A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season, part one
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1952-1953
By Dan Toland
30 October 2008 — Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
"Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"
Yes, it's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers! Bend steel in his bare hands! And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!
Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season
Episodes / DVDs: 26 episodes on five discs
Starring: George Reeves as Clark Kent / Superman, Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane
Featuring: Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White, Robert Shayne as Inspector William Henderson
Created in 1951, although it wouldn't air until the following year, Adventures of Superman was the first of its kind. While not the first actor to put on the costume, George Reeves, a former player in Gone with the Wind, was Superman in the mind of millions of baby boomers who watched him smile his way through scheme after scheme, gangster after gangster, rescuing Lois and Jimmy along the way. The man personifies Curt Swan's Superman to an extent that borders on frightening.
It's no secret that Reeves was desperately unhappy at the fact that his career had, in his mind, sunk to the point of taking a lead in a kids' show. As popular as Superman was in the early 1950s, he was far from being the American institution he is today. But Reeves never showed it. He was a trouper in every sense of the word. While this is a kids' show, and must be viewed in that mindset, this first year, filmed in black and white, was actually a lot straighter than the sheer goofiness that came later along with color film. Superman spends the entire season fighting gangsters and criminals, but they all look like they mean business and actually offer some palpable threat.
Until Dean Cain came on the scene and tried his hardest not to embarrass himself, this was it. This was Superman on TV. Yes, it looks cheaply made, with Superman shoving around an awful lot of foam rubber boulders. Yes, he flies by laying on a bench while a fan blows in his face. And yes, it can get pretty cornball. But I don't care. George Reeves is Superman.
And no, I didn't see this first run.
Superman on Earth
Writer: Richard Fielding
The Plot: Convinced the planet Krypton is about to explode, scientist Jor-El sends his infant son to safety by shoving him into a rocket and exploding it out from under him. (You know, we really don't give this origin story nearly enough critical thought.)
Good Stuff: The destruction of Krypton is pretty exciting, in a B movie sort of way. And they get to it fast; Krypton doesn't last six minutes into the episode.
Not So Good Stuff: You know you study too hard when a member of Krypton's Science Council says so. Apparently, they don't like their scientists to get too bogged down with, you know, science. Jeez, no wonder this planet blew up.
There's a scene with a young Clark in which he's dressed like a kid from the 1950s, in a leather bomber jacket and rolled-up jeans. That's fine, until you think about it for a minute and realize that a Clark who was fully grown in 1951 would have been 12 in the late 1930s.
This isn't limited to this series, but to the Superman story as a whole: Ma Kent makes his costume out of the blanket he came to Earth in, and it's totally impervious to fire and acid and all that, but she can cut and sew it with a pair of scissors she gets at Woolworth's?
Random Observations: The opening narration of the episode is lifted almost directly from the Fleischer cartoons.
The Kents are named Sarah and Eben, not Martha and Jonathan. They had been named Sarah and Eben in The Adventures of Superman, a novel written in 1942 by George Lowther. They would not receive their more familiar first names in the comics until the 1950s; prior to that, "Ma and Pa Kent" is what they were generally called.
Overall: The first 10 minutes or so are a lot of fun, as Jor-El, in his Flash Gordon costume, hurries to get his son off the planet as the walls fall down around him. After that, we get a lot of farmers talking to each other and expositional narration over stock footage of cows. This show grew out of the radio series, and this reads like a radio script that happens to have a camera filming it; everything's getting explained all the time. Reeves plays a very strong Kent, although he gets virtually no time in the Superman suit and the end is rushed. It starts off strong, gets kind of flat and just sort of ends: 6.5 out of 10.
The Haunted Lighthouse
Writer: Eugene Solow
The Plot: Jimmy Olsen gets into various shenanigans at his Aunt Louisa's house on a spooky island off the coast of Maine.
Good Stuff: Jack Larson is a very good actor, and his Jimmy Olsen somehow manages to be the most "gee-whiz" of them all, while simultaneously being the least irritating (I'm looking at you, Marc McClure). This series, and Larson's portrayal, is what launched Jimmy's popularity in the comics to the degree that he became Superman's de facto sidekick and got him his own title, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. That's right, without Jack Larson, there would be no Darkseid. You heard it here first.
There's a point where Superman has to bend some bars. Instead of straining and theatrically pulling them apart slowly, the way it was usually done, he just moves them aside quickly and matter-of-factly, treating it like the everyday task it would have to be when you have Lois and Jimmy in your entourage.
