Monday, September 06, 2010

Movie Monday - The Original Animated Superman, 1941-1943

So it may be incredibly ambitious, but I couldn't resist any longer. Movie Monday is back, and in a big way, starting a mammoth series covering the Superman theatrical films.

To start, I'm going to break my former rule and cover an animated series first (which still sort of counts, because though these were not live-action features, they were theatrical releases and not television cartoons). Superman first appeared on screen in a series of 17 animated shorts produced by Paramount from 1941 to 1943. The first of the Superman cartoons appeared the same year as the Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, a one-two punch that marks the first screen appearances of comic-book superheroes anywhere.

The cartoons are often referred to as the "Fleischer Superman cartoons," because the series was launched by the Fleischer studios with Max Fleischer credited as the producer (see above) and Dave Fleischer credited as director (as he was on every Fleischer cartoon). However, about halfway through the series, it stopped being produced by Fleischer Studios and became a Famous Studios production. Which is to say that in 1942, the Fleischers were ousted by Paramount, who kept the same animation staff on under the leadership of former animator Seymour Kneitel and story man Izzy Sparber.

I have mentioned before, in discussing the Adventures of Superman radio series, just how much the later comic-book portrayal of Superman owed to the radio series, from the way it developed stories, to the supporting cast of Perry White and Jimmy Olson (and even Batman), to specific plot elements like Kryptonite. It should come as no surprise, then, that the screen portrayals of Superman also owe a great deal to the radio series.

The cartoons open with essentially the radio show opening-- "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!", followed by a few variations on the "Faster than a speeding bullet" theme. They also use the same voices for the leads--Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark Kent and Joan Alexander as Lois Lane. However, Jimmy Olson never appears, and Perry White is never referred to by name until the next to last episode. And it should be noted the influence went both ways. The rousing orchestral theme that opens the cartoons was later used as the theme song for the radio show as well, although it was played by a simple organ then.

The thing that really stands out about the Paramount Superman cartoons is their quality. Paramount gave the Fleischers a huge budget for each episode and it shows. And though the stories are simplistic by necessity (since each episode ran from 7 to 10 minutes in length), several used innovative layouts and dramatic effects to create an experience unlike any other animated film to that point. Disney's animators were better artists, but neither Disney nor any other animation studio in America undertook a straightforward adventure like the Superman cartoons until the 60's. And even then, they were cheaply animated children's shows like Space Ghost, with nothing approaching the lush, sophisticated visuals of the best Superman episodes.

The series began in 1941 with "The Mad Scientist," which opens with a brief origin story for Superman. One of the biggest differences between the Batman films and the Superman films is that each new iteration of Superman had to begin with an origin story to explain Superman's great powers, while the Batman films rarely did. The murder of Batman's parents was never shown until Tim Burton's Batman in 1988, and Bruce Wayne was never depicted donning the cowl for the first time until Batman Begins. Batman's origin has always been taken for granted, while Superman's never was.

The origin story in the first cartoon is only the barest gloss, however. Krypton is shown exploding, with the rocket containing the infant Superman launching from it, but Jor-El and Lara are never shown. John and Martha Kent also never appear. Instead, Clark Kent is said to have grown up in an orphanage before moving to Metropolis to work for the Daily Planet.

As the story proper opens, the editor (who is only referred to as "Chief" until the 16th episode) shows Lois and Clark a note from a mad scientist claiming he will destroy the city with his "Electrothanasia Ray" to take revenge on all those who laughed at him. But seriously, if somebody told you he was inventing an "Electrothanasia Ray," wouldn't you laugh too? It's a funny name.

Lois says she's going to follow up a lead and takes off in a plane to land outside a sinister-looking building on a hill overlooking the city. Which just happens to be the villain's headquarters. He ties Lois up and forces her to watch as he turns his ray on Metropolis.

Bud Collyer gets to utter his famous "This looks like a job for Superman" line, and then Superman appears.

Since this was still early in the Man of Steel's career, the costume is an early variation on Joe Shuster's design at the time. Note the red S on a field of black. The other character designs evoked Shuster's style as well, although with the lush background paintings and the shadows modeled onto many of the characters, the cartoons were better drawn than Shuster's comic ever was.

