Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season Review
Faster than a speeding bullet!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane...
Although Superman had only been around for twelve years when George Reeves first pulled on his soon-to-be-iconic tights, The Adventures of Superman was hardly the first appearance for the character away from the newsstands. Both the wonderful Fleischer cartoons and the two movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs Superman (1950), had made Superman a regular visitor to the cinema screens, while at home audiences had enjoyed hearing his adventures on the radio for the better part of a decade, from 1942 through to 1949, in an immensely popular series. Indeed, it was this latter series, rather than the on-screen versions, which was to prove instrumental in bringing his tales to television, an industry that by 1950, was beginning to seriously flex its muscles, and was busy looking at popular wireless shows for inspiration. Superman seemed an obvious choice as, no matter how successful the audio version had been, his natural home was, and will always be, in a visual medium, while the fact the character had a proven track record clinched the deal. Kirk Alyn was asked to reprise his theatrical role, but he demanded too much money so instead the job was given to George Reeves, someone who, up to that point, had spent his career toiling away as a B-movie actor (although he’d had a good start to his career as one of the Tarleton brothers in Gone With The Wind). The series started life as a low-budget theatrical movie, Superman and the Mole Men, in 1951 while the first episode debuted a year later, on September 19th 1952.
In style, the series was far closer to its radio sibling than Siegel and Shulster's original comics. Fans of Old Time Radio (OTR), the name given by aficionados to American audio drama from the first half of the last century, will be familiar with many of the show's trappings: one-dimensional heroes and villains, expositional dialogue that never rings true, simplistic morality tales with a rapid pace. Although on the surface that sounds dreadful, it ends up being anything but, as the stories are also effortlessly entertaining. Each episode is roughly the same, starting off with Lois (Phyllis Coates) and Clark hearing about something odd going on, toddling off to investigate, Lois and/or Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) then being kidnapped and placed in a precarious situation before, in the climax, Superman whizzes in to save the day. Despite this formulaic approach, the set-up never palls which is down to a mixture of amusing lead characters, speedy development of the story and sheer old-fashioned charm.
One side effect of the fact the series leans on OTR-style trappings is that this is, in many ways, more a traditional gangster show than a straight version of Superman. Only very rarely does Superman actually face a fantastical adversary, and you'll find no Lex Luthor (or just Luthor, as he was known back in those days) or Mr Mxyzptlk walking the streets of this Metropolis (you won't find Brainiac or Bizarro either, but as they weren't to be created for another few years yet I think we can let them off). Instead, the Man of Steel consistently punches far below his weight, facing off against a stream of mobsters and chancers, a string of James Cagney wannabes who are out of their depth facing the world's strongest man and don't even realise it. Because of this, Superman himself is very rarely threatened (none of the Metropolis Underworld have heard about Kryptonite yet) and instead he spends his days chasing after his friends and making sure ally Inspector Henderson (Robert Shayne) always gets his man - or dame. The surprising thing is how tough it all is; this is an often violent show in which people regularly meet sticky ends and villains aren't averse to the odd bit of torture to get what they want. Even Superman himself isn't as pure as his Boy Scout image would have it - in an episode that simultaneously evoked a hearty laugh and a slightly shocked expression from this reviewer, Superman catches a couple of two-bit crooks who discover his identity and dumps them on top of a mountain... off of which they promptly fall to their deaths (I bet if that had been Lois plummeting he'd have returned pretty sharpish). However, despite all its noirish pretensions, the main thing about the episodes is they are also a lot of fun, watching as the reporters entangle themselves in yet another precarious position, while the show has many repeating motifs that act as winks to the regular viewer - someone demanding to know where Clark goes all the time, Superman bouncing out of the window to save the day, and so on - ensuring that the stories, as good pulp fiction always should be, are easily enjoyable.
As noted, much of the success is down to the leads, especially Reeves. While his iconic status as Superman is a given, a playing note-perfect with a look straight from the pages of DC, the more unexpected element is his playing of Clark. Superman's alter ego in this version is far from the mild-mannered version the opening narration would have us believe, instead coming across as a tough and intelligent reporter, one who's quick on the ball and has canny intuition; as often as not it’s him, as opposed to Lois, who works out what’s going on and what should be done, without the aid of any of his Kryptonian-based advantages. He’s as warm-hearted as the character should be, and held in a lot of affection by the other members of the Daily Planet (unusually, it's Kent as much as Superman who comes across as protective to both Lois and Jimmy), but when push comes to shove Clark can stand up to the best of them, and won’t take any nonsense from anyone, not even Lois. As opposed to most other incarnations, he’s a very self-assured man, never nervous when a character begins to suspect there might be more to him than he lets on, able to fob them off with an easy explanation before casually turning to the camera, slyly letting his audience in on the joke. In a series which favours broad strokes over nuance, it’s an extremely satisfying playing of the role, and matches Reeves’ large physical presence: it’s difficult to believe a Clark this tall and sturdily built would be quite the shrinking violet we’re used to.
