April 18 is Superman’s birthday; it’s the day on which the character made his first appearance in Action comics in 1938. We are also coming up on the 80th anniversary of the comic book which bore his name, which debuted in Summer 1939. While I definitely spent quality teenage time engaging with vintage reprints of those early comic appearances, there is little I could ever add on the subject here. But there is a logical angle for me to hit that is much closer to our established bailiwick: screen adaptations. We’ve already done posts on the classic Superman radio show, and the original tv show. Today, we’ll add the earliest versions for the big screen.
Fleischer/ Famous Studios Animated Shorts (1941-43)
Delightfully, the first screen version is also the best-realized early adaptation of the comic book of any sort, at least for a long time to come. Animation is the best technique to graphically realize Superman’s uncanny abilities. Fleischer Studios, the folks responsible for Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, undertook the enterprise when the franchise was only two years old but already extremely popular. As it happened it would be the studio’s crowning achievement in some ways, as well as its last act. Midway through the series, the company was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, a direct arm of Paramount, which had previously been just the Fleischer’s distributor in an arrangement that paralleled Disney’s with RKO. 17 animated shorts were produced, nine by the Fleischers, eight by Famous Studios. At this writing they all seem available on Youtube, and gorgeous sights they are to behold. The Technicolor is key. Live-action versions for decades would render Superman only in black and white — and what is Superman without the patriotic associations of his costume’s color scheme? But overall, these cartoons are just simply gorgeous artworks to contemplate, bubbling over with charm and imagination. The voice of Superman was provided by Bud Collyer, who also played him on radio and in Filmation’s animated revival of the series in 1966.
Columbia Serials (1948-1950)
Attempts had been made to create a live action Superman movie as early as 1940. Republic had initially been interested, but couldn’t break an impasse with the publishers. They ended up producing Captain Marvel (1941) instead. Columbia (which had made a Batman serial in 1943) finally secured the rights in 1948. 15 episodes were released, beginning with the Superman origin story on Krypton. Kirk Alyn played the title character, although he was uncredited at the time — it was implied that the star of the movie was Superman himself. Like all serials of the time, it has a gritty, seedy, low-budget feel. Its quirkiest aspect is that the producers chose to solve the technical problem of Superman in flight by animating those shots. In other words, they would cut from live action Superman to an animated one. I’m sure that this experimental convention satisfied nobody! Still, the serial was successful enough that a sequel was produced, Atom Man vs. Superman, in 1950. This one featured Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor! There are fragments of the serials on Youtube. Both series are available on DVD.
Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
This independent production was the first feature length film to be made based on the comic book character. Though theatrically released, it was essentially a pilot for the tv series The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. Later the film would be broken into two parts and aired as part of the series. Intriguingly, the titular mole men are not the villains in the story but the victims. In this didactic sci-fi story, an oil drilling rig exposes a race of tiny, bald, glow-in-the-dark people who live in underground caverns. Paranoid and ignorant local townsfolk immediately begin persecuting them and Superman saves the day by rescuing the aliens and defeating prejudice. Most rewarding!
It would be over a quarter century before another Superman feature would hit the big screen. We’ll undoubtedly write about that one too at some point, for that one comes under the heading of personal nostalgia. And that’s not my only additional upcoming Superman post. The character has a mighty big footprint in American pop culture, wouldn’t you say? Oh, and here’s an important addendum:
July 3, 1940 may have been Superman’s first in-person public appearance, when the 1939 New York World’s Fair held a “Superman Day”. I’ll be speaking about that historic exposition at its actual location on April 28 at the Queens Theatre. Please come check it out! Details are here.