Thursday, June 17, 2010

Celluloid Superman: The Serials


The iconic superhero known as Superman first appeared in comic books, newspapers and on radio during the late 1930s before taking the leap to the movie screen in 1941, where he starred in a series of animated cartoons created for Paramount Pictures by Max and Dave Fleischer.

Superman’s live-action debut came about in 1948 when actor Kirk Alyn donned the suit and cape to star as a “real live hero” in the first of two 15-chapter cliffhanging serials produced by Columbia Pictures. Like the cartoon series, the first serial was simply called Superman (1948), the success of which spawned the sequel serial: Atom Man Vs Superman (1950).

To tell the tale of Superman’s cliffhanging serial adventures we turn to Todd Gault, a lifetime serial buff and Bijou favorite who writes and opines on the world of classic cliffhangers on his Serial Experience blog. We asked Todd to tell us what he knows about the two Columbia serials starring the Man of Steel.
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Superman (1948)

Superman made such an immediate impact when he was introduced that a film adaptation was inevitable. Republic wanted to make a Superman serial in 1940 but couldn't come to terms with National Comics (now known as DC Comics) -- not surprising considering the liberties Republic would take with the established characters. Republic rewrote their script as Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), with the original character of the Copperhead replacing the Man of Steel, and began negotiations with Fawcett to do a serial about Captain Marvel. National Comics instead licensed their rights to Paramount for a series of excellent cartoons by Max Fleischer.

This kept the rights tied up for some years. Producer Sam Katzman leased them for a film version in the late forties. Supposedly he approached Republic, but they turned him down, stating that they didn't use licensed characters anymore, except for Zorro, and were planning King of the Rocket Men (1949) anyway. So Katzman produced Rocket Men at Columbia, where he had been producing serials since 1945.

Superman (1948) was one of the biggest money making serials of all time, only Flash Gordon (1936) rivaled its success, as both played evening shows at prestige theaters. Looking at it today from the perspective of someone who hadn't been around at the time of its release leaves one with mixed feelings.

The plot is standard, with a scientific gadget as the maguffin. Most of the cliffhangers involve either Lois or Jimmy and have Superman save them in the nick of time. This puts the serial above most of the Republics of the time, the majority of them having heroes jumping out of crashing cars chapter after chapter. One innovative cliffhanger has Clark handcuffed to Lois, forcing him to have to knock her unconscious so he can save them without revealing his secret identity. It has an amusing resolution when he puts the handcuffs back on but on the wrong hands.

The casting is almost perfect: Kirk Alyn, though not a large, muscular man (more of a slender dancer, which he was) is nonetheless an acceptable Superman, instilling some real depth to the character. He plays Clark as the well-meaning but not too tough nice guy; he is even able to catch a crook as Clark in one chapter without seeming to be out of character. Best of all is when all the excitement is over and he shows back up as Clark only to be berated by Lois. When no one is looking he will flash a brief self-satisfied smile at having fooled everyone again. He makes it seem as if Superman really gets a kick out of playing Clark.

His Superman seems stern at times, then happy-go-lucky, but also happens to take a sadistic glee in cracking two crooks' heads together. The cape appears to give him some trouble. Alyn is seen to push it out of his way several times and he never runs while in costume, doing more of a ballet leap to keep from tripping.

Noel Neill's Lois Lane is ambitious and tough. Though her desire to get a scoop tends to put her in danger, she never seems to be afraid. She is given real motivations for her animosity towards Clark and is always attempting to trick him so she can get a scoop. Early on, after putting her life in danger to get a story she had been assigned, Clark steals it from her. Even though he needed to do it to get the job, her anger is understandable.

Pierre Watkins is great as the bombastic Perry White, lacing his rants with a well-placed sarcastic tone. Tommy Bond plays an aggressive and confrontational Jimmy Olsen. It's almost as if he were playing his bully from Our Gang/The Little Rascals grown up, a far cry from Jack Larson's naive portrayal on the TV series. It is a plus since he is the one who gets involved in most of the fights, Clark usually getting "knocked out".

