but overall, the fantasy elements of this episode are a nice change of pace, even as poorly explained as they are.
Episode 9, ‘Superman Crashes Through’ takes things too far. In addition to the profound misunderstanding of outer space which I’ve been able to excuse up to this point, we also discover that Luthor’s synthetic kryptonite doesn’t work when exposed to air, and when Superman finally manages to get the drop on Atom Man, it turns out to be just an Atom Man robot. Things get better in the second half, but not enough to save this installment. Episode 10: ‘Atom Man’s Heat Ray’, despite its title, isn’t as grandiose as you might suspect. The heat ray itself is a small device Luthor’s men use to make the doorknob to a payroll truck too hot to touch after they’ve trapped some patsies in it. Storywise, this is a pretty good episode, but there are a few really dumb bits in it. At the start of the episode, Jimmy gets his foot stuck in a railroad tie, just as a train happens to be coming, necessitating rescue by Superman. In another part of the episode, Lois catches Clark coming in through a window (after having made an appearance as Superman), and the best thing he can think to cover his tracks is that he “just woke up” on the window ledge. But on the whole it’s a better than average episode, and even Jimmy gets to punch out a bad guy.
I liked episode 11 for a lot of the subtle attention to details. Luthor holds a press conference, and from the way his office is decorated, one can see that he is a man that likes/admires horses. Later when Lois is reporting with her TV crew on a flood, the camera they are using is not a mere prop – she asks for a closer view and the camera man rotates lenses. It’s subtle touches like these that make some episodes, such as this one, just a little better than average. The flood itself is a mixture of stock footage and models that cuts together better in some places than others, but once again it’s good to see Superman in action saving lives rather than just fighting bad guys.
Episode 12 is a fairly good episode, most of the characters behave in intelligent ways (except perhaps Lois in covering the flood – but risk-taking is normal for reporters and it’s not out of character), and the acting is actually pretty good. Lyle Talbot’s reaction as Luthor to a pad being stolen from his office, for example, is very well played. This episode also features one of the smoothest transitions between Kirk Allyn in costume, and the animated Superman, right on screen (rather than the usual Clark ducking behind a rock and emerging as Superman type thing). There is a sense that the series is finally starting to come to a climax.
Luthor’s pseudoscience gimmicks come fast and furious in Episode 13. Heat rays, death rays, camera devices that see everywhere, flying saucers that for all their sophistication are just used as ramming devices. Pretty much all science and logic goes out the window this episode, but at least it’s counterbalanced by the feeling that things are moving toward a climax.
Luthor pulls out all the stops in Episode 14, ‘Rocket of Vengeance’. He attacks Clark and Lois’ plane with a Flying Saucer, attacks Metropolis by means of his perennial favorite tool: an earthquake, orders Superman shot with an Atomic Projector, and finally launches a missile strike on Metropolis. As you can see, at this point the series has been reduced to gimmick-after-gimmick, thankfully everything will resolve in the fifteenth episode.
Like most serials, the final installment is a bit more exciting than the others, but overall the series maintains a pretty even level, unlike a feature film which steadily builds to a climax. The title of Episode 15, ‘Superman Saves the Universe’ may be a bit of hyperbole; by this time Luthor is on the run, and the biggest threat he makes is against one city (Metropolis) on Earth, never mind anyplace else in the universe. It’s overall pretty good though, a full plate of action that makes the episode seem to fly by faster than the previous ones. It should be noted that Kirk Allyn, though his performance throughout is he generally does a pretty good job as Superman, but the real standout in the cast is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who does an excellent job of providing a down-to-earth performance, even amid a plot that is rife with over-the-top gadgets and gimmicks.
Kirk Alyn (When Worlds Collide)
Noel Neill (Music Man)
Tommy Bond (Five Little Peppers at Home)
Carol Forman (Blackhawk)
George Meeker (Road to Rio)
Jack Ingram (The Cisco Kid)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
we are taking a look at the big blue boy scout’s first attempt on the film screen. That’s right, it’s time to take a look at the first Superman movie serial starring Kirk Alyn. Released in 1948 by Columbia Pictures, the serial was produced by Sam Katzman who produced many film serials starring superheros (and just about every single one I’ve reviewed so far) and contains Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent / Superman.
