Judge Maurice Cobbs gets his powers from a strange mix of X-Kryptonite and Tang.
"Golly, Mr. Kent, you'll never know how wonderful it is to be like Superman!"—Jimmy Olsen
In the wake of Brian Singer's super-revival of the Superman film franchise and the nearly endless (and much-deserved) praise of the earlier Christopher Reeve classics, it's easy to get caught up in weighty analyses of the Superman mythos and what the character has come to represent, especially to a generation that outwardly scoffs at the concept of heroes while desperately seeking them out in still-vibrant memories of childhoods spent at the movies and in front of the boob tube. Certainly, Superman has ingrained himself in the fabric of those golden memories of youth. Even most people who wouldn't consider themselves comic book fans can dredge up some favorite Superman memory, whether they wide-eyed with wonder in the theater, or bombed on sugary cereal Saturday mornings with the Superfriends, or maybe just jumping off the bed in those well-worn Superman Underoos on the off chance that maybe—just maybe—the cape really would let you fly. There is much that can be said about Superman's place in the public psyche. But this reviewer is having none of it.
If we begin to deconstruct Superman, he loses much of his power to amaze us. It's the equivalent of insisting on knowing how magic tricks are performed: before long, the whole thing ceases to be amazing and starts to seem…ordinary. Foolish, even. We have been conditioned to believe that the idea of a hero like Superman is corny and unrealistic—but so what? Who wants a realistic Superman? The concept is an oxymoron. Superman has little to do with reality. He defies physics; he defies gravity. He transcends the limits of our frail physiology, sees what we cannot, hears what we cannot, walks through fire and is not burned. Reality is what is. Superman is what we wish reality could be like. Why drag him down and hog-tie him with realism?
This, then, is the charm of The Adventures of Superman. It's Superman as Superman ought to be. Crooks ought to be quickly identifiable by their gaudy clothes, and dispatched just by banging their heads together. Someone ought to be able to get there just in the nick of time, smashing through a wall to head off certain disaster. Someone ought to be there when things go wrong to make things right again. And with George Reeves in the familiar red and blue, you'd better believe that someone always will.
Facts of the Case
Rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist father moments before the destruction of his home planet, and raised in Kansas by the loving elderly couple who discovered his crashed rocket ship, Kal-El, last son of Krypton, grew up to discover that under the Earth's yellow sun he possesses powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Although he walks among us in the disguise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, whenever heartless criminals exploit the helpless and unfortunate he leaps into action to stamp out the evil geniuses of crime and corruption as Superman, waging his never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.
In this collection, Superman (George Reeves, So Proudly We Hail!) contends with everything from a deadly kryptonite ray to an elaborate speed trap racket, a mysterious cult, a kryptonite-powered robot, and…a mind-reading burro (?), not to mention the usual assortment of cigar-chomping hoodlums, Commie thugs, and scientific menaces. Yet he still finds time to rescue his friends Lois Lane (Noel Neill, Invasion USA), Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson, The Young Swingers), and Perry White (John Hamilton, On The Waterfront) from certain doom (and their own poor judgment) time and time again. These are the episodes included in the set:
Much like the material that inspired it, The Adventures of Superman is filled with wild coincidences, outlandishly impossible science, and tongue-in-cheek humor. While not as hard-boiled as the admittedly superior episodes from the first two seasons, the shows in this collection are also not quite as campy as the ones from the third and fourth seasons; the result is a pleasing blend that practically reeks of classic silver-age Superman. For instance, there's the diminutive Martian imp called "Mr. Zero," who bears more than a passing resemblance to the extradimensional pain-in-the-neck Mxyzptlk (say it with me: Mix-yez-pit-lick). I can think of half a dozen comic covers from that era that might have been a perfect fit for "Superman's Wife" (not a dream! not a hoax! not an imaginary story!). In fact, those in the know may suspect that the episode "Divide and Conquer" had more than a little influence on the strangely similar Superman #162, the now-legendary "Superman Red, Superman Blue" story.
Like the Superman comics of the era, these stories began to move toward outlandish science fiction in the late Fifties; it seems that every other episode featured a wacky or deadly invention that presents some incredible new challenge, such as the elaborate kryptonite ray from "The Magic Secret," or Jimmy Olsen's own homemade antigravity formula from "Whatever Goes Up." Many of these nutty devices sprang from the mind of the dotty inventor Professor Pepperwinkle (played by prolific character actor Phil Tead), a recurring character whose off-the-wall creations seemed to fall into the wrong hands with maddening regularity—such as his so-called de-atmosphering chamber, in "The Phony Alibi," which makes it possible for humans to travel by telephone, or his mysterious gold-making device from "All That Glitters." And when the absent-minded super-genius is feeling a little lonely, he builds Mr. McTavish, a towering kryptonite-powered robot who is friendly enough—that is, until gangsters get their grubby paws on his control unit and use it to bring Superman to his knees. Meanwhile, Professor La Serne (Everett Glass, The Thing from Another World) advises Superman on how to achieve amazing feats, such as dividing himself in two ("Divide and Conquer"), and even how to phase through solid matter ("The Mysterious Cube").
