January 5 is the birthday of my favorite of all the Supermans, George Reeves (1914-1959).
Well I say that, but I have some catching up to do. I’ll be comparing all versions up to the present day in an upcoming post. But the TV series The Adventures of Superman (1952-58) was the founding screen adaptation of my life, along with the character’s inclusion in the Hanna-Barbera Superfriends cartoon. This was in that interesting trough before the craze for franchise resurrection hit. In fact the 1978 Superman movie was one of the successes that ignited that craze. So…think about it. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s spent a LOT of time immersed in the pop culture of 10, 20, 30 years earlier. Our Superman was not contemporary, but going on 20 years old. That was the NEWEST adaptation available for our home entertainment. It seems to have incubated both an appreciation for the old, the classic…as well as an undying appreciation for the revivals. I may not always like the APPROACH modern adaptations take, but the fact that they exist makes me happy at the riches to be had. (“Why, in my day, all we had was….”)!
One of the beautiful parts about the TV show from the ’50s was how very old school it was. It was sort of the climax of the character’s original phase. Even so, it was far from the first adaptation. Superman had debuted in Action Comics in 1938. The first radio show version launched in 1940 (we wrote about that here). In 1941, Fleischer Studios/Paramount launched the first animated shorts. In 1948, the first live action serial was released to theatres starring Kirk Alyn; followed by a 1950 sequel Atom Man vs. Superman. (More on those films from 1941-50 here). In 1951 came Superman and the Mole Men starring George Reeves, a B movie feature intended as a pilot for the TV series, the first season of which was shot the same year. It was another year before show was picked up and broadcast, but then it became a major hit.
Thus the franchise and the mythos were only about a dozen years old when the show launched. And it stuck to the story. Thus, while we watched the show in reruns in the ’70s it seemed even older than it was. The skyscrapers, the newspaper office, the suits and hats the men wore — to a kid, it could just as easily have been the 1930s. It even used some of the language from the old time radio show: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” and “Truth, Justice and the American Way!” And it was all charmingly crude technically. The first few seasons were in black and white; the last few were in a muted Technicolor not unlike the palette of inks in the comic books. As in the serials that had preceded it, the special effects were minimal. Flying, for example, was achieved with a green screen effect that left a noticeable halo.
Most of it was simple acting stuff. The crooks would fire a gun at Reeves and and he would just smile. Or he’d bend a rubber crow bar or something to intimidate a bunch of gangsters. Jack Larson played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen; John Hamilton was Daily Planet editor Perry White. Clark Kent’s love interest Lois Lane was played by Phyllis Coates in the first season, and by Noel Neill, who’d been in the serials, thereafter. And of course there was Reeves, who looked so good in the part. Previous to this, Reeves had been a bit player in major films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940) and a star in B movies like Jungle Goddess (1948). After the success of the series he got some better parts in prestige pictures like Rancho Notorious (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and From Here to Eternity (1953).
After a hiatus of a year, the show was gearing up to return to production in 1959, for two new seasons that would have begun airing in 1960. But there were, quite literally, fatal developments. First, John Hamilton (Perry White) had died in late 1958. Not insurmountable. The plan was to hire Pierre Watkins, who’d played the role in the serials, to replace him.
But then came the ultimate calamity: the death of George Reeves. I use the word suicide in the title, and that ended up being the official verdict, but the truth is not at all clear, hence my addition of a question mark. (“Riddle me this, Batman!”) Reeves’ death is one of the most mysterious not just in show biz history but in the annals of crime. Nothing is clear cut. It’s all fuzzy, and there are several possibilities. Given the subject at the heart of it all, the whole thing takes on a tabloid skein worthy of a U.F.O. story. If you’ve seen the movie Hollywoodland (2006) you’ve encountered a fictionalized version of it. What’s known and generally accepted is that in the early hours of June 16, 1959 some friends, including Reeves’ fiancé Leonora Lemmon were drinking heavily at Reeves’ house. A gunshot was heard, and Reeves was found, sprawled back on his bed, dead, with a bullet in his head and a luger on the floor. His feet were on the floor as though he’d fallen back onto the bed from a sitting position. Oddly, there were no fingerprints on the gun, and no powder burns on Reeves, as there likely would have been if the wound were self-inflicted, although the police may have not tested for the latter. And the people in the house didn’t call the cops until nearly an hour after the event.
The prevailing theories are these:
Suicide. At its face that’s what it looks like. That’s what the crime scene looked like on first glance, and the theory is that there were a couple of things for Reeves to have been despondent about. His career seemed at an impasse; he couldn’t seem to get any other parts but Superman. He liked playing the role, but he knew it wouldn’t last forever. He was already 45. Candid shots from his last years reveal that the shiny black hair was a dye job. This was what he really looked like in 1959:
At the same time, Reeves was unhappy in love. He had recently left his long time lover and supporter Toni Mattix and was slated to marry party girl Lemmon, who was reportedly manipulative and not given to monogamy. Reeves and Lemmon had argued in front of other people twice on the night of his death. (The second argument was because she and the friends were loudly partying downstairs and he was trying to sleep. This, I remind you, was in his own house.) Maybe the whole thing was just depressing. But many people close to Reeves’ didn’t buy this story. Why would he do it while naked? Why would he do it to his fans, mostly kids, whom he loved? And so there are other theories. One is that it was an accident. There were loaded guns around, he was drunk, and after all, he was the guy who was supposed to be “faster than a speeding bullet”. But there are also other suspects.
Toni and/or Eddie Mannix: Toni Lanier (Camille Bernice Froomess) was a former Ziegfeld girl, eight years Reeves’ senior. In 1951 she married Eddie Mannix, studio fixer for MGM, a guy with gangster associations. Shortly after their marriage, Toni started an affair with Reeves, apparently with Mannix’s blessing, as he was not monogamous either. In a relationship that has been compared to Sunset Boulevard, Toni became Reeves’ sugar-mama, he, her own personal superman.
It was Reeves who ended the relationship in 1959, sparking the speculation that the spurned lover hired a hit, or got Eddie to do it, or Eddie simply did it himself out of his own jealousy. This is the least likely of the scenarios, however. There were no windows in the room in which Reeves was killed. The murderer would have needed to have been someone at the party, and the only one whom hearsay reports ever mention as going upstairs that evening was Leonore Lemmon. Which brings us to:
Leonore Lemmon: I admit I like this suspect the best. Lemmon was the daughter of a Broadway ticket broker. She was known as a member of Cafe Society and the only woman ever thrown out of the Stork Club for fist-fighting! She’d been married twice before. She was slated to marry Reeves on June 19, three days after his murder. But some say Reeves was backing out of the wedding. Others say she’d been in or near Reeves’ bedroom at the time of the shooting. She tried unsuccessfully to claim a portion of his estate after he died, and then immediately withdrew to New York afterwards, where she lived another three decades, in seclusion and out of the limelight. As Lt. Joe Kenda would say, “I like Leonora” for this murder. She’s also reported to have drunkenly confessed to the crime years later, which is also pretty compelling. Also, look at that broad! Does she not have murder in her heart?! Every picture of her looks like that!
At any rate, we knew of Reeves’s “suicide” since we were kids. The way I heard it, though, in those pre-internet days, was that he had jumped out a window, and I always had half an idea that he’d been attempting to fly. When the new movie came along in 1978, I liked it a lot, but I never cared much for Christopher Reeve (still don’t). “What’s up with his name?” I wondered. Christopher Reeve is no George Reeves. But who is? The former would suffer his own sad death 45 years after the latter, but that’s for another time, and probably another place.