Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Superman (Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I video-recorded the first Superman serial off American Movie Classics. Made in 1948 by Columbia, it took advantage of some spectacular Los Angeles-area locations but otherwise had an aura of cheapness about it (the directors were Spencer Bennet and someone named Carr), and the Superman, Kirk Alyn, was suitably hunky (he managed to look more like the comic-book figure than anyone since) but not much in the acting department. The women really took off with the acting honors — particularly Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the great Glenda Farrell tradition of hard-boiled women reporters on screen; and Carol Forman as the principal villainess, the Spider Lady (though the scenarists, who included George Plympton of the Flash Gordon serials a decade earlier at Universal, avoided the temptation of giving the Spider Lady a case of the hots for Superman) — Forman’s blonde hair throughout most of the film is revealed to be a wig in one episode (she’s “really” a brunette, which would have been more appropriate for a “Spider Lady” character), but aside from that she’s an excellent villainess, savoring all her bad lines and clearly enjoying herself in the role (the writers also avoid giving her a secret identity in the outside world, a frequent serial gimmick which this one is stronger for doing without).

This serial had a nicely designed opening showing the destruction of the planet Krypton (I liked the triangle chairs in the Kryptonese Council room, though the “destruction” itself was mostly accomplished through stock footage — including one shot of a collapsing building that looked like a Renaissance palace, a form of design one would hardly expect to encounter on another planet) — elsewhere the art direction and set decoration was pretty minimal. The biggest disappointment was in the special effects (or lack of same); the Kryptonese spaceship that brings the baby Superman to Earth converted from live-action to animation when it flew, reverting to a solid object when it landed, and Superman did the same thing himself whenever the script called for him to fly — and though the transitions from Kirk Alyn to a cartoon and back again were handled well enough, the effect still looked campy (one’s age would have to have been in the low single digits to be fooled by it). — 10/30/94


I ran the first two episodes of the 1948 serial Superman, a Columbia presentation (though Warner Bros. now owns the right because Warners absorbed DC Comics, holders of the Superman character copyright, and with Columbia having made two Superman serials as well as two Batman serials they apparently settled so Columbia would retain the DVD rights to the Batman movies and Warners would get the Superman films — and they put at the beginning of the disc a five-minute trailer for the 2006 film Superman Returns, which was a flop) which I had seen bits of on American Movie Classics one day in the 1990’s when they ran the whole thing start-to-finish and I recorded it on VHS. The parts I remembered especially liking were the cheesy but still surprisingly convincing effects of Superman flying — which were done simply by turning him into an animated cartoon while he was airborne and matting him into otherwise live action until he landed and turned into actor Kirk Alyn (who was quirkily billed only as playing Clark Kent; like Universal’s games with billing Boris Karloff as “?” in the opening credits of Frankenstein and Elsa Lanchester ditto in The Bride of Frankenstein, Columbia thought the serial would be more quirkily appealing if they pretended that the title character was an actual being, whether superhero or monster) — and the marvelous performances by the two women in the leads, Noel Neill as Lois Lane (appealingly spunky in the best Joan Blondell/Glenda Farrell tradition of movie newspaperwomen) and Carol Forman wonderfully kinky as the principal villain(ess), the Spider Lady.

Last night Charles and I watched the first two episodes, which didn’t get to the Spider Lady’s intrigues but did give us a clear and reasonably concise portrayal of Superman’s origin story. It begins with the desperate plea of Superman’s father, Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) — real trivia buffs pride themselves on knowing all three of Superman’s names, including his Kryptonian one, Kal-El — to the ruling council of the planet Krypton to fund his spaceship project before Krypton is destroyed because its orbit has gone haywire and it’s descending closer to the surface of its sun, which will explode it. Naturally the Council scoffs at the idea and won’t give Jor-El the money or the authorization — quite frankly, it sounds like a particularly desperate climate-change scientist trying to convince a roomful of Republican politicians that global warming is real — and since with his own money the only rocket Jor-El has been able to build is a miniature prototype (that looks like he bought it at Flash Gordon’s garage sale, by the way) just big enough for his recently born baby Kal-El, he loads the little one into the little rocket and fires the thing at Earth — where it, like Superman himself later on, turns into an animated cartoon as it’s crossing the traverses of space between the doomed Krypton and Earth.

