REVIEW: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 5 & 6

Starring

George Reeves (Gone With The Wind)
Noel Neill (Campus Sleuth)
Jack Larson (Flighter Squadron)
John Hamilton (Captain Ameirca 1944)
Robert Shayne (The Flash 90s)

George Reeves in Adventures of Superman (1952)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST

Lilyan Chauvin (Predator 2)
Laurie Mitchell (Calypso Joe)
Milton Frome (Batman: The Movie)
Richard Benedict (Ocean’s 11)
Phil Tead (Sif of a Kind)
Billy Curtis (April Showers)
Tristram Coffin (The Crawling Hand)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington)
Joi Lansing (Touch of Evil

George Reeves, Cyril Delevanti, Jack Larson, and Noel Neill in Adventures of Superman (1952)

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.Adventures of Superman (1952)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. 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.Adventures of Superman (1952)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.Adventures of Superman (1952)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. How does Superman save the day? You’ll have to tune in for yourself.Adventures of Superman (1952)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.George Reeves, Tom Dillon, Noel Neill, and Robert Shayne in Adventures of Superman (1952)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, while instantly recognizable character actors like Jack Kruschen, John Banner, Cyril Delevanti, Laurie Mitchell, Billy Curtis (as Martian Mr. Zero), Dabbs Greer, and Joi Lansing populate episodes. Serial fans will likewise delight in such familiar faces as Dale Van Sickel, Tristram Coffin, I. Stanford Jolley, usually playing villains. 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. Neill’s hair becomes almost phosphorescently orange and both Reeves and Larson have fleshier features, with Reeves’ hair a little grayer and thinner, and Larson no longer the 19-year-old youth he was when the show began, but the youthful excitement that still greets the show remains unabated.

REVIEW: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 3 & 4

Starring

George Reaves (Gone With The Wind)
Noel Neill (Campus Sleuth)
Jack Larson (Flighter Squadron)
John Hamilton (Captain Ameirca 1944)
Robert Shayne (The Flash 90s)

Adventures of Superman (1952)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST

Sterling Holloway (Alice In Wonderland 1951)
Tristram Coffin (The Crawling Hand)
Myron Healey (Hell’s Crossroads)
Chuck Connors (Soylent Green)
Phil Tead (The Fighting Blade)
Janine Perreau (M)
Claude Akins (Rio Bravo)
Gloria Talbott (The Leech Woman)
Julie Bennett (Spider-Man 90s)
Milton Frome (Batman: The Movie)
Robert Lowery (Batman & Robin 1949)
Pierre Watkin (Bill Cracks Down)

Adventures of Superman (1952)Season one of the Adventures of Superman television show was quite a surprise, with a different Lois Lane and a selection of often hard-nosed crime stories. A new Lois in the person of Noel Neill came with season two; she had already played the role in two Columbia serials with Kirk Alyn. The show also adopted a lighter tone: Less violence, more fantasy. With the third and fourth season (13 episodes each) the series adds an all-important extra: Color. Just as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz looked to future revenue in re-runs by filming their shows instead of simply creating low quality Kinescopes, producer Whitney Ellsworth started his third season in color, even though the episodes wouldn’t be broadcast that way for years. Adventures of Superman (1952)These Superman episodes are the ones we remember from re-runs that ran well into the late 1960s. 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!George Reeves and Ben Welden in Adventures of Superman (1952)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 (who are together so frequently they might think of taking out a marriage license) or to freeze Superman. Interestingly, nuclear bomb shelters figure in several of the stories.George Reeves, Noel Neill, and Elizabeth Patterson in Adventures of Superman (1952)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.Jack Larson, Noel Neill, and Phil Tead in Adventures of Superman (1952)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. It’s possible that individual episode directors had only a limited number of show-specific scenes to shoot. We’re told that with the high cost of Eastman negative stock, take one was almost always the keeper. These two factors account for the inconsistency in performances — even Clark/Superman seems to change attitude between scenes for unspecified reasons. In the Bully of Dry Gulch episode, Clark almost goes ballistic when he hears over the phone that a bad guy is giving Lois “goo-goo eyes”: “WHAT!?” Yet most of the time George Reeves is remarkably smooth in the role. Clark and especially Superman are always ready with a good-natured grin and a pleasing smile.Adventures of Superman (1952)One last special effects observation: I distinctly remember optical shots in which bullets are seen to bounce off George Reeve’s chest. Those must be from the last two color seasons, as they don’t show up here. 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!George Reeves, Milton Frome, John Hamilton, Noel Neill, and Robert Shayne in Adventures of Superman (1952)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. That episode, Flight to the North, is a warped conglomeration of nutty ideas, ending in an Alaskan shack where the recipient (Richard Garland) of a gift pie (lemon meringue) is besieged by a succession of crazy guests, including Superman.wedding4The 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!