His companions make generally fine, if second-tier, support, although it's perhaps only Jack Larson as Jimmy who comes close to matching Reeves' screen presence. Larson is very much used as light relief, and spends a lot of the time pulling faces, looking terrified or confused or whatever else the script demands, but he's an enjoyable player to watch, giving the gee-whiz role his all. Phyllis Coates as Lois, though, is harder to warm to. Hers is a ballsy Lois, a woman both forthright and, judging by the way she sometimes tries to screw Clark over on a story, bitchy, one who acts as though she’s quite capable of looking after herself and will kick any rogues on the shins if they suggest otherwise (a playing rather betrayed by the fact she has to be rescued so often). That said, her abrasive manner is eventually toned down, and some hints at humour do appear, leading one to suspect the actress could have gone on to greater things had she continued in the role past this first year. The final member of the Daily Planet contingent, John Hamilton as Perry “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” White is good value too, and if I can never quite get past the fact that, for me, the best screen Perry is Lane Smith, well then that’s my own problem rather than the actor’s - Hamilton certainly takes advantage of the chance to expand his wings beyond the confines of the Daily Planet set in The Evil Three and it's a shame he didn't get more opportunities to do so.
In 1978 Richard Donner sold his cinematic version to audiences with the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but it was actually this series that used that as a major selling point for the first time. Before it began audiences had never actually seen a real flesh-and-blood Superman take to the skies, the two Alyn serials using animatics for the appropriate moments. It’s extremely hard to look at the sequences of an airborne Reeves these days and appreciate how much this meant to audiences, but for many it was an integral part of the show, and was treated very seriously by the makers. After an attempt to use wires while making Superman and the Mole Men had resulted in a mishap, the simple technique of Reeves bouncing off a spring board out of a window to take off, and then jumping off a ladder to land, was used and, aside from the unfortunate instances when you can actually see the springboard in action, this works pretty well, within the budgetary constraints. The airborne shots are less useful, given it’s easy to see the flat surface Reeves is lying on, but they still have a charm about them.
They are also essentially the only special-effects going, unsurprising given fact that the budget for the show was tiny: although a popular character, insiders were uncertain how well it would do on the small screen, so the episodes were produced for syndication (indeed, the first batch were made in 1951 but only shown for the first time the following year). Sets are never overburdened with detail, while one begins to suspect reporters at the Daily Planet are paid tuppence given they are always wearing the same clothes. However, much use is made of the RKO backlot for plenty of street-scenes, which works well and helps break the monotony of the more studio-bound segments. (Fans of classic bloopers will be pleased to learn there are plenty of examples of shadows being cast on backdrops purporting to show wide open plains).
Put together, this is a show very much of its time but which still has appeal today. Although it's not really that close to the original comics, its brand of simple knockabout action, enjoyable leads and comforting familiarity ensures it's never less than thoroughly entertaining. Although not the best of the four seasons - Season Two gets the mix between humour and action far better than here - these episodes are a fine introduction to George Reeves' superhero, and the series never suffers overly from the speed of each production (it was regular practice for at least two episodes to be filmed each week). Treat it as you would a piece of high quality pulp fiction, and you'll be in for a whale of a time, cursing as Lois blunders once more into danger and cheering each time the musical fanfare heralds the arrival of Superman on the scene to save the day. A set of episodes to savour.
The complete first season of twenty-six episodes is presented on five double-layered single-sided disks. They are housed in an attractive package made of a fold-out cardboard holder, illustrated with suitably comic-book-like stylings with synopses and production information for each episode. This in turn is held in a sleeve with identical artwork.
The main menu of each disk opens with a fanfare from the show before zooming in on a Superman comic book with Reeves on the front, which opens to reveal the menu itself. Comprised of a number of comic book panels, each of which has a different option (Play, Episodes, Special Features and Languages) and each with their own clips which play consecutively. All other menus are static. The Episode selection screen just lists the episodes on that disk as well as starring those with a commentary, and in general the menus are attractive and sensibly arranged, even if the inclusion of an option for Special Features on disks with none is a bit silly. Slightly annoyingly, neither the episodes themselves nor any of the extras have chapter stops.
All episodes are subtitled but none of the extras (including the two films) are.
Reasonable. There’s plenty of grain and artefacts still to be seen, and some episodes fare much better than others (The Stolen Costume is particularly bad) but in general the actual images are clear, and if not as sharp as something filmed yesterday still far better than one would expect of a show of this age. There is the odd encoding problem leading to some blocky moments and general aliasing though. It’s notable that the transfer quality of both the theatrical version of the pilot (see below) and, especially, Pony Express Days is superior.
