Adventures of Superman: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons Review
Going to my local comic store is a bit of a nuisance. It’s a very good place, with everything one could possibly wish from such things (they have a particularly nice life-size Alien model which I’m always envious of) but every time I enter I know I’m going to have to engage in the same round of banter with the guy behind the desk I always do regarding my propensity for buying certain books, namely DC and Marvel’s reprints of old titles. For the past few years both the comic leviathans have been issuing collections of classic titles from yesteryear under the umbrella names DC Showcase and Marvel Essentials. These phone-book size tomes make for many happy hours of reading and are a cheap and easy way to get hold of Silver Age stories that otherwise can often be both highly expensive and at times extremely difficult to track down. There’s only one problem for comic book purists: to make the volumes affordable the strips are drained of their original colour. Printed on newsprint paper in black and white, one does feel quite often that one is missing out on one of the essentials of what made the originals so great. There has been a fair deal of discussion about this, with some believing the pros of being able to have the material at all outweighing the missing colour, but, while it’s great to have them, one of the (many) things that can make a superhero comic book great is its use of colour – hell, it’s an entire speciality of its own in the industry – and I do always wonder what it is I’m missing out on when I turn another page of my black and white copy. Not that I need to: the comic store guy always feels the need to point it out to me, often joshing that a particular character had a completely different coloured suit to the more modern one, so I in turn have to defend my corner and off we go again on the same spiel as countless times before. He’s an affable chap, but really it’s a bit tiresome to have to go through the same bout of repartee that we’ve covered so many times before.
The thing is, though, that’s he right. Completely and utterly. Aside from those specifically designed as black and white comics need colour, and are missing a crucial dimension when shorn of it. In the same way it’s very difficult to watch any superhero adventure on screen in black and white - it doesn't feel right somehow. As such we should be thankful that the makers of The Adventures of Superman were so forward thinking. They realised that the future of television was colour and that, while no one would be able to watch the shows that way when they were first made, the show would be a lot more durable if they shot in colour. As such the decision was made following the second season to make the change. Because the process was so expensive back then, the number of episodes had to be halved from twenty-six a year to thirteen (something that suited its leading man George Reeves down to the ground) while a whole new lot of stock footage, such as the requisite shots of Clark heading into that storeroom, needed to be reshot. In addition, a few new flying sequences were shot, and (for the fourth season) the use of back projection was broadened so that scenes could be shot more easily in cars, together making a concerted effort to really make the switchover worthwhile.
The transition to colour heralds a move away from the more realistic tone of the first two years (realistic being a relative term) towards the more jolly fare the comic books of the time were producing. You won’t see much of Lois and Jimmy being shot at any more, or mobsters gunned down in cold blood - indeed, I can recall only one instant in the entire collection of episodes in which anyone but Superman is shot at. The threat posed by the usual collection of second-bit gangsters has been if not neutered than certainly pacified somewhat, and while most episodes still end up with Superman having to rescue the Daily Planet’s finest from yet another death-defying peril there is a sense over the whole thing that their guardian angel will never come close to allowing anything nasty to happen to them. Only once in the entire twenty-six episodes that make up the two season under review, Season Four’s The Big Freeze, is there any real peril for Superman, while even the Big Cheese himself is slightly less aggressive than before, taking an indulgent, even affectionate view to some of the baddies he apprehends (you certainly won’t see him doing anything as shocking as abandoning two baddies to their fate on top of a mountain, as he did in Season One).
In recognition that this is a series already fifty-two episodes old, the writers increasingly search for ways of making the episodes, which at times feel at risk of becoming carbon-copy gangster stories of each other, varied. There’s an increased turn to other genres to be found here, with several Westerns thrown into the mix (Test of a Warrior, The Bully of Dry Gulch) as well as appearances from pirates, yokels, little girls who love their horses and even a dream story. In keeping with the idea that this was a show that was ever-more reflecting the style of its source material, there are also a lot more noticeably sci-fi concepts to be found, including stories featuring time-travel, Superman being exposed to a freezing machine, invisible baddies and a device which makes the world appear upside down. As ever the writing is always naïve, with characters acting according to the demands of the story rather than in a realistic manner (such as the episode in which Perry White inexplicably takes a leave of absence from the newspaper to become a scientist) and there’s often little sense in anything the characters do or say. Even within the enforced artificiality of the show, it’s impossible to believe Lois is really a crack reporter, or that she and Jimmy would really be so sanguine about the fact they clearly believe now Clark is Superman without following it up.
