The infant son of a brilliant scientist from a planet of “supermen” called Krypton is rocketed to Earth just before a natural disaster wipes out his home world. After arriving on Earth, the baby is raised by a farm couple named Kent, who teach him to use his superhuman powers–invulnerability, super-strength, x-ray vision, the ability to fly–for the good of humanity. Upon reaching manhood, the Kents’ adopted son, named Clark (Kirk Alyn), lands a job as a reporter on the Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis, using the position to keep in touch with crime and disaster–and battling said crimes and disasters in the secret identity of “Superman.” The mysterious hero soon becomes so famous and respected that the US government asks him to guard the valuable “Reducer Ray,” a destructive weapon more powerful than the atomic bomb. Unfortunately for Superman, a master criminal called the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) has set her sights on the ray; when a meteoric fragment of “Kryptonite”–a mineral element from Superman’s home planet that renders him powerless–comes into her hands, even the mighty Man of Steel will have a difficult time keeping the Reducer Ray safe.
As the first live-action adaptation of a still-famous comics property, Superman has received much more attention than almost any other post-war Columbia serial–both from serial buffs and from comics devotees. However, much of the aforementioned attention has been negative; a large percentage of both serial and comics aficionados loathe the serial, largely for its inadequate special effects and other shortcomings common to all Sam Katzman-produced Columbia outings. The serial also has a somewhat smaller following of fans–and, despite my usual dislike of Katzman’s serials, I have to come down solidly on the side of this latter group. While Superman’s production values are frequently embarrassing, its script is much better-written, its plotting much more skillful, its pacing much faster, and its cast much more energetic than those of most of its Columbia contemporaries.
While the screenplay of Superman contains some minor holes (the Spider Lady’s inexplicable decision against killing Lois in Chapter Five, Clark Kent’s credulity-defying ability to see through makeup in a photograph), it’s still vastly superior to the average Columbia script, and indeed to most post-war serial screenplays. The writing team–George Plympton, Joseph Poland, Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole handle the lengthy “prologue” scenes with deliberation, chronicling the downfall of Krypton, Superman’s childhood, and his arrival at the Daily Planet with the care they deserve instead of rushing into the duel with the Spider Lady–who doesn’t even appear till the third chapter (some of this material, particularly the Krypton segment, was derived from the 1942 Superman novel by George Lowther). The only weak spot in the early going is the demise of Kent’s parents, which is handled with a one-line voiceover by Knox Manning; if the writers were so set on avoiding potential grimness, they should simply have left the Kents alive and not shuffled them off so unceremoniously.
Once the main plot begins in Chapter Three, the writers manage to keep the ensuing battle between Superman and the Spider Lady from becoming a mere series of repetitive skirmishes over the Reducer Ray–both by shifting the villainess’ focus from capturing the Ray itself to capturing its inventor Dr. Graham halfway through the serial, and by introducing the Kryptonite subplot (the discovery of the meteor’s effect on Superman by both hero and villains is handled excellently). They also lend further interest to the plot with a smaller but important thread, the Spider Lady’s recruitment of a crooked scientist named Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley) to help her utilize both the Kryptonite and the Ray. The villains’ efforts to help Hackett escape the police occupy a chapter in themselves, and the scientist’s eventual joining of the gang in turn gives rise to tension between the Spider Lady and her new, dangerously smart colleague; their rivalry doesn’t devolve into boring villainous infighting, but it does have a crucial effect on plot developments in the final chapters–a fine example of logical and cohesive writing that would be notable even in a Republic or Universal serial, and is especially remarkable in a later Columbia outing.
The script is also enlivened by its vivid characterizations; the writers perhaps deserve less credit here, since the starring foursome of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White–and their characteristic verbal interplay–had already been well-established by the Superman radio show on the Mutual network, giving the scripters a good template to follow (the Mutual show is significantly given equal billing alongside the Superman comics in the opening credits). In any case, Clark’s mild-mannered act, Lois’s sarcastic put-downs, Jimmy’s comically cocky antics, and White’s acerbic remarks make the dialogue sequences far more entertaining than those of most other serials.
