Movie Review: Superman (1948)
The 1948 movie serial, “Superman,” the first live-action cinematic recreation of the Man of Steel, becomes, in the latter stages of its 15 chapters, a battle between two groups intent on avoiding the cops. The first group is led by the villainous Spider Lady (Carol Forman), queen of the underworld, who circumnavigates the law for obvious reasons. The second group is led by Perry White (Pierre Watkin), editor of The Daily Planet, who, along with his reporters, Lois Lane (Noel Neill), Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) and Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn), just wants a scoop.
In Chapter 11, for example, “Superman’s Dilemma,” the Spider Lady needs “mono chromite” to complete her work on “the reducer ray,” so she sends several tough guys over to Frederick Larkin, chemical engineer. Larkin tells them it’ll take awhile to get the stuff ready. Then he goes to his card files and reads the following under “mono chromite”:
DEVELOPED BY DR. ARNOLD GRAHAM
IF ASKED FOR WITHOUT CREDENTIALS,
NOTIFY PROPER AUTHORITIES
So he calls the cops. Actually, no. He calls Perry White. And he calls the cops. Actually, no. He sends Clark Kent over to get the story. Except Lois tricks Clark into being arrested so she can get the scoop. But that doesn’t happen, either. Instead, Lois nearly suffocates in a safe, Jimmy Olsen is nearly shot to death in a crate, and, in the end, Perry White, the man who never called the cops, chastises them all for not getting the scoop. Meanwhile, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Do the police get any respect here? In Chapter 13, Superman captures one of the Spider Lady’s goons, Anton (Jack Ingram), and flies him to the police station. Actually, no. He flies him to The Daily Planet and delivers him to Perry White. In Chapter 14, the Spider Lady sends her minion, Dr. Hackett, into the Metropolis streets to be arrested so he can communicate with Anton in prison. Who captures him? Lois. Who convinces the cops to put Hackett in Anton’s cell? Lois. It isn’t until the final chapter, “The Payoff,” that the Spider Lady finally, finally, contacts the police via shortwave radio. What does she say? “I want you to send a message to Perry White.”
They do her bidding. Apparently they know who the proper authorities are, too.
I know, I know. A cheap shot for a cheap, 65-year-old Columbia serial.
Except “Superman” wasn’t cheap. According to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” it was the most expensive serial ever made, with a budget of $350,000. It just looks cheap, even for the time. Six years earlier, in the 12-chapter serial “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” Republic Pictures did a pretty good job of making Tom Tyler, the star, appear to be flying (with a mannequin, a stuntman, etc.), but Columbia couldn’t be bothered. So they rely on animation. Superman takes a step, a feint into the air, and turns into a cartoon. Think of it as early CGI.
The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” is probably the most interesting. For the first time we get to see Krypton, which, in outdoor shots, looks like the parts of southern California where they shot the Gorn episode of “Star Trek,” and whose cityscape could be a 1920s “Amazing Stories” magazine cover. As always, the Kryptonian Science Council is full of assholes, who, in their resistance to scientific reasoning, resemble nothing so much as the modern GOP; but Jor-El (Nelson Leigh), a caped scientist, hardly helps his cause when he’s asked to provide facts. “We must be guided by my knowledge,” he responds, finger in the air, “which this august body has always respected.” Dude, a pie chart might’ve helped.
Who names Clark Superman? Pa Kent (Ed Cassidy). “Your unique abilities make you … a kind of super man,” he says.Who designs his costume? Ma Kent (Virginia Carroll). “Here’s a uniform I made for you out of the blankets you were wrapped in when we found you,” she says. How does Kal-El learn about Krypton? From a Prof. Leeds, who shows him “a fragment from the planet Krypton, which exploded many years ago.” How does Leeds know about Krypton? How does he know it was called Krypton? Silence. When the fragment causes Clark to faint, Leeds immediately makes the connection between Clark and Superman. Actually, no. But Clark tells him anyway:
For years I suspected that I came to Earth from the planet Krypton. And now this meteorite seems to prove that. It takes away all my powers that make me superior to Earth men.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” For the historic record. To see how we interpreted the Man of Steel back then. To see what we valued.
The modern Superman would never call himself superior to anyone, let alone “Earth men,” but this Superman, only 10 years removed from Action Comics #1, was still a bit of a roughneck, and he still acquires his powers, not from the yellow sun, but from a civilization so far advanced it “boasted a race of super men and women.”
In this way the serial is an odd mix of pre- and post-WWII attitudes. A genetically superior race? Sounds like Nazi-era eugenics. At the same time, the lessons of the gas chambers are apparent in the peptalk Pa Kent gives young Clark about what he must do with his great powers. He must use them, he says, to fight for “truth, tolerance, and justice.”
Interestingly, all of the above attitudes, both pre- and post-WWII, would soon be gone from the Superman mythos. Yellow-sun mythology replaced genetic superiority, while “tolerance” never again turned up as something Superman fought for. It was replaced, famously, or infamously, by “the American way,” for the TV series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which debuted in 1952: the coldest part of the Cold War. We were a less-tolerant society by then. Tolerance had a small window.