Not So Good Stuff: Jimmy reacts awfully well to having his cousin throw a knife at him. In fact, everyone is treating him pretty miserably, yet he doesn't seem to think anything of it.
The second episode of a brand new show is way too early for the main character to not make an appearance until almost halfway through.
Random Observations: The opening narration is provided by Reeves himself.
Overall: This isn't bad. It never slows down; there are really no quiet moments, although you do have to wonder why it takes Jimmy so long to realize there's something fishy going on when everyone goes completely berserk at the thought he might wander near the old lighthouse. It's as lightweight as anything else in the set, but it has its moments: 7 out of 10.
The Case of the Talkative Dummy
Writers: Dennis Cooper and Lee Backman
The Plot: Clark and Lois investigate a string of armored car robberies, while some ventriloquist somewhere else has a dummy that's started talking on its own. Yeah, I know.
Good Stuff: Jack Larson gives the best "nobody lets me do anything" plaintive wail in television history. "Awwwwwwwww, jeepers!"
The music in this is pretty good.
This is one of the few episodes that shows Superman taking off from the ground. The wires that allowed this stunt were extremely painful, and when Reeves hurt his groin on one occasion, Superman was only shown diving out the window or jumping onto a springboard off screen.
"Jim? After this, a word of advice: stay out of other peoples' safes."
Not So Good Stuff: The ventriloquist in this story is awful. Jeff Dunham and Peanut would totally kick this guy's ass in whatever kind of rumbles ventriloquists get into.
So, the dummy starts talking on his own. And the ventriloquist naturally assumes that he now has a talking dummy. It doesn't occur to him that there might be someone in the audience throwing his voice. Nope. Naturally, Pinocchio is turning into a real boy. It's the only logical explanation.
No one can figure out how hijackers are tracking down the armored cars. After all, nobody knows about the sealed orders containing their times of departure and routes traveled except the president of the armored car company and his extremely shifty / obviously evil assistant.
Random Observations: Jimmy, if my middle name were "Bartholomew," I'd probably keep it to myself.
Overall: So, this episode hinges on a plot in which criminals follow a ventriloquist on his cross-country tour for secret messages from his dummy. Even for a kids' show, this was dumb. And it took two people to write this: 3 out of 10, and all three of those points belong to Larson.
The Mystery of the Broken Statues
Writer: William C. Joyce
The Plot: A couple of guys go around to antique shops, buy a bunch of My Little Pony statues and break them. Lois smells a Pulitzer!
Good Stuff: Even Clark is like, "The hell?"
The flying sequence is actually not half bad. I think the black and white really helps.
Phyllis Coates makes an awesome Lois. She's been kidnapped and browbeaten by the bad guys of the week, and her response? She suddenly, out of nowhere, busts a bottle over the boss' head and breaks for the door. She's now officially my third favorite Lois.
Not So Good Stuff: The mystery in question is pretty convoluted, if still kinda clever.
Overall: Solid episode. Suffers from a distinct lack of Jimmy. Kinda goofy: 6.5 out of 10.
The Monkey Mystery
Writers: Ben Peter Freeman and Doris Gilbert
The Plot: Who cares? Monkeys!
Good Stuff: The story of the daughter of a scientist, labeled an enemy of the state, fleeing from the Red Menace to Metropolis, is pretty dark.
John Hamilton was easily the best Perry White ever. The man could pitch a fit like no other.
Not So Good Stuff: So, the scientist tells his daughter to give the locket he's sending her with to the President of the United States. "To him, no other." You bet, pop. No worries. How hard could that be?
There's an organ grinder with a monkey dressed in a Superman costume. (So far, so good.) The monkey gives fortunes to people as part of his act. (Got it.) Looks like the grinder is also part of the Polish spy network tracking down the scientist's daughter. (Okay.) The organ grinder keeps the daughter's travel plans, which they've managed to find, in the same box as the fortunes. (This is where you start to lose me.) Imagine my surprise when Lois asks the organ grinder for a fortune, and the monkey hands her the secret plans instead. This, folks, is why we won the Cold War.
Overall: If you can wrap your brain around the silliness of a monkey in a Superman costume, this is pretty good. As stated, the opening scenes are dark, and the stunts are pretty good. And though this episode had to have been killing him inside, Reeves never once lets it show: 8 out of 10.
A Night of Terror
Writer: Ben Peter Freeman
The Plot: Lois wanders into a motel held captive by gangsters.