The serial stays very much true to the origin of Kal-El being launched from Krypton by his father Jor-El, but the only differences are that Jor-El is portrayed as more of a villain that actually caused the destruction of Krypton because of his science experiments and even considered using his son in a prototype rocket to see if it could carry a Kryptonian into space. So the story goes like you remember, Kal-El’s rocket arrives on Earth, the Kent’s pick him up, they take the blanket he was in and made a costume for him out of it when he gets old enough to be a reporter and so on. The plot of the serial is okay, but the only problem is that Superman finds out he is from Krypton for no apparent reason because the rocket he was in explodes mere seconds after Pa Kent rescues him from it thus destroying almost any evidence that he was from the planet Krypton other than the blanket. This is later explained when a meteor from the destroyed planet of Krypton lands on Earth and is discovered by Dr. Leeds who somehow knows it’s from Krypton and thus calls it Kryptonite. Of course, this rock affects Superman and its his Achilles heel throughout the whole serial. At the same time a scientist named Dr. Graham invents a machine that creates natural reducer rays that create a beam that can harness enough energy to trigger an atomic blast. Of course if you saw any of the superhero serials that we review on this website it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is going to be a villain that is going to steel the device.
That villain or should I say villainess is The Spider Lady, played by actress Carol Forman who also played the villainess Laska in the movie serial Blackhawk also starring Kirk Alyn. The Spider Lady wants to steal the machine in order to rule the underworld and later learns that Superman is helpless against Kryptonite, so she figures that she could combine the Kryptonite with the device in order for it to officially kill Superman. The way she finds out about the Kryptonite is earlier in the serial when Clark reveals his identity to Dr. Leeds after the discovery of the Kryptonite and is overheard by one of Leeds’ assistants who decides to make some money by offering the information to The Spider Lady for some money.
The majority of the serial revolves around Clark working for the Daily Planet while Lois and Jimmy get into trouble until Superman bails them out. One thing I enjoy about the serial is that most of the action scenes don’t involve long take fist fights and instead focuses on Superman using his powers. One thing that gets really annoying is the fact that the filmmakers use Kryptonite almost every time when they film Superman in an action scene in order to make a decent buildup to the cliffhanger at the end of the episode. It gets old and tiring really fast but when you’re the man of steel, it’s hard to lose to two-bit thugs.
Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill do a great job of portraying Clark/Superman and Lois respectively, bringing a lot of tension and chemistry to the characters and some childish antics between the two. One of the best parts of the serial is the fact that Lois always tries to trump Clark in his stories but ends up getting saved by Superman AND also having her story stolen by Clark as a way for some type of reward for Clark. One of the reasons why Kirk does such a great job is that he adds a touch of Smallville to the Clark Kent/Superman character in that he adds that young charming farm kid-like attitude towards the character. He’s just so bright and chipper that you really feel he’s this kid from the Midwest really trying to make it in the big city and he stands out from the rest of the characters, and it’s not because he has super powers. Noel Neill even brings a feisty attitude to Lois that still resonates today in the comic book and you feel that she really nails the part of Lois.
Now before I end this review, I feel that I should probably voice my opinion on the flight scenes portrayed by Superman in the serial. If you don’t know, many fans of Superman are generally disappointed by the serial because of the fact that Kirk Alyn does not fly in the serial but is in fact, replaced by a cartoon every time he goes to fly. Even before I saw the serial for the first time, it took me years to finally stir enough interest to watch due to the fact that the only thing I heard about it was that the flight scenes suck because Superman doesn’t actually fly. To be honest, it doesn’t really bother me that much. Don’t get me wrong, I would have much preferred to see Kirk Alyn being yanked on a harness uncomfortably than seeing a cartoon,(because we already have the Fleischer cartoons for that) but the animation is okay and it is a little neat to see the animators splice the footage in with the live action scenes. Supposedly Kirk Alyn was supposed to wear a harness in order to film some flight scenes but later complained that it was really uncomfortable and Katzman did not like the test footage, so instead found it cheaper to fire the special effects team created to do the flight scenes and instead hired animators.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Superman is still a great serial to watch mostly due to its great cast and special effects throughout the whole production. The costume on Kirk Alyn looks good and the serial doesn’t rely on fist fights for their action scenes and still manages to pull off a few good cliffhangers. So if you got a couple of hours to kill and if you don’t mind a flying cartoon Superman, then I would give this serial a watch
Robert Lowery (Adventures of Superman)
Johnny Duncan (Plan 9 From Outer Space)
Jane Adams (Angels in Disguise)
Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs Superman)
Ralph Graves (Ladies of Leisure)
William Fawcett (Gunsmoke)
Leonard Penn (Spartacus)
Those familiar with Batman and Robin only through Warner Bros.’ franchise or 20th Century-Fox’s campy TV series (and subsequent feature) may be surprised to learn that Batman’s big screen debut dates all the way back to 1943, in a serial produced by Columbia Pictures. The Batman, as it was called, was followed years later by Batman and Robin (1949), an enjoyable 15-chapter serial. The one-a-week chapter play was running out of steam by 1949; the burgeoning medium of television was killing the market for such things. Moreover, Republic and Columbia, the leading producers of serials in the late-1940s, were cutting corners by recycling the same footage — cars sailing off cliffsides, planes crashing into mountains, dams bursting, etc. — over and over, and unimaginative, budget-conscious writing resulted in one serial’s script playing pretty much like any other. In standard movie serial plotting, the villain of the piece is The Wizard, a hooded criminal mastermind operating from the caverns of a remote island base. (As usual with such villains, he has a lot of all-purpose futuristic equipment stacked atop sturdy wood tables.) As usual for chapter plays, The Wizard’s identity is kept secret until the serial’s climax, though its writers surely want viewers to think it’s eccentric, paralyzed inventor (William Fawcett), who secretly sits at an electric chair-type device decked out in neon that enables him to walk around unaided.
