July 8, 2013

Movie Mondays: Superman (1948 Serial)

Superman soars onto the silver screen to stop the sinister Spider Lady!!! (I like alliteration)

Superman soars onto the silver screen to stop the sinister Spider Lady!!! (I like alliteration)

Title: Superman
Director: Thomas Carr & Spencer Gordon Bennet
Writers: Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole, Arthur Hoerl, George H. Plympton, & Joseph F. Poland (Based on Characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Starring: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Carol Forman, Tommy Bond, Pierre Watkin, Nelson Leigh, Luana Walters, Ed Cassidy, Virginia Carroll
Release Date: January 5, 1948
MPAA: Approved

Well folks, 2013 marks the 75th Anniversary of Superman, so throughout the year Movie Mondays will be taking a look at his cinematic adventures throughout the decades.  So without further adieu, welcome back to the next thrilling chapter in Movie Mondays’ look back on Superman!  And speaking of thrilling chapters, this week’s entry is a chapter serial!  That’s right; this entry is all about Superman, the 1948 serial which just happens to mark the big blue Boy Scout’s live-action film debut!

Our story begins on the planet Krypton, which is seemingly on the verge of destruction, suffering from violent earthquakes (or rather krytonquakes I suppose) and planetary shifts that will eventually end in Krypton exploding.  Jor-El, Krypton’s leading scientist, tries to convince the council who ignore him, but all the while Jor-El has been building a rocket ship for means of escape.  Krypton’s destruction comes much sooner than planned, so Jor-El and his wife Lara are forced to send their son to safety in the small prototype that has been built.  The son arrives on Earth, is named Clark by his adopted parents, and grows up to become Superman.  The rest, as they say, is history.  If you’ve seen any adaptation of The Man of Steel, you know the back story, and it’s all there in this version too.

S48 7

The Sexy, Sultry, Sinister Spider Lady (okay, no more alliteration, I promise)

The only real change up in this story comes by way of its villain, a sexy and impetuous femme fatale called The Spider Lady, played by Carol Forman.  The only real negative aspect of this choice in villain is that by 1948 Superman already had a decently sized Rogues Gallery to choose from, and the inclusion of a villain from the comics would have just made this a more enjoyable adaptation.  Not so much a complaint, however, and more of an observation, as she’s a very entertaining villainess, and proves to be one of the more memorable parts of the serial.

I love the genuine elation on Superman's face!

So much love for the genuine look of elation on Superman’s face!

The primary cast members, featuring Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, & Pierre Watkin, are all superbly entertaining in their roles.  Kirk Alyn’s Superman seems genuinely excited to be Superman, taking joy in looking at the dumbfounded faces of gangsters as bullets crumple against his chest and fall to the ground, humorously amused at himself as his disguise of Clark Kent actually tricks his co-workers at The Daily Planet.

Noel Neill and Tommy Bond as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are a bit of a treat in their own right, and their friendship shines through.  This is especially noticeable in their first few scenes; just watch as the two of them cram into a phone booth and Lois genuinely cracks up because of Jimmy scrambling to the phone.  They just bring so much levity to the roles.  Lois is properly portrayed as a head-strong reporter who will stop at nothing to get the byline and credit she deserves.  Clark and Lois share this back-and-forth game of trying to get the scoop before the other one, and in one hilarious scene, Lois actually tricks Clark into getting arrested by letting him borrow her car which she just reported stolen.  This scene also provides Clark with the perfect cover for his alter-ego as Superman.  It’s all rather priceless.

Lois is angry with Clark for getting the scoop on the latest Superman story... how does he do it?!

Lois is angry with Clark for getting the scoop on the latest Superman story… how does he do it?!

Pierre Watkin does his part as Perry White, full of bluster and enthusiasm for his job as a newspaper man.  But more than just a one-note character, he actually gets to join in the fun, talking with Superman about plans to take out the bad guys and even getting into a deadly fight with a gangster himself.

Jor-El and Lara (bottom left), Ma and Pa Kent (top right) and the Daily Planet gang.  Just enjoy Jimmy and Lois in the center!

Jor-El and Lara (bottom left), Ma and Pa Kent (top right) and the Daily Planet gang. Just enjoy Jimmy and Lois in the center!

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, folks.  There’s a lot to be desired in this serial.  Some of the cliffhangers can leave you scratching your head as some of the endings don’t match up with the continuations.  For instance, there are a couple of cliffhangers that involve Lois going from conscious to unconscious or vice-versa and back again solely for the purposes of…Superman carrying her to safety, I suppose.  Why she couldn’t be conscious, we’ll never know.  But take that with a grain of salt, as this sort of problem plagued every entry in the genre.

Also, the climax of the story is rather lackluster and just doesn’t work, even for 1940s storytelling practices.  It involves The Spider Lady defeating Superman with Kryptonite, one of the few things in the Universe that can kill him.  It works on him a number of times throughout the story, allowing for the villains to make good their escape.  However, Superman sets a trap for The Spider Lady with their final encounter by using lead.  You see, lead is the one thing Kryptonite radiation cannot penetrate.  So, Superman wears what is essentially a lead vest under his costume.  That’s fine and dandy for protecting his torso, but how does a vest magically protect his entire body from exposure?  Ah well, best if one doesn’t dwell on things like these for too long.

Kirk Alyn presents an earnest sincerity combined with a bit of tongue-in-cheek theatricality

Kirk Alyn presents an earnest sincerity combined with a bit of tongue-in-cheek theatricality.

Another aspect of this serial often remarked upon by fans, viewers, historians, and critics alike is the usage of animation for Superman’s flying sequences.  Whenever Superman takes off for flight, Kirk Alyn gets ready to bound into the air, as his body is replaced by an animated version who quickly zooms off camera or zips between buildings and out of view, keeping exposure of the animated double to a minimum.  Landings are handled by having the animated Superman land through a window, behind a building, or behind a car or rock to have the live-action Kirk Alyn step out where the viewer can see him.  It’s as if the flying “stunts” were performed by the Superman of the animated serial that came a few years before this one.  Some have derided this technique as cheesy, cheap, and/or unnecessary.  This critic just likes to think of it as the precursor to the CGI take-offs seen in more modern films like Man of Steel.

All in all, this film serial has its ups and downs, as all films do, but for the most part it’s one fun-filled ride that fans of the genre and fans of the character are sure to enjoy.  And if not for this first live-action leap onto the big screen, people might not have ever been given the George Reeves or Christopher Reeve adaptations in years to come.  Superman’s big screen success is closely tied to the success of this early entry, and that’s an important thing to remember.  Be sure to fly out to your nearest retailer or use your super-speed to type away at your computer to buy a copy of this on DVD as soon as you get the chance!

Aaron Nicewonger



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