SUPERMAN: Serial (1948)



For all the efforts of modern superhero movies to stick close to their source material, the truest recreations of the comics often come from earlier attempts. The 1960′s Batman TV show is almost an exact three-dimensional version of the printed stories of the time – the only difference being in tone. For an even closer representation, the 1948 serial Superman varies only in it’s colour. Rather than the gaudy hues of the comic panels, this 15-chapter adventure is in classic black and white, and while the primary splash of Superman’s costume is missed, the noir-ish visuals are well served.

The Superman comics of the 1940s were packed with short, breathless battles against gangsters and racketeers with pistols and dynamite (often three per issue), and this type of adventure finds a perfect match in serial storytelling. It’s all here, precise and perfected; a dashing, square-jawed Superman (Kirk Alynn); Lois Lane (Noel Neill), the damsel in constant distress; Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), the foolhardy kid sidekick, and Perry White (Forest Taylor), directing the trio into action from his desk at the Daily Planet. The villainous mastermind is the perfectly pulpy Spider Lady (Carol Forman), all shimmering evening gowns and Veronica Lake hair. She sends her zoot-suited minions into conflict with our heroes repeatedly, which results in all manner of last-second-escapes, riotous brawls and dramatic rescues. Superman zooms in often, one stunt-filled display of heroics after another, and then shoots off again. The characters even deliver exposition-packed speeches that make no sense in context (telling other characters things they already know) but fill the viewer in on off-screen events. It’s everything kids of the time would read in the comics, and everything they’d expect from a cliffhanger matinee. In 1948, there was no discussion of ‘source material’ or faithfulness, the only question was which version of the Man of Steel to spend your pocket money on.

The first episode also tells of Superman’s origin, beginning on Krypton with a tedious council session to convey the imminent demise of the planet. It’s oddly long, considering the almost comedic haste the rest of the back story is told in. Especially amusing is when Pa Kent tells the fully-grown Clark he needs to go out into the world and use his powers for good. Clark for some reason already wears glasses, and Martha hands him a ready-made and wrapped costume. Pa calls Clark, “some kind of Superman,” and Clark adopts that name, whilst also deciding it best to keep two identities. Smallville took ten years to do what this serial does in less than a minute. That said, in Smallville Clark was a confused teenager – here, he’s a 37-year old Kirk Alynn who still hasn’t left the nest. Equally silly is his first rescue sequence, bending a dislodged rail track into place just before a train (carrying Lois and Jimmy) speeds past. Clark could have done the deed himself whilst no-one was looking, almost as a throw-away gag; here, he wastes precious seconds changing costume, when no-one is around to see anyway.

The next few episodes see Clark join the Daily Planet in time-honored style; scooping Lois and creating a good-natured (at least on his part) rivalry. Shortly we are introduced to kryptonite, and it’s devastating effect on an unaware Clark. These essential story elements are nicely paced in between the cave in rescues and clashes with the Spider Lady’s henchmen. Viewers may be surprised by just how much of a back seat Lois takes – she is simply here to push the main plot set up the super heroics. Just as in the Golden Age comics, there is no hint of romance between her and the Man of Steel beyond her telling Clark how wonderful he is, and Clark’s grudging, “I guess so.”

Kirk Alynn became the first Man of Steel on film, although he went uncredited, as Columbia studios advertised that he really was Superman, and not an actor. Alynn is all flamboyant gusto, and though without the gravitas of the later George Reeves, he makes a more dynamic hero. His performance is direct, unsubtle and physical; he bounds around, poses, and is constantly looking to launch himself into the sky or a pack of pin-suited goons. This is the Superman of Action Comics; no time for the more reserved Men of Steel of later decades, this Superman is all about urgency and energy, and Alynn provides it. It would be churlish to criticize him for not providing anything but two-dimensional heroism; the script and the comics of the time never called for anything but an invincible archetype. He also brings a certain boyish naivety that perfectly illustrates his motivation; even when strong-arming thugs for information, he never comes across as threatening so much as extremely eager to do the right thing. Big blue boyscout indeed. Paradoxically, Alynn is one of the older actors to play the role (37 when cast) and his age brings an assurance and that younger Supermen such as Dean Cain and Brandon Routh lack.

Alynn makes a charmingly low-key Clark Kent, and adds a sly knowingness, sharing an in-joke with the audience at Lois and Jimmy’s expense. And in either fedora and glasses or cape and boots, he makes the spitting image of Jerry Schuster’s illustrations; take any freeze frame from the serial, and a perfect comic panel could have been traced from it. When Alynn takes to the skies, he literally is traced, becoming a rotoscoped cartoon figure as he shoots the the sky, and becoming the actor again upon landing. It’s an odd, lo-fi precursor to the CGI superheroes of today. It’s often laboriously done, with the animated Superman landing behind a rock or a car, and Alynn running out. On one occasion however, the switch is made as he flies through a door, Alynn arriving in a explosion of balsa wood. It’s a neat moment which illustrates the energy effective editing can create.

Every convention of the first ten years of Superman is recreated here effectively. Though the latter chapters merge into one through sheer repetitiveness, there is often a spark of action or humour, or simply an inventive camera angle, to break up the formula. The sets and score are stock, of course; the special effects no more than adequate and the acting largely one-take primitive. Certainly all these elements can be enjoyed for what they are, or taken in the spirit they were made; serials are paced so that they race past so fast the audience has no time to focus on such irrelevancies as production design, or plot holes. it’s hard to imagine the eager eight year old audiences of the time caring about anything but whether Superman will rescue Lois this time, and nor should you.

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