WARNING: Though the primary focus is on 1948’s Superman, the following post contains a plot spoiler for Man of Steel.
Of late, I have been on a Superman binge. I have been listening to soundtracks, reading comics, and watching movies featuring various incarnations of the character. All of this has been in an attempt to wash away the bad taste left behind by this summer’s Man of Steel.
One production that I recently 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.
The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” explores the origins of the character. One scene in particular stands in stark contrast to 2013’s 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, of course, young Clark is content to watch his father die in a similar scenario. I know which decision feels more like Superman to me.
“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.
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, this was not the case. Spider Lady is the true brain behind her operation.
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.
That said, 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. Let’s just see Margot Kidder, Kate Bosworth, or Amy Adams try to 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.
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.