A warm nostalgia, rather than actual merit, drives the enduring popularity felt by an aging generation of Baby Boomers for Adventures of Superman, the 1952-57 series that ended only with the tragic and still-mysterious death of its star, George Reeves. Cheaply-produced and generally unambitious, the program never lived up to its full potential, even taking into account its budgetary and technical limitations. By the end of its run Adventures of Superman (there's no "The" in the title) had further de-evolved into a silly, trivial children's show; it ran out of steam and Reeves had aged noticeably.
But for children growing up in the 1950s (and several generations thereafter, who caught up with the program in reruns), Adventures of Superman was a 30-minute tonic of thrills and adventure. The audio commentary supplied by Gary Grossman on the First Season DVD set is more fannish than informative, but he nails precisely the excitement children felt watching the show when it was new. (You can read DVD Savant's first season review here.)
Like the first season, episodes play like single-chapter serials, crammed with action, mystery and intrigue. Superman (Reeves) "fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way" with the help of his alter-ego, "mild-mannered" reporter Clark Kent (also Reeves), who works for gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton) and alongside perky Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson).
Adventures of Superman - The Complete Second Season is much like the first. Compared with those that followed, Year Two is in black and white (the next season would be in color), and is slightly more adult in terms of content. The big difference from the first season is the series' single major cast change: Noel Neill replaced Phyllis Coates in the pivotal role of Lois Lane. Neill had played Lois before, in two 15-chapter Superman serials produced by Columbia: Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Unlike Coates, Neill has remained very actively involved in Superman fandom after the show ended, appearing at comic book conventions and making cameos in the 1978 Superman movie, and again this year in Superman Returns.
Despite her strong fan following, many purists prefer Coates' Lois to Neill's. Coates embodied the comic book Lois perfectly; she was a woman of action - smart, assertive, adventurous, and attractive. Neill's Lois was something of a lightweight, a very Eisenhower fifties woman - perky but mousy, aggressive but foolhardy.
Despite being too heroic as Clark, Reeves' Superman is unfailingly appealing. In a decade of iconic heroes - The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers - his Superman fit right in. Jack Larson's Jimmy is also dead-on, with just the right balance of enthusiasm, naivete, and gregariousness. The later films reinterpreted Clark/Superman and Lois, but their scripts were wise in keeping the flavor of the television Jimmy and Perry White largely unchanged.
Episodes run the gamut from inspired to flaccid. Some are exciting and imaginatively conceived, while others seem content to simply play out a relatively simple idea in flat medium shots on colorless sets. One can forgive the constant recycling of sets and the rudimentary special effects given the budgetary limitations of early television, especially for a syndicated (non-Network) series such as this, but the same drab angles of the Daily Planet's offices and hallways do become wearisome. Instead of filming one episode after another, a batch of shows were apparently shot at the same time, with all of the scenes in Perry White's office for a bunch of shows shot one day, then all of the scenes in Clark's office shot the next, etc. For this reason, the actors rarely change their wardrobe, and understandably struggled remembering what was going on from one script to the next. This more than anything accounts for the occasional stylistic schizophrenia apparent in shows like "Panic in the Sky," which is dynamically shot in some scenes, barely adequate in others.
Considering how little Reeves' appearance changes from Clark Kent to Superman, why Lois and Jimmy don't instantly recognize Clark as Superman is one of television's great mysteries. Season two shows, however, broach this subject now and then. In one episode Clark and Lois are involved in a car accident; his suit is torn, revealing his Superman costume underneath, requiring some fast-thinking on the superhero's part. In another good show a criminal tries to blackmail Superman with a photograph showing Clark changing into Superman in an alley. How this is resolved is cleverly handled.
Season two boasts an incredible line-up of great character actors in guest parts, including Dabbs Greer, Hugh Beaumont, Lawrence Dobkin, Billy Gray, Leon Askin, Philip Van Zandt, George Chandler, Percy Helton, Sterling Holloway, Peter Brocco, Roy Barcroft, Leonard Penn, Elisha Cook, Jr., Paul Fix, Robert Wilke, Denver Pyle, Virginia Christine, and John Doucette.
Video & Audio
Adventures of Superman - The Complete Second Season presents the show in its original full frame format, with 26 episodes spread over five discs. The image quality is variable, with some episodes a bit soft with some damage, others looking fine. There are no "bumpers," previews of upcoming episodes, and the like, just the shows which are uncut and not time-compressed. Shows are in English only, with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Jack Larson and Noel Neill provide Audio Commentaries for two episodes, "Panic in the Sky," and "Semi-Private Eye." Though one yearns for an interviewer to get their conversations going and to keep them on-track, the commentaries are okay for what they are.
First Lady of Metropolis is a seven-minute tribute to Noel Neill that compares her interpretation to Coates', though it doesn't explain why the latter didn't return for Year Two. The featurette would also have benefited from excerpts from Neill's two Superman serials, but Warner Home Video apparently didn't want to spring for any film clips from another studio. Stamp Day for Superman is an 18-minute Treasury Department film, designed to play like a regular episode of the series. In it one young man turns to breaking and entertaining because he didn't buy saving bonds ("I shoulda learned how to save!" he cries) and Jimmy buys a portable typewriter after cashing in some of his savings stamps.
Adventures of Superman can be a very entertaining show if you're willing to suspend your disbelief and watch it from an early-1950s perspective. It's a show of its time, from a simpler era, but still loads of fun.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.