The rocket lands in a farm owned by Eben and Martha Kent (Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll) and the two adopt the little boy and name him Clark. (A little-known factoid about the Superman mythos is that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, ripped a lot of his character off the pulp novels featuring Doc Savage — Doc’s real first name was Clark and he was known as the “Man of Bronze” whereas Superman was the “Man of Steel,” and Doc’s creator, Lester Dent, named him “Clark” after superstar actor Clark Gable.) They also discover he has super-powers, though they use that aspect of their foster child mainly to pull huge farm equipment without needing oxen or tractors (later DC Comics did a spinoff called Superboy, which was supposedly the superhero adventures of Superman when he was still a boy, though rather than set the Superboy comics in a discernibly past time they made the clothes, the cars and everything else look identical to what they were in the Superman books), and when he’s grown up Superman goes out in a dorky suit and glasses that were considered nerdy even then (Siegel and Shuster got the idea of Clark Kent wearing glasses from Harold Lloyd even though one wouldn’t expect Superman to need them — and Lloyd didn’t either: the “glasses” he wore were just empty frames) and saves a train from derailing by using his super-strength to bend a badly bent rail back into shape. (This was a quite famous story in the original Superman spread in Action Comics #1.)

The first episode is called “Superman Comes to Earth” and the second is “Depths of the Earth,” which is where the Spider Lady has her hideout — though we don’t know that yet: we’ve just got to Clark Kent bluffing his way into a job as reporter at the Daily Planet (famously the narration of the later TV show called him “mild-mannered reporter,” which as someone who’s been a journalist as long as I have seems like a contradiction in terms!) and setting up the famous Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman love triangle which Siegel and Shuster almost certainly ripped off from The Scarlet Pimpernel (the effete guy who loves the unapproachable girl whose affections turn only to the dashing hero — only the effete guy is the dashing hero in disguise). It’s a neat serial and it shows off major-studio production values (or at least the “B” department of a major studio’s production values) even though the directors are Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr (both, especially Bennet, were old serial hands) and the script was written by the usual committee: George H. Plympton (another old serial hand) and Joseph F. Poland for “adaptation” and Arthur “Reefer Madness” Hoerl, Lewis Clay and Royal K. Cole for “screenplay.” The first two episodes were a quite workmanlike telling of Superman’s origins (that cool multi-triangular chair the ruler of Krypton sits in looks so good I want one!) but I’m waiting impatiently to see the Spider Lady standing in her own web (just ropes, but so what?) and imperiously barking out orders to her criminal minions. — 10/24/12


Charles and I watched episodes three and four of the 1948 Superman serial, the first time Superman was ever filmed in live action — his only previous movie appearances had been a set of 17 cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers in 1939-1941 — though even here, with Columbia’s serial budget lacking the money for truly convincing special effects, live-action Superman Kirk Alyn (the first actor to play the role — it wasn’t George Reeves, though he made a 1951 Superman “B” before starting the eight-year run of the Superman TV series) turns into an animated cartoon every time the script (by a five-person committee of old hands, including serial veteran George Plympton and Reefer Madness author Arthur Hoerl) obliges him to fly. (The miniature rocket ship that brought him from his dying home planet, Krypton, to Earth also became a cartoon as it journeyed through space.) The first two episodes were a nicely done but rather dutiful presentation of the Superman origin story: as Krypton is about to fall into its sun and explode, scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh — quite good even if he’s far from the sort of name to conjure with Marlon Brando was when he played this part in the 1970’s Superman that kicked off the series with Christopher Reeve!) tries to get the Council that runs Krypton to agree to his plan to have the entire Kryptonian population evacuated to Earth, which has a similar atmosphere but so much less gravity that all Kryptonians who relocate to Earth will have super-powers. (An alternate version of the Superman mythos in which the evacuation actually happened and Earth was suddenly inundated with super-Kryptonians, some of them good, some of them not so good and some of them downright evil, some of them no doubt protective of the native human population and some of them regarding us with the same cool contempt Mitt Romney regarded the people who lost their jobs as the result of Bain Capital’s financial machinations, would probably make at least as compelling a story as the Superman mythos as it stands.) The baby spaceship carrying the baby Kryptonian Kal-El (Superman’s real birth name, as opposed to his adoptive Earth name “Clark Kent”) crash-lands on the Kents’ farm, they raise him on their own, and they realize that both he and the blanket he was wrapped in are alien and super-powerful.

