Saturday, August 1, 2009

Superman, the 1948 Serial

It is a curious fact that while Superman was the first major comic book superhero, he was not the first comic book superhero to appear in live action on the big screen. In fact, by the time the first Superman serial was made in 1948, several other comic book superheroes had already appeared in movie serials of their own. Even archrival Captain Marvel and fellow Detective Comics character Batman would appear in live action before the Man of Steel.

The reasons that it took so long for Superman to appear in a live action film, nearly ten years after his debut, were varied. Not the least of these was Superman's parent company, Detective Comics Inc. (later National Comics, one of the companies which would make up today's DC Comics). It was not long after Superman's debut in 1938 that Republic Pictures, an independent studio best known for their serials, optioned the rights for a Superman serial. Unfortunately, Detective Comics Inc. desired much more control over the production than Republic was willing to grant them. In the end Republic utilised the script to their proposed Superman serial for the serial Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940), changing the names and other particulars. The serial featured a masked hero, Copperhead (Robert Wilcox) who faces off against a would be world conqueror, Dr. Satan (Eduardo Ciannelli).

The failure of Republic's Superman project to make it to completion did not mean that the Man of Tomorrow would not appear on the big screen within a few years after his comic book debut. Within months of his debut in Action Comics #1, June 1938, Superman had become a full fledged phenomenon with children across the United States. By February 1940 he already head his own radio show. It was then natural that Paramount Pictures should take an interest in the Man of Steel. They approached animators Max and Dave Fleischer (whose cartoons Paramount distributed) with the offer of producing a series of Superman cartoons. The Fleischers were not exactly keen on the idea, so they simply projected a then astronomical budget of $100,000 for the series. To their surprise, Paramount accepted what was then an unheard of amount for a series of animated shorts. The first Superman animated short, entitled "Superman," but also known as "The Mad Scientist," debuted on Septemeber 26, 1941. In all, 17 Superman animated shorts would be made between 1941 and 1943.

It was also in 1941 that Republic once more sought to make a Superman serial. They even went so far as to announce the project in a promotional book for movie distributors, Republic Pictures Advance Serial Promotion Book, that year, complete with drawings of proposed scenes for the serial. Unfortunately, it would turn out that Paramount not only had the rights to produce the Superman cartoons, but they had exclusive rights to the Man of Steel on the silver screen. Unable to get the rights to Superman, Republic Pictures then bought the rights to bring Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Publications. At the time Captain Marvel was Superman's closest rival in comic books, and at time even outsold the Man of Steel in the Forties. In turn Detective Comics Inc. would attempt to stop the production of The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and would even name Republic Pictures alongside Fawcett Publications in their famous lawsuit alleging that Captain Marvel infringed on their copyright for Superman. While Captain Marvel would ultimately be found to infringe on Superman, Republic Pictures would not be held liable for producing The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Not only would Captain Marvel then become the first comic book superhero to appear in a live action movie, but since its release The Adventures of Captain Marvel would come to be regarded as the greatest serial of all time by many.

It was in 1943 that Paramount Pictures (who had in the meantime taken over Fleischer Studios and renamed it "Famous Studios") ended the Superman cartoon series. The reason was quite simply the cost of each short, which averaged around $30,000 (nearly $800,000 today). With the end of Paramount's Superman cartoon series, the rights to Superman for the big screen once more became available. Those rights were purchased by Sam Katzman, a B movie and serial producer best known for his cost effectiveness in producing films. Katzman had produced both The East Side Kids series (which would evolve into The Bowery Boys series) and the Teen Agers series for Poverty Row studio Monogram Studios. In 1945 Katzman signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to produce low budget serials and feature films.

Curiously, after having obtained the rights to the Man of Tomorrow, Sam Katzman did not offer the project to Columbia right away. Instead he approached Universal Pictures and Republic. Universal turned Katzman down, as they had ceased making serials in 1946. With the popularity of the serials in a serious decline, Universal had no desire to get back into the business. Republic also turned Katzman down, claiming that it would be impossible to bring a superhuman character who could fly, like Superman, to the big screen. Given that Republic Pictures had produced The Adventures of Captain Marvel and in a few years would produce a serial with a hero who could fly (King of the Rocket Men in 1949), this seems as if it was merely an excuse. It is quite possible that, since National Comics (as Detective Comics Inc. had been renamed following the purchase of All-American in 1945) had included Republic in their infringement lawsuit against Fawcett Publications the studio had no real love for the comic book company. It might also be pointed out that by 1946 the majority of Republic Pictures' serials were based on original material rather than pre-existing characters from other media.