Superman intervenes by punching the ray back to its source...

then tying the barrel of the ray cannon in a knot, causing the pressure to back up and explode. It's an odd sequence of events, and you can say that it simply shows how unsophisticated audiences were in the early 40's. The funny thing is, the big computer-animated finale in the never-released Fantastic Four movie made by Roger Corman's studio in the 90's is clearly influenced by this sequence, only the Superman version is more exciting (jump ahead to about 5:10 in the clip and compare it to around 8:15 in Superman cartoon linked above to see what I'm talking about).

Subsequent episodes featured Superman fighting giant robots ("The Mechanical Monsters," which inspired Hayao Miyazaki's flying robots in Castle in the Sky and Kerry Conran's giant mechanical monsters in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and gangsters in armored vehicles ("The Bulleteers" and "Billion Dollar Limited"). He battled a natural disaster in "Volcano" and man-made disasters in "The Electronic Earthquake" (a virtual remake of "The Mad Scientist," only featuring an American Indian in the villain role, trying to reclaim the island of Manhattan for his people) and "The Magnetic Telescope," which features some amazing images of falling meteors devastating the city...

which Superman can only repel by allowing electricity to run through his body to power a giant electromagnet. This episode may have been the most visually impressive of the entire series.

In the fourth film in the series, he fought a cartoony Godzilla-sized Tyrannosaur, illustrating the series' difficulty reconciling the adventurous nature of the episodes with the conventional idea of animation as a kids' medium.

But by the ninth film, "Terror on the Midway," featuring Superman battling a giant circus gorilla run amok, there was no attempt to play the monster for laughs.

In mid-1942, the series changed direction. For one thing, the films were now credited to Famous Studios, with different directors receiving credit for different episodes. And for another, Superman began taking part in the war. In "Japoteurs," he battled a caricatured buck-toothed Japanese villain trying to steal a giant bomber.

In "Destruction Inc." he battled German saboteurs plotting to destroy a munitions factory. In "Eleventh Hour," he took the war to Japan to perform some sabotage of his own, destroying weapons factories and ships being built in drydock. This episode features very dramatic lighting effects and layouts, and Superman attacks through stealth, often seen only in silhouette.

This episode was obviously one of the big influences on Frank Miller's depiction of Superman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Bruce Timm's original dark take on Gotham City in his first Batman animated series.

In "Jungle Drums," Superman battled a Nazi posing as a deity to some caricatured African natives. The episode is notable because it is actually Lois who comes through at the climactic moment, sending a radio message to American military commanders to alert them of the location of a Nazi submarine fleet. American bombers destroy the fleet, leading to a very sad Hitler listening to the radio play "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

These episodes were alternated with Superman battling more conventional menaces like a jewel thief masquerading as Superman himself ("Showdown"), giant sword-wielding mummies ("The Mummy Strikes") and a tribe of bird-people living in a secret subterranean cavern ("The Underground World"). These episodes were okay, with some dramatic moments--many times in the series, the filmmakers would play things almost like a live-action film, with no music on the soundtrack and more intricate editing to build tension--but they weren't as visually lush as the earlier episodes from the Fleischer days. Also, the soundtracks begin to show signs of the later Famous touch: canned music cues and lackluster voices that sound as though they were recorded in a closet.

The final episode of the series, "Secret Agent," came out in 1943, and though it ultimately doesn't reach the heights of the earlier series, it has an amazing opening sequence--a tense car chase in which Clark Kent takes his own action hero turn, riding on the back bumper of his own (stolen) car, while struggling with a pistol-wielding Nazi spy.

So on the one hand, it's good that Superman ended where it did, because Famous Studios quickly degenerated into mediocre and repetitious product (see Friendly Ghost, Casper the). But on the other hand, sequences like the car chase in "Secret Agent" showed that animation had lots of avenues left to explore, and it's sad that American audiences had to wait for the wave of anime from Japan before they could really experience the fuller range of stories animation could tell.

For Superman's fans, they had to make do with the comics and the radio series for five years, until Superman returned, this time in a live-action serial from the same people who made the 1949 serial, "Batman and Robin."

Next week...

Oh, and as a final side note, I also have to give props to whoever designed the logo for the Daily Planet. I realy like the way the final stylized loop from the 'y' gives the impression of a globe, while the 'P' in Planet breaks up the outline in just the right way. The logo would stay fairly consistent for most of the series, although sometimes the 'P' would be entirely within the loop, which didn't look as good.

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