Judge Brett Cullum is faster than a speeding bullet, but—unfortunately—isn't more powerful than a locomotive.
Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with 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 made its television debut in 1952, with George Reeves in the title role and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Superman had appeared in movies, serial adventures, cartoons, a radio show, and (naturally) the comics he headlined. But here was the first television show about the super hero, aimed mainly at kids. Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season features the first twenty-six episodes; the "origin" story of how a young boy from Krypton came to The Daily Planet to save Metropolis and the Earth on a regular basis.
Facts of the Case
George Reeves tackles the dual role of Superman and his secret identity as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Phyllis Coates appears in her only season as the tough-as-nails Lois Lane, a reporter who would smack any man who dared to get fresh with her. Jack Larson is Jimmy Olsen, the young intern who provided the wide-eyed wonder and stood in for every kid who wanted to be near Superman. John Hamilton rakes everyone over the coals as Perry White, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper,. There is no Smallville teenage angst, no Terri Hatcher/Dean Cain romance, no fantastic special effects produced by the Salkinds, and no Lex Luthor. This is the "every episode stands on its own," "every special effect is obvious," and suit-bags-at-his-knees version of Superman. It's the one kids of the '50s loved to no end, and it still feels like the real deal half a century later.
Episodes in this set include:
This show is ham-fisted and goofy in the endearing way only television from the '50s could be. Adventures of Superman had low budgets, simple scripts, and a small ensemble of intense, dedicated actors to bring it to life every week. The show plays out more like a crime drama, rather than a series about a man with alien superpowers taking on fantastic foes against whom he is equally matched. There are no diabolical super villains—mostly, Metropolis seems to be filled with cigar-chomping two-bit mobsters for Superman to take on. Superman himself is squeaky clean, without much hint of romance or cynicism. He is a paragon of virtue, beyond even what we normally associate with the character. Yet as corny and whitewashed as it is, the show still works because of the kid trapped in all of us who wants to believe in a good guy who espouses patriotism and goodwill as rewards in and of themselves.
Superman has evolved as a character throughout the decades, much like his comic peers Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk. Seems every 20 years or so we get new myths, new backstories, and new circumstances for the hero to work in. They always reflect the time period he is in. Many people wonder why Adventures of Superman seemed to vary so much from the traditional comics lore started in the '30s. Sure, most of the common elements and powers were in place, but you'll notice patches here and there which vary from the written source material—no Lex Luthor, hardly any references to kryptonite, and Clark's Earth parents are named Eben and Sarah. Part of that had to do with the way the show was produced. The team that worked on bringing the show to the television screen had previously enjoyed a lot of success with the radio program. So those audio broadcasts, more than any other source, were the basis for the series. Another part of this has to do with the limitations of a live show produced in the '50s, which meant a small cast of recurring characters on the payroll. And there is also a sense of the time period, where gangsters in the inner city seemed the most viable villains.
Many fans of the television series contend this first season of Adventures of Superman was far and away the best of the batch. Everyone has a spark; an excitement to them that would be hard to carry on in later seasons. It is often rumored George Reeves got so frustrated with the typecasting he was subject to after the series became a hit that it affected his portrayal of the role (particularly when the show went to color). This dissatisfaction may have led to his suicide in 1959—though he was involved in a sordid affair which might be an equally likely source of his depression. Whatever the case may be, Reeves here in Superman's first season is in full superhero mode, ready for battle with a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step. You couldn't ask for a better actor in the role. Phyllis Coates plays Lois Lane differently from Noel Neill, who took over the role in Season Two. Phyllis is a peculiarly tough and competitive Lois, who seems able to take on the bad guys as well as our superhero in her own brassy way. She definitely doesn't play the girl next door or damsel in distress often in the series. She's an equal in many ways. Jack Larson plays Jimmy Olsen with a natural "Aw shucks!" charm that has since plagued the character long after the '50s ended. He is the audience for the show made flesh—a wide-eyed boy caught up in the mysteries and wondering constantly where they come from.
Part of what makes the first few seasons of Adventures of Superman feel so unique is that television was such a young medium at the time. Many of the actors had very respectable film careers: Reeves had been seen in Gone With the Wind, Coates was a B-movie queen, and both Larson and Hamilton were character actors. None of the leads were television actors by trade, and they never treated the medium as "lesser," even though they were seen as betraying the film industry for accepting parts in television. Most of them thought the show would never be aired, to be honest, and it was a shock to everyone when in its first season the series clobbered the competition to become the highest-rated show broadcast. They had to use old RKO sets on that studio's backlots, and frankly most of them were built for horror or film noir. There's a strange moodiness to the project as a result; almost a noir feel with a more upbeat theme. And the bad guys were all highly respected film actors of the era, so the supporting cast was as impressive as the main ensemble.
The series was unusual not only for its zippy fantasy content in a noir world, but also in how it was created as a business deal. Adventures of Superman was a show funded by cereal maker Kellogg, rather than completely owned and budgeted by a network. These episodes were shot in 1951, but not aired until after Kellogg stepped in to provide financial backing as a sponsor and producer. This means the series was one of the first syndicated shows, and set up an important model for future television programming. This version of Superman was originally a 1951 short feature film called Superman and the Mole Men, which is seen here both as a theatrical release on the bonus features as well as the two-part season climax. The film did well with kids, and was what made the series a possibility.
This set, Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season, presents twenty-six episodes of the show's freshman year, covering Superman's origins through his confrontation with the mole men. Transfers are clear, especially for the era. You can expect some scratches and grain, but on the whole this is a loving, respectful upgrade for the DVD format. Sound is in the original mono, but is also amazingly clear. The extras include a documentary on the creation of the series, which features Jack Larson, Leonard Maltin, and others. It's a fascinating discussion of how the show was developed, and how it evolved. Included is the theatrical cut of Superman and the Mole People, a short starring Reeves called Pony Express Days, and commentary on four episodes featuring two authors who know a lot about the show. The commentaries are playfully engaging, pointing out goofs and errors with a respectful glee. You also get vintage Kellogg cereal commercials featuring the cast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Modern viewers may have a hard time accepting this Superman. The show was never a high budget affair, and unfortunately DVD really shows its seams in the special effects (as opposed to the often fuzzy reception back in the days of early television). The series has a dated visual language for the "more is more" age we live in, where Superman Returns promises a CGI-enhanced spectacular. The acting is earnestly straightforward, and the stories are simple crimes resolved quickly and cleanly, often without too much use of Superman's powers. Often Adventures of Superman takes on a Hardy Boys Mystery quality in this set, which some people will find lacking. One man's charm is another's black-and-white bore. to be blunt.
George Reeves may not have been the first "Man of Steel," but he sure does feel like the guy who defined Superman for all others to come. Like Bela Lugosi's Dracula, his will always be the measure of any man looking to fill that famous red cape. He's an American icon, and this is one season of DVD on TV that rightfully belongs in any dreamer's collection. Look, up in the sky! It's a bird…it's a plane…
Guilty of inspiring countless generations of kids in bath towels to dive off roofs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Retrospective Documentary
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