Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Monday - Superman, 1948

This is it. The first live-action screen portrayal of Superman. Produced in 1948 by Sam Katzman for Columbia Studios, the same man responsible for the 1949 "Batman and Robin" serial covered in this blog last year (and also sharing much of the same cast and crew), "Superman" was conceived as a prestige product. In the very budget-limited terms of movie serials, that is.

The opening credits give you an strange portent of what's in store. On the one hand, you have Mischa Bakaleinikoff's rousing opening theme, with a montage of action poses of Superman chasing rocket ships and airplanes and soaring over futuristic cities. On the other hand, you have Kirk Alyn superimposed under the title in a very unimpressive pose.

Oh, and although every fan now knows that Kirk Alyn starred as Superman, he's not listed in the credits. The name Superman simply appears at the top with no actor listed. The publicity hype put out at the time was that no actor was impressive enough to portray Superman on screen, so they had to recruit the actual Superman himself to play the role. You'll see how funny that is pretty soon.

Another notable item from the opening credits before we get to the actual serial: remember when I mentioned in last week's Movie Monday about the influence of the radio show? Look at this:

It's explicitly credited as source material, since it was the source of so much of the serial itself, from Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, to kryptonite, to the catch phrases "This looks like a job for Superman" and "Up, up and away!"

But in the beginning of Chapter 1, "Superman Comes to Earth," as is almost always the case for Superman, we start with Krypton. The narrator informs us about a distant planet surrounded by satellites, and we get this view from space:

We are then told about the forbidding nature of the planet, the harsh conditions which apparently spurred the evolution of a super race, and we see the capital city:

Pretty standard mid-forties sci-fi city, although I wonder exactly what those roads spiraling up to the top of buildings are good for. Basically, the first half of chapter one is taken up with the noble Jor-El, brilliant scientist, warning the ruling council of Krypton that the planet is doomed to be destroyed.

The council members are incredulous, with one member in particular acting like a total dick and demanding Jor-El show his work. But Jor-El apparently works out of the University of Kryptonian East Anglia or something, because he snootily suggests the council simply trust his superior intellect and order the construction of a fleet of space ships to relocate the entire population of the planet to Earth. They refuse, and Jor-El leaves in a huff. Seriously, all the Kryptonians seem to be assholes, but then, they're all wearing dresses, so that may have something to do with their attitudes.

Jor-El goes back home to complete his mini-home version of his rocket design, just big enough to hold his infant son. As earthquakes begin to shake the planet, and a volcano just out the window begins to erupt, his wife Lara brings the infant to be placed inside the rocket. And I know it's the 40's, but seriously, there's so much to this scene that's jarring to modern eyes.

The infant (not named Kal-El) is obviously a doll, and the cast members never bother to support the head as they're holding it. Then there's the flimsy design of the rocket ship, or the entire concept of sending your infant child into space with nothing--no food, no water, not even a couch to lie on. Jor-El shuts the door and pushes the button and the rocket escapes Krypton just moments before the planet undergoes a less convincing cartoon explosion than the one in the Fleischer cartoon.

The cartoon rocket hurtles to Earth, where it lands in a field near the Kents. In the modern version of the story, they were named Jonathan and Martha (though they were also called John and Mary at least once in the comics), but here, Pa Kent is named Eben and Ma Kent is never named at all (this version of the origin story is apparently based on a novel written by George Lowther in 1942, in which the Kents were named Eben and Sarah).

Eben saves the child from the rocket seconds before it bursts into flame, and Ma decides to keep him.

We then get a montage of Clark growing up, with scenes of him using his various powers--young Clark helping find his mother's watch in a haystack, teenage Clark saving his father from a tornado--until finally, the Kents speak to an adult Clark and inform him that it's time to get the hell out of their house. They phrase it in terms of helping humanity and all that crap, but you know they're just tired of feeding his unemployed ass. Ma Kent says she has made Clark a costume from the strange blankets that he was wrapped in when they retrieved him from the rocket, and Clark decides that he'll go to the big city and get a job as a reporter, real soon. But not quite yet.

The narrator informs us that the Kents died shortly after (hmmm, suspicious timing), so Clark heads out to Metropolis. As he's at the train station, he overhears two rail workers panicking over a break in the rail. There's an express train due any second, and it's sure to derail, killing everyone on board.

Clark voiceovers that "This looks like a job for ...SUPERMAN!" (mimicking the tried-and-true Bud Collyer formula of deepening his voice for the final word), then runs behind some trees to change into his costume.

Meanwhile, we meet Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, on their way to cover a mine disaster. Jimmy shows his incompetence in his very first scene, taking Lois's picture without actually opening up his camera. You can almost hear Jude Law muttering, "Lens cap."

And finally, after almost twenty minutes, we see Superman leap out from behind the bushes in full costume. And what a disappointment. Superman is a bit skinny and underdeveloped. And worse, because Kirk Alyn was a trained dancer, Superman is constantly flitting about with his arms daintily outstretched, taking ballet leaps over obstacles. You never get the idea that Superman is tough.

As Chapter 2, "Depths of the Earth," begins, Superman bends the rails back together and holds them in place as the train rumbles past. Then he changes back to Clark Kent in time to catch the Metropolis Express, taking amusement from the incredulous reactions of the rail workers.

Once he arrives in Metropolis with suitcases in hand, Clark hails a taxi and asks to be taken to the best newspaper in town. On the way to the Daily Planet, they pass an apartment building on fire. Clark asks the cabbie to stop and gets out. He uses his X-Ray Vision to spot a woman trapped inside the building. And damn, but Kirk Alyn has some serious wrinkles around his eyes.

