Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The Fleischer Superman Cartoons

Last night I watched ten of the classic Superman cartoon produced by Fleischer Studios in the early Forties. For those of you who have never seen these cartoons, they are among the greatest animated shorts ever produced. They are also an interesting look at the Man of Steel during the Golden Age of comics.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, June 1938. The character was an immediate success. In fact, by 1939 Superman had become an outright fad, the equivalent of what The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers or Pokemon were a few years ago (except that the Man of Steel proved to have a bit more staying power...). It should then come as no surprise, then, that Superman would move from comic books into other media. By February 12, 1940, the Man of Steel already had his own radio show--The Adventures of Superman. And, quite naturally, Hollywood took an interest in Superman as well. Paramount Studios decided that a series of cartoons featuring the Man of Steel could be quite profitable. They then approached Max and Dave Fleischer, whose cartoons they distributed, about a series of Superman cartoons. Neither of the Fleischer brothers was thrilled with the idea of producing Superman cartoons, so they told Paramount that the series would be too costly. They projected a budget of $100,000 for the series. They were shocked when Paramount agreed to the rather high price.

The first Superman cartoon, titled "Superman (although also known as "The Mad Scientist")" cost an astounding $50,000 (four times the amount of the average animated short of the time). It debuted on Septemeber 26, 1941 to both critical acclaim and popular success. Indeed, "Superman" or "The Mad Scientist" would be nominated for the Academy award for Best Animated Short. No expense was spared on further cartoons in the series, each being budgeted at $35,000 (far above the cost of most animated cartoons at the time).

Despite the success of the series, Superman would not be enough to save Fleischer Studios. Fleischer Studios had always received a good deal of critical acclaim. They had also received Oscar nominations for several of their animated shorts. Unfortunately, they never made a good deal of money. In 1937 Paramount Studio loaned Max and Dave Fleischer the money to build a bigger studio, the goal being to produce animated features with which to compete with Disney. Neither Gulliver's Travels (1939) nor Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) proved to be overwhelming successes at the box office. Short of money, the Fleischers continually looked to Paramount for more loans. Finally, on May 24, 1941, Paramount took over Fleischer Studios, renaming the company Famous Studios. The Fleischers themselves remained in control of production until the end of 1941.

In total, the Fleischers produced 9 Superman cartoons. Their last cartoon in the series, "Terror on the Midway," was released on August 28, 1942. Famous Studios would released 8 more Superman cartoons, the last being "Secret Agent," released on July 30, 1943. Although very popular and still quite successful, the Superman series of animated shorts proved a bit too costly for Paramount Studios. They cancelled the series, replacing with the much more cost effective Little Lulu series.

The plots of many of the Fleischer/Famous Superman animated shorts are somewhat formulaic. In the typical Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoon, Lois Lane gets herself in trouble while covering a story and Superman must rescue her and stop the bad guys. Of course, it must be pointed out that to a degree a formula for the shorts was somewhat necessary; one cannot do too much with only about 8 minutes to tell a story! Besides which, the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons more than made up for their formula of many of their plots with some of the most imaginative villains and plot devices in animation at the time. "The Bulleteers" featured the novel idea of a criminal gang which used a flying "bullet car" with which to rob banks. "Arctic Giant" featured a dinosaur on the loose in Metropolis--about eleven years before The Beast From 20000 Fathoms and twelve years before Godzilla. "Mechanical Monsters" could well have been one of the sources of inspiration for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow--a villain uses remote controlled flying robots to rob banks and jewellery displays!

Not only do the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons feature interesting plots, but they also have some of the most impressive animation ever seen in cartoons. In fact, they resemble feature films of the time more than they do the average animated short. The cartoons reproduced realistic looking illumination, with a great use of light sources and shadows. A variety of camera angles and shots are used, including tracking shots, close ups, and so on. The editing is superb. Indeed, I doubt even Disney's feature films of the time quite match the quality of animation in the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons.

Of course, in watching the Fleischer/Famous Superman animated shorts, it must be kept in mind that they are products of their time. Produced during World War II, people watching both "Japoteurs" and "Jungle Drums" will find both to be very racially offensive. "Japoteurs" centres on a plot by the Japanese to steal the largest bomber ever made. Its villain is an extreme stereotype of Japanese people, both bucktoothed and near sighted. "Jungle Drums" centres on a Nazi plot in the African jungle and features stereotypes of African natives, complete with bones through their noses. While both cartoons feature the top notch animation typical of the Fleischer/Famous Superman shorts, their treatment of race makes them very difficult to watch.

Anyone today watching the Fleischer/Famous Superman shorts will notice that the Man of Steel was very different in the early Forties from what he is today. Originally, Superman could not fly--he could simply jump 1/8 of a mile. It is for that reason in the majority of the cartoons Superman is shown leaping to travel from place to place instead of simply taking flight. Similarly, Superman was not invulnerable in the early Forties either. As originally conceived, an artillery shell could pierce Superman's skin. In the cartoons, he is sometimes knocked out (although not for long) by debris from fallling buildings, explosions, and so on. Personally, I find the Superman of the Fleischer/Famous cartoons, who could be knocked out by falling rubble, a bit more interesting than the Superman of later years, who could withstand a nuclear blast!

The Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons are a landmark in animation history. They are perhaps the finest series of animated shorts ever made, fairly consistent in quality and very well executed. They certainly earned their place in history. With the warning that some of the cartoons do contain material we would consider objectionable today, I would recommend them to anyone interested in animation or the character of Superman.

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