The serial really gets under way in Episode Three, “The Reducer Ray,” which unlike most electronic super-gadgets serial episodes got named for is not an invention of the villains, but a U.S. government research projects the baddies, led by the Spider Lady (Carol Forman), are out to steal. Of course the government knows this and calls in Superman to protect the gizmo. Contrary to what you might think from its name, it’s not a machine that shrinks things but something that blows things up — we see it at work at a test target, a concrete blockhouse created especially for the Reducer Ray to destroy — while the baddies try to fire a neutralizing ray at it, only Superman blocks the bad guys’ rays with his body and thereby allows the good guys’ rays to demolish their target. The Spider Lady has her lair inside a series of caves — though Charles joked about how all the caves in this movie, including the one from which Superman rescued a bunch of coal miners trapped in a cave-in (where was Superman when those miners in West Virginia needed him?), are awfully well lit — and she issues her orders to her henchmen wearing a surprisingly frilly domino mask (though she takes it off early on because they all know who she is anyway) and standing in front of a web. Well, it’s actually a series of ropes strung together to look like a web, but in the story it’s electrically charged, and anyone the Spider Lady wants to eliminate is stood up in front of it, forced to dance around nervously by the charge on the metal floor under it, and then the current pushes them against the web and electrocutes them, following which a trap door below it conveniently opens to dispose of the body.

The third and fourth episodes (the fourth is called “Man of Steel”) also introduce us to Kryptonite, the fragments of the planet Krypton that escaped when the planet itself blew up, headed for earth, settled in the asteroid belt and occasionally one falls to Earth as a meteor. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster admitted they invented Kryptonite because they had made Superman so “super” that plotting him was getting boring and they realized they had to make him vulnerable to something, and later writers for the Superman comics created a whole rainbow of Kryptonites in addition to the basic green variety that can incapacitate or, if he’s exposed to it long enough, actually kill Superman. Of course this is a black-and-white movie and only by reference to the comics would you know that the Kryptonite meteor is supposed to be green! Superman, in his Clark Kent identity, first gets exposed to Kryptonite in the office of Dr. Leeds (Forrest Taylor), whose crooked assistant sells his secrets to the Spider Lady (she tries to palm off $1 on him and then, when he protests, she dispatches him with her electric web — and she tries to give Lois Lane, played by Noel Neill — the only person in this movie who repeated their role on the George Reeves TV show — the same treatment at the end of episode four in the first really exciting cliffhanger this serial has had!); he collapses so totally that Leeds at first thinks he’s dead, only he recovers when Leeds replaces the lead lid on the box containing the meteor. (In the comics lead was a total shield to the effects of Kryptonite, but in the film Clark Kent gets a bit queasy even before the lead box top is removed — I thought that was a plotting glitch but Charles suggested that the top might not have been a complete seal, thereby allowing some of the bad Kryptonite energy to escape.)

Kirk Alyn’s performance in this scene (oddly he was unbilled in the original credits and “SUPERMAN” got all-caps billing as playing himself — Alyn wasn’t even billed as playing Clark Kent, as the imdb.com page on this movie reported) is the one high point in his acting so far; he really manages to convince us how perplexing he finds the experience of being sick for the first time in his (Earth) life. One imdb.com contributor claimed the 1948 Superman was considered the best-ever movie serial — which it isn’t; though this is at least partly due to the relative nature of the characters themselves, the 1943 Batman, also from Columbia, is worlds better (Batman, a normal human being who willed himself to be a superhero but was still vulnerable to the things that stun, injure and kill normal mortal humans, is simply a more compelling character than the too-good-to-be-true Superman; and Lewis Wilson, who played him in the 1943 serial, caught the vulnerability better than any actor who’s played him since), and so is the remarkable 1934 serial The Return of Chandu, with Bela Lugosi cast as an heroic, romantic figure and playing him superbly (as well as a script that focuses more on suspense than action). Still, it’s a not-bad movie for Superman to make his live-action debut in, and it’s powered by the performances of the two female leads, with Lois Lane, forced to drive out to a story with Clark Kent, ditches him by pretending their car’s tire is flat (Glenda Farrell would have been proud of her!), and the Spider Lady, though not the epitome of femme fatale deliciousness one might have expected, is still a lot of fun, especially in Carol Forman’s no-nonsense, businesslike acting of her. — 10/25/12


