Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Season one of the Adventures of Superman television show was quite a surprise, with a different Lois Lane and a selection of often hard-nosed crime stories. A new Lois in the person of Noel Neill came with season two; she had already played the role in two Columbia serials with Kirk Alyn. The show also adopted a lighter tone: Less violence, more fantasy. With the third and fourth season (13 episodes each) the series adds an all-important extra: Color. Just as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz looked to future revenue in re-runs by filming their shows instead of simply creating low quality Kinescopes, producer Whitney Ellsworth started his third season in color, even though the episodes wouldn't be broadcast that way for years. This may or may not have predated Walt Disney's similar gambit of filming most all of his programming in expensive color, knowing that TV viewers would demand it when the technology caught up.
These Superman episodes are the ones we remember from re-runs that ran well into the late 1960s. The characters are charmingly inconsistent. Lois is sometimes given cute or revealing business to conduct, but her part is just as often limited to little more than a handful of grumpy dialogue lines. Perry White is still after Jimmy Olsen to stop calling him "Chief", when the real head-scratcher is wondering why Olsen still has a job. Jimmy only intermittently takes photos. He seems a total dimwit incapable of holding a thought more than a few minutes, or even writing a sentence on paper. The stories vary in charm and interest with the usual juvenile ideas -- silly crooks, over-eager "gee whiz" children -- but for every middling plotline there's an episode with a clever idea. One invention makes people think they're upside down, enabling crooks to do their stuff. In the color opener for the third season, a professor's time machine takes the principal players back to the Stone Age for some forgettable dramatics. We also see an interesting demonstration of Political Correctness from the early 1950s. When Superman finds himself in the company of an impressionable adolescent (the actor must be at least 20!) he sternly states that only Superman can fly, and that nobody should try to do something so dangerous. Shades of the old Peter Pan furor about children imitating their fantasy heroes!
1) Through The Time Barrier; 2) The Talking Clue; 3) The Lucky Cat; 4) Superman Week; 5) Great Caesar's Ghost; 6) Test of a Warrior; 7) Olsen's Millions; 8) Clark Kent Outlaw; 9) The Magic Necklace; 10) The Bully of Dry Gulch; 11) Flight to the North; 12) The Seven Souvenirs; 13) King for a Day.
Season 4: 14) Joey; 15) The Unlucky Number; 16) The Big Freeze; 17) Peril by Sea; 18) Topsy Turvy; 19) Jimmy the Kid; 20) The Girl Who Hired Superman; 21) The Wedding of Superman; 22) Dagger Island; 23) Blackmail; 24) The Deadly Rock; 25) The Phantom Ring; 26) The Jolly Roger.
The usual buzz about the color Supermans is that they're cheap, and the style of filming bears that out to some degree. With color film rolling through the cameras every budgetary corner seems to be cut. The cave and jungle sets from the Time Travel show are recycled for the "pirate adventure" episode and another about helping an old Indian pass a qualifying test for Chief-hood. A vault door appears several times as a trap, whether to hide Lois and Jimmy (who are together so frequently they might think of taking out a marriage license) or to freeze Superman. Interestingly, nuclear bomb shelters figure in several of the stories.
The most obvious budget shortcut is the re-use of special effects sequences. Superman's flying scenes in season one consisted of rather pitiful rear projection setups, perhaps mandated by Reeves' insistence after an early accident that he not be suspended by wires. Seasons 3 and 4 re-use the same four or five process shots ad infinitum through the 'magic' of optical duplication: Get a good take of Supe flying in front of some buildings, an empty sky; up and down, and print up enough dupe negs to last the season. Whether he's flying across town or to Alaska, it's always the same shot. When Superman carries someone with him in flight, we're never shown the key action. George Reeves performs rather adroit trapeze landings for entrances (he never looks too out of breath) and vaults out of scenes with the aid of hidden springboards. After watching Chris Reeve gazelle out of shots like a flying Nureyev, those champion-diver launches now seem funny. We wonder why George Reeves doesn't smash through whatever floor he's bouncing on.
Producer Ellsworth skimps everywhere he can. Clark Kent almost always enters the storeroom to change costumes in the same duped stock shot peeking around an office corner, and the same goes for his Daily Planet landings. It looks as though scenes for multiple episodes taking place on the same set were filmed at the same time where possible -- all the Perry White office material, all the time-wasting in Clark Kent's office. It's possible that individual episode directors had only a limited number of show-specific scenes to shoot. We're told that with the high cost of Eastman negative stock, take one was almost always the keeper. These two factors account for the inconsistency in performances -- even Clark/Superman seems to change attitude between scenes for unspecified reasons. In the Bully of Dry Gulch episode, Clark almost goes ballistic when he hears over the phone that a bad guy is giving Lois "goo-goo eyes": "WHAT!?" Yet most of the time George Reeves is remarkably smooth in the role. Clark and especially Superman are always ready with a good-natured grin and a pleasing smile.