It’s not challenging fare on any level, but if one is so inclined it is very entertaining. As a series it’s highly repetitive, with the same beats popping up episode after episode. At its best it works as comfort television, a nice safe genial little world in which all one’s cares can be forgotten, safe in the knowledge Superman is only down the corridor to come and save the day. The more whimsical instalments increasingly become the most enjoyable, with episodes such as the one in which Perry White is tricked into thinking he’s meeting his own catchphrase when Great Caesar’s Ghost begins appearing or one in which Jimmy meets his doppelganger adding some diverting variety to the usual formula (although the story in which Superman meets a yokel also called Superman is one of the set’s real duds). They’re not always as simplistic as one might assume either, with The Wedding of Superman providing an almost unique insight into the psyche of one of the show’s characters. One can almost sense the writers becoming relaxed about what they can and can’t do, and releasing any restraint they had during the first couple of years and letting almost anything go.
The character who benefits the most from this approach is Jack Larson’s Jimmy Olsen. Reflecting the realisation that is a family show that should be geared to the younger members of its audience, the boy blunder gets several episodes which are essentially extended pratfalls, geared to give the actor as many chances to look confused and say lines such as “Gee Miss Lane, I never thought of that,” as possible. As episodes they are one liners: Jimmy becomes a millionaire! Jimmy becomes a King! Jimmy becomes a cowboy! and, while not among this reviewer’s favourite instalments, certainly seem well conceived in regards to its target viewers. Larson, while too caricatured to impress the more seasoned watcher, gives it his all and is the 50s equivalent of those poor unfortunates you see these days on children’s television gurning at the camera playing characters called things like Mr Plop the Plumber. Genial if imbecilic, he is in many ways a symbol for the entire run of episodes.
Of his costars, Reeves is his usual assured self, a Superman who is the perfect boy scout and a Clark who is ever-so-slightly smug (unsurprising, given he seems to be now top dog at the newspaper, becoming temporary editor whenever Perry is indisposed). Initially the move to colour does not flatter the actor; he’s noticeably podgier than before and greyer around the temples, but some of the former can be excused by the padding in his new Superman suit while his hair magically blackens again during the fourth year. Speaking of his suit, it was only this year that he finally got to wear a Superman costume with the correct hue. In the black and white days his suit had actually been brown and grey, shades which would show up more clearly in contrast, but finally he gets to don the old red and blue leotards, although the costume designers changed the tinting several times before they were satisfied they had the right look. (In truth, they were probably just bored and looking for something to do, as the leads wear the same suits in every episode, in order to ensure that the stock footage matches whichever show it’s slotted into.) Together with an increase of times Superman enters a scene by bursting through a window (Reeves enjoyed doing this and thought he looked macho doing so) and the actor seems to be making the best of his part. His companion, Noel Neill’s Lois is her usual smiley-smiley self, although the more one watches her the less she convinces as a real Lois Lane - she’s certainly not as good as either Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher - and the more neutered her character becomes. Meanwhile Robert Shayne, the forgotten man of the series, who plays the Daily Planet’s ally Inspector Henderson, gets a rare chance at a starring role in Blackmail, one of the more serious episodes of the fourth series, and he does it pretty well too. He has a thankless role, that of the cavalry turning up to mop up the mess Superman leaves behind, and in truth he does little to make the part memorable, but he could be worse.