I ran the next episodes in sequence of the 1948 Superman serial, “A Job for Superman!” and “Superman in Danger!” The serial has settled into a pretty comfortable groove by now — it’s repetitive, but that was true of virtually all serials; there were only so many ways you could set up action porn then or now — in which virtually all the cliffhangers involve Lois Lane since Superman himself was so hard to kill. The writing committee was obviously not ready to have Superman get confronted by the Spider Lady and her minions with the Kryptonite, so they’ve had Lois Lane nearly electrocuted on the Spider Lady’s web machine (and the beginning of Chapter Five — in which the Spider Lady herself turns off the infernal device because she doesn’t want Lois Lane to die quite yet, for reasons the writing committee didn’t make all that clear, which provoked Charles to make his comment about the James Bond movies and the persistence of Bond’s villains to use such grotesque and elaborate means to kill him when they could easily just shoot him while they have the chance — instead they give him the chance to escape and/or his colleagues to raid the place and rescue him — though at least in the movie Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon the device of the super-criminal using an elaborate means to kill the super-hero instead of just shooting him was a conscious trick on Holmes’ part, playing on Moriarty’s ego to get him to use a device, draining all the blood from Holmes’ body, that gives Lestrade and the Scotland Yard force time to rescue Holmes) and at the end of episode six they have Lois’s car, out of control and with her incapacitated, literally headed off the edge of a cliff.

It’s not much of a movie — it was made by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet the same year they made the second (and decidedly inferior) Columbia Batman serial, Batman and Robin (though a second director, Thomas Carr, has a co-credit on Superman) — and the effect of Superman turning into an animated cartoon whenever the script obliges him to fly was cool at first but is getting cheesier and cheesier with repetition (and if the producers of the Superman TV series could have got a live-action George Reeves to fly more or less convincingly on a 1950’s TV-series budget, surely Columbia’s special-effects people could have done the same thing with Kirk Alyn!) — but the show is still a lot of fun and well worth watching, though if (as I suspect) Columbia (now Sony) and Warner Bros. had an argument over the rights to the characters and settled by giving Warners the Superman serials’ DVD rights while letting Columbia keep the Batman ones, Columbia (all right, Sony) got by far the better of the deal. Then again, that’s probably at least in part because Batman is simply a much more interesting character, not only because he has a more compelling backstory (a boy who decides to make his whole life about avenging the murder of his parents by street criminals) but because he’s an ordinary human being who willed himself to be a superhero, not a being from another planet gifted with super-powers by the difference in gravity between his solar system (later Superman comic books explained the super-powers of Kryptonians on earth by saying its sun was a giant red star instead of the comparatively puny yellow sun we Earthers got, and that made Kryptonian gravity far heavier than Earth’s) and ours. Indeed, Superman was so invulnerable that character creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had to invent Kryptonite because without him having something that could kill him, plotting his stories was getting dull because he could vanquish every potential enemy way too easily. — 10/27/12


I ran Charles and I episodes seven and eight in the Superman serial from 1948, “Into the Electric Furnace!” and “Superman to the Rescue.” The cliffhangers from these aren’t much — “Into the Electric Furnace!” ends with the gangsters, anxious to kidnap Clark Kent because they know he knows Superman (though in obeisance to the conventions of older superhero fiction they don’t know Clark Kent is Superman), grab Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) by mistake and he ends up, unconscious, on his way down a conveyer belt that will send him into a giant blast furnace (it seems like an ordinary coke-fired one rather than an electric one, despite the title), only at the start of the next chapter Superman arrives on the scene and … walks to the wall and turns the blast-furnace’s switch off. Big deal — anybody could have done that! I was also disappointed when at the beginning of the episode Superman keeps Lois Lane’s car from going off the cliff by … grabbing its rear bumper and pulling it backwards. Frankly, I was hoping Lois’s car would go off the cliff and Superman would fly under it and catch it in mid-air, though as Charles pointed out if they’d done it that way it would have been an animated flying Superman and an animated car.