Carol Forman as Spider Lady makes a sexy and sinister villain backed by some of the best henchmen in the business; Jack Ingram, Rusty Westcoatt, Charles King, George Meeker, Terry Frost, and former hero Charles Quigley, who comes off as almost suave and sophisticated among this group of hooligans.

What really mars the serial are the special effects. Some, like bending bars and ripping doors off the hinges, look realistic. Others, as when Superman stops a speeding train dead on the spot, you can tell is done with rear projection -- not a great effect, but acceptable.

Then there are the flying sequences. Superman turns from a live person into a cartoon drawing, and a cheap one at that. This might not have been too bad if used sparingly, like in the first Superman feature film, Superman and the Mole Men (1951), but no, he is constantly jumping out of the shot only to reappear as an animated figure that barely resembles the actor. It is disappointing and irritating.

If not for the use of the animated flying sequences, Superman could have been one of the greatest serials ever made. As it stands it is a good effort and one of the most faithful adaptations of the character, but it pales in comparison to Republic's much superior The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).
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Atom Man Vs Superman (1950)


It was always a surprise that Columbia was able to make a sequel to their most successful serial to date. Not that Columbia wasn't eager to make one, or that National Comics wasn't amicable about the idea of a second Superman serial. No, the holdup was star Kirk Alyn, who didn't want to put on the blue and red (actually grey and brown because they film better in black and white) tights.

Alyn's reluctance wasn't a hold out for more money, like George Reeves did on the TV show. Alyn's complaint was that since making the first serial he had been typecast as the Man of Steel and was finding it difficult to get work. According to an interview with James Van Hise, Alyn planned to move back to New York and go back to appearing on the stage as well as looking for work in that new medium, television, when the sequel was offered to him. Figuring he could use the extra money to help tide him over during the job hunt, Alyn put off his move for three weeks to make Atom Man vs. Superman (1950).

Usually a sequel is never quite as good as the original; even rarer is the sequel that is better than the original. Fans may disagree with me, but I found Atom Man vs. Superman to be better than Superman. This is not to say it doesn't have problems, but for the most part the problems are overcome by making the serial more action packed than the first and in having a better super villain as the antagonist.

Most of the problems stem from the overuse of animation. Not only is Superman again an animated drawing when he flies, but so are a lot of the devices that Luthor eventually throws at him, which include the flying saucers from Bruce Gentry (1949), assorted rays, and a nuclear missile. The problems of Superman's flight are compounded by editing in close-ups of Alyn suspended from wires, which just make the animation look even more blatantly fake.

The biggest problem with the serial is the whole concept of Atom Man. He is an unnecessary addition to the plot. After all, the serial already contains Superman's greatest enemy, Lex Luthor. Why add a mystery villain? The bad part is that no suspects are really given as to who the Atom Man could be. It becomes exceedingly obvious to the viewer who is behind the mask. The filmmakers must have realized this, as after Chapter Nine the character that is really Atom Man just says he is Atom Man and the whole matter is dropped -- even the heroes don't speculate about Atom Man anymore. It's as if he hadn't even existed in the earlier chapters.

You also have to wonder about just why Luthor and his masked partner are going to all of the trouble to build teleportation and x-ray beam machines when it turns out that all they do is rob stores. At one point in the serial the safe from a shoe store is robbed. That can hardly be cost-effective when you consider how much his super scientific inventions must have cost to build compared to how much money would be in a shoe store safe.

On the other side of the coin, the serial does contain some good special effects. The best is in Chapter One, and isn't a real special effect. It is actually footage of a famous bridge disaster from the forties in which massive wind gales caused a bridge to sway and ripple until the stress forced the structure to fall apart. It is an amazing sight that still impresses the viewer today.

The best special effect and the one that is used throughout most of the serial are the shots of the henchmen fading out as they are teleported back to headquarters. It is a simple effect that had been used in film since the thirties for Universal's Invisible Man films. The best one is in Chapter Two when you see the henchmen falling toward the ground and they simply fade away before landing.