Then he changes to Superman and we get our first view of Superman flying. And as every fan knows, the flying effects were not brilliant. Superman merely prepares to leap into the air...

then is replaced by an animated cartoon.

It works a little better in black-and-white than it would in color, but it's still unconvincing, although it does allow for some quick and dynamic movement, unlike the cooler, but boring straight-line wire flights of Captain Marvel and Rocket Man.

Superman saves the woman and Clark Kent continues to the Daily Planet, suitcases in hand...

where in the twenty minutes or so since he made the rescue, every newspaper in town has managed to interview the witnesses, write up the story, lay out pages, and print an Extra edition with incredulous headlines about the amazing "Bird-Man." Clark asks Perry White for a job, just as Perry is getting a call from "Lois Lane, Demon Reporter" (which would be a whole different series if it were literally true, but seriously cool, don't you think?) where she reports she cannot get close enough to the mine disaster to get a scoop.

And a note here about Noel Neill's performance as Lois. Neill is pretty and has a lot of spunk, but she smiles a lot. And especially when Superman has just saved her from a seriously life-threatening situation, her smiles seem inappropriate and false. But in other scenes, her smiles actually give her character a lot of charm. And in this scene in particular, where
Jimmy Olsen (played by former Our Gang kid Tommy Bond) is speaking into a telephone right in her ear, she seems to be honestly laughing and not just acting.

This is one of those scenes where you really want to see the outtakes and find out just what kind of shit they were doing between takes to generate the laughs.

Anyway, Perry offers Clark a job if he can get a scoop on those trapped miners. Meanwhile, a cranky old coot tells Lois he can get her into the mine through a back entrance. He shows her the way in, which collapses just after she enters, trapping her inside. Clark arrives moments later and learns what has happened to Lois. This looks like a job for Superman!

In Chapter 3, "The Reducer Ray," Superman changes into a cartoon once more to burst through a rock wall and save Lois and the miners.

There follows a montage of headlines as Superman becomes a one-man army for the forces of justice. Then he is called to a secret meeting with the Secretary of National Defense.

Okay, the meeting's not all that secret, considering it's front-page news. But the villainous Spider Lady (Carol Forman) is sure that it involves the brilliant new invention, the Relativity Reducer Ray. She calls together her henchmen to devise a plan to steal the invention, even though Superman himself is sure to be guarding it. Before addressing the two identically-dressed henchmen, she tells Driller, her right-hand man, to remove her mask because, "we're all French here."

Okay, I think she was actually saying "We're all friends here," but it really sounds like "French."

And then things get weird. The Spider Lady covets the Reducer Ray--which is apparently some kind of super-weapon and not a weight-loss device to help her fit into her slinky dresses--so she calls her henchman in New Mexico and tells him to use his Negative Ray machine to counter the Reducer Ray and postpone the test until she can get a scientist down there to observe it.

So she doesn't have the weapon, but she's got something that's even more powerful than the weapon? It doesn't make sense, but oh well, no time to think. Superman flies to New Mexico to observe the test in person, and just happens to land in the right spot to block the rays from the Negative Ray gun. And speaking of the Negative Ray, this is what it looks like:

It's obviously the Atom Disintegrator gun (never used) from the first Batman serial, with a barrel extension and some other various gewgaws added. I wonder just how many serials this particular prop featured in?

Superman's body proves impervious to the Negative Rays, which back up and cause the gun to explode, overcoming the thugs. Superman then flies down to the cabin and destroys the malfunctioning ray gun by hitting it with a chair.

Yeah, real super there, Clark.

So anyway, the test is a success, and the Spider Lady is pissed. Then, we shift gears completely. Turns out, there's a meteor headed for Metropolis. Clark and Lois are sent out to cover the story. Lois fakes a tire blow-out by popping a flashbulb and ditches Clark by the side of the road. Luckily, Professor Leeds, the scientist who has recovered the fallen meteor, happens along and gives Clark a ride to his lab, where he explains that the meteor seems to be from the planet Krypton. He opens the lead box that contains the meteor, and Clark faints. Professor Leeds picks up the phone and states, "Clark Kent just died in my office!"

Which brings us to Chapter 4, "Man of Steel," in which Professor Leeds closes the chest and Clark revives. Clark then changes to Superman and asks Leeds to destroy the Kryptonite fragment, for the sake of his mission to protect the Reducer Ray. This conversation is overheard by Leeds's assistant, who is unhappy with his salary.

The Spider Lady then approaches Driller to mention a personal ad she has spotted, offering information about how to defeat an "enemy." She's sure someone has information about how to beat Superman, so she sends her henchmen out to grab this guy.

Meanwhile, Lois has gotten a call from a stool pigeon named Hawkins, who says there's a guy selling information about Superman. Lois heads right down with Jimmy and spots the henchmen leading Leeds's assistant away. She tries to intervene, but she's kidnapped and Jimmy is knocked out.

The henchmen take the prisoners to the Spider Lady's secret hideout, and seriously, I don't get the looks here. They're not identical enough to be, like, gimmick twin henchmen, but they have the same hairstyle, the same skinny mustache, the same blazer and the same too-short, flowery tie. It's the tie that really puts it over, I think. They're like Fabulously Gay lovers or something.

So the assistant tells the Spider Lady about the Kryptonite, and she pays him a dollar, offering him big profits on the back-end. She apparently uses Hollywood accountants. He gets pissy, so she electrocutes him in her Electro-Web. And then for good measure, she throws Lois into it, too.


Continued next week...

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