18 June 2013

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: THE LAST SON OF KRYPTON

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Man of Steel has brought the grandaddy of all superheroes back to pop culture life, 2013-style. For, of course, every generation has its own Superman.

Superman, the nigh-invulnerable alien protector invented by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, premiered in Detective Comics' new title Action Comics in June, 1938; barely a year and a half later, the instantly-beloved character made his dramatic debut in a radio show produced by New York's WOR station. The following year, the character made his filmed debut in a wonderful series of 17 animated shorts produced by Flesicher Studios (later Famous) between September, 1941 and July, 1943.

It wasn't until a decade after his groundbreaking introduction that Superman was finally dramatised in live-action, and this came in the form of a black and white 1948 serial simply called Superman, a 15-part adventure produced by Columbia Pictures (the studio that was mostly synonymous with serials in the '40s and '50s). If this incarnation of the character hasn't remained alive in the popular imagination (despite being a monster hit in its day) as much as the Fleischer cartoons of the 1950s TV show starring George Reeves, I suspect that has a lot to do with the weirdness of the serial format itself; something of a forerunner to television, these Saturday matinee program fillers were little ten or fifteen or maybe even twenty-minute chunks of story that combined to form one single plot arc, ending with cliffhangers in which a oh-so-square but oh-so-urgent narrator reminded us to come back to the same theater next week to find out how our hero managed to survive whatever death trap the villain sprung on him at the last minute.

They were pretty unabashedly kiddie fare, which certainly hasn't helped them find an audience: there's not much of an audience for what amounts to a three-hour children's movie anymore. And even calling it a three-hour movie is dodging the point: they're weird things to watch. It was never, ever the intent to watch a serial straight through; they were little weekly nibbles crammed in between the cartoon, the news reel, and the feature, and while I have never personally watched a matinee serial straight through, I've heard stories of people who have, and apparently it gets tedious fast. As it would, when every fifteen minutes the plot literally stops for a moment to harangue us about oh my God! the tension.

I'm sure you found all of this context desperately necessary.

Now, I would dearly love to say, "and Superman is so good as to make all those quibbles totally moot", but it's simply not true. Oh, there's no doubt that Superman is absolutely charming, and as I think that it's absolutely essential for everybody who has even a passing interest in post-WWII American filmmaking to see at least one Columbia serial in their life, this is a perfectly fine candidate (for one thing, it's far closer to modern expectations and tastes than the studio's befuddling 1943 Batman). But let's not pretend that it's anything but what it is: a time-waster made in a rush and on the cheap with no more aim than to keep a mostly undemanding audience diverted for a quarter of an hour at a time. It's a low-quality production all-around, just harried enough that there are maybe a half-dozen moments across the fifteen episodes where an actor straight-up flubs a line and they simply didn't have the time to redo it. And while any reasonable viewer learns, quickly, to adjust to the filmmaking technology of different periods, such that only a real dick writes off classical fantasy and sci-fi for the unforgivable sin of not having top-of-the-line CGI, Superman suffers from more than simple '40s visual effects technology. In fact, the flying effects that are such an important part of Superman's mythos are achieved here by replacing Kirk Alyn, the actor playing the hero, with a literal cartoon. Now, let me be this respectful to a bit of cinematic fantasy older than my own parents, and concede that the effect doesn't look pasted-on at all: in fact, it looks wonderfully like a crappily-animated Superman really is interacting with the buildings and clouds and such, better even than what Walt Disney's Technicolor extravaganzas of the same period were able to attain. And the transition from Alyn to the cartoon during the take-offs is astonishingly well-done. It's still a crappily-animated Superman instead of Alyn on a wire, is the thing.

But enough of harping on the limitations that the film was absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to escape completely. Charming I called the series; charming it is. Charming and really damn weird, for while in my head I understand that the sci-fi trappings of the Superman comic were, sure as can be, invented during the Depression, the kind of stately, geeky world-building that goes into Superman's back story just feels more... contemporary, somehow. And yet there we are, in the first episode, "Superman Comes to Earth", right there on the planet Krypton, where illustrious scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) patiently explains that Krypton's sun is about to destroy it, and sending his precious son Kal-El out into space to be the only survivor of that holocaust when the Kryptonian council laughs him off. And all of it shot using the very distinctive lighting vocabulary and acting styles of the 1940s, with a remarkably pedestrian concept of Krypton architecture, and the whole thing feels unpleasantly like the Kryptonians are holed up just down the hall from Humphrey Bogart or Tyrone Power.

In fact, "Superman Comes to Earth" is very much the worst of the 15 episodes, cramming a whole mess of backstory into just a little bit of time, but doing it all within the more leisurely scene-structure of a '40s movie, where such rat-a-tat exposition is wholly out of place. Kal-El's boyhood in middle America is sped through faster than a speeding bullet, with the poor Kents (Jonathan being oddly rechristened "Eben") barely showing up long enough to drop dead so that their adopted son Clark can head off to the big city to become a reporter for the Daily Planet. And here, the episode finally starts to be enough of a story and not so much a précis that it actually feels like you can watch it without feeling motion sickness.