There are some potentially interesting characters here the writing committee (George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland, “adaptation” — according to the opening credits what they were actually “adapting” were the scripts from the Mutual network’s radio serial of Superman — and Arthur “Reefer Madness” Hoerl, Lewis Clay and Royal K. Cole, script) really didn’t develop, notably the character of Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), who supposedly was a brilliant scientist who went off the rails and became a crook, though we’re given utterly no indication of what he was doing on either the right or the wrong side of the law (frankly, the writers of the film Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome got more pathos out of a character like this even though, following the nomenclature conventions of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, they saddled him with the ridiculous character name “Dr. Lee Thal”); still, we feel for the guy when he learns that the Spider Lady (Carol Forman, who’s impressing me less this go-round with this serial than she did last time — of course the femme fatale actress, Barbara Stanwyck, was way too big a star for an assignment like this, but couldn’t they have got Ann Savage from Detour instead?) had him broken out of prison only to keep him captive in her underground cave hideout. (At the time the convention seemed to be that all villains in superhero stories had to have their hideouts in caves. It got especially trippy in the 1943 Batman — still, along with The Return of Chandu, one of my two favorite serials of all time, when it turned out both hero and villain had their hideouts in caves!) — 10/28/12


As a cinematic nightcap, Charles and I followed the Abbott and Costello Here Come the Co-Eds with the next two episodes in sequence in the 1948 Superman serial: “Irresistible Force!” (at least four of the 15 episode titles have exclamation points at the end) and “Between Two Fires” — the latter title referring to the way Lois Lane is menaced by fires in two cliffhangers in a row. With Superman virtually invincible (the movie’s writing committee — George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland credited with “adaptation,” probably because the credits claim the film has a basis not only in the Superman comic books but also the Superman radio show then aired on the Mutual network, while Reefer Madness writer Arthur Hoerl shares credit with Lewis Clay and Royal K. Cole for the actual script — did introduce Kryptonite, but so far they’ve done precious little with it), the writers had to keep putting the people around him, particularly Lois Lane, in danger so they could have the obligatory cliffhangers (one of which was literally such — the one in which an unconscious Lois Lane was about to drive her car off a cliff before Superman grabbed its rear bumper and stopped it; as I noted earlier, I’d have rather seen her car go off the cliff and Superman catch it in mid-air, but the relatively primitive effects of this serial, which turned Superman into a cartoon every time the script obliged him to fly, probably made that virtually impossible).

The gimmick in these two episodes was that Professor Graham (veteran silent-screen star Herbert Rawlinson), inventor of the Reducer Ray (from the name one expects it to shrink things, but in fact it blows things up — given when this film was made I suspect the writers expected the audience to see it as an application of atomic energy to a battlefield weapon instead of a bomb) which the villains are after, comes from Washington, D.C. to Metropolis to test the device at Metropolis University — only the Spider Lady (Carol Forman), the principal villain, doffs her blonde wig, reveals her real dark hair and impersonates Lois Lane, who’s scheduled to meet Graham at the airport, interview him and take him to Metropolis University. The Spider Lady snatches Graham and takes him to her underground hideout (though, contradicting the earlier episodes, she does not blindfold him as she drives him there), where she forces him to build a duplicate Reducer Ray — while she has her own renegade scientist, Professor Hackett (Charles Quigley), disguise himself as Graham and meet Lois (whose car was delayed by an “accident” staged by two of the Spider Lady’s minions), then gain access to the original Reducer Ray at Metropolis University so he can photograph it and then destroy it. Lois catches on to the masquerade but, rather than wait until she can get out of the building to call either Daily Planet editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin) or the police, she uses the wall phone and Hackett and his sidekick catch her, kidnap her and set the Reducer Ray to blow itself up, setting the lab on fire and taking Lois out with it … though Superman is already on his way there because Clark Kent has studied a clandestine photo Jimmy Olsen (who’s also in the villains’ custody at the end of episode 10) took of Hackett as Graham and somehow he’s been able just by looking at the picture to see that the man in it is not Graham. (How? Is ultra-keen facial recognition one of Superman’s powers as well as all the cool ones he had in the comics?)