The mysterious reducer ray
The plot is typical of the serial genre. The Spider Lady, who never once leaves her mountainside lair with its electrified spider-web in the background, wants the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb.” Basically it’s a big ray gun. You feed it coordinates and it can destroy a target thousands of miles away. Why does the Spider Lady want it? Probably to rule the world. How is she going to get past Superman to get it? She has a chunk of kryptonite. Why is it called the reducer ray when it doesn’t reduce anything? Uh…
First she tries to steal it. No go. Then she employs Dr. Hackett, “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” who invents a kind of kryptonite gun. That doesn’t work, either. Then she kidnaps Dr. Graham, the original inventor of the reducer ray, and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses. After he’s tortured, he complies. But he needs mono chromite. It takes a few chapters to get that. At which point he refuses again. So he’s hypnotized into complying. But now he needs an “activator tube” from Metropolis U. That takes a while. By Chapter 14, the reducer ray finally works. The Spider Lady’s first target? Her own men in jail. Her second target? The Daily Planet building. At 3:00. By then, though, everyone converges on her lair: Jimmy, Lois and eventually Superman, weakened by kryptonite. But not! Up he pops with a big smile.
Spider Lady: Superman, you didn’t succumb to the kryptonite!
Superman: I expected you to have it handy so I’m wearing a protective lining of lead under my uniform. What you thought was my weakness turned out to be your undoing! Spider Lady, you’re finished!
And she is. When she tries to run away, she’s electrocuted by her own spiderweb. Crime don’t pay, kids.
As for Clark? Why, he’s asleep at the Daily Planet.
Clark: Oh, I was just having a wonderful dream.
Lois: You weren’t dreaming by any chance that you were Superman?
Clark: That’s exactly right, Lois. And I was flying through the air.
Lois: That wasn’t a dream, Kent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a nightmare.
And everyone laughs. The end.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” To see what passed for entertainment back then.
Superman, Lois and Jimmy watching the Spider Lady fry.
I have to admit, I liked, well enough, Alyn’s performance. He’s got a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. His big stunt is taking two crooks and bonking their heads together. He can never win a fight as Clark Kent, either, and it hardly seems a matter of protecting his secret identity. No, he just can’t fight. He gets knocked down and has to shake the cobwebs from his head. It’s as if he’s not super until he removes his suit and tie.
Another positive: In the 1940s Batman serials, the cliffhangers tend to involve the heroes caught in some predicament, which means they have to get in some predicament, which means, in almost every episode, they have to lose a fight. Some dynamic duo. In “Superman,” most of the cliffhangers involve Superman’s friends: Lois, Jimmy, Perry. Each cliffhanger is less about Superman than a job for Superman. Alyn says the line throughout the serial, too, following the Bud Collyer model from the radio show by deepening his voice on the final words: “This looks like a job … FOR SUPERMAN!” It’s a conceit that continued into the 1960s.
Lois? Forever involved in machinations to prevent Clark from scooping her, even though these machinations invariably imperil herself, Jimmy, Clark, and, since we’re talking the reducer ray, the entire planet. This is not a good Lois. She’s pouty and unclever and sexless. She’s like a Shirley Temple character who grew into her late 20s less cute than she used to be, less clever than she used to be, more annoying than she used to be. And could you give us a smile? Apparently this was obvious even back then. Two years later, for the 1950 sequel, “Atom Man vs. Superman,” Neill’s Lois smiles so much she seems like a Miss America contestant.
Jimmy? Unfunny comic relief. The Jughead of the crew. Perry? Never leaves his office. He’s like the Spider Lady in this regard. The entire serial could be seen as a battle between these two stationary entities who send their forces into the world to do battle.
That world is Metropolis but it seems more small town than big city. The local jail is like Andy Griffith’s, and they’re never too far away from a mine or a cave. When we finally see a map of Metropolis, hanging in the Daily Planet office, it’s an upside-down dog. That’s a clue, by the way.
Superman (Kirk Alyn) using his x-ray vision
So whatever happened to…?
The Spider Lady, meanwhile, has no spiders, wears a long black dress, and for a time, and for no discernible reason, a mask. What’s the source of her power? Who knows? She’s not strong, she’s not smart, she doesn’t use sex as a weapon. Her henchmen are lugs from central casting.
Basically she’s a ripoff of another Forman villainess, Sombra, the Black Widow, from the 1947 Republic serial “The Black Widow.” Was she typecast? A year after “Superman,” Forman played Nila, an Abistahnian criminal going up against Inspector David Worth (Alyn again), in “Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc.” Two years after that, in the Columbia serial “Blackhawk,” she played Laska, leader of an underground gang, who is foiled by … wait for it … Kirk Alyn. If TV hadn’t killed serials, these two might have kept going in perpetuity.
As it was, Forman was basically done by ’52, Alyn didn’t last much longer, and Tommy Bond moved over into the prop department for TV shows like “Laugh-In” and “Sonny and Cher.” Neill, meanwhile, who played the third-year girl who gripes Gene Kelly’s liver in “An American in Paris,” essentially made a career out of the Superman franchise. She played Lois for most of TV’s “The Adventures of Superman,” had a bit part as Lois’ mom, Ella, in the extended cut of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), shows up in “The Adventures of Superboy,” and even played Gertrude Vanderworth, the wealthy widow bilked of her money by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in “Superman Returns” (2006).
Might as well. Movie serials may have been dying but superhero films were just beginning to fly.
The opening credits. Serials were about to die; superhero movies were not.