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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Superman - The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection
Superman - The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection
Warner Bros. // Unrated // November 28, 2006
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted December 3, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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It took ten years to bring Superman to the big screen, and what a difference a decade makes. It didn't take long for the character to catch on with the public following his debut in "Action Comics" #1, which hit newsstands in 1938; he soon had his own daily comic strip, a popular radio show, and a series of cartoons from Max and Dave Fleischer. He helped sell bonds during the war, witnessed several spin-off comic titles, and pretty much single-handedly launched the superhero genre. Superman's rise to importance in the world of pop culture truly was, pardon the pun, faster than a speeding bullet.

A live action Man of Steel finally arrived in movie theaters in 1948, with a Saturday serial simply titled "Superman." In the title role was former dancer and longtime bit-part player Kirk Alyn, who, thanks to a peculiar bit of promotion work by Columbia, went uncredited in all fifteen chapters - the idea was that the studio could claim the movie just starred Superman, as if the hero was a real person.

Alyn's performance is based in part on the work of Bud Collyer, the radio announcer who performed Superman's voice in both the radio series and the Fleischer cartoons. Collyer had a brilliant trick he'd do with his voice: as we'd hear Clark Kent's thoughts, his voice would go from high and nerdy on "This looks like a job..." to deep and heroic on "...for Superman!" Here, Alyn does the same thing, although he doesn't quite have the vocal skills that Collyer possessed.

Alyn's also not too convincing in the role physically either. He has a habit of prancing and skipping while in the super-suit, a dancer's version of leaping heroically. Whenever he's required to life a couple of thugs by their collars and threaten them with a bit of that Superman arrogance ("Sometimes I don't know my own strength!"), he lacks a bit of confidence in the role; his awkward smile suggests he's not to comfortable with the physicality of the role. And then there's the weird habit of bulging his eyes and staring with a sweaty ogle whenever the character breaks out his x-ray vision, or clumsily smirking as bullets bounce of his chest.

This is not to say Alyn is terrible in the role - in fact, he's quite good as a bumbling Clark Kent, and in many shots he does muster up enough gravitas to pull off the heroism of Man of Tomorrow. But we've seen better (much, much better) in the decades that followed.

Faring better are Noel Neill as Lois Lane (she would reprise the role in the 1950s "Adventures of Superman" TV series) and Tommy Bond (best known as Butch from the "Our Gang" series) as Jimmy Olsen. Both co-stars lend a playfulness to their roles, keeping things fresh despite the staleness of their characters' being stuck in the same situations fifteen weekends in a row.

The first few chapters of "Superman" are its best, recapping the superhero's origin story, bringing him to Metropolis, and introducing the menace of kryptonite. The latter becomes a crutch for the serial as it progresses, the filmmakers finding no other viable challenges to our hero. The main story involves the continued threats from a generic villain named the Spider Lady (Carol Foreman), a crime boss who'd slink around in a tight black dress and a matching black mask, with a giant electric web on one wall in her den. Her plan is to rule the world with a gizmo called a "relativity reducer ray," although to do that, she keeps having to bring out her lead box full of kryptonite. You'd think Superman would learn to avoid small lead boxes, but no.

The action is goofy but plenty of fun, even if the use of a cartoon Superman as a visual effects cheat (used to show the Man of Steel in flight) grows tiresome quickly. As most serials tended to do, "Superman" zips by at breakneck pace, so even if you're chuckling at one of the many missteps, your attention will quickly be diverted elsewhere, usually to more entertaining scenes.

With "Superman" a great success at the box office, a sequel serial was inevitable. "Atom Man vs. Superman" arrived in theaters in 1950. Alyn, Neill, and Bond all returned, this time to witness Superman take on archvillain Lex Luthor (B movie and serial veteran Lyle Talbot). The criminal mastermind has invented a teleportation device, you see, and it's helping him carry out his nefarious plans for world domination (or, at least, the destruction of Metropolis). Don't tell anyone, but Luthor is also causing havoc under the guise of the dastardly Atom Man.

"Atom Man" offers up much more action than its predecessor, thanks mainly to the inclusion of plenty of stock footage of things blowing up, falling apart, or otherwise getting good and smashed. Superman faces floods, quakes, collapses, whatever the filmmakers can throw our way to keep the energy flowing. The effects are even upgraded: we still get Cartoon Superman taking off and landing, but now we get to see Alyn, from head to torso, in "flight," similar to the way George Reeves would be show flying in the TV series.

While exact figures differ from source to source, both serials are considered the two top-grossing serials in cinema history. Yet their successes came at the tail end of the serial trend. Hollywood would soon abandon the cliffhanger format entirely, and, apart from a George Reeves quickie that serves as an introduction to the TV show, Superman would not return to theaters for decades. Both "Superman" and "Atom Man vs. Superman" shows a genre growing tired with itself - in both chapter plays, the plots grow a bit stale, the adventures a bit overly corny - yet both manage to maintain the sense of solid fun and wonder.

The DVD

Warner Brothers has collected both serials in their entirety for a four-disc box set titled "Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection." Each serial gets two discs, housed in a digipak with two overlapping disc-style trays.

When "Superman" was previously released on home video, the opening credits were missing for most chapters. Warner fixes this with a bit of DVD trickery here: each chapter plays the same opening, then jumps ahead to the beginning of the chapter you've selected. As such, there is a tiny pause in between.

There are no chapter stops within the episodes themselves, although there is a "play all" feature, effectively making each episode its own chapter stop.

Video

"Superman" is darn crisp, free of most grain, revealing a clean, sharp black-and-white image. (The exception is in Chapter 14, which contains some print scratches throughout.) Despite being the younger movie, "Atom Man" is more problematic, with more grain, more softness, and less richness in the various grays of the film. It's nothing too awful, but compared to the slick transfer of "Superman," the lesser presentation is quite noticeable. Both serials are presented in their original full frame (1.33:1) format.

Audio

The Dolby stereo soundtrack sounds like little more than the films' original mono tracks spread over both speakers. On both titles, the sound is clear of all hiss and pops. Optional Spanish and French subtitles are offered.

Extras

"Saturdays with Superman" (9:19) gives a quickie history of the serial format and Superman's involvement therein. A heavy supply of information is crammed into the featurette, and all the interviewees have plenty of fond memories of the series. Light, but plenty likable. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame.

Excerpts from the documentary "Look! Up in the Sky!" (6:29) oddly offer nothing about the serials themselves; instead, we get a random sampling of interviews and clips featuring Superman's greatest hits, essentially acting as a lengthy promo piece for other Superman DVD releases. Presented in a 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

Both features appear on Disc Four of the set, meaning once again we get a release from Warner Bros. in which all other discs ask you to select "special features," only to be taken to a screen telling you that special features aren't on the disc. Grumble...

Finally, Warner Brothers' now-familiar catch-all Superman promo plays as soon as you load Disc One. (You can skip over it if you wish.)

Final Thoughts

Both serials are dated in just about every way, yet that's part of the appeal. Any dopiness and/or corniness throughout are trumped by the sheer amount of giddy fun that pours from these adventures. Recommended to fans of the serial format, and to those wanting to know why serials have maintained a certain popularity decades later.
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