The serial’s pace–thanks to the script and to strong work by directors Spencer Bennet and Thomas Carr–remains brisk throughout, moving the characters quickly through their paces and never bogging down into the lengthy, walk-from-point-A-to-point-B sequences that pad many other Katzman outings. This swift pacing helps to distract from the chapterplay’s biggest flaw–its almost complete lack of traditional serial action scenes, and its failure to replace them with anything in the way of interesting special effects. Superman, of course, fells his opponents with a single blow, while Clark (for strategic identity-concealing reasons) and the inept Jimmy are unable to hold their own for long in hand-to-hand combats.
Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel suffered from a similar lack of fights due to the invulnerability of its leading character, but that serial gave the audiences something else to thrill at–the utterly convincing effects that allowed the Captain to fly. Superman, on the other hand, is made to “fly” via cheap animation–which doesn’t destroy the serial as many have claimed, but does deal a substantial blow to the Superman-in-action scenes; instead of waiting excitedly for Superman to soar into the sky, we find ourselves hoping he’ll hit the ground again and not give us too much time to notice that he’s turned into a cartoon. Other bits of super-action (the Man of Steel’s tossing thugs around, lifting safes, ripping off doors, grinning while bullets bounce off him, stopping cars), while less theoretically spectacular than his flights through the sky, are much more appealing because rendered without the jarring animation.
The serial’s chapter endings, on the other hand, are generally above Columbia’s too-abrupt norm, several of them being staged with more care than was usually shown in the studio’s outings. Clark Kent’s apparent decease from the effects of the Kryptonite at the end of Chapter Three is easily the most memorable and the most shocking, but Lois’ seeming electrocution by the Spider Lady in Chapter Four (well-foreshadowed by having a villain meet an identical fate a few minutes earlier), Jimmy’s Chapter Seven trip into an electric furnace, and the ray-blasting of Metropolis Prison in Chapter Fourteen, are also well-done. However, there are other, more typically abrupt chapter endings on hand as well (the fire sequence in Chapter Ten, the mine explosion in Chapter Twelve), as well as one outrageous and unnecessary cheat resolution (for the Chapter Eleven cliffhanger).
The serial’s locations alternate between the Columbia backlot–which furnishes suitably impressive buildings for the Daily Planet and for Metropolis University (where the ray machine is stored for awhile)–and the reliable Bronson Canyon area–both its winding roads, which do good service in a couple of car-chase sequences, and its famous cave, which functions as the entrance to the Spider Lady’s hideout. The Canyon region also figures as a backdrop to the action in other sequences, and is striking enough to even add a bit of visual interest to some of the aforementioned Superman-in-flight scenes.
Along with the writing and pacing, the great asset of Superman is its stellar cast–which gives energy to even the script’s weaker bits of banter and helps bring conviction to the sci-fi scenario. Kirk Alyn does an outstanding job in the leading role; he manages to make Clark Kent seem both comic and shrewd, something no subsequent Superman portrayer ever pulled off. His owlishly deadpan manner, balanced with a cheerful slyness, makes his Kent a delight to watch. His Superman is excellent as well; Alyn affects a deeper, more authoritative voice in the role, but still gives the character an air of swashbuckling enthusiasm–grinning delightedly while bullets bounce off him and deriving obvious amusement from his feats of strength.
Noel Neill, full of attractively perky energy, is similarly terrific as Lois Lane, delivering her character’s irritable quips with great flair, but also managing to take the edge off Lois’ nasty treatment of Clark with her impish smile and her wryly humorous manner. Tommy Bond does a great job as a swaggering but bumbling Jimmy Olsen, eternally self-confident and eternally fallible, but completely likable throughout; his pantomime acting when he tries to lift up an unconscious thug in emulation of Superman is particularly funny. Pierre Watkin rounds out the good guys’ side as Perry White; although he never leaves the Daily Planet offices, he still lends a big boost to the serial, delivering sardonic wisecracks in dryly irritable fashion but coming off as tough and cagy as well as cranky.