Other episodes bring the humor and adventure of the comics to vivid life, such as "The Perils of Superman," in which a gang of masked bad guys with a flair for serial deathtraps keep the Man of Steel on the run by placing Lois in the path of an oncoming train, sending Jimmy to his doom in a sabotaged automobile, tying Perry to a log that's headed for a wicked buzz saw—and dipping Clark Kent in a vat of deadly acid! George Reeves himself directed this episode, as well as two others in the final season: "The Brainy Burro" and "All That Glitters."
While the show itself holds up wonderfully for lovers of comic-book adventure and blatant fantasy, these DVD transfers, alas, do not. The picture is inconsistent at best, with some scenes in fairly good color and clarity, and others faded, grainy, and scratched. The opening titles are particularly messy, but not so much that it detracts from enjoyment of the set—in fact, some might even argue that this is the only proper way to watch these gems of classic television. No complaint can be made about the audio, however; given the age of the material, the mono sound is perfectly clear and markedly lacking in noise or background hiss. Little is provided here in the way of special features; as with the set that preceded this one, there are no commentaries, and the collection's lone featurette is a brief retrospective on "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen." If you've picked up any of the previous sets, you'll know what to expect.
The Adventures of Superman was on track to continue for at least two more years, despite the death of John Hamilton; plans were laid to introduce Perry White's brother, to be played by frequent guest star Pierre Watkin (who had actually portrayed Perry in the two Columbia Superman serials). As far as that goes, not even George Reeves's death was enough to put an end to Superman on TV, at least in the eyes of the show's producers. It was morbidly suggested that Jack Larson star in a new series: "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen," which would feature Superman in stock footage culled from the show, with a Reeves look-alike to be filmed from behind when new scenes were needed.
To his credit, Larson refused.
I flew to the coast where Superman's ghost lay shot on the bedroom
There are other, better places to read about the tragic and, some maintain, mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of George Reeves; for the benefit of the interested, the curious, or the morbid, I have included a link for your perusal. But to focus on those tragic events here somehow seems wrong. Superman has been redefined for each generation since he first appeared on screen in 1948, portrayed with enthusiasm by Kirk Alyn. Christopher Reeve brought a verisimilitude to the role that ushered Superman into the special-effects-savvy post-Star Wars era, and each actor from Dean Cain to Tom Welling has brought new dimensions and attitudes to the character. But if any portrayal of Superman can be labeled the "classic" portrayal, it must be the George Reeves version. His Superman is a man of action, to be sure; but also a man of compassion and integrity, and no small amount of humor. His Clark Kent is mild-mannered without being goofy or inept—and every now and then, he reminds us that we are in on the secret too, with a knowing wink to the camera. Literally.
Despite his growing dissatisfaction with the role that would be indelibly linked with him, Reeves took his status as the personification of an American icon seriously. By all accounts, Reeves was gentlemanly, polite, and considerate to everyone he worked with, and charmed everyone with his humor and friendliness. He made sure to never be seen drinking or smoking when children were around, and took great care to keep his personal affairs private. He gave hope to countless numbers of people through his charity work as chairman of the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America, his work for the City of Hope cancer research hospital and the Los Angeles chapter of United Cerebral Palsy, and through personal appearances on behalf of various charities, as well as through visits to sick and maimed children. In these endeavors, Reeves understood and embodied the essence of what Superman stands for.
Some readers will remember 1962's Superman issue #156. Believing himself to be fatally infected by the Kryptonian super-disease Virus X, the Man of Steel uses his heat vision to carve a farewell message to the world on the side of the moon: "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman." This is undeniably Superman's greatest power. Bending steel with his bare hands and leaping tall buildings in a single bound was merely the frosting on the cake. Superman is the man who makes a difference; who acts when no one else will; who stands up for what he believes in no matter how many others stand against him; who understands what it means to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good individual. A man need not change the course of mighty rivers in order to change the world for the better—he need only take the initiative and take action. This is the lesson that Superman teaches us all.
Reeves understood that we did not need a Superman to save us, but that we perhaps needed a Superman to inspire us to save ourselves. It is in this way that Reeves, though his portrayal of Superman and in the example he set in his own life, inspired and captivated a nation, and continues to influence people around the world.
Don't miss the next thrill-packed episode in the Adventures of Superman. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2007 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.