Superman (1941–1943) — The Amazing Stranger From Planet Krypton, The Man of Steel!
Hey hey, it’s Anticipating the Registry, a new Patreon-sponsored feature where I sit down once a month and babble about movies I think oughta be in the National Film Registry! Less formal than Registering, no less thoughtful! This month, it’s a package deal, a cartoon series from Fleischer and later Famous Studios for Paramount, featuring the first and greatest American superhero in his animated debut — Superman! Let’s not tarry!
So here’s a funny anecdote. 1937, Fleischer Studios underwent a pretty substantial labor strike, due to the Fleischer Brothers Max and Dave ramping up production demands on Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons in overcrowded, underpaid conditions, one of the first major animation industry strikes of its kind. As the five month strike ended in unionization, the Fleischers decided the thing to do was pack up sticks from New York City to Miami, Florida, where labor laws and tax breaks were more favorable to management than employees. Round the same time, Max Fleischer was looking to expand his business, ordering a slate of new cartoon series and pushing for quick completion of animated features to compete with Disney’s Snow White. His ambitions lay with Stone Age Cartoons and Gulliver’s Travels; what he did NOT want was Superman. Unfortunately, despite Max’s belief that Superman cartoons would require far too great an investment to do justice with too slim profit margins to justify costs, Fleischer Studios’ distributor Paramount had acquired the rights to the first comic book superhero from National Comics in 1941, and studio bosses REALLY wanted their cartoon guys to have a crack at it. Already deep into production on a second animated feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the brothers inflated their estimated cost-per-installment of $40,000 into a quote for $100,000 each in hopes Paramount would balk and find someone else for the job, this being in the days when theatrical cartoons ran at $10–20,000 a pop.
Paramount instead entered into negotiations and talked the Fleischers into producing Superman for $50,000 per short. Thus was the studio backed into producing monstrously expensive cartoons that could never recoup their cost, no matter how wildly popular they proved amongst the public. The studio ultimately only produced nine shorts with Dave Fleischer in the director’s chair before everything fell apart — between the expense of making these cartoons, nationwide disinterest in even booking the studio’s other new cartoon lines, and Max and Dave’s professional and brotherly relationships disintegrating across a period of several years, their financial prospects sank hard and Paramount acquired the studio outright in mid-1941. The failure of Mr. Bug Goes to Town early the following year sank any chance the brothers would resume control as both were ousted from the company entirely. For their part, Paramount restructured Fleischer Studios into Famous Studios, as the Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman properties were still valuable, and incidentally moved facilities back into New York City, where they played along real nice-like with the now firmly established animation unions. So, next time someone repeats the old story about how Superman’s radio show helped strike a blow against Klu Klux Klan membership by exposing them as hateful, insular, anti-American weirdos five nights a week, you can add he ALSO helped reverse a real world anti-union move. Guy’s got practically as many heroic feats in his name in reality as on the silver screen!
Anyhow, for this month’s Registry nomination proposal, I’m going with the entirety of the Fleischer/Famous Superman output, all seventeen installments. For a time I sat around trying to figure which individual entry would best exemplify what they did with the character, be it the original for introducing the concept (and earning the Oscar nom), The Mechanical Monsters for its influence on later cinematic depictions of robots, The Arctic Giant for presaging later onscreen giant monsters, one of the numerous natural disaster shorts, or any other amongst their number. After some contemplation, I figured to myself, if Frank Capra’s seven-part Why We Fight documentary series got in as a singular chunk in 2000, why not make the wild swing for Superman? The real joy of these shorts is the variety they wring from the simple formula of introduce concept, ramp into threat, spectacular destruction, enter Superman, even bigger spectacular counters, after all! One hardly gets the full picture if one is restricted to merely recommending that time a Native scientist used an underwater electric earthquake generator to rip apart Metropolis, or the time a careless engineer broke the refrigeration unit and unleashed a towering prehistoric behemoth. Y’need the full scope of the adventures to appreciate the accomplishment.