The Wizard’s henchmen steal a fantastic new invention which allows the operator to control moving vehicles of any size from extreme distances. Gotham City’s Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) enlists the aid of crime-fighters Batman (Robert Lowery) and Robin (John Duncan), the secret alter-egos of wealthy — and, in this serial, outrageously lazy — playboys Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Also on the case is plucky photographer Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), who is unaware that Batman/Bruce and Robin/Dick are one and the same. According the IMDb, Vicki Vale’s popularity was boosted by the serial’s success, prompting Batman creator Bob Kane (who is credited in tiny print onscreen) to make the character more prominent in the comics. He reportedly based her design on Marilyn Monroe, though Jane Adams, a brunette, is rather matronly in Batman and Robin. Some will want to watch Batman and Robin solely to mock its now dated thrills and limited budget, others will be drawn to the DVD’s attractive cover art (see above) and perhaps mistake it for something else. (Columbia’s large font “1949” on the box art seems an effort to stave off lawsuits from Warner Bros. and Fox.) Batman and Robin is an easy target next to, say, Joel Schumacher’s over-produced Batman & Robin (1997), whose honeywagon budget alone probably eclipsed the entire cost of the serial.
It’s certainly easy to laugh at Bruce and Dick grabbing their superhero costumes out of a file cabinet drawer or, in one scene, Dick putting the top up on his late model Mercury convertible so that Bruce can change into Batman. Really, though, by serial standards of the day, Batman and Robin is above average: the two-heroes-for-the-price-of-one premise is a novelty, and it has a lot of energy in some of its action set pieces. There’s a long fight sequence atop a moving train that’s pretty elaborate for a serial, and there’s enough going on in each chapter — mysterious submarines, underground lairs, futuristic gadgetry — that only the most cynical audiences wouldn’t be entertained.
Lowery and Duncan are only okay as Batman and Robin. As Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, the script forces them to behave like sloths around Vicki, and though physically right (at least by late-1940s standards), neither is exactly bursting with charisma. Lowery’s fleshy features suggest Johnny Weissmuller, while Duncan’s Robin/Dick doesn’t so much resemble a Boy Wonder as he does Michael Rooker’s Henry the Serial Killer. Character veteran Talbot is no match for Neil Hamilton’s earnest Commissioner Gordon on the TV show, while Eric Wilton’s Alfred the Butler is all but invisible.
Lewis Wilson (Klondike Kate)
Douglas Croft (Yankee Doodle Dandy)
J. Carrol Naish (Dracula vs Frankenstein)
Shirley Patterson (The Land Unknown)
William Austin (Alice in Wonderland 1933)
Batman is an odd but fascinating mixture of Batman comic mythos, World War II propaganda and cheaply crafted cliffhanger clichés. Like most all serials of its time, each of Batman’s chapters ended with a scene showing our hero facing seemingly inescapable mortal danger. Of course, Batman always managed to escape this danger in the next chapter, but the only way 1940’s moviegoers could know this for sure was to spend their money on a ticket for next week’s show. Batman starred Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Douglas Croft as Robin/Dick Grayson, and J. Carrol Naish as the diabolical Japanese criminal mastermind Dr. Daka. Daka was Batman’s only villain – all 15 chapters of the serial revolved around Batman and Robin’s efforts to find him and bring him to justice.
