(5/10) In a nutshell: The low-budget production of Superman’s first live-action film serial is obvious and hurts credibility, but this 15-part serial from Columbia manages to stay respectful towards the source material and is without doubt one of the best serials produced in the forties. Kirk Alyn is a believable Superman, but the real star of the show is Noel Neill as Lois Lane.
Superman (1948). Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennett and Thomas Carr. Based on characters created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Starring: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures. IMDb score: 7.8
I don’t regularly review film serials on this blog, but I have done so in the past when I’ve deemed them of such importance to the the cinematic sci-fi genre that they deserve at least a shoutout. There are few that deny the importance of Superman to the canon of science fiction. And even though this 1948 film serial may not have been that hugely influential on later film adaptations, it was at least a big happening when the first live action Superman graced the screen.
When Superman was first released in Action Comics in 1938, it did not spring out of a vacuum, however. As I have pointed out in my review of the Superhero serials of the early forties, the birth of the modern superhero was preceded by many literary proto-superheroes like Popeye, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian and John Carter. Even more influential were perhaps the stories of masked vigilantes like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, The Phantom, The Shadow, The Spider and The Green Hornet. Another important influence on the superhero comics were early science fiction comics and stories, like those of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, both released before Superman.
The development of Superman by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is long and convoluted, but one has to wonder if the final concept they struck upon wasn’t inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter books, where Carter’s earthly origins render him superhuman strength and speed on the smaller planet of Mars. Siegel and Shuster turn it around, giving Krypton-born Superman superhuman powers on Earth. The colourful tights and the emblem on Superman’s chest are quoted as being inspired by the science fiction comics of the thirties. The shorts-over-thights look is said to have been inspired by the circus strongman costumed of the time, but in fact The Phantom had already established the look in 1936. The cape is often said to have been Superman’s most original contribution to the superhero look, which is true in a sense, but on the other hand capes had been used widely in Victorian hero fiction – for example Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel were often depicted in capes, as well as The Shadow from the early thirties. The character of Superman was heavily modelled on classical heroes like Hercules and Samson, and he was created as a pacifist, left-leaning hero of the people, fighting rampant capitalism, greedy bankers, corrupt businessmen and evil politicians (as well as the odd supervillain). This changed in the beginning of the forties, when Superman did a 180 and became an all-American patriotic hero fighting the Nazis and the Japanese, and entered the war propaganda machine.
The first Superman on the screen was the absolutely fabulous animated short films made in 1941 by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, a film series that continues to influence filmmakers even today. The brilliant animated Batman series made in the nineties was directly influenced by the film noir-inspired Superman shorts. Two attempts had previously been made to make a live-action serial of Superman by Poverty Row studio Republic, but both times the studio failed to get the rights. When second-tier studio Columbia got the rights in 1947, they tried to shop them around, but at that time the only studios left making serials were Columbia and Republic, and by this time Republic wouldn’t touch Superman with a stick, since the comic was, in their opinion, impossible to make as a live-action serial. Thus Columbia was stuck with it.
The serial’s script was less inspired by the actual comic books, than by the extremely popular and long-running radio show The Adventures of Superman. In fact, much of the Superman mythos was created in the radio show, rather than the comic books. Kryptonite, for example, first appeared on radio. Important secondary characters like Jimmy Olsen and Perry White were created for the show. The famous tagline ”It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” was also written for radio, and the cross-over between DC Comics’ two flagships Batman and Superman also first occurred on the radio show in 1945. Of course by 1948 many of these aspects had found their way into the comic books as well. The radio show was in turn influenced by the popular crime-fighter and masked vigilante shows on air at that time, like The Spider and The Shadow.
The 1948 Superman serial’s writers were also heavily influenced by popular crime serials, which often revolved around some McGuffin artefact that the protagonists and antagonists chase during the episodes. In Superman these McGuffins are a death ray machine, a shard of kryptonite, a kidnapped Lois Lane and a kidnapped scientist, among others, which give the characters many chances for car chases, rooftop escapes, etc. That many of the episodes are fairly mundane chase-the-artefact stories does unfortunately lessen the quality of the serial a bit.