One last special effects observation: I distinctly remember optical shots in which bullets are seen to bounce off George Reeve's chest. Those must be from the last two color seasons, as they don't show up here.
JImmy Olsen gets his usual three or four signature episodes, as when he wins a million dollars or gets to play a Burgonian prince in a story about baddies de-stabilizing a European monarchy. He even does the 'evil twin' routine, playing himself and a criminal look-alike. Some of the stories are on the weak side. Crooks try to fleece people by running a rigged jelly bean counting contest, and a wild west bully threatens to shoot Jimmy by sundown. In the freezer-threat episode, Superman takes sides with Daily Planet editor White on a local election. Kal-El insures that gangster thugs aren't intimidating the voters, and then makes his prejudices known by asking a voter for whom he's voting!
Even John Hamilton's Mr. White and Robert Shayne's Inspector Henderson get spotlight episodes, although they're not the most imaginative either. Crooks make White think he's crazy by conjuring up Great Caesar's Ghost, while bad guys frame Henderson. Old favorite George E. Stone is a weasely crook in a few episodes, along with Myron Healey, John Doucette and Paul Burke as more fumbling thugs. The best surprise guest actors are Gloria Talbott I Married a Monster from Outer Space as an heiress tricked into decoying Superman away from a robbery, and Chuck Conners, who makes an excellent yokel with the name Sylvester Superman. That episode, Flight to the North, is a warped conglomeration of nutty ideas, ending in an Alaskan shack where the recipient (Richard Garland) of a gift pie (lemon meringue) is besieged by a succession of crazy guests, including Superman.
The wildest episode by far is The Wedding of Superman. Lois hasn't been given much attention all season, but here she's the center of a dream identical to the wish-fulfillment plotlines in the comic books. The whole show turns out to be a figment of her unconscious, as Lois imagines that Clark, Superman and even Inspector Henderson are gaga over her. The critical altar scene is handled very well, although there must have been many a groan as the dream gag (actually extremely transparent) was revealed. Lois tells the story directly to the camera, and it's quite odd that she'd come to the obvious conclusion about Clark's secret identity in the dream, only to dismiss it when she wakes up. It's the only episode where Lois doesn't have a sour or defeatist remark to make, somewhere. As an added fillip, in a brief bit part the show features none other than Ed Wood's angora paramour Dolores Fuller!
Oh, one of the nicest aspects of these original Superman TV shows is hearing the narrator bark out the words, "Truth, Justice and The American Way" like they're supposed to be said. There are American values to be cherished, and that's the spirit of the Superman myth.
Warners' DVD set of the Adventures of Superman, The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons continues with the snappy design of the earlier releases. The show's art direction seems to have stopped once the problem of finding the right hues for Supe's suit was ironed out. About half of the episodes have splendid color, accurately reflecting the somewhat sour Eastman Color of the day. The other half have slightly faded color, as if not all the negatives aged as well as others. In some shows grainy shots are inter-cut with prime quality material, indicating that Warners' transfer vendor worked overtime to pump life back into the material. In all the episodes the title sequences, flying scenes and other repeated content are consistently dupe-y and dirty. It's too bad that the original title negative couldn't be located, transferred and added to at least one of the shows. We love the main Superman "into action" theme, which as children would send us running from any room in the house ... it's too bad that the rest of the tracks seem to be scored from needle-drop tracks. The audio on these discs is a strong mono.
The extra featurettes are good but limited in scope. They explain a few technical problems of filming but barely touch upon production details. It appears that the entire season was again filmed in a giant lump and then sold all at once to television, which must have involved an enormous outlay of cash from the producers. I'll bet it took years to recoup the costs. These episodes are copyrighted 1957, but we're curious to know if they'd been filmed long before. Chuck Connors, for instance, was getting pretty good feature roles by 1954 or so; does his Superman stint pre-date them?
One extra lauds the efforts of trusted effects man Thol Simonson, who rigged the special supports that allowed Reeves to be suspended without wires. The Look Up in the Sky! promo is a flashy assembly credited to Bryan Singer and Kevin Burns. It's actually an excerpt from a longer show. The most welcome Superman news of late is that Warners has acquired DVD rights to the Paramount Max Fleischer Superman cartoon series, and is prepping them for presentation, perhaps as early as Christmas, this year. After all of the public domain copies it will be refreshing to see those shows in their original glory.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Adventures of Superman, The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons rates:
TV Show: Good
Video: Excellent to Good - (variable)
Supplements: Two featurettes on the color seasons, special effects; excerpt from a new Superman documentary by Bryan Singer and Kevin Burns
Packaging: Folding card and plastic disc holders (four discs) in a card sleeve
Reviewed: August 3, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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