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Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The infant of Krypton is now the man of steel, Superman!
Superman is a comic book character created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for National Comics'1 Action Comics #1. The character quickly became extremely popular, helped by being printed in newspapers in 1939 and a radio series that debuted in 1940, bringing the character into the homes of people who would never buy a comic book.
Following the success of the radio series, Paramount Pictures purchased the rights to make a series of Superman short animated films, each typically eight minutes long. As these films were made during the Second World War, its impact can be seen in the stories told. This influence is subtle at first but towards the end of the series, Superman is fighting a foreign foe in an out-and-out war.
Fleischer and Famous Studios
In the early 1940s Paramount did not have their own animation studio and instead distributed films made by small, independent studios such as George Pal's Puppetoons. The main animation studio they distributed the work of was Fleischer Studios, led by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer. They had been animating since 1919 and in 1921 had formed their own studio, Inkwell Studios after their 'Out of the Inkwell' series, which they renamed Fleischer Studios in 1929. They created popular cartoon characters including Betty Boop and Koko the Clown and had popularised Popeye.
Through the 1920s and 30s the Fleischers were the closest rivals to Disney in quality and innovation. They developed the technique of rotoscoping, in which photographed images are traced to form the basis of animated images. Another of their innovations was taking advantage of sound by introducing sing-along cartoons, inventing the 'bouncing ball' technique that is now frequently used to highlight words in songs.
In 1938 their innovative nature led them to make the second ever cel-animated feature film. Following the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Paramount lent them the money in exchange for a share in their company. The film, Gulliver's Travels (1939), was a tremendous success and led them to make a second film, Mr Bug Goes to Town (1941), which was also financed by loans from Paramount Pictures.
Mr Bug Goes to Town was released two days before the Pearl Harbor attack and consequently was a box office disaster. The film's failure as well as creative and personal difficulties resulted in the two brothers refusing to speak to each other, and Dave Fleischer announced he was leaving the studio to work for Columbia Pictures on their Screen Gems cartoon series. Consequently Paramount demanded repayment of all their loans, effectively bankrupting the studio, and took control over the remains, renaming it Famous Studios2.
The Animated Films
These animations were made as high-quality short animated films to be viewed by a family audience in cinemas. Dating from 1941-3, some of these contained references to America's involvement in the Second World War.
Though each was a one-reel film, under ten minutes in length, they were highly expensive to create. The first cost $50,000 and the remainder $30,000 each at a time when the studio's Popeye cartoons cost under half that. It was this high cost that resulted in only 17 films being made; Paramount decided it was uneconomical for the series to continue.
|Clark Kent aka Superman||Bud Collyer|
|Lois Lane||Joan Alexander|
|Mr White and Narrator||Jackson Beck|
It is believed that these three provided all the voices heard in the series between them. Bud Collyer changed the pitch of his voice, speaking higher when portraying Clark Kent, and lower when Superman. This was most noticeable when he said This looks like a job for Superman!, with 'Superman' emphasised in a suddenly-deep voice. The cast were the familiar voices from The Adventures of Superman radio series. Though 'Mr White', usually simply called 'The Editor', was not played by the same actor who played Perry White on the radio (Julian Noa), Jackson Beck narrated both.
- Fleischer Studios (1941-2):
- The Mechanical Monsters
- Billion Dollar Limited
- The Arctic Giant
- The Bulleteers
- The Magnetic Telescope
- Electric Earthquake
- Terror on the Midway
- Eleventh Hour
- Destruction, Inc.
- The Mummy Strikes
- Jungle Drums
- The Underground World
- Secret Agent
The first nine were all directed by Dave Fleischer. These largely dealt with science-fiction themes, typically white-coat-wearing mad scientists seeking revenge, or vicious gangs of thieves waging a war of terror. Later episodes had different directors and were much more contemporary in their plots, even mentioning the Second World War.
Differences From Superman Today
One of the joys of the series is the number of differences from the Superman seen today. The biggest is that he cannot fly. Instead he leaps, bounding from tall buildings and cliff tops in parabolic arcs. He also frequently falls off things, such as aeroplanes, and down trapdoors. The introductory narration highlights this, showing him leaping tall buildings, not flying, although by Volcano Superman is able to soar higher than any plane. He also only uses his x-ray vision once in the entire series, when he sees that Lois is trapped by The Mechanical Monsters.
The Superman suit's 'S' Shield is also slightly different. Instead of the red 'S' on a yellow diamond background with a red border, he wears a red 'S' on a black background with a yellow border. Superman is never referred to as 'Kal-El', and after the first film's introduction briefly shows his flight from his exploding home planet, it is never referred to again. The films were made before the fictional substance Kryptonite was invented as a means of incapacitating Superman. The series is also unsure whether Superman and the Daily Planet are located in Manhattan or Metropolis.
Many (now) established characters do not appear. As it is implied that Clark Kent was raised in an orphanage, we never see his adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan Kent. Similarly, Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen never feature. Perry White is only once referred to as 'Mr White', as it was unclear whether Paramount had the rights to use the character, who was originally created for the radio series rather than the comic.
The series' opening introduction was so successful it was used at the beginning not only of the radio series but, later, the television series. The film series' introduction Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman! was reworded slightly to become the radio's Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Superman!. The film series also introduced the phrase Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! although similar introductions had been used before.
