Adventures of Superman: The Complete Second Season Review
By the time George Reeves began shooting his second year as the Man of Steel, he and his colleagues knew they had a hit on their hands. Although a popular character, initially the television series had seemed a bit of a risk, not least because it did not have the backing of a major network behind it but was made from the first for syndication, but this hadn't hindered it from becoming a huge success. America had taken the denizens of the Daily Planet to their hearts, just as they had during the long-running 1940s radio series, and made celebrities of Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson and John Hamilton. Coming back to film a second batch of episodes, it's unsurprising that both cast and crew were in buoyant mood, a feeling reflected in the episodes they produced in this sophomore year. More versatile, more slick, more sassy, this was a show that was brimming with confidence, showing in everything from performances through to script through to more ambitious special effects. Looking back now, history is able to judge that this was the apex of the Reeves years, a perfectly balanced blend of action and humour that is even now, more than fifty years after being made, one of the best runs Superman has ever had.
It wasn't a completely smooth transition from year one to two, however, as Noel Neill came in to replace Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. A crucial change such as this early on in a series can throw a cast's chemistry completely off balance, but fortunately Neill fits right in, and soon makes the part her own. Coates had made for an acerbic reporter with little levity, and while she’d had reasonable chemistry with the other members of the Daily Planet, there is a visible relaxation when Neill took over. (It wasn’t, of course, the first time Neill had played the character, having starred opposite Kirk Alyn’s Superman in his two theatrical productions a few years previously). Without wishing to enter the realms of feminism, Neill is simply less of a threat, less likely to come along and kick you in the shins if you’re doing something she doesn't like, making her a more pleasant character to have around, and as such gels more with the general bonhomie of the other regulars. Her transition is easy, and at first she’s almost a dead-ringer for Coates; while watching the first episode of the season, I idly wondered whether I was seeing a holdover from the previous year, so alike are they. However, she soon develops her own look and performance, one that has more overt humour in it as well as an increased vulnerability. That’s both a strength and a flaw: she’s a more rounded human being, but also doesn’t have the underlying steel that made one believe that Coates’s version was quite able to rise through the ranks of a male-dominated industry to the level of success Lois undoubtedly has. Of course, this is intentional - if Lois is too tough, why would she need Superman to come along and rescue her all the time? – but it is a shame that Neill couldn’t bring a bit more strength to her otherwise enjoyable persona. Of course, she's not a complete shrinking violet as in at least two episodes she wields a machine gun, but aside from that the lasting impression one gets from her is that her bark is much worse than her bite.
That said, there is one curious aspect of the main characters’ relationship this season that gives Lois some oomph, namely the attitude she and Jimmy have towards Clark and their suspicions about his secret identity. As in all the best Superman stories they know something is awry but can't quite put their fingers on it, which in turn baffles or amuses them. Half the time they seem all but sure that he is Superman’s alter-ego, but curiously, instead of understanding why he would choose to keep it hidden, they, especially Lois, seem to resent the fact he is keeping it hidden from them. They seem to think he’s taking the mickey a bit, and always give him a barracking when Clark returns after Superman has just flown off, with Lois snapping at Clark in an annoyed fashion, which fortunately Clark is able to just laugh off (often with a smug wink to the camera). Interestingly they never raise the issue when Superman himself is on the scene, Lois instead going all girly and fluttering her eyelids (“Thanks Superman, I don’t know what we’d have done if you hadn’t been here.” “That’s quite alright Miss Lane,”) but the way the Lois-Clark-Jimmy dynamic is played, at least in this regard, doesn't quite ring true. What also doesn't work is that these suspicions aren't consistent and occasionally the writers have Lois and Jimmy positively pooh-poohing the idea that Clark could be Superman – in one slightly silly example set on a boat, she’s a little suspicious until Clark pulls her into the water, at which point she says “How could I have ever thought you were Superman.” Yes, obviously because America’ Boy Scout would never do anything as mischievous as that, would he? But in the writers' defence, this was from a simpler age of television writing, and while to modern eyes (and eyes that can watch multiple episodes at once) it all seems a bit haphazard, no doubt it worked in those days, although it's all-but-impossible to explain why, in Panic in the Sky (one of the most popular episodes of the entire run), Lois, Jimmy and Perry all spend a lengthy amount of time nursing an amnesiac Clark back to health sans glasses but not once do any of them spot he's Superman, arguably the only time the series really does cross the line to inexcusable daftness.