The acting is top-notch. All of the principals reprise their roles from the first film, showing that even a gap of a year since they played the characters hasn't taken away from their ability to bring them to life. Pierre Watkin is as bombastic and sarcastic as before. The only thing that mars his performance is the constant use of a comedy bit where he is unsuccessful in looking for a match so he can light his cigar and eventually throwing the cigar away in disgust. The first few times it is funny, but after fifteen chapters you get sick of it.


Tommy Bond's Jimmy Olson is as impulsive and confrontational as ever. He does get to be more of a comedy performer than last time. One funny scene has him flashing his press card and forcefully declare he is "The Press" to a man who won't let him pass. The man replies, "So what?" to which all Jimmy can respond with is a deflated, "Yeah, so what?" and then slink away. Bond plays the scene perfectly.

Noel Neill shows more warmth in this serial. Her character has softened toward Clark, and they appear to be friends in this serial. Her biting comments seem to stem more from exasperation with his feigned cowardice as opposed to the real anger she showed in the first serial. Even her stealing his scoops takes on more of an air of competitive rivalry than as anything malicious on her part. She is much more likeable this time around.

Kirk Alyn is still a great Superman, full of devil-may-care attitude mixed with a stern seriousness. His Superman really enjoys being Superman, always full of smiles whenever anyone tries to shoot him, but able to be a little scary, as when he interrogates a hood by tossing him repeatedly out a window until the man agrees to talk.

His Clark Kent is just as well-defined, always appearing to be a coward and a bit of a nebbish. Best of all are his scenes when he has just missed some excitement and been chastised by Lois, when everyone has turned away he flashes a quick grin of amusement before reverting back to being "poor" Clark. I especially like a scene where he is trying to change to Superman and is caught by Lois who thinks he is hiding. He appears to be truly flustered as he tries to come up with a plausible excuse to be standing in a doorway when everyone else is trying to get help for Jimmy. The byplay between Alyn and Neill is a riot.


Lyle Talbot brings Lex Luthor to life on the screen for the first time and is awesome in the role. Instead of giving an over the top performance, Talbot underplays the part and gives the character just the right amount of subtle menace. Instead of flowery, mouth-foaming speeches, he conveys Luthor's nasty edge with a down turned mouth or an occasional evil laugh. The actor subtly softens his voice in his scenes with the heroes convincingly enough to make you believe he is fooling them into thinking he really has gone straight. Talbot also dubs in the voice for Atom Man, using a heavy foreign accent. Here he completely changes his performance, using all of the showy theatrics he can to make the mystery villain as flamboyant as possible. It is a nice contrast with his Luthor.

So while Atom Man vs. Superman may have some problems, it is chock full of good performances and some good special effects. The plot is also a little more complicated than the first, and keeps things moving nicely. All in all, it is one of the best serials Columbia would put out during the Katzman era.
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Great thanks to Todd Gault, Champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Cliffhanger, for sharing his keen insight on the Columbia Superman serials!

Movies Unlimited offers both classic Superman serials together in a super-deluxe 4-disc DVD set called Superman: The Theatrical Serial Collection. You’ll find in-depth chapter descriptions for each of the Superman serials by visiting the Superman Home Page - along with a fascinating interview with actor Kirk Alyn. Superman fans will also enjoy Gary Grossman’s engrossing book Superman: Serial to Cereal, loaded with rare photos, interviews and scripts.

We wrap today's flight of fancy with a screening of the original Superman theatrical trailer, courtesy of Captain Bijou. While not affiliated with Matinee at the Bijou, Captain Bijou is another site dedicated to the propagation of our classic film heritage. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Andy said...

Wow- great review but I don't agree at all. The Superman serials were juvenile and ridiculous, loaded with bad acting and silly characterizations. They rival ED Wood's films of the late 50s.

One could argue that this was a time when this type of entertainment was geared to children, but then the Reeves SUPERMAN appears only a year later on television is very serious stories with a real film noir feel to them.

Adventures of Captain Marvel, on the other hand -- IS outstanding-- and I can only imagine how much better the Superman serial would have been had Republic gotten it in 1940--despite whatever changes they were likely to make.