A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season, part three
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1952-1953
By Dan Toland
13 November 2008 — Superman was doubtless the most popular comic book superhero of his day; out of all of comics, only Batman and Wonder Woman can join him in laying claim to starring in their own title which maintained a regular schedule between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Silver Age, marked by the debut of Barry Allen in Showcase #4. His success on the newsstand led to an incredibly popular radio series, starring Clayton "Bud" Collyer, which ran from 1940 to 1951. It was in this medium that the character's popularity really started to take off. And when radio producer Robert Maxwell took the property to television, the Superman craze reached stratospheric levels. When the series finally went off the air in 1958, Superman had achieved the status of global icon. Yeah, television'll do that.
The Evil Three
Writer: Ben Peter Freeman
The Plot: On a fishing trip, Perry and Jimmy land at a crappy hotel that may or may not (more likely not) be haunted.
Good Stuff: When we get to the hotel, two of the "Evil Three" get into a brawl for literally no reason. Seriously, one of them springs out of nowhere and attacks the other one, and they roll around smashing stuff for five minutes. Like Kato and Inspector Clouseau. (That's not the good part. That's actually kinda dumb.) That fight is pretty cool, though. If that hotel didn't look like a garbage warehouse before, it did afterwards.
Perry spends the first half of the episode thundering at Jimmy, as per usual, but when Jim is really upset at having seen a ghost (the realization of which is too stupid for words, by the way), Perry is actually very gentle with him.
Jimmy holds his own against two men at once. At least for this first season, Jim was frequently portrayed as being capable of handling himself up to a point (as opposed to later seasons, or in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, where he needed to call on Superman whenever he couldn't remember whether to push or pull the bathroom door).
You know someone's evil when they push an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.
Not So Good Stuff: Except for a very brief phone call about five minutes in, Reeves doesn't appear in this episode until 18 minutes in. The nature of the program meant that he was the only cast member who couldn't take episodes off, so it's understandable that there are going to be occasions where he's not used so much. He's missed here, though.
Perry walks into a festering hellhole of a hotel, filled with broken furniture, no electricity and a manager who looks like he's sizing up Jimmy to see if he has enough skin to make a coat out of, and insists on staying there when even the manager says there's a much better hotel five miles away.
I swear, Shaggy from Scooby Doo doesn't scare as easily as Jimmy Olsen.
Random Observations: The old owner of the Hotel Bayou was named George Taylor. George Taylor was the name of the Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Star, the newspaper Lois and Clark wrote for back in Action Comics #1, before the current cast and setting were nailed down.
Overall: This is a totally average episode with a few good bits sprinkled in. The Perry / Jimmy pairing is good and Reeves is dynamic whenever he actually appears, but the storyline is kinda blah. And they forgot to let Jimmy be funny: 6 out of 10.
The Riddle of the Chinese Jade
Writer: Ben Peter Freeman
The Plot: Clark and Lois are at the scene when a priceless jade statue is stolen from Chinese merchant Lu Sung.
Good Stuff: Victor Sen Yun, as Harry Wong, is really good. He's a very likable actor, and apparently a pretty good stuntman to boot.
George Reeves and Robert Shayne work well together. Clark all but takes over the investigation of the theft, and Inspector Henderson is none too pleased.
Not So Good Stuff: Gloria Saunders, as Lu Sung's niece is about as Asian as I am.
Overall: There's not a lot to this show (hence the lack of much description), but nevertheless I was kept pretty entertained. The script is quite good, and the cast has a fun time with it: 8 out of 10.
The Human Bomb
Writer: Richard Fielding
The Plot: A couple of guys with way too much money have a wager that one of them can control Superman for 30 minutes. His plan involves Lois, a vest of dynamite and a ledge outside the Daily Planet building.
Good Stuff: It's a decent script, and one in which the entire cast is given something to do.
Butler, the titular Human Bomb, says the most sensible thing in the history of women-in-peril stories; when he notices that the reason Lois keeps almost falling off the ledge is her damned high heels, he makes her remove them so she doesn't plummet.
Jimmy is carved from pure awesomeness in this one. He isn't about to let Lois get hurt, so his response is to run out on the ledge and start swinging a golf club at the guy covered in nitroglycerine.
Superman picks a bad guy up and carries him around like a sack of potatoes. Later, he catches a falling body in midair. The latter is less than successfully realized, but they made some headway showing off Superman's abilities.