As quibbles go this is a minor one, and otherwise the four cast members are a joy to watch. They have a real chemistry about them that even Donner’s foursome couldn’t quite manage, and all embrace whole-heartedly their roles and play them with gusto. In particular John Hamilton as Perry White gets far more to do in this second year and has great fun going round yelling at his reporters and getting red-faced in frustration at their constant ability to get themselves kidnapped. Jack Larson as Jimmy, meanwhile, occasionally overplays his comedy for this reviewer’s taste, especially in a rather tedious episode called Semi-Private Eye but one must make allowances for the fact he’s there for The Kids and usually he’s just fine. As for George Reeves himself, aside from looking a little podgier in his Superman costume this time around, he's as good as ever, the most notable aspect of his playing this year is the occasional irritability he allows both Superman and Clark to show. At times he can be a most snappy Superman, a surprising aspect to his characterisation in that day and age but very welcome nonetheless, lending the character an extra level of believability among all the admittedly one-dimensional types he deals with. Here is a man, one feels, who can only take so much of the lowlifes he has to deal with, and can’t help but let it out once in a while. Good for him.
The stories themselves are much more varied than in the first season, thanks in part to new producer Whitney Ellsworth coming onboard. The noir-lite tales of the first set of episodes grew a little repetitive after a while, and while the vast majority of these episodes also have mobsters as the villains, there’s a lot more to the stories than just the investigation-capture-rescue formula of the first season. The violence is marginally toned down – you’re less likely to see someone getting shot this year, for example, and even Superman isn’t involved in quite as many fights (luckily for the mobsters). However, unlike last year the baddies are more willing to take on Superman at his own game and see if they can incapacitate him, both resulting in our first look at Kryptonite in the dramatically named The Defeat of Superman and also in the increased purposeful targeting of Lois and Jimmy, the baddies having cottoned on to the fact Superman has an attachment to them which makes them useful hostages. The series as a whole was moving away from the Old-Time-Radio stylings of the first season to its comic book routes (although a couple of episodes open with a typical radio-like narration), and as such more standard DC themes appear: Superman loses his memory just as a deadly meteorite heads for Earth, Superman is put into exile after becoming radioactive, Superman is accused of Crimes He Did Not Commit and so on. As well as the increase in types of story told, the actual scripting is a lot freer too, with some genuinely sassy dialogue at times being passed between the regulars amid all the usual “Yah boss, we’ll get dem good,” clichés. This light comic touch, and willingness to experiment with the structuring of shows benefit enormously the season as a whole. There are some peripheral improvements too, such as the new stock footage of Superman flying, in which we see him swooping over both cityscapes and the countryside and even, in one variation, right at us towards the camera, resulting in far more dramatic sequences. There's also an increase in special effects, including some admittedly cartoonish explosions, which nonetheless are reasonably effective.
It is still, of course, all very quaint. The spring board that Reeves bounces on to simulate flight is still very obvious, although at least it doesn’t break free from its moorings as it was known to do in season one. When Superman bursts through a wall dramatically occasionally the wall flaps, almost as though it’s made of paper and not brick and concrete. The attitudes tend to the simplistically naïve – you won’t get any complex shades of grey here, everyone’s either good or bad with no middle ground. And the Daily Planet seems to be run entirely by the four leads – I don’t think we see another employee once the entire season. But such is the stuff all shows were made up of in those days, and, even if the city of Metropolis isn’t quite as bustling as you might expect, there’s still a convincing world being painted, albeit one with very few decorations in its homes and not much in the way of office furniture.