Later episodes changed the wording of the introduction, so that Superman is described as:
- Able to soar higher than any plane!
- Faster than a streak of lightning!
- More powerful than the pounding surf!
- Mightier than a roaring hurricane!
Influence of the Second World War
Like many animated films of the time, episodes of Superman refer to the Second World War, from small casual mentions to dominating the entire plot. The first mention of the war is seen when Lois and Clark walk behind a large 'Buy Defense Bonds' poster showing a picture of a tank at the end of The Bulleteers, a story which deals with an enemy who use an airborne weapon to terrorise a city. This story was released in March 1942, only a few months after Pearl Harbor.
By Christmas 1942, when Destruction, Inc was released, Lois was working undercover at the Metropolis Munitions Works, making weapons for the war effort. She is soon captured and locked inside an experimental torpedo by evil saboteurs planning on destroying the factory. Saboteurs and spies would feature predominantly in many episodes.
As in cartoons made at other animation studios, some Superman cartoons were jingoistic. The Japanese were portrayed in racist terms, though less extremely than in other animation studios, but still shown as being the enemy and wearing thick–rimmed glasses and having prominent teeth. German officers are shown as monocle-wearing stereotypes, either bald-headed or facially resembling Adolf Hitler.
Two cartoons dealt with the war against Japan. In Japoteurs, Japanese agents successfully stow away inside the world's largest bomber3, an aircraft so large that it can even be used as an aircraft carrier. The agents knock out the pilots, drop Lois Lane out the bomb bay doors and only resort to sabotaging the aircraft to stop Superman from saving it. It is implied that the main, nameless enemy agent is a Japanese American, not an external Japanese spy. The audience sees that though outwardly he worships the Statue of Liberty like a good American, in reality the flag he idolises and has pledged allegiance to is the Rising Sun. This film was released at a time when over 110,000 Japanese American civilians, defined as anyone who had at least one Japanese great-grandparent, were controversially contained in concentration camps4 called 'Relocation Centers' and excluded from America's west coast because of unproven, unfounded paranoid fears that American citizens of Japanese ancestry would commit acts of sabotage.
In The Eleventh Hour Clark and Lois are imprisoned in Yokohama, and every night at 11pm Superman sabotages the Japanese war effort. The Office of War Information, the department that monitored the American film Industry during the war, was very heavily critical of this cartoon, with one official stating:
[this film] seems to me to have a bad influence. The Japs are not to be beaten by a mythical 'Superman', but by the men of the United Nations5.
Two other cartoons had Superman fighting Nazism, Jungle Drums and Secret Agent. In Jungle Drums, Lois is in an aircraft shot down by secret Nazi agents who are hidden inside an African temple. Aided by the stereotyped natives, the agents find the documents that Lois had hidden, discovering the whereabouts of an Allied convoy and direct a U-boat wolf pack6 to intercept and destroy it. Fortunately Superman rescues Lois, who warns the Allies, leading to the final scene in which Hitler himself is distraught. In Secret Agent, Superman helps a female agent foil the plans of a sinister gang of saboteurs who are led by a German-accented man with a monocle, hairstyle and moustache similar to Adolf Hitler. Only by Superman flying the agent to Washington can the saboteurs' despicable dirty deeds be defeated.
There is no denying that the majority of the episodes do follow a strict formula:
- Opening Narration
- A threat is revealed (often by Mr White) and Lois is usually endangered.
- Clark says: 'this looks like a job for Superman' and gets changed.
- Superman saves the day and/or Lois.
- At the end, a front-page newspaper report by Lois says the enemy has been defeated, and possibly adding that Superman has vanished mysteriously.
Many of the early episodes feature bald, white-coat-wearing mad scientist villains who plot against Metropolis/Manhattan, forgetting all about Superman until their inevitable defeat. There are some stories which fall outside this mould, for instance The Arctic Giant. This episode's plot shares similarities with the 1954 film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Both feature a dinosaur frozen in the Arctic that comes back to life in the mid-20th Century, causing terror on the streets of an American east-coast city. Terror on the Midway features an escaped King Kong-like gorilla causing a herd of elephants to panic and the collapse of a circus Big Top in a sequence that strongly resembles Disney's Dumbo. In The Magnetic Telescope the main threat is a meteor heading for Earth, a story which would be repeated in Adventures of Superman story 'Panic in the Sky' (1953), Superboy episode 'Superboy... Lost' (1990) and New Adventures of Superman story 'All Shook Up' (1994).
Later episodes had more fantastical plots instead of the mad scientist stories of earlier. Superman faces a giant ape, enemy agents, a race of birdmen who live in underground caves and even the curse of ancient Egyptian mummies.
The Famous Studios' episodes are not as well made as the earlier ones and often use techniques known as 'limited animation'. Instead of animating fully-drawn characters, shadows and silhouettes are often used, as well as scenes featuring no actual animation, replaced by camera movements panning across a single drawing. The use of these techniques allowed them to be made on a lower budget.
The film series was very influential. For instance, a rival animated series Super Mouse spoof created by Terrytoons in 1942 later evolved into Mighty Mouse.