The 1948 Superman serial is actually pretty well done — though the contemporaneous Batman and Robin from the same studio (Columbia), producer (Sam Katzman), one of the directors (Spencer Gordon Bennet) and three of the same writers (Plympton, Poland and Cole), is considerably better (and the 1943 Batman from producer Rudolph C. Flothow, director Lambert Hillyer and writers Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker and Harry Fraser is one of the two best serials ever made), and as I’ve noted before part of that is simply that Batman, an ordinary (and vulnerable) human being who willed himself to be a superhero and trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job, is a much more interesting character than Superman, who got blessed with his powers due to the gravitational difference between his home planet Krypton and Earth and who was so difficult to write for that his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to invent Kryptonite just so he would be vulnerable to something. I’m of mixed feelings about the cartoon effect used to allow Superman to fly in this film — at times I’m charmed by the effect and at other times it just look tacky (especially when the cartoon Superman ducks into a building or behind a rock just so he can emerge as the live-action Kirk Alyn moments later) — but I still haven’t decided whether I’d like this more or less if they had “flown” Superman with the clumsy harnesses and wires they used with George Reeves in the 1950’s TV show: one of the most wince-inducing moments in the film Hollywoodland (in which Ben Affleck played Reeves) is when one of the wires holding the harness breaks and Reeves takes a bone-jarring fall to the studio floor. — 11/4/12


Eventually Charles and I had dessert and then watched a couple more episodes in the 1948 Superman serial, “Superman’s Dilemma” and “Blast in the Depths,” both of which centered around a rare metal alloy, “mono-chromite,” supposedly invented by Professor Graham (Herbert Rawlinson) and on a U.S. government list of restricted chemicals so that if anyone tried to order it without government authorization, the “proper authorities” were supposed to be notified. The Spider Lady’s thugs are trying to obtain it from various dealers, including mining engineer Fred Collier (Eddie Foster) — one wonders if the writing committee deliberately named this character after the old term for a coal miner! — and in one of the most preposterous turns of events in any serial (and serials in general weren’t exactly noted for credibility in the writing) Jimmy Olsen decides to secrete himself in the container supposedly shipping the mono-chromite to the baddies, but in the middle of the truck ride he decides to get out for some air, the baddies spot him and drill the mono-chromite container with bullets. That’s the cliffhanger at the end of “Superman’s Dilemma” — the titular dilemma being that Lois Lane has had him, in his Clark Kent identity, arrested for stealing her car and he’s in jail, so does he stay in jail until his case gets called or does he use his super-powers to break out? Both, as it turns out; at the start of “Blast in the Depths” he bends the prison bars to escape in his super-suit, rescues Jimmy (he substitutes himself for Jimmy in the mono-chromite box and the bad guys’ bullets just bounce off him), then gets back into his cell, bends the bars back into shape and reassumes his Clark Kent drag before anybody notices he’s been gone. The Los Angeles Times recently published a rather snide item about the latest plot twist in the Superman comics — Clark Kent resigns from the Daily Planet to protest its loss of journalistic integrity — ridiculing it by asking what was so great about the Daily Planet reporters when none of them was able to figure out that Clark Kent was Superman even though the only thing he did to disguise himself was put on glasses.

The 1948 Superman as a whole is a pretty fun serial and the plotting isn’t as dementedly absurd as the ones from Republic (and I can’t think so far of any of the cliffhangers in which the protagonists have escaped simply by jumping — as I’ve noted here before, anyone who’d ever seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went over the cliff, Thelma and Louise jumped out of it), and the effect by which Superman turns into a cartoon every time he’s obliged by the script to fly is charmingly cheesy and campy (though the way they manage the landings — the cartoon Superman flies behind a building or a rock or into a cave, and emerges on foot as the live-action actor Kirk Alyn, who played him but for some reason did not get screen credit: the cast list says “SUPERMAN”  in all-caps and centered before giving the names of the actors playing the Earthling characters), but compared to the 1934 Return of Chandu or the 1943 Batman this one is pretty ordinary — and even a piece of cheese like The Phantom Empire, with its bizarre genre clashes (a sci-fi Western!) and the comfortable but decided un-superheroic Gene Autry as the “good” lead and a superb performance by Dorothy Christy as Queen Tika that leaves Carol Forman’s estimable but hardly screen-scorching Spider Lady here in the dust as far as serial villainesses are concerned (I’m less impressed by Forman this time than I was the first time I saw the 1948 Superman, or parts of it, on American Movie Classics; she’s good but sometimes too petulant to be convincingly malevolent — at times she comes off more like a diva model yelling at some poor underling for smudging her makeup instead of a real hard-core meanie, and part of me wishes they’d got Ann Savage for the part), has a quirky appeal the 1948 Superman is just too well-behaved to duplicate. — 11/5/12