Having been turned down by both Universal and Republic, Sam Katzman then went to Columbia Pictures. Although counted among the Big Seven studios, Columbia Pictures bordered on Poverty Row in the Thirties and Forties. While the studio would produce many major motion pictures, the bulk of their output was often B-movies. As to their serials, they were often made with budgets much lower than the smaller Republic Pictures. To Columbia's advantage was the fact that they had brought National Comics characters to the big screen before. It was Columbia who first brought Batman to the movies in the 1943 serial The Batman. In 1946 they brought Hop Harrigan, a flying ace initially owned by All-American but by that year owned by National Comics, to the big screen. It was in 1947 that Columbia adapted The Vigilante, a cowboy themed superhero who shared the pages of Action Comics with Superman, into a serial. Columbia Pictures then had a working relationship with National Comics. Between Columbia Pictures (known for low budget serials) and Sam Katzman (known for pinching pennies in producing films), it would be certain that Superman would not have an enormous budget.

Of major concern was the casting of Superman. Many different actors were considered for the role. It has been said that among these actors numbered Buster Crabbe, who had played the roles of Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and, most famously, Flash Gordon. A former athlete who had won a gold medal for swimming in the 1932 Olympics, Crabbe would have been ideal for the role. Reportedly Crabbe turned down the part of Superman because he had already been typecast in the role of comic strip-style heroes. It was when Sam Katzman was looking through photographs of actors with whom he had worked in the past that he fell upon a picture of Kirk Alyn. Katzman had previously worked with Alyn in the movies Sweet Genevieve and Little Miss Broadway. He consulted with Whitney Ellsworth (then the editor on the Superman titles at National and their contact with the studios in Hollywood) and he approved a meeting with Alyn.

In the beginning National Comics was not sold on the choice of Kirk Alyn for the role of Superman. At his first meeting concerning the role, Alyn walked in wearing a moustache and a goatee he had grown for a part in a period piece (probably the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, in which he had a bit part). His reception from National Comics was then unenthusiastic at best. Fortunately, Sam Katzman and Kirk Alyn were able to win the comic book company over (as Alyn told National Comics of his facial hair, "It shaves off, you know").

For the role of Lois Lane, Sam Katzman cast actress Noel Neill. Noel Neill had appeared in his Teen Agers series at Monogram and the serial Brick Bradford at Columbia. She would spend more time playing Lois Lane than any other actress. Not only did she reprise her role in the 1950 serial Atom Man vs. Superman, but she returned to the role on the TV series The Adventures of Superman after Phyllis Coates left in 1953. In fact, Noel Neill may have appeared in more movies and TV shows featuring the Man of Steel than any other actor, not only playing Lois Lane in the two serials and in The Adventures of Superman, but appearing as Lois Lane's mother in the 1978 feature film Superman, in a guest appearance on the TV show Superboy, and in the 2006 feature Superman Returns. The role of Superman's pal and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet went to former child star Tommy Bond. Bond had appeared in Hal Roach's Our Gang series and entries in the Gas House Kids series before playing Olsen. As Perry White was cast Pierre Watkin, a character actor who had appeared in roles as authority figures in major motion pictures and B movies alike. He had worked with Katzman on the serial Brick Bradford (with Noel Neill), a Bowery Boys film, and a Teen Agers film (again with Noel Neill).

To direct Superman, Katzman hired Spencer Gordon Bennet. Bennet already had many serials to his credit, including Katzman's own Brick Bradford. To head the serial's writing staff, Katzman brought in George H. Plympton. Plympton was a prolific screenwriter who had been working in the movies since the silent era (his first credit was in 1912). Over the years he had worked on numerous B-movies and serials, including the classic Flash Gordon (1936), The Spider's Web, The Green Hornet, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, and The Vigilante. While he had been in the business for well over thirty years by the time he wrote Superman, Plympton enjoyed needling National Comics. For example, in the script he had Superman cry "Hi-Yo, Silver!" instead of his customary "Up, up, and away!" before taking flight.

