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The Adventures of Superman was produced from 1951 to 1957, and was the first filmed adventure series with special effects ever attempted for TV. The two major forces behind the series were a pair of very remarkable, creative men -- producer Robert Maxwell, and actor George Reeves. Maxwell had produced the Superman radio series in the 1940s. For the TV series he wanted something more adult and more dramatic than the recent Columbia movie serials with Kirk Alyn, and something more realistic than the previous cartoon or comic book renditions. He wanted an evening time slot for his series, and in order to achieve that he knew he must make his Superman appeal to adults, as well as to children.
The Superman that Robert Maxwell brought to television was tough, realistic, and totally committed to the all-out obliteration of crime, organized or otherwise. By the time he reached the screen there were no reminders whatsoever (except perhaps for his costume) that the character's roots lay in cartoons and comic magazines. Realized by classically-trained actor George Reeves, Maxwells flesh-and-blood Superman was a determined crime-buster who lived in the real world, got involved with real people, and fought real criminals. Some people complain that Reevess Superman bears little resemblance to the comic book character. But Maxwell knew the difference between the comic pages and film, and that characters and stories that might work well on the comic page simply wouldn't translate successfully to the more realistic medium of film. Maxwell knew the limits of what a 1950s adult TV audience would tolerate. So, realism and a heightened sense of drama permeated every aspect of his Superman.
Maxwell's unique concept of the character resembled a hard-boiled 1940s gangster movie more than a comic book superhero story. Many early episodes of the series were representative of the tough, realistic style that comprised Maxwell's vision: both "The Monkey Mystery" and "Double Trouble" featured Nazis left over from World War II as the heavies. "A Night of Terror" featured Frank Richards as a ruthless, squinty-eyed, scar-faced hoodlum right out of a 1930s film noir gangster film. "Mystery In Wax" resembles an old Universal horror movie, with its wax museum setting and the museum's insane proprietor (realized in spine-chilling fashion by actress Myra McKinney). "Crime Wave" is a non-stop collage of Superman flying, fighting, punching and strong-arming crooks in his attempt to aid the police in rounding up the ten most wanted crime bosses in Metropolis. And who can ever forget those marvelous brawls that took place practically every other episode, where Superman would forcefully fight off anywhere from 3 to 6 hoods at one time, littering the set with inert, unconscious bodies?
True to the original character as conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Maxwell's Superman was incredibly strong, but not unbelievably so. He could support a small, two-seater airplane on his back (as in the episode "The Mind Machine"), but he had to noticeably strain to do it. Such limitations in his powers served to make him more believable to adult viewers. And it created more drama as well. Maxwell's Superman had to work harder in order to achieve his purposes. But this just made us admire him all the more!
And Maxwell's TV dialogue fairly crackled. Can any viewer of the Superman movies imagine Christopher Reeve's Superman delivering a line like: "Tell me where they are or I'll break every bone in your body!"? (George Reeves did, in the TV episode "The Evil Three" -- and we believed he meant it!) Or can anyone picture Dean Cain (of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) delivering a response like: "I'm going to make you eat those words, doctor!" after being threatened by a law-breaking Nazi physician? (Again, Reeves did convincingly -- in the episode "Double Trouble".) This guy was serious! He meant business. God help any evildoer that got on his hit list. But isn't that just the type of guy we'd all like to have around when we're in a jam?
Maxwell's "rugged" approach was also evident in the other characters in the series. His Lois Lane, as personified by Phyllis Coates, was tough, realistic and daring. She could give any hardened bruiser in the series as good as she got -- and often did.
Likewise, Maxwell/Reeves's Clark Kent is no timid soul hes cut from the same dynamic cloth as any of the other "crusading journalist" characters of the 1940s and 50s. Some critics charge that George Reeves's portrayal of Clark Kent is too close to his Superman; that there isn't enough contrast between the two. But after all, they are the same person! Would anyone in the real world be able to act like a completely different person for half the day and then be himself the rest of the time? That kind of Jekyll/Hyde behavior would get old awful fast. Both Maxwell and Reeves knew that their Clark Kent had to be as realistic as any of the other characters in the TV program, or he just wouldn't be accepted by the audience (especially adults) on a weekly basis.
Robert Maxwell and George Reeves studiously tried to avoid a "comic book" come to life. They wanted to create something that was completely different in tone and style to what had come before. They wanted to take a flat "cartoon" character that appealed mainly to children out of the realm of the two-dimensional comic book page and totally recreate him in three-dimensional flesh and blood -- and in the process subject him to the same laws of traditional drama and adult realism that any other filmed adventure character would be answerable to. And they succeeded. Yes, the Adventures of Superman operated on a ridiculously low budget, even for a 1950s TV series. But Robert Maxwell made the most out of every single penny he was allowed to spend, and it showed in the performances. "Our TV work looked alive!" veteran film director Tommy Carr (who worked on the series) once said. Phyllis Coates echoed his sentiment: "We brought life to the character. You have to agree with that."
