1948 Movie Serial Builds the Legacy of Superman

After watching 2013’s Man of Steel, I went on a Superman binge to wash away the bad taste left behind by that film. I listened to soundtracks, read comics, and watched movies and TV series featuring various incarnations of the character.

One production that I revisited was Superman, the theatrical serial from 1948. Clocking in at over four hours, it played in theaters a chapter at a time for 15 weeks. Starring Kirk Alyn as Superman/Clark Kent and Noel Neill as Lois Lane, Superman represented the first live-action version of the character. Though Superman had only existed for a decade at that point, he had already starred in a series of radio programs and theatrical cartoons that built upon his comic book foundation.

Superman (Kirk Alyn) drops in on Perry White (Pierre Watkin) in SUPERMAN (1948)

Superman (Kirk Alyn) drops in on Perry White (Pierre Watkin) in SUPERMAN (1948)

The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” explores the origins of the character. One scene in particular stands in stark contrast to Man of Steel.

In the 1948 serial, a tornado strikes Smallville. A teenaged Clark Kent (Ralph Hodges) rushes out to save his adopted father (Ed Cassidy). In Man of Steel, young Clark is content to watch his father die in a similar scenario. I know which decision feels more like Superman to me.


A tornado rips through Smallville in SUPERMAN (1948)

“Clark, that was the most remarkable thing you ever did. I’m grateful to you, son,” the elder Kent tells Clark in the 1948 Superman. Several years pass, and Clark is now an adult. His father gives him the following advice:

“Your unique abilities make you a kind of superman, and because of these great powers – your speed and strength, your x-ray vision and super sensitive hearing – you have a great responsibility. […] You must use them always in the interests of truth, tolerance, and justice. The world needs a man of such extraordinary capabilities.”

While the serial is certainly not perfect and sometimes features clunky writing, the beautiful words above sum up Superman as well as any ever written.

Oddly, the narrator then explains that Clark’s parents both pass away shortly thereafter, without further explanation. This frees Clark to head for Metropolis.

Another interesting aspect of 1948’s Superman is that the primary villain of the piece is a woman, the Spider Lady (Carol Forman). She heads up a crime syndicate and is obsessed with getting her hands on a new secret weapon called a “reducer ray.”

The reducer ray is proclaimed to be more powerful than an atomic bomb. The full extent of this power is never shown in the course of the serial, though one advantage it has over the A-bomb is that it can be deployed remotely. Just dial in the location of people you want to kill, as small as a jail cell, press a button, and they are instantly fried.

Carol Forman is the Spider Lady in SUPERMAN (1948)

Carol Forman is the Spider Lady in SUPERMAN (1948)

Due to the time period in which this adventure was produced, I kept expecting it to turn out that a man had been pulling the Spider Lady’s strings all along. However, to the serial’s credit, this was not the case.

The serial does not limit its assertive female roles to villainy, however. Strong-willed and career-minded Lois Lane can be viewed as ahead of her time in many ways. While she sometimes crosses that fine line between bravery and stupidity by managing to get herself in several unnecessary jams, she does serve more to the story than only a damsel in distress. In one scene, for instance, she tries to drag a fallen miner to safety when a tunnel collapses.

Noel Neill is Lois Lane in SUPERMAN (1948)

Noel Neill is Lois Lane in SUPERMAN (1948)

However, I must take a moment to give a special mention to Lois Lane’s hat, which can be partially seen in the image above. Wow. It almost deserves its own credit. One of Noel Neill’s superpowers is being able to wear that hat. Could Margot Kidder, Kate Bosworth, or Amy Adams pull off that look?

Besides the hat, I also love much of the intentional humor of this serial. In one scene, a Spider Lady thug has handcuffed Clark and Lois together and left them for dead. Conveniently, Lois takes a blow to the head and is knocked unconscious. This gives Clark the chance to undo the cuffs, change into Superman, and save the day. He then returns as Clark and snaps the cuffs back on both of them.

Despite what the uninformed might say, even Superman is not perfect, though. “Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?” asks Lois when she awakens.

“I guess that blow on the head’s got you confused a little,” says Clark. The look on Kirk Alyn’s face at that instant is priceless. This is one of my favorite Superman moments, across all the generations of movies and series.

The staff of the DAILY PLANET (Pierre Watkin as Perry White, Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent, and Noel Neill as Lois Lane) in SUPERMAN (1948)

The staff of the DAILY PLANET (Pierre Watkin as Perry White, Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent, and Noel Neill as Lois Lane) in SUPERMAN (1948)

By today’s standards, the Superman serial at times seems plodding and trite. Though I watched it over the course of a weekend this time, I believe the optimal way to view this serial is as originally intended – chapter by chapter on a weekly basis. Warner Home Video’s 2006 Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection DVD set allows for either preference.