While filming the serial Kirk Alyn had a stunt double in the form of Paul Stader, who would later work on North by Northwest, Our Man Flint, the TV series Star Trek, and many other films and TV shows. Alyn would be called upon to perform a few of his own stunts. In one scene he had to jump from the back of a truck, a stunt which nearly broke his leg, causing him to leave the production for a short while. In another scene he had to carry two people, one under each arm, out of a burning building. One stunt Kirk Alyn did not have to perform was flying.

Initially, the special effects crew did attempt to create a simulation of Kirk Alyn flying through the air. Kirk Alyn was suspended from wires (which were supposed to be opaque) in front of a rear projection screen of moving clouds. According to Kirk Alyn it was found in rushes that the wires were not opaque at all, but could easily be seen. Sam Katzman then fired all of the crew involved with the attempt to make Alyn "fly." Instead, whenever Superman was required to "fly," Superman became an animated character, not unlike that seen in the Paramount animated shorts. One rather suspects that even in the Forties this was less than convincing.

While Kirk Alyn had been hired to play both Superman and Clark Kent, he would not receive credit for playing the Man of Steel, instead receiving only credit for playing his mild mannered alter ego. Columbia Pictures announced in press releases that as it was impossible to find an actor who could play Superman, the real Superman would play the part. Today such a tactic might seem an insult to the audience's intelligence, as only very young children could possibly believe Superman was real. Indeed, it would be fairly obvious to anyone who watched the serial that Kirk Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent. It is doubtful that Columbia Pictures thought anyone but very young kids would believe the "real" Superman was playing himself, so this publicity ploy is perhaps best regarded as a little bit of fun make believe for both the studio and the audience.

Ultimately Superman would prove to be a smash hit. It was booked in cinemas which had never before shown a serial. It also became the highest grossing serial of all time. Its success would guarantee a sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, which would be released in 1950. Atom Man vs. Superman saw Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return to their respective roles. It would also see the screen debut of Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor, played by character actor Lyle Talbot.

For a time Superman would provide Kirk Alyn's career a boost. He played another comic book character, Blackhawk, in 1952. Over the years Alyn would be offered the roles of Batman (in the 1949 serial The Adventures of Batman and Robin) and Commando Cody (the hero of Republic's serials Radar Men from the Moon and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe). It is difficult to say whether Kirk Alyn was considered for the role of the Man of Steel in the Fifties television series The Adventures of Superman. Some reports claim that he was offered the part, but he turned it down. Other reports claimed that he was not offered the role at all. It has also been reported that when George Reeves asked for a salary increase after two seasons on the show, Kirk Alyn was offered the part of Superman on the series and again refused it. Regardless, Kirk Alyn never again played Superman again, although he would appear as Lois Lane's father in the 1978 feature film Superman.

The serial Superman would not have an impact on the Superman mythos the way that the radio show The Adventures of Superman (which gave Superman the power to fly, introduced the characters of Perry White and Jimmy Olson, and introduced kryptonite) had. While the serial may not have had a large impact on the Man of Steel himself, it would prove influential in other ways. Superman was credited with almost single handedly reviving the business of serials. Prior to the release of Superman in 1948, serials were declining in popularity. Universal had already left the field of producing serials. In 1947 Republic Pictures produced only three serials; in 1949, after the success of Superman at Columbia, it produced almost twice as many. It is quite possible that the success of Superman gave serials a much needed shot in the arm, allowing them to survive until the release of the last serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, by Columbia in 1956.

While the 1948 Superman serial may not have added much to the character or milieu of Superman, it would prove that the character could successfully be adapted to the medium of live action film. In the wake of the 1948 Superman serial not only followed its sequel Atom Man vs. Superman, but the Fifties TV series The Adventures of Superman, several animated cartoons for television, the 1978 feature film and its sequels, and the Nineties series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. While it was probably inevitable that Superman would make it to the big screen in live action, and movies and TV shows probably would have emerged eventually, arguably the 1948 serial started it all.

1 comment:

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