Did Maxwell and Reeves come up with something truly compelling in their unique interpretation of the Superman character? The fact that The Adventures of Superman still has a large and very loyal fan following after more than 60 years should certainly answer that question!
One of the most important stars ever to appear in The Adventures of Superman television program (starring George Reeves as The Man of Steel) was never mentioned in the end credits of that show during the programs entire six season run -- even though that star appeared in every single episode.
That star was Reevess Superman costume!
Since 1948 there have been about a half-dozen or so live portrayals of The Man of Steel. From Bob Holiday on Broadway in 1966 to Christopher Reeve in 1978 to Dean Cain in 1993, the Superman costumes these actors wore were very close in design to the classic version featured in DCs comic books. (A modern exception would be Brandons Rouths updated costume in 2006s Superman Returns.)
However, the Superman costume worn by George Reeves in the 1950s Superman television series differs from the classic comic book version in a number of ways, and for this reason it has always been instantly identifiable from all the rest.
Kirk Alyn was the first live actor to don a Superman costume on film, for the 1948 Columbia serial Superman. His costume was also quite close to the one featured in the comic books, but with a couple of significant changes. His boots were laced up the side to hold them together, unlike Supermans boots in the comic books. Also, the S shield on his chest was significantly different from the comic book version. Since Alyns costume was manufactured by Western Costume in Hollywood (the film capitals largest and most well-known costume house), it is to be assumed that some unnamed designer there came up with that unique S design. Hand cut out of a very thick felt material and hand sewn onto Alyns Superman shirts, the S shield was brown and white in color -- instead of the red and yellow of the comic books -- because these colors photographed better on black and white film (with which the serial would be shot). Alyn wore this same costume again for 1950s Atom Man vs. Superman.
When George Reeves took over the role of The Man of Steel in Lipperts Superman and the Mole Men in 1951, his costume was once again manufactured by Western Costume in the brown, gray and white colors of Alyns. The same S shield design that Alyn wore was also used by Reeves, presumably because Western simply reused the design template it had already created for Alyn. But Reevess costume differed in a number of ways from Alyns. Reevess boots zipped up in the back, instead of using the cheaper-looking side laces of Alyns outfit. But the most significant design change from Alyns outfit was in Reevess cape. Alyns attached directly to his shoulders, trying to simulate the look of the cape drawn in the comic books. However, someone at Western Costume apparently decided to re-design Reevess cape for Mole Men to give it a more classic look: unlike Alyns cape, Reevess attached at either side of the neckline of his shirt and hung down in the back, not unlike the cloaks worn by ancient Roman soldiers in movies of the time. This very distinctive design was kept for the entire run of the subsequent TV series. Also, the S shield on the back of the cape, even though it was depicted as all yellow in color in the comic books, was the same two-tone shade as the logo on Reevess shirt (both were sewn on by hand). Another difference: whereas Alyn was beefy enough to stand on his own (some say a little too beefy!), apparently Robert Maxwell, the producer of the television episodes, didnt feel that Reeves was quite muscular enough to be the Man of Steel -- so he had a t-shirt outfitted with rubber muscles which was worn under Reevess Superman shirt to give him larger shoulders and a bigger chest. This padding was tweaked and altered slightly a number of times over the years while the TV series remained on the air.
It has been reported that George went through about four costumes a year, with some spare parts also used along the way for torn S shields, snagged capes, etc. His costumes cost $500.00 each to manufacture -- which, in 2009, would translate to just over $4000.00 apiece! Reeves expert Jan Alan Henderson reports that, after inspecting both Kirk Alyns and George Reevess Superman boots at the Superman Museum in Metropolis, Illinois, he discovered that they both had four-inch lifts in them.
Some sources have reported that, at the end of each season of The Adventures of Superman, George would tear the S shield off his costume and burn it as a sort of year-end ritual. Both Noel Neill and Stephanie Shayne (Robert Shaynes daughter) have confirmed that George never did this. Ms. Shayne also confirmed that, to her knowledge, the only S shield George ever gave away to anyone was to her younger brother in 1953, on the set during the filming of The Man Who Could Read Minds.
In 1954 it was decided to film The Adventures of Superman in color. This necessitated more changes in Reevess costume. It was now made in the original comic book colors of red, blue and yellow, making Reeves the first actor to wear the costume on film in its original colors. Reevess S shield went through some minor variations too, and he was given much more extensive padding, making him appear much bulkier from the waist up (and more like artist Wayne Borings barrel-chested renditions in the contemporary comic book).
The many unique design elements of George Reevess Superman costume have always identified that outfit as specifically his, and because of this fact it deserves recognition all on its own as both a TV and pop culture classic!
Lou and Jim (May 19, 2012)
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