Overall, this set holds two seasons worth of episodes which see the series not exactly coasting along but quite content in its own little way. There’s not quite the sense of tiredness to the proceedings that there is the final two years (although Reeves does seem a little on automatic pilot some of the time) and while the sense one comes away with is of a fairly uniform collection of stories, there’s just enough variety to ensure boredom never sets in. For fans of classic Americana it’s a great pleasure, far more so than for fans of the more modern incarnations of Superman I suspect, and although it shouldn’t really matter seeing Superman flying round in glorious colour does thrill in a way the more dour black and white stories just can’t.
But I’d never tell the guy in the comic store that.
The presentation of the series is identical to that of the previous two seasons. The twenty-six episodes which make up Seasons Three and Four are held on five single-sided dual-layered DVDs, six episodes per disk, with Disk Five holding two episodes and all the extras. The disks are housed in a cardboard sleeve which unfolds to reveal episode synopses, a few of which are accompanied by an appropriate screenshot. This is housed in turn in an overriding sleeve with identical front artwork.
Disk One opens with a five minute advert, half of which is a montage of all the various Superman titles currently on DVD, the other half one of the trailers for Superman Returns. It’s an enjoyable sequence and can be skipped if needs be, but the habit of putting such trailers at the start of retail disks is always exasperating. Fortunately the other disks head straight into the menus. These are composed as though a page on a comic book, with each panel a different option, namely Play, Episodes, Special Features and Languages. The panels are animated with clips from various episodes that are amusingly edited together to interact with each other, as though taken from a single episode, and make an attractive opening (although the inclusion of the option of Special Features on the disks which have none also slightly irks). All submenus are static and are illustrated with a generic mixture of stills and artwork from the comic books.
The episodes are subtitled, but only in French and Spanish for some reason, and none of the extras have any. Be aware that there are some reports of problems with Disk Three freezing up, although I had no trouble with mine.
Variable. The prints don’t appear to be in as good condition as the black and white episodes - or, at least, they’ve had less restoration done to them - and quality sometimes changes from shot to shot. Although for the most part the episodes have a uniformly soft but watchable look (albeit one that easily belies the age of the show) some shots have a far inferior appearance, faded with the colours blanched and the detail if not indistinct than far less than the rest of the time. This only happens say a couple of times per episodes, and doesn’t last long, but it would be interesting to find out why some parts of the shows look far worse than the rest - are these made of a composite transfer from the best material currently available? There’s also some grain to be seen so all-in-all the colour marks a step down from the quality of the first two seasons episodes. (Also look out for the finger prints that appear on some stock footage).
Far more consistent. Quite tinny and. although there’s not much background noise as one might expect, it’s easy to believe these episodes were made fifty years ago. I also wasn’t sure there wasn’t a problem with the lip synching on one episode, Joey, although as I was watching that on a different, far inferior player to the other episodes, it could have been down to that.
Adventures of Superman: The Color Era (7:05)
Enjoyable featurette in which TV historians and luminaries of the series (including writer David Chantler - why hasn’t he been pulled in to contribute a commentary?) discuss the importance of the series’s transition to colour - sorry, color. Some good contributions and appropriate clips make this a worthwhile extra.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Special Effects of Adventures of Superman (7:03)
A look at the work of Thol “Sy” Simonson who was the man responsible for making Fifties America believe a man could fly. An illuminating little featurette: although the effects are primitive and easily understood these days it’s still nice to see some behind-the-scenes shots of how they were put together, and hear from the man himself about his work.
Look Up In the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (6:28)
Short extract from the Bryan Singer/ Keven Wells documentary issued to coincide with the release of Superman Returns which is reviewed by Kev here. Given it’s essentially a lengthy trailer this doesn’t make for a very satisfactory addition to the set.
Superman: Brainaic Attacks Movie Trailer (0:43)
Exactly what it says, an advert for a new direct-to-DVD cartoon.
An enjoyable collection of episodes is accompanied by a couple of nicely thought through featurettes, the only disappointment being the lack of any commentaries. Also a plea for the last set: could we please have the pilot to Superdog included? That would be nice.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:42:52