Most of the plot gets set up over the first four episodes, and it's here that we find the arch-criminal Spider Lady (Carol Forman) plotting to steal a devastating weapon newly created by U.S. government scientist Dr. Graham (Herbert Rawlinson), just at the same time that Superman is parading around Metropolis, saving the day constantly. Right about this time, Superman learns that his almost complete invulnerability has a single exception, in the form of irradiated chunks of the planet Krypton (a place that he's deduced was once his homeworld from absolutely no evidence to speak of), and in a spectacular spot of bad luck, the Spider Lady learns of this too.

Thus do the remaining 11 episodes settle into an awfully comfortable rhythm: Superman, as Clark Kent, uses the resources of the Daily Planet to hunt for the Spider Lady, alongside ace reporter Lois Lane (Noel Neill, a fun and snappy take on the stock figure of the overreaching newswoman good enough that she played the part on the later show) and eager fresh-faced photographer Jimmy Olsen (Our Gang alum Tommy Bond, the most ancient-looking 22-year-old in human history). In the Golden Age Superman universe, you see, the newspaper was basically a replacement for the police (late in the serial, this actually turns out to be the actual truth). So each episode finds the Spider Lady hoping to capture Superman and kill him with kryptonite, the Planet crew falling for her scheme to end up as bait, and Lois ending up two inches away from a bomb as it explodes. The next episode, we find Clark, in Superman regalia, just barely saving her, so that she can truck off to the next obvious death trap.

Simply put, there's not enough plot to cover four hours and four minutes; I suppose that's probably not as noticable if you take the recommended fifteen weeks to watch it all, but even managing to stretch it out over five days, I was getting a bad case of the "please, do something different" blues. And yet, stock situations are just as vital a component of the serial as of the comic book itself, and I will claim for Superman this merit over the later feature film incarnations: it watches very much like a Golden Age comic book reads, with the same whiz-bang gutsiness of its heroes that rather badly outstrips their intelligence, and the same middling plots by the villains (for by this point, the supervillain as we now conceive him or her was still in its infancy in the '40s, and the grandiose schemes we now associate with them largely an invention of the yet-to-come Silver Age).

Not exactly a robust comfort while you're watching it and wondering how someone as unfathomably dim as Lois Lane could possibly be a well-regarded writer, when it seems like she can't meet three sources without one of them pulling a gun on her. But Superman is, when all is said and done, mainly a delivery system for watching Superman fly in and punch out the bad guys, a repetitive enough process as it is; nobody really cared how or when or where Superman would finally catch up with the Spider Lady, since he obviously would - shit, he's Superman - the point is to hang out with him and bask in the all-American earnestness of a much less troubled hero than future generations would be granted to enjoy.

Obviously, we're not all going to have the same tastes, but the combination of the resolutely uncomplicated staging by directors Spencer Gordon Bennett & Thomas Carr, the bare-bones plotting, Mischa Bakaleinikoff's bombastic main theme, and Alyn's jovial performance (including his super-hammy delivery of the oft-repeated line "This looks like a job for SUPERMAN!") all combine to perfectly evoke a simple, happily naïve impression of how gosh-darn terrific a superhero would be to have around. This is an uncomplicated Superman to help make sense of an era that had very suddenly gotten very complicated indeed; an inherently conservative response to a changing world, but also a comforting, friendly one - Alyn's rather silly, suburban dad-looking Superman does a great job of capturing the idea that this is a straight-up good guy, and he's here to make things better. It's pleasant to recall that comics were, at one time, just a way for kids to get a handle on things that were maybe a bit confusing and scary, and while the Superman serial is undeniably a bit shitty and tedious and has more wooden dialogue than I know what to do with, all of that is directly related to its great, overriding innocence. It's a simple, earnest story, pitched at a simple, earnest audience, and hokey as it plainly is, there's something irreducibly sweet about it, too.

4 comments:

Brian said...

FWIW, Superman's adopted parents didn't make their first appearance until Superman #53, which also came out in 1948, and they were named John and Mary in that. I'm honestly not sure off the top of my head when the names Jonathon and Martha were given, but it was well after this serial was made. So can't blame them for having the "wrong" name there.

Stephen said...

"Eben" comes from a Superman novel from the early 40s.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Kent_(comics)#cite_ref-3

Tim said...

Well, you learn something every day. Thanks guys!

javi75 said...

Columbia Pictures (the studio that was mostly synonymous with serials in the '40s and '50s)

The review isn't about this at all, but... you're probably better informed than I am but, at the very least I have to show my surprise at including the '50s there.
I believed serials (by everyone) dwindled heavily in the '50s, and Columbia had their string of prestige, Oscar nominated movies (I believe Columbia flourished after the 1948 Anti-Trust rule by the Supreme Court, unlike other studios, because they never owned large theater chains to begin with, and had been always operating that way).
But even in the '40s, I thought Republic was the serial studio par excellence. And Universal made the Flash Gordon ones (well, mostly in the '30s), and many others. I believe it's only the 5-big studios that weren't known for their serials.