Alyn is not always convincing as Superman, particularly when he prances around in the suit. He turns in a much better performance in the Clark Kent persona.

Particularly jarring to modern eyes are scenes where Superman flies. When creating the illusion that Alyn was flying proved too expensive and difficult, the production chose to use traditional animation instead. Though the end result might bring chuckles, I still have to give credit for the serial’s many seamless transitions between live-action Superman and cartoon Superman. The animators did a great job matching the poses and motions.

Certain other effects are also animated, such as the Smallville tornado and a few explosions. This mixing of traditional animation with live-action was actually ahead of its time and is something I associate more with later movies like Mary Poppins (1964) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Of course, the Superman in Man of Steel (2013) and the Superman in Superman Returns (2006) also often fly through the assistance of animation, though computer generated. I wonder how those modern CGI effects will hold up when some future Superman fan reviews them in 65 years.

Even in our time, the 1948 Superman entertains. The characters work, even in these early forms. This Superman is still an inspiration, multiple decades later. This Superman endures.

This is a modified version of a Pastimescapes 1.0 post that first appeared on July 11, 2013.

IF I CAN DREAM Promises yet Another Elvis Illusion

Released last week, the If I Can Dream CD includes a sticker on its cover touting:

Newly Recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

I wish that were so. Instead, If I Can Dream, of course, features familiar Elvis Presley vocals placed against new audio backdrops supplied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).

Some Elvis fans are automatically against this sort of concept, which has been tried with varying degrees of success a number of times since the artist passed away in 1977.

Just to name a few:

  • 1980’s Guitar Man album of overdubs (“remixes”)
  • 2002’s “A Little Less Conversation” JXL remix
  • 2008’s Christmas Duets album of artificial duets and remixes
  • 2010’s Viva Elvis album of remixes and artificial duets

The underlying goal of most of these projects is to help attract a new audience for a singer no longer around to promote his own work or create contemporary recordings. A secondary goal, of course, is to give something “new” to his existing fans.

As for me, I have nothing against creating new art through the use of old. I try to approach each of these new takes on Elvis with an open mind. As long as the original Elvis versions remain available, then I think it is fine to experiment. In fact, it is often fun to hear Elvis in a new context, and if it brings along a few new fans, all for the better.

With all of that out of the way, I have to admit, the first time I played through Sony’s If I Can Dream on Friday, I was underwhelmed. Having one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, “Burning Love,” preceded by an orchestral introduction seemed incongruous.

Should rock ‘n’ roll mix with orchestra? This is a debate that goes back to at least 1968 for Elvis fans – for If I Can Dream is hardly the first Elvis album to include an orchestra. Many of his actual recordings featured orchestral backing, including some of the ones on this very release. I have tended to be in favor of a full sound on appropriate songs.

I also love orchestral music in general, having been introduced to it at a young age by the Star Wars and Superman soundtracks of John Williams, which led me to start exploring true classical music in more recent years. Add that to the fact that I am a lifelong Elvis fan, and I should be a natural fit for this album.

Yet, from that first listen, I walked away thinking If I Can Dream was barely a mediocre effort overall. It seemed neither as creative as Viva Elvis nor as entertaining as “A Little Less Conversation.”

I tried If I Can Dream a second time on Saturday, and something snapped into place for me. The first time, I was thinking of it as an Elvis album to which the RPO had been added. For the second listen, I thought of it as an RPO album to which Elvis had been added. A subtle difference, I know, but it is one that made me listen in a different way.

I closed my eyes and imagined I was sitting in Cadogan Hall listening to the RPO perform in London, with a surprise guest vocalist by way of Memphis.

Suddenly, it did not seem weird for “Burning Love” to include an orchestral introduction, for how else would the RPO begin one of their performances?

Prior to this album’s release, I saw a promotional video of Elvis singing “What Now My Love,” with the RPO providing orchestral backing (a track not included here). In some ways, I would say that video did this album no favors, for the impression I had with “What Now My Love” was two different recordings of the same song playing at the same time. Fortunately, that is not how the If I Can Dream album sounds. Instead, the meld is usually natural.

For instance, Michael Bublé features in a duet on “Fever.” While I would have preferred a female counterpart for that particular song (say, Beyoncé), the duet is quite convincing from a technical standpoint – much more convincing than what I can remember of 2008’s Christmas Duets (not an album I often revisit).

Bublé turns in a fine performance, and their voices blend particularly well on “Everybody’s got the fever, that is something you all know…” as if they are standing next to one another. Think Elvis and Frank Sinatra in their real-life duet on the last lines of “Love Me Tender” in 1960. The novelty factor makes “Fever” the highlight of the album.

The distinctive sound of an Elvis contemporary and fellow rockabilly legend is included in new guitar work on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “An American Trilogy.” A nice surprise that I will not otherwise spoil here.