Not So Good Stuff: This guy's "human bomb" outfit has to be seen to be believed. A tartan waistcoat with little compartments sewn in for his dynamite, those puffy riding pants and knee-high boots.
Reeves' suit is kinda bunched up and stretched out. It's all saggy in the, um, shorts region.
Overall: This one is a lot of fun. It helps not to delve too deeply into it: 8.5 out of 10.
Czar of the Underworld
Writer: Eugene Solow
The Plot: Kent and Henderson go to Hollywood to see the making of a movie that will expose Luigi Dinelli, a notorious mob boss.
Good Stuff: Holy crap, these gangsters actually shoot guns and kill people. I didn't think that was allowed.
Reeves doesn't duck when someone throws his empty gun at him.
Not So Good Stuff: So, wait. Kent wrote an article about the mob. This article was so amazing that they're making a movie about it. Do both Kent and Inspector Henderson really need to fly to California to oversee the shooting of this movie? And why exactly is Henderson convinced that this movie is what will put mob boss Dinelli behind bars? Isn't that kind of his job? Did the head of the FBI walk out of The Departed saying to himself, "Well, that's all the evidence I needed! Let's go arrest Whitey Bulger!"
Henderson: Kent! They just tried to kill you!
Kent: So? We might miss our plane!
There's a good minute or two of stock footage featuring airplanes on runways, airplanes flying, airplanes landing and people getting off airplanes.
Superman carries Dinelli around like a rag doll. Oh, wait. That is a rag doll.
Random Observations: The film in question is being made by National Studios; as already mentioned, National was then the name of the company now called DC Comics. (Yeah, it's a stretch, but I gotta fill these things.)
Overall: The basic plot of this episode is almost totally brainless, but it still manages to entertain. Again, it really doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, but if you go along with it, it's moderately amusing: 7 out of 10.
Writer: Dick Hamilton
The Plot: The logging camp that supplies the Planet with its paper is terrorized by a werewolf, which is sort of like a ghost wolf.
Good Stuff: George Reeves yells "Great Scott!" I don't know why, but I love it.
Superman holds up a bridge, preventing a bullet train from crashing into the gorge. You know, it's not like the episodes where Superman punches out gangsters aren't fun, but it's always really great to see him doing Superman stuff.
Phyllis Coates is freaking amazing. She's so good in this role.
The forest fire scenes work much better than they have any right to.
Not So Good Stuff: I knew this episode was going to be about logging when the first four minutes — that's 17% of your episode, folks — was stock footage of trees being chopped down.
Jacques Olivier, that world famous Canadian logger, has a French accent that is almost, but not quite, as authentic as Pepe le Pew.
That airplane stock footage from the last episode is back, and better than ever.
Overall: Another goofy premise executed well. There's more stock footage in this than I'd like, but the regulars are great, most of the guest cast does well and Superman saves one of those lemurs so commonly seen in the Pacific Northwest: 8 out of 10.
Writer: Ben Peter Freeman
The Plot: As a crime wave (see the title) hits Metropolis, the Daily Planet declares war on the city's organized crime, enlisting Superman.
Good Stuff: In the opening two minutes we see a hijacking, a bank robbery, a truck plunging into the river, an armored car explosion and a warehouse worker being crushed by an oncoming truck. That's what I'm talking about! Metropolis is like Gotham City here.
There's a montage of the Metropolis police department kicking ass and taking names. Superman's helping, to be sure, but it looks like the force can actually solve cases on their own.
This is probably the best-directed episode all season. It looks fantastic, and the pace is kept moving very fast.
This is easily the only episode all year in which Reeves is dressed as Superman more than Clark.
For the first time, after 24 episodes, Superman is actually put in some degree of danger.
Not So Good Stuff: The Daily Planet announces its campaign to end crime in Metropolis. To wit, they've enlisted the support of Inspector Henderson and the entire Metropolis police department. That's cool, because fighting crime is kind of their job.
Much of the scenes involving Superman's war on crime are made of clips from past episodes. Recycling is nothing new on this show — there are a grand total of three clips of Superman flying, and maybe four or five takeoffs — but it never seems as unnecessary as it does here.
Random Observations: There's a newsagent selling papers at his stand; behind him is a display of issues of Superman, Action Comics, World's Finest Comics, Detective Comics, Batman and, well, Mutt and Jeff, which at the time was also being published by National Comics.