The villain had never appeared in Batman comic stories – he was created specifically for the serial in order to reflect the United States’ preoccupation with World War II. Daka seemed to represent all of the fear and anger that America felt toward Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 – he was a ruthless and insidiously clever agent of the Japanese government who was determined to see the American way of life wiped off the face of the earth.
Obviously, Batman was trying to bridge a rather uncomfortable gap between real-life threats to America and escapist entertainment. This combination might have seemed appropriate in the heat of the World War II years, but it will surely make modern audiences somewhat uncomfortable –many of the anti-Japanese sentiments found in Batman’s scenes involving Daka come across now as bigoted and hysterical. To make matters worse, like most other serials of its time, Batman was filmed quickly and very cheaply – so not surprisingly, it left much to be desired in terms of its production values. For example, Batman and Robin’s costumes were ill-fitting and badly designed, and they were not even given a Batmobile to drive – they were forced to drive Bruce Wayne’s rather modest-looking convertible around Gotham City while they were fighting crime! Also, many of the serial’s action sequences were unimaginatively staged and unconvincingly executed.
The serial did have its moments, and even more importantly, it was responsible for introducing a number of elements into the Batman mythos that became as vital to the character as his cape and cowl. For example, the Batcave was entirely an invention of the film’s screenwriters. It was actually referred to as the “Bat’s Cave” in the serial, but its name was just about the only element of it that would be changed from the screen to the comic page. In Batman’s first scenes, the Bat’s Cave” was established as Batman’s secret base of operations located under Bruce Wayne’s residence. It was made up of a dimly lit main chamber that featured a bat insignia on one of its rocky walls, and a state-of-the-art crime lab in a separate room. Batman’s “Bat’s Cave” certainly was not as elaborate as the comic book Batcave would become over the years, but it holds the distinction of being Batman’s first official “home.”
Batman was also responsible for creating one of Batman’s most memorable supporting characters – Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful English butler. Alfred, played by William Austin, was an essential but slightly bumbling member of Batman’s crimefighting team and the only person who knew that Bruce and Dick were actually Batman and Robin. Many times during the course of the serial he was called into service to assist them. Batman’s writers likely created Alfred to be a “comic relief sidekick,”. Alfred was unquestionably a “good guy” in the serial, but one who often found himself on the receiving end of Bruce and Dick’s wisecracks and practical jokes. Obviously, over the years Alfred would evolve into a far more respected member of Batman’s inner circle – but Batman marks the moment when the character first entered Batman’s world.
Batman not only featured these Batman “firsts,” it also featured a strong performance by Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He brought the character to the screen for the first time in a straightforward, square-jawed action hero manner that at times transcended his ill-fitting Batman costume. And Douglas Croft was equally good as Robin. Croft had one major advantage over every other actor who would play the role – namely, he was closer in age to the character than they were. To date, Croft has been the screen’s only true “Boy Wonder” – he was about 13 years old when Batman was filmed, and his youthful exuberance was perfectly suited for the role.
In fact, I think it is worth noting that Batman is the only live-action Batman screen work to feature a juvenile Robin operating within Batman’s world of murder, death and destruction. The serial played up the harder-edged crime drama aspects found in many Batman comic plots of the 1940’s – consequently, the youngster was faced with some pretty horrific scenes in Batman, such as people being buried in mine collapses or devoured by ravenous alligators.
To me, one of the most interesting/amusing things about this DVD release of Batman is the set’s packaging. It features dramatic, sepia-toned artwork depicting Batman and Robin swooping down from out of the sky – to be honest, the artwork is far more stylish and striking than anything found in the serial itself! Obviously, the artwork is a not-so-subtle attempt to market the set as a kind of counterpart to the Batman Begins DVD, which of course features dramatic sepia-toned images of Christian Bale as Batman. Just in case anyone misses Sony’s attempt to connect the two works, there is a tag line displayed prominently on Batman’s back cover that reads “SEE HOW BATMAN REALLY BEGAN!” The back cover of the Batman DVD set also features a second sepia-toned image of Batman overlooking Gotham City that is a direct trace-over of one of Alex Ross’s paintings found in the wonderful 1999 oversize graphic novel Batman: War on Crime by Ross and Paul Dini. Again, it is a great image, but it gives the impression that Batman is a far more visually stylish work than it actually is!