Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Just the mention of the Superman television show always brings out a smile; for 1950s kids this program was nothing but good memories. Shuster and Siegel's Superman started as a comic book character and soon developed into an icon representing everything good and noble ... sort of a folk god for the 20th century. By the post-war years the world was in a real muddle, yet for little kids Superman was a reassuring beacon of light, morally decent and vigilant without being a vigilante. Just the sound of George Reeves' voice stirs something in a 50s kid; the brassy Superman anthem brought us to our feet and running for the TV set.
This first season of Adventures of Superman was previously unseen by Savant except through the theatrical pilot show Superman and the Mole Men. By the time I found out the series existed it was already 1959 and the 104 episodes had probably all been recycled three times in reruns. As it turns out, this first season has an unfamiliar but good Lois Lane in Phyllis Coates and plays much more like a crime serial than the later color seasons. Warners has assembled a trim multi-disc package and included some great extras.
The disc set tells the whole tale of Superman on television. According to New Wave's making-of interview documentary, producer Robert Maxwell filmed Superman and the Mole Men with the cast and crew planned for his TV show. It was released by Lippert films and was a moderate kiddie success; Daily Variety's review called the film "sock moppet bait." Then Maxwell had to film the entire first season -- 26 episodes -- before landing a network spot. Copyrighted in 1951 and '52, the show didn't premiere until 1953.
As pointed out in the docu, Adventures of Superman was more crime-oriented than science fiction. Some episodes feature strange inventions, as with a mind-control device in The Mind Machine. More often than not Lois or Jimmy Olsen is held by despicable gangsters, a problem solved when the news finally reaches Clark Kent. He leaps into a 'storeroom' and zooms off to the rescue. That stirring anthem blasts in along with a flying sound effect that reminds us of Dorothy Gale's tornado. Crook confrontations usually include a demonstration of Superman's invulnerability in the form of a bent knife or "bullets have no effect" scene (no animated bullet ricochets yet). Our hero often trades blows with the bad guys, who fall as if kayoed by your average serial hero. The way Reeves throws the punches we expect to see their heads come off!
Phyllis Coates is a spunky Lois Lane. She takes no guff from anyone and also tries her hand at beating up on bad guys. She comes off as essentially humorless, with only a few wonderings why she's never seen Kent and Superman together. The jokes are all reserved for Reeves and his literally closeted alter ego. The 'mild mannered' Clark Kent is forever smiling and seems to derive plenty of satisfaction from knowing a secret nobody else does.
Capable actor Jack Larson plays Jimmy Olsen as an immature clown with a good heart. Forever clueless, he can be depended on to ask the dumb questions so that Clark Kent can dispense plot exposition. Several episodes center on Olsen's personal adventures, which play like Hardy Boys stories featuring one rather dense Hardy Boy.
Production values are on the dire side but they were generous for Televsion in 1952. It's not unusual to see characters throw bold shadows onto sagging theatrical backdrops. Overall the direction is pretty peppy; if I remember correctly the added expense of color made the later seasons much more static and primitive-looking overall. In keeping with the crime theme, many episodes have nice low-key lighting schemes.
The minimal effects range from "okay" to "so-so" to "what the heck was that?" Reeves is good on the springboard launches and gymnastic one-point landings. Some flying shots are acceptable but a lot of others simply matte a sideways image of a standing Reeves into whatever background is handy, and look like embarrassing mistakes. When one makes 26 TV episodes on spec there is no room for second tries, let alone R&D.
There are some questionable plot points as well. The docu extra covers an amazing blunder in an episode in which two crooks find out Clark Kent's secret identity. Superman parks them on a high mountain while he sorts out the rest of the plot, telling them to stay put 'til he gets back. They try to climb down instead, and fall ... to their deaths! The show offers nothing more about them - they're just forgotten!
The first episode is called Superman On Earth and covers the familiar ground shown in the first act of the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve 1978 effort ... on 1/1000th the budget. Krypton is one throne room and Jor-El's lab and it's all pretty perfunctory, but the cornball drama still tugs on the heartstrings when old Mrs. Kent finds the baby in the rocket. Events are rushed through so quickly that young Clark Kent has time to grow up ("Gee, why do I have to be different from everybody else?"), come to Metropolis, get hired and rescue a man clinging to the underside of a blimp all in 25 minutes. Don't ask. It's all quite charming.
The TV show reprises Superman and the Mole Men as a first season ender, breaking it into two parts. I wonder if this example gave Walt Disney some ideas! The feature takes an interesting liberal point of view, with an anti-vigilante civics lesson. The Mole Men are midgets from the center of the Earth that show up and are immediately judged by some irate townspeople (including blacklistee-to-be Jeff Corey) as hostiles to be eradicated. Superman's only role in the movie is to defend the American Way, which in this case includes protecting innocent aliens from paranoid, trigger-happy yahoos. With that sensitivity, it's suprising that so little is made of the fact that Kal-El himself is an alien immigrant to the United States. He's from another galaxy, yet he appreciates our freedoms. I guess he has to count himself lucky that he was in human form, specifically Anglo human form. Superman may be corny, but its sentiments ring true ... he's a hero championing values we still cherish, theoretical though they may be.
Warner's five-disc set of Adventures of Superman, the Complete First Season looks fine and the episodes are transferred from good materials. Savant watched ten full shows and with only six per disc the encoding is good as well. Gary Grossman and Chuck Harter trade off doing commentaries on four of the episodes, and they're interesting if not terrifically informative. Disc five has the bulk of the goodies. The 67-minute Mole Men feature is present in perfect condition along with a Technicolor 1940 Warners two-reel short subject called Pony Express Days starring a fresh-faced George Reeves as young Buffalo Bill Cody. There are also some amusing Kellogg's Frosted Flakes commercials with Clark Kent carrying a box 'o flakes through a neighborhood, He uses his X-Ray vision to spy on kids as they wax ecstatic over breakfast cereal.
New Wave provides a nicely-timed docu about the show entitled From Inkwell to Backlot. Comic writers and artists tell of their excitement for the TV show and actor Jack Larson shares his personal memories. Leonard Maltin nails the show's appeal in just a few statements. The docu alludes to 'myths' about George Reeves, but the extra skips any mention of his later suicide while also ignoring the Columbia Kirk Alyn serial or the popular Paramount / Fleischer Superman cartoons.
Savant really likes the packaging for this one. The comic book graphic scheme is cheerful and welcoming and the sturdy card and plastic folder is convenient for looking up episodes and snagging the correct disc. Savant isn't big on collecting TV series (the hottest thing in DVD right now) but will look forward to seeing the first color season of Adventures of Superman when it makes it to DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Adventures of Superman The Complete First Season rates:
Movie and TV Shows: Very Good
Supplements: featurette, full-length extra feature, 1940 short subject, TV commercials, 4 commentaries
Packaging: Folding plastic and card stock disc holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 13, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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