The serial’s villains are strong too; Carol Forman, despite a ridiculous-looking blonde wig, manages to be menacing as the Spider Lady, veering from icy arrogance to frustrated rage to sneering exultation. Former leading man Charles Quigley matches her as the suave and cynical Dr. Hackett; their barbed interchanges–particularly their lengthy bout of bargaining in Chapter Fourteen–are great fun to watch. Slick, cold-voiced George Meeker, a veteran of B-films and serials, has one of his best chapterplay roles as Forman’s intelligent lieutenant.
Columbia stalwart Jack Ingram, grouchy and sarcastic as ever, heads up the other henchmen, ably abetted by Terry Frost, Charles King, and Rusty Westcoatt throughout the serial. Other villainous standbys like Stanley Price, Leonard Penn, Reed Howes, and Eddie Parker pop up in single scenes. Frank Lackteen has a colorful part as a stool pigeon named Hawkins; although the character name is absolutely ridiculous when attached to the Lebanese Lackteen, his sinisterly shifty performance is very entertaining.
One of the good guys’ side, Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll convey just the right amount of down-to-earth rural honesty as the Kents, while thoughtful-looking, deep-voiced Nelson Leigh is similarly ideal as Jor-El. Former serial and B-western heroine Luana Walters plays Jor-El’s wife Lara but is given no dialogue. Robert Barron is the head of Krypton’s council, but I was unable to identify the actor who plays Jor-El’s most vocal Council opponent (and does a fine job in the role, incidentally, rendering flowery dialogue with gusto). As usual, the Internet Movie Database is no help in identification here.
Bustling, briskly authoritative Emmett Vogan is the “Secretary of National Security” who asks Superman to guard the Reducer Ray, while the venerable Herbert Rawlinson has a very good role as the Ray’s inventor Dr. Graham, a part which allows him to be dignified, despairing, mesmerized, heroic, and even villainous (when playing Hackett-disguised-as-Graham) by turns. Forrest Taylor is his usual assured and entertaining self as an observatory scientist, while Stephen Carr (director Thomas Carr’s brother) is merely adequate as Taylor’s treacherous assistant.
Peggy Wynne has a few amusing bits as the Daily Planet switchboard girl; as a side note, the Planet’s newsroom is full of unexpected but welcome extra players who really help maintain the illusion of the paper as one of Metropolis’s leading dailies. Gene Roth pops up as a conductor, William Fawcett as a fake newsboy, I. Stanford Jolley as a jailer, and Frank Ellis as a mine guard. Mason Alan Dinehart and Ralph Hodges play young Clark Kent at different ages, veteran villain Wheeler Oakman is a non-villainous mineralogist, and Tom London has a great bit as a gabby old geezer in Chapter Two. Two other old pros, Jimmy Aubrey and Edmund Cobb, have much smaller bits as (respectively) a puzzled radio operator and a perplexed gas station attendant.
Superman’s musical accompaniment (assembled and directed by Mischa Bakaleinikoff) is decidedly better than that of most of its Columbia contemporaries; though it features some of Katzman’s favorite borrowed pieces (most notably the theme from the Columbia Western Relentless, which pops up in almost every post-1948 Columbia serial) it also has some excellent cues that were either written especially for the serial or else selected from other sources with special care; Superman’s flight theme and the eerie music that accompanies each appearance of the Kryptonite are especially memorable.
Superman succeeds far more than one might expect, given the general quality of Columbia’s releases during the late 1940s; the infamous animation effects are ultimately overcome by the work of the actors, directors, and writers, all of whom go well beyond the cost-conscious and anemic call of Katzmanian duty in this outing.