Of course the biggest challenge of all was finding the character to play Superman. After some searching the producers settled on Kirk Alyn, a fairly unknown, but tried and tested bit-part actor. Alyn had the physique, was a capable actor and even had the trademark dark hair curl. He also had a background in dancing, which is a mixed blessing. Unlike many other superhero actors of the time, he never looks clumsy, and his impressive leaps, great agility and calm grace make it look like he does everything with childlike ease. On the other hand, the dancing background sometimes leads to a bit of prancing and skipping, which is quite out of character for Superman. Alyn’s face was perhaps also a bit too round and soft for the square-jawed Superman, and he doesn’t necessarily have the cocky confidence that the role requires. On the other hand, Alyn’s Clark Kent is absolutely spot-on, and he is able to create two very different characters, well copied by Christopher Reeve in the seventies. Alyn’s performance was heavily influenced by Bud Collyer, who played the twin parts on the radio show. Collyer would play his Kent with a high-pitched voice, and lowered it considerably when playing Superman. Alyn does the same, although not to quite the same degree. The serial also copied two of the catchphrases from the radio show. When Kent encounters a dangerous situation he says ”This looks like a job for Superman!” before hiding behind the bushes to change costumes, and ”Up, up and away!” when he is about to take flight. Unfortunately Alyn was never able to reprise his success with Superman, and his acting career dwindled in the fifties, although he continued to do the occasional bit-part and cameo up until the early eighties, including one in the 1978 Superman film.
One of the heaviest criticisms the serial encountered was the fact that animation (done by Howard Swift, best known for his contribution to the animated Scooby-Doo films) was used for much of the special effects. Whenever Superman flies, he is replaced by an animated character, bullets bouncing off his chest are animated and even when he runs through a rock face, he leaves behind an animated hole. This aspect jarred me for the first two episodes, but after a while I didn’t even think about it. The upside of the equation is that with animation the film team was able to create much more versatile and agile action, even though much of the animation was reused in many episodes, probably both because of time constraints and cost. Republic had created a flying superhero for the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel a few years earlier. They relied on a combination of static shots of the lead actor hanging from wires and a styrofoam dummy ”flying” along a long wire rig. The effects were technically impressive, but did look a bit kooky. Columbia’s producer, legendary Sam Katzman, did order test shots of Kirk Alyn suspended from wires in front of a cloudy background, but thought the results were so bad that he fired the entire wire rig team and decided to go with animation.
Despite the slightly unengaging plot lines, the story moves along at breakneck speed, and a couple of the cliffhangers are very nice, like Perry White getting punched out of a window. However, one gets the feeling that the script cheats a bit too much when it is time to get the protagonists out of the cliffhangers. There’s the classic James Bond trick, ”I will not kill him now, I will save it for later for no apparent reason”, and Superman coating his costume with lead to withstand the effects of kryptonite and such. Another problem with the serial is the villain – The Spider Lady, who isn’t even mentioned in the comic nor the radio show. The Spider Lady isn’t in any way an interesting villain, but just another version of the tedious staple villain, be it a mobster or a mad scientist, who spends most of the serial giving orders to his/her henchmen via radio in his/her lair. The Spider Lady is, however, decked out in a slinky black dress, which was quite risqué at the time, expecially in a series intended for a juvenile audience. But she has no spider powers, or even the power of personality. The Spider Woman is played by Carol Forman, a small-time serial actress, and one feels that the role is modelled on her role as the villain The Black Widow in a serial with the same name, made by Columbia in 1947 and directed by the same director, Spencer Gordon Bennett. I’m sorry to say it, but Forman may look swanky in a slinky, but act she can not. A wooden stick has more personality.