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 2

Starring

George Reaves (Gone With The Wind)
Noel Neill (Campus Sleuth)
Jack Larson (Flighter Squadron)
John Hamilton (Captain Ameirca 1944)
Robert Shayne (The Flash 90s)

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RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST

Aline Towne (Highway 301)
Vera Marshe (The Crimson Key)
Jonathan Hale (The Saint Strikes Back)
Sterling Holloway (Alice In Wonderland 1951)
Yvette Duguay (Domino Kid)
Ruta Lee (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers)
Leonard Penn (Mysterious Island)
Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby)
Pierre Watkin (Bill Cracks Down)
Judy Nugent (There’s Always Tomorrow)
Allene Roberts (The Red House)

the-adventures-of-superman-george-reevesA warm nostalgia drives the enduring popularity felt by an aging generation of Baby Boomers for Adventures of Superman, the 1952-57 series that ended only with the tragic and still-mysterious death of its star, George Reeves. Cheaply-produced and generally unambitious, the program never lived up to its full potential, even taking into account its budgetary and technical limitations. By the end of its run Adventures of Superman (there’s no “The” in the title) had further de-evolved into a silly, trivial children’s show; it ran out of steam and Reeves had aged noticeably.adventures-of-superman-five-minutes-to-doom-john-hamilton-george-reeves-noel-neill-jack-larsonBut for children growing up in the 1950s (and several generations thereafter, who caught up with the program in reruns), Adventures of Superman was a 30-minute tonic of thrills and adventure. The audio commentary supplied by Gary Grossman on the First Season DVD set is more fannish than informative, but he nails precisely the excitement children felt watching the show when it was new. (You can read DVD Savant’s first season review here.) 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).the-adventures-of-superman-e2809cthe-man-who-could-read-mindse2809d-jack-larson-noel-neillAdventures of Superman – The Complete Second Season is much like the first. Compared with those that followed, Year Two is in black and white (the next season would be in color), 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.MV5BOWI3NDljZjUtNTQ0My00OTAwLTljNjktZTAyMjU2N2Y5NmE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjcxMDczNTU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_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. Season two boasts an incredible line-up of great character actors in guest parts, including Dabbs Greer, Hugh Beaumont, Lawrence Dobkin, Billy Gray, Leon Askin, Philip Van Zandt, George Chandler, Percy Helton, Sterling Holloway, Peter Brocco, Roy Barcroft, Leonard Penn, Elisha Cook, Jr., Paul Fix, Robert Wilke, Denver Pyle, Virginia Christine, and John Doucette.capture51Adventures of Superman can be a very entertaining show if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and watch it from an early-1950s perspective. It’s a show of its time, from a simpler era, but still loads of fun.

REVIEW: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 1

Starring

George Reeves (Gone With The Wind)
Phyllis Coates (Invasion U.S.A.)
Jack Larson (Flighter Squadron)
John Hamilton (Captain America 1944)

Adventures of Superman (1952)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST

Herbert Rawlinson (The Flame Fighter)
Aline Towne (Highway 301)
Frances Morris (The Rawhide Terror)
Danni Sue Nolan (Smokey Canyon)
Tom Fadden (Dragnet)
Robert Rockwell (Our Miss Brooks)
Maudie Prickett (Hazel)
Robert Shayne (The Flash 90s)
Tristram Coffin (The Crawling Hand)
Pierre Watkin (Bill Cracks Down)
Allene Roberts (The Red House)
Richard Benedict (Ocean’s 11)
Dan Seymour (Batman 60s)
Veda Ann Borg (Mildred Pierce)
Leonard Penn (Mysterious Island)
Gloria Saunders (Red Snow)
Jane Adams (Batman & Robin 1949)
Jeff Corey (Little Big Man)

George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, and Syd Saylor in Adventures of Superman (1952)Just the mention of the Superman television show always brings out a smile; for 1950s kids this program was nothing but good memories. Shuster and Siegel’s Superman started as a comic book character and soon developed into an icon representing everything good and noble … sort of a folk god for the 20th century. By the post-war years the world was in a real muddle, yet for little kids Superman was a reassuring beacon of light, morally decent and vigilant without being a vigilante. Just the sound of George Reeves’ voice stirs something in a 50s kid; the brassy Superman anthem brought us to our feet and running for the TV set.

Adventures of Superman (1952)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. Warners has assembled a trim multi-disc package and included some great extras. 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 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 1953.5aaaa7d8d32fbd1004fe40c0626c8b43As pointed out in the docu, 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!George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, and John Hamilton in Adventures of Superman (1952)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.DGgb2-1456844038-217-lists-adventuresofsuperman_mrmctavishProduction 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.  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!516164f6b2abc7a3a2492aad9104f2d5The 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.superman-george-reeves-31The TV show reprises Superman and the Mole Men as a first season ender, breaking it into two parts.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN

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CAST

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.

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REVIEW: SUPERMAN (1948)

CAST

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