Good Stuff: Another really good turn by Coates and Larson.
This episode must have done something right, because while Superman was flying around checking out leads, and the bad guys got closer and closer to killing Lois and Jimmy, I actually found myself wondering if Superman would get there in time. Which I admit is kinda dumb.
As brief as it is, the fight at the end is done really well.
Not So Good Stuff: Dude! Some thug just punched Lois right in the face!
Almira Sessions, as the secretary, needs a Valium. Oh, so much screeching.
It's really wrapped up a little too quickly.
Random Observations: Metropolis seems to be near Chicago. The local baseball team is the White Sox, and both Lois and Jimmy are fans.
Clark is following a lead on the Ellsworth jewel robbery. Whitney Ellsworth was an editor at National Periodical Publications (the name for the company that would become DC Comics) and was the liaison between National and the producers of Adventures of Superman.
Overall: This was actually pretty tense in spots. There wasn't a lot of Reeves to be had, but the strong supporting cast goes some way to making up for it: 8.5 out of 10.
Disc one, while somewhat uneven, is a fairly good representation of the series. The final two episodes on the disc, both written by Ben Peter Freeman, are excellent.
The Birthday Letter
Writer: Dennis Cooper
The Plot: Superman is implicated in the disappearance of a disabled girl who had written to The Daily Planet asking to be flown to the fair.
Good Stuff: John Doucette, as Slugger, the kidnappers' dimwitted muscle, is a likable, childlike character who manages to somehow transcend his awful put-on Brooklyn accent.
I would probably still watch this show if Clark never took off his glasses. He's great in crusading reporter mode. There's nothing mild-mannered about Reeves' Clark at all.
Not So Good Stuff: Ze kidnappairs! Zey are French! Zut alors!
All you have to do is write a letter to the newspaper and Superman will do stuff for you?
"Dear Superman: My name is Dan Toland, and I am very sick. Well, I've had an earache I haven't been able to shake for a couple of weeks and my stomach kind of hurts, but that might be because I ate too many Hostess Fruit Pies for breakfast. I would like you to please fly me to Desmond Reddick's house so I can ring his doorbell and then fly away. Also, please pick up my dry cleaning and do some food shopping for me. Then we can buzz Reddick again. Thanks."
Random Observations: There's another reference to Metropolis being near Chicago. There's reason to believe the producers have set this show in the actual town of Metropolis, Illinois, which bills itself as the "Hometown of Superman" (although the actual Metropolis is a small town, not a major city).
Overall: This was fun. The kid gets pretty screechy, but if you can handle that, you'll enjoy this: 9 out of 10.
The Mind Machine
Writers: Dennis Cooper and Lee Backman
The Plot: A gangster and his men kidnap a scientist who's invented a machine capable of implanting suggestions into another person's mind, all while Lois prepares to testify against him.
Good Stuff: Other than Superman's origin, this machine is the first real science fiction element that's been on the series thus far.
Superman has to deal with a careening bus and a crashing plane! The budgetary limitations of the series didn't let Reeves handle this kind of classic Superman stuff often enough.
Not So Good Stuff: Lois has to testify, rather than just turning over her notes, because she didn't actually write any notes. I don't claim to be an expert on journalism, but I know you damn well better be able to produce your notes.
Random Observations: I love that Superman can deflect bullets, but has to duck when the bad guy throws his gun at him.
Overall: Another really fun one. Reeves gets all kinds of opportunities to stretch his legs, and this may be the first time we get a real sense of how powerful Superman is: 9 out of 10.
Writer: Monroe Manning
The Plot: Lois manages to get herself trapped in a mine while Superman's nowhere to be found.
Good Stuff: The scenes of the miners trying to dig their way into the mine to rescue Lois are really interesting. There's a lot of information about how mines work, what needs to happen and the dangers they face in their plans.
Not So Good Stuff: Honestly, it's Superman. They get through the whole episode without him, and when he comes in at the last minute and saves the day, it's kind of anticlimactic. I really wanted to see the rescue party do it.
Random Observations: Suddenly Metropolis is within driving distance of the Pennsylvania Coal Region?
The mine inspector's name is David Sims. Honest.
Overall: I liked this a lot. As I said, I actually would have liked it better if Superman hadn't saved Lois, but this was a well-crafted, tightly directed script: 8 out of 10.
And this is where we're gonna leave things for now. Next week we'll do another nine episodes, including the remainder of disc two. Until then, mind your mother and do your chores.