But: when we come to the supporting cast on the good side, the situation is reversed. The real find for this serial is Noel Neill who plays the feisty Lois Lane. Neill isn’t your classic, peach-faced heroine, but she has a very personal beauty, which has more to do with her personality, expressiveness and attitude. And after seeing film after film after film with bland, gray, timid, petite, and more or less talent-free leading ladies or cut-and-paste versions of femme fatales, it is so extremely refreshing and rewarding to see a female lead with an actual personality, who can actually act and express herself, and who does not take any shit from the boys. Neill’s Lane is a spunky, bubbling, sarcastic, headstrong female reporter who doesn’t need to be saved from railroad tracks, but has no fear of jumping in front of the train if the situation calls for it.
It dawned on me just how brilliant Neill is in a small scene where she actually has no dialogue. Lois and Jimmy Olsen are both crammed in a phone booth talking to Perry White. Olsen is on the receiving end of a loud scalding from White, and Lois simply reacts, and in her face we can read a whole story. And it’s not simply that Neill is good, it’s also that the script gives her room and opportunity to be good, and directors Spencer Gordon Bennett and Thomas Carr give her plenty of screen time and focus. And Lois Lane kicks ass! Most films and serials of the time had the female lead swooning or standing at the sidelines watching the big guys fight. But not Lois Lane. Instead she takes on two mobsters at a time in a fistfight. Granted, she is always pretty lightly tossed aside, but that the script even has her engaging in a fisticuff with guys twice her size is pretty novel for the time.
Neill had been around movie business since 1940 and had played dozens of bit-parts, but her role in Superman made her an instant star. Along with the rest of the main cast she reprised the role in the 1950 sequel Atom Man vs. Superman, and was the only one of the cast to reprise her role in the 1952 TV series Adventures of Superman. So beloved was Neill for her role, that she had a cameo as Lois Lane’s mother Ella Lane in the 1978 Superman film. Her scene was almost completely cut out from the theatrical version, but it was reinstated in the extended version. Tommy Bond, who plays Jimmy Olsen in the serial, was also cast as Lois’ father. Neill even made a cameo appearance in Bryan Singer’s 2006 movie Superman Returns as Lex Luthor’s dying old wife. Neill is still alive today. She will appear in an action comedy called Surge of Power: Revenege of the Sequel, playing the character Aunt Lois, alongside Uncle Jimmy, played by Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the 1952 TV-series Adventures of Superman (he also had a cameo in the 2006 film). Both also had cameos in the 1991 episode Paranoia of the TV series Superboy. Neill can also be seen in the mockumentary film The Oskar Knight Story, to be released later this year. Apart from the odd cameo, Neill retired from acting after completeting the TV series in 1958.
Tommy Bond is another great casting choice. Bond had made his bones as a child actor in the beloved Our Gang films in the early thirties until he grew out of the role and slummed his way from one small role to another until he got the role as Jimmy Olsen, which brought him some degree of fame, but not necessarily loads of film offers, since he was too associated with the Jimmy Olsen role for casting agents to hire him. Seeing as his career was going downhill, he wisely more or less retired from acting in the early fifties (at the suggestion of his friend and one-time lover Montgomery Clift), got himself a degree in theatre arts and worked for four decades as a stage and prop manager until he retired in the seventies. On the Superman show he is perfect in the role as the eager, slightly naive cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, and has a great rapport with Neill.
Pierre Watkin played Perry White, managing editor of The Daily Planet with all the panache and guts expected of him. Watkin was a noted character actor who appeared in over 400 films, serials or series during his career, often playing military or authority figures.
Principal director Spencer Gordon Bennett was known as The King of Serial Directors, famous for shooting fast and under budget. He directed many of Columbia’s hit serials, along with a good number of B westerns. He entered the movie business as a stuntman, and directed, among others, the successful 1944 serial Zorro’s Black Whip and the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. He also directed a number of other sci-fi serials, such as The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), Brick Bradford (1947), Bruce Gentry (1949), Atom Man vs. Superman, Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere, The Lost Planet (1953) and the film The Atomic Submarine (1959).