And honestly, what a scope these shorts have on offer! The backgrounds in the Superman cartoons are worth praise on their own, gorgeously realized cityscapes and interiors and mountain peaks with a greater deal of painted depth than you normally get from eight-minute one-reelers. If they’re not early Disney feature quality, quite a few come close, and I’d contend the majority are on-par or surpass all save the absolute best of the latter Silly Symphony installments for richness. There’s a good amount of impressive camerawork herein too, with shorts like The Magnetic Telscope featuring a looping pan across several screens worth of background paintings to finish on the original location at a different angle, a technique frequently glimpsed in faster motion when Superman takes a dizzying leap into the skies. Lighting comes across strong as well, with intense illustrated sources casting deep drawn shadows across the environment, relatively complicated set-ups properly illuminating characters in the same uneven manner as the backdrops, striking atmospheric lighting for sequences involving flames or imploding machinery, and a few sequences set at night (like in The Bulleteers) looking a dead-ringer for Batman: The Animated Series stills. It’s a damned pretty Metropolis all round, which makes it extremely gratifying when the bad guys or forces of nature conspire to blow it all up.
Stuff crumbles and breaks and explodes and generally falls to rubble so satisfyingly in these cartoons, and in such a wonderful variety of destructive fashions. Fine already when it’s some natural disaster causing the ruckus, as when the titular Volcano erupts into lava flows rushing towards a helpless island village, or when a magnabeam pulls a comet towards Metropolis, its advance debris utterly decimating the city in huge hurtling chunks. We might also categorize the giant dinosaur’s rampage this way, the cartoony design and movement leading to some choice car squishing and bridge shearing as it stomps through town. Same with the plenty menacing gorillas and lions of Terror on the Midway. There’s something particularly special about the mechanical mayhem in these shorts, though, from the fantastical bank robbing robots equipped with jewel-hoarding chest compartments and facial flamethrowers, to the Bulleteers’ bullet car crashing through buildings at mach 6 leaving only a smoky trail in its wake, to some crooks merely disabling a train’s brakes and knocking out bridges, turning it into an out’ve control monster in and of itself. Something about the mixture of finer technical precision in modeling cels ’n’ backgrounds afforded by the increased budget and high-concept designs makes it a joy to watch the earthquake machine shudder and flail bolts of current beneath the harbor, the mad scientist’s death ray shoot out secondary energy projectiles inside the main beam from high atop a rocky perch, the pieces of a gigantic machine crash and clatter into one another after a simple misplaced oil can invites disaster, creating yet another job for Superman.
Boy howdy, does he accomplish his job when he shows up, too! You’ve gotta understand, these cartoons started only three years into Superman’s publication history, back when his amazing strength and endurance were mainly pitted against ordinary crooks and cars aplenty, maybe the occasional sinister Lex Luthor creation, in an artstyle that lacks something of the popping bombast common later comics (though nowhere near devoid of charm or effectiveness on its own). The Big Blue Boy Scout changed the nascent comic book industry to match his example and outsold all his competition until a certain Big Red Cheese happened along, so there wasn’t any danger of his popularity slumping much in 1941. I’d posit, however, these cartoons helped elevate his image and change the perception of what could be done with the character. Superman hits different (literal-like) when you’ve only ever seen the still moment of impact, a single frame of him lifting a car over his head, and then here! Here he’s righting a collapsing building with his bare hands against all laws of physics before soldiering his way through a death ray, smacking away proton bolts with his fists until he reaches the cannon and bends it in on itself! Here he’s faking out bad guys to snatch Lois from perilous drops out an airplane or into a cauldron of magma, and then saving her from the tipped cauldron by spreading his cape to send the molten rock cascading away! Here he’s pulling a train uphill through a barrage of tear gas and gaining speed all the while, racing a metal streak so fast the screen can’t contain it and overtaking the slowpoke, conducting electricity through his body in a last-minute desperate save, bounding through bay waters and wrestling snaking cables to stop an oversized machine from wrecking the city!
Here he’s flying, graceful and unburdened by gravity, an innovation born from a desire to avoid awkward hopping what paid such dividends the comics eventually adopted it as his core power. How could the character remain a counter to mere everyday crime when the moviehouse showed him tackling such overwhelming odds and coming out on top every time? It’s in these shorts we see the sort of feats we’d characterize as good and proper “super” emerge and take precedent as a core defining trait.