The orchestral concept works extremely well for several other songs. “How Great Thou Art” is stunning in its fully orchestrated version. The original is a true Elvis masterpiece, so there was certainly danger in changing anything.

“Love Me Tender” and “It’s Now Or Never” are also highlights, with the latter featuring Il Volo on new background vocals.

None of these versions exceed the originals (“There’s Always Me” comes closest), but that does not make them any less enjoyable as new experiences.

Not as successful are “In The Ghetto” (less is always more on accompaniment for this song, as guitar-only outtakes have proven) and “Steamroller Blues” (way too much going on).

The real puzzler of If I Can Dream is the choice of “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind,” an awful song in its original master version to which even the RPO can add no favors.

Beyond that, my only real gripes are with the “additional backing vocals” newly supplied by Miriam Grey, Shena Winchester, and Andy Caine on nearly all of the tracks. I would have preferred the original backing vocals (the Sweet Inspirations, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Imperials, etc.) remained prominent in the mix, as the new ones only detract from the experience. Perhaps there was some technical limitation that necessitated this, or maybe it is just the nature of a pseudo-new album.

As emblazoned on its sticker, If I Can Dream offers up the promise of illusion delivered via the magic of technology. From that perspective, the album usually makes good on its word.

For a moment, if you are willing to accept the mirage, Elvis is indeed back.

Overall Rating: 7 out of 10.




If I Can Dream
Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  1. Burning Love [Elvis portions recorded March 28, 1972, Hollywood]
  2. It’s Now Or Never [Elvis portions recorded April 3, 1960, Nashville]
  3. Love Me Tender [Elvis portions recorded August 24, 1956, Hollywood]
  4. Fever (with Michael Bublé) [Elvis portions recorded April 3, 1960, Nashville]
  5. Bridge Over Troubled Water [Elvis portions recorded June 5, 1970, Nashville]
  6. And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind [Elvis portions recorded February 17, 1969, Memphis]
  7. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ [Elvis portions recorded live August 12, 1970, Dinner Show, Las Vegas]
  8. There’s Always Me [Elvis portions recorded March 12, 1961, Nashville]
  9. Can’t Help Falling In Love [Elvis portions recorded March 23, 1961, Hollywood]
  10. In The Ghetto [Elvis portions recorded January 20, 1969, Memphis]
  11. How Great Thou Art [Elvis portions recorded May 25, 1966, Nashville]
  12. Steamroller Blues [Elvis portions recorded live January 14, 1973, Honolulu]
  13. An American Trilogy [Elvis portions recorded live February 15, 1972, Midnight Show, Las Vegas, and January 14, 1973, Honolulu]
  14. If I Can Dream [Elvis portions recorded June 23, 1968, Burbank]

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded December 10, 2013, and April 9-10, 2014, at Abbey Road Studio 2, London.

Spend Halloween in the Wondrous Dimension of Imagination

Anyone who thinks TWILIGHT ZONE is not scary has obviously yet to see Living Doll (1963).

Anyone who thinks TWILIGHT ZONE is not scary has obviously yet to see Living Doll (1963).

For Halloween this year, I have decided to take a brief journey into The Twilight Zone, the only show that can truly contend against Star Trek as my favorite television series of all time. Here are the episodes I plan to watch in my mini-marathon.

“The Howling Man”
Aired: November 4, 1960
Written by Charles Beaumont
Starring: H.M. Wynant
Directed by Douglas Heyes

On foot through a terrible storm, a man seeks refuge in a monastery. The brothers turn him away but when he passes out, they allow him to stay the night. He is awakened by a loud howling that the brothers claim not to hear. He tracks it to a man locked in a cell. Though the man appears innocent, the brothers claim he is the devil and must not be freed.

“A man who knocked on a door seeking sanctuary found instead the outer edges of the Twilight Zone.”

I first saw “The Howling Man” as a teenager, flipping through stations in the middle of the night. Since I had missed the beginning, I actually had no idea it was The Twilight Zone until near the end. This is a very unusual episode that remains one of my all-time favorites.

Aired: February 19, 1960
Written by Charles Beaumont
Starring: Cecil Kellaway
Directed by Douglas Heyes

“The time is the day after tomorrow. The place, a far corner of the universe.”

Nearly out of fuel, three lost astronauts land on an asteroid that is amazingly Earth-like–except that all of the people are frozen in place.

Though they are dated in terms of accuracy, I always enjoy The Twilight Zone‘s space exploration stories. This is one I have not watched as often as, say, “I Shot Arrow Into The Air” or “And When The Sky Was Opened,” so I am looking forward to seeing it again.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
Aired: October 11, 1963
Written by Richard Matheson
Starring: William Shatner
Directed by Richard Donner

Recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and anxious about flying, a man sees a shadowy figure on a wing of the plane as it flies through a thunderstorm. The figure attempts to rip apart the engine and always moves out of sight before anyone else looks. Given his history, everyone begins to doubt his sanity.

“Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination which . . . happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.”

This was William Shatner’s second and final journey into the Twilight Zone, three years before his Star Trek debut.

William Shatner about to pull back the curtain on terror in TWILIGHT ZONE: Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (1963)

William Shatner about to pull back the curtain on terror in TWILIGHT ZONE: Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (1963)

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was the first of a half dozen Twilight Zones for then 33-year-old television director Richard Donner. Donner, of course, later broke into feature films with 1976’s The Omen and 1978’s Superman.

Both Donner and Shatner’s talents shine in this episode, one of the scariest for the Twilight Zone. I first encountered this story as a remake in Twilight Zone: The Movie, but the original television version is much better.

“The Masks”
Aired: March 20, 1964
Written by Rod Serling
Starring: Robert Keith
Directed by Ida Lupino

Knowing that he is near death, a rich old man summons his greedy family members to his home on the night of Mardis Gras. He forces them to wear special masks indicative of their inner selves until midnight or be disinherited.

“This is New Orleans, Mardis Gras time. It is also the Twilight Zone.”

Many people feel uneasy about wearing masks and perhaps this episode, one of the best, explains why.

“Living Doll”
Aired: November 1, 1963
Written by Jerry Sohl
Starring: Telly Savalas
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

For whatever reason, I was afraid of dolls as a kid. I think it stems back to a dream I had about my older sister’s room where her dolls were all alive and staring at me.

At least, I think it was a dream.

With that being the case, this episode scared the @!#?@! out of me.

A man’s stepdaughter brings home a new doll that can talk: “My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much.” Sweet, except for the fact that she is very expensive. He upsets the little girl over the cost, and she runs off to her room. With no one else around, he finds that the doll says quite different things to him.

“She is a most unwelcome addition to his household but without her, he’d never enter the Twilight Zone.”

Of course, now, all these years later, I am no longer afraid of such things.

I have conquered my childish fears.

I just hope my wife does not mind sleeping with the lights on Saturday night.

[Source for episode information and quotes: The Twilight Zone Companion: Second Edition by Marc Scott Zicree, 1989.]

Portions of this post first appeared on October 29, 2006, and October 28, 2007, on The Film Frontier blog.

May the Sweets Be with You

Star Wars Marathon Fuel

Star Wars Marathon Fuel

On Saturday, I enjoyed a Star Wars marathon with one of my nieces. My awesome wife supplied us with the above treats for fuel while we watched the “unaltered” versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. By the time The Force Awakens comes out, we might be down from our sugar high.

MORNING SKY by Elvis Presley (Playlist Recipe)

One of the things I enjoy doing in iTunes is creating playlists for my iPod. Below is the recipe for one I recently baked. For fun here on Pastimescapes, I have divided it up as an imaginary 2-record set.

All songs are the master versions, unless otherwise indicated. For those Elvis fans baking along at home, feel free to substitute your favorite version if you are missing a specific ingredient, as I know everyone’s spice collection is slightly different.

Elvis Presley in 1970

Morning Sky – Elvis Presley

Side A

  • Burning Love
  • Early Morning Rain
  • Where Did They Go, Lord
  • I’m Leavin’
  • We Can Make The Morning
  • The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Rehearsal) [Elvis On Tour: The Rehearsals]

Side B

  • I Shall Be Released (Informal) [Walk A Mile In My Shoes]
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (Informal-Master, Extended, Alternate Mix) [Our Memories Of Elvis: Volume 2]
  • It’s Only Love
  • For Lovin’ Me
  • It’s Still Here (Master, Extended, Alternate Mix) [Walk A Mile In My Shoes]

Side C

  • I Just Can’t Help Believin’ (Live) [That’s The Way It Is (2014 Deluxe Edition) (Disc 5)]
  • Patch It Up (Live Master, Alternate Mix) [That’s The Way It Is (2014 Deluxe Edition) (Disc 5)]
  • I’ve Lost You (Live Master, Alternate Mix) [That’s The Way It Is (2014 Deluxe Edition) (Disc 3)]
  • You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (Live) [That’s The Way It Is]
  • Johnny B. Goode (Rehearsal) [Elvis On Tour: The Rehearsals]

Side D

  • Separate Ways
  • My Way [Walk A Mile In My Shoes]
  • Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On (Master, Alternate Mix) [Walk A Mile In My Shoes]
  • Amazing Grace
  • For The Good Times (Re-recording) [Elvis On Tour: The Rehearsals]
  • Always On My Mind (Re-recording/Overdubbed) [This Is Elvis]