In a substantial supporting role we see Jack Ingram, one of those bit-part actors that turned up in almost all western serials in the thirties and forties, as well as the serials Undersea Kingdom (1936, review), Batman, 1943), The Jade Mask (1945, review) Brick Bradford, Atom Man vs. Superman, and Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere. Terry Frost, as one of the Spider Lady’s henchmen, turns up in over 230 films, serials or TV shows. He mostly played uncredited bit parts or small roles, as he did in the serials Batman, Captain America (1945), Bruce Gentry, Atom Man vs. Superman, Mysterious Island, Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere and The Lost Planet. He turned up in The Monster Maker in 1944 (review), and in an uncredited role as a policeman in The Creature with the Atom Brain (review) in 1955, appeared on the Adventures of Superman in 1957 and in the TV show Science Fiction Theatre as Deputy Terry in the episode Killer Tree in 1957. Comedian Doodles Weaver turns up in a cameo in one episode.
The first episode of the serial describes the destruction of Krypton and how the scientist Jor-El sends his son Kal-El to Earth. Most of it is shot in a boardroom where Jor-El and a group of elders discuss emigration to Earth, and Jor-El’s plan is dismissed. Clothes and designs are Greek-inspired and the space rocket looks like something out of Flash Gordon (1936, review). There’s some pretty terrible front projection scenes, but apart from that it is well handled. Noted character actor Nelson Leigh lends credibility and gravitas to the role of Jor-El. Leigh would later play one of the leads in the reasonably good sci-fi film World Without End, and turned up in a few sci-fi TV series.
Cinematographer Ira H. Morgan is best known for filming serials and B movies, but is, slightly surprisingly, credited for filming the Charlie Chaplin classic Modern Times (1936). Art director Paul Palmentola designed his first sci-fi film, The Monster Maker, in 1944, and later moved on to serial making, designing sets for Brick Bradford, Bruce Gentry, Batman and Robin, Atom Man vs. Superman, Mysterious Island (1952), Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere and The Lost Planet. He then turned to films like It Came from Beneath the Sea (review), Creature with the Atom Brain (both 1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and last but not least The Giant Claw (1957).
The Superman serial was a resounding success, sometimes quoted as the most successful serial of all time, along with sequel Superman vs. Atom Man. Atom Man was actually Lex Luthor. So successful were the serials that they briefly envigorated the dying medium of film serials. Unfortunately they also more or less killed off the acting careers of the three main actors, who had a hard time getting casted because of their involvement in the show. Kirk Alyn did in fact get offered the role of Superman on the 1952-1958 TV series, but turned it down, and it famously went to George Reeves.
As mentioned above, the serial is not without its flaws. The directing is quite bland, and as with most of these serials, a large part of the action takes place within a number of recurring rooms. There are, however, some great characters, as the scripts were mainly written by DC Comics writers, who could draw directly from the comics and the radio show, that some of them were also involved in. The acting is better than average for serials like this, Noel Neill being the shining star of the show. The low-budget origin unfortunately shows through a bit too much and the special effects are few and far between. Despite, and sometimes because of, the animation, the directors have some trouble depicting Superman doing superhuman feats. For example, he always lands behind cars and bushes in order to make the transition to live action, and Superman then has to jog to get into the action, as opposed to just landing where he is needed. There are few instances of Kirk Alyn actually involved in doing truly superhuman stunts, like lifting really big stuff, and his heroics often consist of pretty small feats. Nevertheless, it is a very entertaining and fun serial well worth a watch for any fans of Superman.
Superman (1948). Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennett and Thomas Carr. Based on characters created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Starring: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Charles King, Charles Quigley, Herbert Rawlinson, Forrest Taylor, Stephen Carr, Rusty Wescoatt, Frank Hagney, I. Stanford Jolley, Nelson Leigh, Doodles Weaver. Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan. Editing: Earl Turner. Art direction: Paul Palmentola. Set decoration: Sidney Clifford. Special effects: Howard Swift. Musical director: Mischa Bakaleinikoff. Produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures.