Friday, April 26, 2013

Supermarathon: The Serials!

In 1948 Columbia rolled out a weekly Superman serial.  10 years after the Man of Steel had first appeared on a comic book cover, America knew Superman from comics, radio, the Fleischer cartoons, the newspaper strip and games and toys.

Special effects weren't exactly rudimentary in 1948, if you had a budget, but as the serials rolled out as part of kid-friendly Saturday afternoon matinee fodder, this was not a $200 million set-up.  The serials are probably best remembered for the use of animation to show Superman flying (which becomes rarer and rarer as the series progresses).   Basically, our live-action Superman poses, and then is switched to cartoon form for the flying scenes (and that's not to mention the death of Krypton, that seems inspired by your typical Betty Boop cartoon explosion).

Kirk Alyn is our pre-George Reeves Superman, and he actually looks not unlike the Superman of the comics of the time.  Alyn's a lot more "gee-whiz" than the "Yup, I'm three steps ahead and I got this situation handled" aspect of Reeves' Superman.  Lois is played by Noel Neill, who would return to the role in the TV series, The Adventures of Superman in seasons 2-6.    She's extremely young and perky here, but not the sloe-eyed adventuress of the Fleischer cartoons.  Jimmy is played by Tommy Bond in full huckster, vaudevillian mode in a goofy hat and making faces.

It's remarkable to see the Kryptonian origin told at this point with so many details worked out on radio, in the comics and newspaper strip.  Jor-El, Lara, a grumpy science council that seemingly HATES SCIENCE. The costumes are clearly lifted from some other period piece, and our Kryptonians all look like dads and grandpas in capes, like someone walked down to the casting lot and said "You, you, you, and you...  you're aliens today.  C'mon."

Now's a good time to remind everyone - the serials were aimed as squirrelly kids hopped up on candy and left alone at the theater.  The pacing of the thing is rocket fast, and it winds up storylines and introduces new ones just in time to have a cliffhanger in every episode.  By today's standards, it feels a little off, but when you think about the format, it makes sense.  And, it seems very friendly to kids who might miss one or more weeks in a row.  It just doesn't matter that much.

Oh, right.  So, Jamie actually asked me when National decided that Superman's powers came from our sun and not because everyone on Krypton was super powered.  I had to look it up, and I'm still not entirely certain, but right about this time, as Mort Wesinger would have been appointed editor of the Superman titles prior to 1950 when those changes were clearly in the comics.  However, our Krypton looks a bit like a mishmash of props and costumes from various historical movies, but includes a stylized rocket.

Really, the reason for Krypton exploding probably makes the most sense here of any rationalization I've read or heard - it's spinning closer to the sun and will be torn apart by gravity.  And, of course, nobody wants to believe it.  Certainly better than the convoluted mess of the 90's-era comics.

Maybe the most oddball part of the serials is the liberal use of a few riffs from the well known Bride of Frankenstein soundtrack by Franz Waxman.

Just watch the first 8 seconds...

It's early days for Superman here, both in comics and representation on film or even on radio.  It's a post World War II Superman, happy to defend his nation after being asked by The Secretary of National Security in the third installment.

All in all, a lot of fun from an historical perspective, even if the FX are a bit jolting in the transition for actor to cartoon, and it's fascinating to see the parts of the Superman mythos coming together.  By this point, it's still not Jonathan and Martha, but Eben and Sarah Kent.  Superboy isn't part of things, but we do get Kryptonite.

And, of course, the villainous Spider-Lady (a noirish femme fatale with a domino mask, electrified web and hints of S&M).

All good for the kids.

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