Again, not the clearest track you’ll hear, but while dialogue is not crisp and there’s some blurring at times, there’s very little sound distortion or crackle to be heard.
Four episodes come with commentaries: The Haunted Lighthouse, The Stolen Costume, The Evil Three and Crime Wave. Gary H Grossman, the author of Superman: Serial to Cereal, takes the first two of these and provides an affectionate if hit-and-miss companion. I suspect he came to the recording session with no notes; half the time he provides us with details about actors, directors and backlots (he’s particularly fond of pointing out other films you’ll have seen the same buildings in) but the other half he doesn’t, for example when he says he doesn’t know if The Stolen Costume is based on one of the radio episodes or not. That said, his warm enthusiasm for the series is infectious and one doesn’t even mind when he starts describing what’s happening on screen as he’s simply become rapt up in the story again.
The commentator on the last two episodes is Chuck Harter, another expert in the world of Superman. He's slightly better, and has more varied things to contribute to his yak tracks, but he still tends to deviate at times into repetition - he loves underlining the fact this wasn't a children's show. Both of them need to do some more preparation before recording future commentaries, as well as maybe some company - why on earth wasn't Jack Larson roped in to do a few?
The Adventures of Superman: From Inkwell To Backlot (17:02)
Although the title suggest a look at the entire history of the character, this featurette concentrates firmly on the series itself and makes for an enjoyable if bog standard retrospective. Featuring contributions from comic book artists, film historians and Jack Larson himself, this looks at all the principal cast members and discusses the show’s popularity and why it still resonates today. Lightweight in that only positive generalities are discussed (no mention is made of Reeves’ complex character) but a nicely put together piece with plenty of well-chosen clips illustrating the points being made.
Superman and the Mole Men (57:59)
Eventually split up and re-edited into a two-parter for the end of this first season, the original full-length version of the show’s pilot, released theatrically in 1951, is also included. Both Reeves and Coates (no Larson or Hamilton yet) slip effortlessly into their roles, and it would be quite easy to believe they’ve already been playing the roles for years, but the story itself is very boring. A tale that could have easily been told in a single twenty-five minute segment, it sees Clark and Lois travelling to the town of Silsby where a new oil well has opened up a pathway for subterranean mole men to come through. Although these visitors have no malicious intention, the shock of seeing them causes an elderly resident to die of a heart attack, and the rest of the town’s folk rise up in arms against the invaders. Can Superman stop them destroying these innocent creatures, or will he be too late to avert a tragedy? And more importantly, will you care come the final reel? Much of the run time is taken up with laborious scenes of people chasing the mole men, played by small children wearing bushy eyebrows and bald caps, and there is literally nothing else of interest going on to avert attention, other than Lois speculating that Clark is leading a double life. Besides from the principals’ assured debuts, this isn’t worth much.
Kellogg’s Commercial Spots (4:35)
“You know, there’s something mighty interesting going on around my town,” Clark Kent tells us in one of these, “every place I go I see that favourite new cereal of mine, Kellogg’s sugar-frosted flakes.” Aside from questioning whether Kent is beginning to lose his keen nose for a good news story, these are an amusing piece of kitsch Americana. After a brief introduction by writer Gary Grossman, we see three examples of the adverts in which Clark Kent extols the virtues of Tony the Tiger’s favourite brand of cereal. Although the basic plots of these is a little dubious – Clark is revealed to be a bit of a peeping tom as he goes round spying on kids at the breakfast table using his X-Ray vision – these are great fun, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see examples with other stars of the show as well. (Please note: DVD Times does not endorse Kellogg’s Sugar-Frosted Flakes any more than any other breakfast cereal, except Crunchy Nuts which are fab).
Pony Express Days (19:50)
Highly enjoyable Western short from 1940 starring George Reeves as a youthful Buffalo Bill. The story, while full of historical nonsense, gives a good account of the Pony Express, which for a brief period in the early 1860s was California’s principal source of communication with the rest of the United States. Set on the brink of the outbreak of the Civil War, Bill Cody, who has yet to adopt his future nickname, makes a desperate bid to get to California with the news that Lincoln has been elected before Southern propagandists can convince the state to secede. Lush cinematography vividly captures the long open plains, while Reeves plays Bill as a wide-eyed innocent whose only desire is to ride for the Pony Express. Hardly challenging but well worth your time, making an excellent idea for this set.
The episodes themselves are marvellously entertaining, with not a dull moment to be had. The extras are nice but not special with the commentaries in particular being a mixed bag. There’s plenty more material that could have been used – more Kellogg’s commercials for example, or maybe a couple of radio episodes – so here’s hoping for more detail in the future seasons to complement the episodes themselves.