Overall: Okay, all those episodes where nothing happened? That's because all of it's in this one. It literally starts the second the opening finishes, and doesn't stop until the closing credits. This was produced as the season ender, and all the stops were pulled out. Absolutely fantastic: 9.5 out of 10.
Disc four is one of the more consistent discs in the set. There are no really bad episodes here, and "Chinese Jade," "Human Bomb" and especially "Crime Wave" are all excellent.
The Unknown People
Writer: Richard Fielding
The Plot: Clark and Lois come to the world's deepest oil well just in time to watch it get closed down, which might be because there's a bunch of midgets in bald caps living down there.
Good Stuff: It's impossible to view this and not point at the historical parallels. The basic moral, that "Morlocks are people too," is obviously a reference to the vigilantism so depressingly common in the pre-civil rights era and McCarthyism. This is surprisingly adult for its subject matter.
There's a great scene in which Superman faces the lynch mob, which culminates in a fantastic "I have had precisely enough of this shit" look on Reeves' face.
Wait a minute — the Mole Men have a weapon of some kind — is that a special effect? I think it is!
Not So Good Stuff: Apparently, the Earth only goes down about six miles. After that, it's hollow. Okay.
Unlike the takeoffs and landings, actual flight is mostly off-screen, except in one instance where it's animated, like in the Kirk Alyn serials.
Random Observations: This is an edited version of Superman and the Mole Men, the original pilot that had been released theatrically in 1951. This was the first feature-length movie featuring Superman or any comic book superhero.
Overall: It's one of the better stories. As I said, it's a lot deeper than most episodes of Adventures of Superman. It can also be kind of slow and plodding. Moreover, Coates is a little on the shrill side, and doesn't have a lot to do. Still, when it's good, it's very good: 8.5 out of 10.
"The Unknown People" is the only story on disc five. It also contains the uncut theatrical version of Superman and the Mole Men, as well as the short documentary Adventures of Superman: From Inkwell to Backlot, featuring interviews with Jack Larson, Paul Levitz, Dan DiDio, Alex Ross, Leonard Maltin and more. There are also several Kellogg's commercials, all of which depict George Reeves spying on kids. And most interestingly of all, the 1940 short film Pony Express Days, a western in which a very young Reeves played Buffalo Bill Cody, who almost singlehandedly prevented California from joining the Confederacy with his mad mail delivering skills.
Final Verdict: If you're going to rent any disc, rent disc four. As stated, it's easily the most consistently entertaining disc in the set, and contains "Crime Wave," which is far and away the best show of this year — and probably of the entire series.
The show lasted six seasons, and was contracted to go on for a seventh in 1959, with arrangements being made to have series star Reeves direct several episodes. However, these plans were ultimately shelved when Reeves died in June of that year of a gunshot wound, under circumstances they're still puzzling out. While many of Reeves' friends, including most of his fellow Superman cast members, could point to all the reasons George couldn't have done it to himself (he was preparing to direct his first feature film, his increased directorial duties on Superman had been something he lobbied hard for, the forensic evidence was inconclusive and Reeves' private life involved an affair with a married woman with mob connections), the death was ruled, and most likely was, a suicide. While never publicly diagnosed as such, Reeves showed classic signs of depression, and was inconsolable at the fact that his acting career, which he placed great value on, had gone from small parts in Gone with the Wind and Samson and Delilah to wrestling on the state fair circuit in blue tights and a cape. While Reeves was incredibly gracious to his young fans at his countless public appearances, and honestly enjoyed and appreciated the kids who came to see him, the incredible success of his portrayal of the Man of Steel cemented him in that role in the public's mind, and led to his inability to find meaningful roles that didn't involve wearing a cape. When Noel Neill said that she had spoken to Reeves two days before he died and that he was excited about going back to work on the series, Jack Larson simply said, "Anyone who thought another season of Superman would make George Reeves happy didn't know George."
It's very difficult to watch this show and not focus on the tragic way in which it ended. However, if you can push that out of your mind for a while, Adventures of Superman was a television landmark that formed the first, tentative step towards respectability for adaptations of comic book characters. The budget is low, and the tone would become sillier and more childish as the years went on, but, especially here in this first season, the cast never treated the material like anything other than serious drama. And for all the issues it caused, Reeves' portrayal of Superman was positively iconic; it would be nearly 20 years before Christopher Reeve would make his own mark on the character (and, alas, run into similar problems with typecasting).