There has never been an ideal adaptation of Superman to the small screen. Perhaps it’s impossible to do, given the differing styles between the comic books and the demands, both budgetary and narratively, of a weekly television series. Early on in Lois and Clark’s first season I thought they had a good shot at getting there before they threw it all away, but the closest before them was this season. It’s missing much of what makes Superman the title it is and was then – the continuing absence of any kind of super villain is puzzling and makes one wonder whether the writers were fully committed to bringing a proper version of the comics to the screen – but both the cast and the style of the episodes is pretty damn close to the early years of the books. The rapid pace of the episodes themselves mirrors the movement from one frame to the next, one page to the next, and ensures it is very hard to get bored. There are a couple of stinkers, to be sure: The Man in the Lead Mask is a bit obvious, My Friend Superman a bit predictable. But compared to the high entertainment factor of most of the shows in this set - especially, for this reviewer, A Ghost for Scotland Yard, Superman in Exile, Perry White's Scoop amongst others - it's hard to be anything but impressed with the quality produced. The following year would see the episodes turn to colour, and the humour level raised, but this is the vintage year, and well worth the time of anyone with an interest in either Superman or 1950s US television. Super indeed.
The presentation of this second season is identical to that of the first. The twenty-six episodes come on five double-layered single-sided disks, six episodes per disk with the fifth holding the last two and the extra features bar the commentaries. The disks are housed in an attractive package consisting of a fold-out cardboard holder, illustrated with a suitably comic-book-like motif and which has synopses and production information for each episode, which 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, which is 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 marking 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 the episodes are subtitled but the extras are not. Also, worryingly, at least one episode appears to have been edited: Around the World with Superman has a scene in which Superman spots a piece of glass in a girl’s optic nerve which is missing from this edition.
About the same as the first season. All episodes have a layer of grain but some are impressively clean and clear of artefacts given their age. Others seem to have frustrated the clean-up effort but are still far better than some other titles dating from this period and, aside from the odd picture judder at times, makes for a satisfying viewing experience.
A bit hissy and muffled at times, but not too bad for what it is, and dialogue is never obscured, even if it becomes a tiny bit shrill at times. Decent.
After the lacklustre commentaries for the first season, this is a step up, with Noel Neill and Jack Larson joining forces to natter over two episodes, Panic in the Sky and Semi-Private Eye. Neill isn’t much use, but Larson, when he gets going, has plenty of little titbits to impart, both about production, fellow cast members, and also guest stars, and makes for an enjoyable companion. A bit rambly at times, but worth a listen, although it’s notable even they can’t explain why Lois and Jimmy don’t recognise Clark is Superman in Panic in the Sky.
The First Lady of Metropolis (7:01)
Brief featurette looking at the impact of Noel Neill’s taking over from Phyllis Coates the role of Lois in the second season. Talking heads contributions from Neill, Larson and writers Gary Grossman and Jan Henderson discuss the changes Neill made to the character, and the fact she was a role model for young girls in the Fifties with her no-nonsense attitude. Slightly unfortunately the caption misspells Neill’s name but otherwise this is enjoyable.
Stamp Day For Superman (17:59)
“The United States Treasury Department presents: The Adventures of Superman!” This was a complete episode, albeit one slightly shorter in length to the usual, shot to promote savings bonds to school children. Featuring all the main cast, it sees Lois kidnapped by a hoodlum who is outwitted when she manages to type out a message to Superman on Jimmy’s typewriter… which he just happened to have been bought by his savings account. Lucky, eh? A simplistic story, this is more of historic rather than entertainment value, although there are a couple of good lines peppered around. The video quality is not nearly as good on this feature as on the regular episodes.
The best season gets reasonable extras. For a series of this vintage and length, it’s unsurprising a mid-series set like this doesn’t get a huge amount lavished on it, and while the additional features aren’t as detailed as for the first season, Stamp Day for Superman and the two commentaries still make for quality companions to the main episodes. Together with an above-average clean-up job, this is a fine set.
Last updated: 15/06/2018 04:31:35