Charles and I decided to run the last three episodes of the 1948 Superman serial, “Hurled to Destruction,” “Superman at Bay,” and “The Payoff.” This time the intrigue centered around the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) and her gang kidnapping Dr. Graham (Herbert Rawlinson) to force him to complete their duplicate version of Graham’s Relativity Reducer Ray machine. At the end of episode 12 the crooks had got the key ingredient, mono-chromite (the hyphenated spelling is used in the film itself), which with the usual indifference of serial writers to continuity was described in episode 12 as an alloy invented by Dr. Graham, but in episode 14 is an ore (i.e., a naturally occurring metal that can be mined and smelted out of rock), but they need Graham’s knowledge to complete the device — so Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), the renegade scientist the Spider Lady broke out of jail to help her in her experiments, figures out a way to put Graham under mind control so he will do their bidding. Just how he did this is a mystery both to the Spider Lady herself and to the audience — we’ve seen the first Dick Tracy serial for Republic and some of the other Republic productions in which the ways the villains put some of the subsidiary good guys under mind control were described in excruciating detail, but the writers on this one couldn’t have cared less, and their ambiguity actually turns out to work against the bad guys when the Spider Lady rather arbitrarily fires the reducer ray at the jail cell in which the recaptured Dr. Hackett and Anton (Jack Ingram), a member of her gang from the get-go, are being held and kills both of them (and comes close to killing Lois Lane as well).

This serial features some of the famous catch lines later used in the 1950’s Superman TV series with George Reeves, including the cry of “Up, up and away!” as Superman takes off and the much ridiculed “This looks like a job for … Superman!,” with the voice quickly dropping from the reedy, nerdy tenor with which Kirk Alyn (and Reeves after him) spoke as Clark Kent to a deep, authoritative basso when he was Superman. (Since the serial is built in part from a Superman radio show broadcast on the Mutual network, it’s obvious this schtick was designed to let radio listeners know that Clark Kent had taken off his mild-mannered reporter drag and assumed his Superman identity.) But it used them surprisingly sparingly, though it’s noteworthy for some well-staged fight scenes (rivaling the famous ones in Republic serials with their crack team of stunt doubles), a cliffhanger featuring Perry White hanging off the ledge of the window in his office in the Daily Planet building (well, the writers were obviously tired of getting their cliffhangers from putting Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in jeopardy … ) and a spectacular climax in which Graham, now back in control of himself (for reasons that remain as mysterious as the techniques which put him under the Spider Lady’s control in the first place), turns the Reducer Ray on the Spider Lady; the force of its energy drives her into her lethally charged web of metal ropes, she is electrocuted and she literally explodes and leaves behind a hole in her back wall.

Overall this is one of the better serials, though there’s little you can do with Superman as a character (there’s one cliffhanger in which he and Lois are handcuffed together outside a mine the baddies are about to blow up; he has to wait for her to become unconscious so he can open the handcuffs with his super-powers, fly off, foil the villains’ plot and return to her and re-handcuff them before she comes to; when she does come to she briefly realizes that the handcuffs are now on the opposite arms from where they were before, but Clark Kent assures her that she got that wrong, and through much of this serial the writers got their situations from having Clark Kent need to figure out a way to slip away from the main action so he can doff the reporter drag and emerge as Superman) — for reasons that got a little muddled towards the end, even the villains’ use of Kryptonite against him causes him no more than a mild, transitory bit of queasiness — and the writers also made much less than their colleagues at DC Comics of the irony of the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent love triangle (Clark loves Lois, but Lois thinks Clark’s a wimp and has eyes only for Superman, not knowing that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same — a gimmick the Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, obviously ripped off from The Scarlet Pimpernel and its author, Baroness Orczy), but it’s still a fun show, the effects are reasonably good for the budget and the time (though turning Superman into a cartoon whenever he has to fly is either somewhat credible or outrageously campy, depending on your mood), there are relatively few of the outrageous cheats Republic used in its cliffhangers and the overall movie is fun and a decent if not spectacular debut for Superman as a live-action character. — 11/6/12