The “super” part of the Superman equation comes off like gangbusters every time Bud Coyler delivers the “THIS looks like a job for SUPERMAN” line round the midpoint of an installment, and it’s in part thanks to him the “man” component comes through fine too. This being the days when pretty much all stories treated Clark Kent as the disguise and Superman as the real identity, there’s not TOO terribly much to Clark and his relationship with Joan Alexander’s Lois, not that quickie action shorts before the main feature attraction NEED terribly much, ‘specially when both actors had plenty time to hash personas out at length on the radio program. All the same, Coyler’s personable in the part, timid and weak when necessary yet always capable of proper assertion, and the animation whenever he gives one last cheeky wink towards the camera helps sell an idea the audience is in on some thrilling secret. So too does the combination of Alexander’s performance and the way Lois is utilized within these shorts. She’s in distress near-constantly as per template, but it’s distress entirely of her own making as a newspaper woman who throws herself in danger’s path in pursuit of a story, no damselry about it. Action and mayhem in these cartoons can go a goodly while before Lois lands within their sights, signaling the point when Clark ducks behind some debris or into a phone booth to become Superman. Fact, Clark often spends a minute or two rushing towards the threat in a cab or on foot, full civilian guise with no powers at all, as if getting involved too early would distract from Lois’ chances to pepper bad guys with bullets aboard the runaway train or fully wedge herself in the prehistoric monster’s thawing chambers. While she always needs saving, she’s almost never a passive character, and nine times out’ve ten she comes away with the big headline scoop for her troubles anyhow.
Functionally, Clark’s more an alternate mode of operation for Superman, a disguise which inhibits him until it’s prime time, and consequently forces the shorts to engage with the nebbish, less capable personality for some meaningful stretch each outing — to a point where Jungle Drums has him parachute into an enemy camp despite being, y’know, Superman. What one gets from this is, in effect, an extended game across each short. Superman operates on a switch for amping up the thrills and neutralizing the threat to be flicked on and off at whim, and since we’re here as much to watch this become a job for Superman as watch Superman do his job, it’s a matter of delaying the inevitable long as sustainable to make absolutely sure his deployment’s justified. Lois thus does her thing as the dominant side of the dynamic, scooping Clark out’ve exclusive access and charlestoning herself into harms way as the threats amp higher and higher, until news of disaster reaches Clark either by wire or by collapsing some major monument to society in his presence, at which point enough time has passed and tensions sufficiently heightened for the band to strike up Sammy Timberg’s theme tune, Clark to don the red and blue, and Superman go hurtling off to make the impossible possible. Emotional investment in this process may only go deep as reveling in the sight and noise and then intensifying such reaction when the Man of Steel zips into action, but it’s a damned strong formula with consistently high-impact application, the benefit to a decade of making Popeye shorts in a cartoonier mold and translating those beats into pulse-pounding animated cinema in eight minute stretches. As an exercise in capturing what makes Superman immediately appealing and subsequently laying the template against which all future efforts at employing the character to similar actionized ends must be judged, it’s just plain tops.
Worth noting: With the switch from Fleischer to Famous came the point when the studio’s production cycle on shorts started after America’s entry into WWII, and as such the latter portion of the series usually finds Superman opposite a collection of Japanese saboteurs or homebound threats rather than hulking mechanical menaces, with a few fantastical creatures like mummies or hawk men thrown in alongside some unsavory racial caricatures for good measure. The thrills don’t reach quite the same heights when a short engages in these smaller-scale threats, though you get good moments like an Edward G. Robinson caricature chewing out his Superman impersonator lackey in a dark room before realizing the real deal’s standing before his desk. Animation in these later shorts becomes a touch stiffer even as the background art remains gorgeous, and there’s a tendency to delay Superman’s appearances until the final minute and give him less spectacular feats in the limited time, which leaves the Famous installments somewhat lacking, contrary to my praise for the studio cooperating with union guidelines. That there’s a failure of funding and direction, however, not the workers assigned to realize such, and enough of the higher-quality Fleischer material remains evident for me to justify packaging the nomination as a bundle across all seventeen shorts. Superman’s soared to similar heights time and again in the eighty years since his first animated outing, across all manner of media, boasting a few gems to his name in practically every medium save gaming, but I doubt he’d have gone so far (or even survived the collapse of American superhero comics in the mid-40s, much less Frederick Wertham’s assault in the early 50s) if these shorts hadn’t demonstrated all he could do and be so soon after his creation.
Basically, if you love any Superman since, from George Reeves to Christopher Reeve to Tim Daly to Tom Welling to Henry Cavill, thank the Fleischer/Famous Superman shorts for making their tenures possible, and kindly consider the lot for the National Film Registry!
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