TAC Table of Contents
And Who, Disguised as Clark Kent
Jules Feiffer, in my opinion, almost single-handedly started the nostalgia craze in the mid-sixties with his book The Great Comic Book Heroes. It contained an introduction and an afterword, but mostly it was a terrific reprint album of significant stories from what is termed the Golden Age of Comics.
Included was the two-page origin of Superman from the first issue of his own magazine and an early story. In his introduction, Feiffer discusses the differences between Superman and other heroes. I don't have a copy of the book, and I'm reconstructing this from a 51-year-old memory, so please bear with me. He said the main difference between Superman and Batman, for example, was that Batman had to go to the Bat Cave, put on his bat-costume, with his bat-utility belt, batrope, and Batarang, and drive off in the Batmobile in order to be Batman. All Superman had to do to be Superman was get up in the morning. In other words, Superman was the real thing; Clark Kent was the sham.
Feiffer's argument was that Bruce Wayne was real; Batman was the persona. Conversely, Superman was real and Clark Kent was a persona. Of course we know that the truth is a little more complicated for both these characters. The playboy Bruce Wayne is an act, not the real deal. For Superman, the reverse is true.
Feiffer, in other words, missed a point. Kal-El, strange visitor from another planet, grew up on Earth as Clark Kent. For twenty or more years he was the adopted son of a "kindly farm couple," variously called John and Mary, Jonathan and Martha, or Sara and Eban. While the "mild-mannered timidity" was a pose, all the rest of Clark Kent's personality was the real thing, a real person, as raised and nurtured by the Kents. As we shall see, this is a point that has not always been realized by the men who have portrayed the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman.
In the forties and fifties three men played the Man of Tomorrow: Bud Collyer, Kirk Alyn, and George Reeves. We're going to examine how each of these men played the roles, and see what each added to the Superman legend.
According to an interview with Clayton "Bud" Collyer, when plans were being made for the Superman radio show there was some discussion as to how the two roles were to be played. One approach was to hire two separate actors. Collyer won the role by using a tenor voice for Clark Kent and a deeper one for Superman. This was the origin of one of the signature lines for the character, as it was delivered in Collyer's metamorphosing voice: "This is a job FOR SUPERMAN!" The line was used as a signal in the radio scripts to symbolize the transformation of Kent into Superman.
My first encounter with Collyer's portrayal of Superman was in the series of Fleischer cartoons made in the forties and shown sporadically on fifties' TV. The cartoon Superman rarely spoke, so I don't recall if the change of voice, incorporating the signature line, made that much of an impression on me at the time. However, in the fall of 1966, a new series of Superman TV cartoons debuted on Saturday morning. The radio cast and several of the crew were re-united for this series, and much of the style of the radio show was used in the writing and approach. This provided an opportunity to analyze Collyer's portrayal.
On radio, you had to know what direction Superman was flying. This was handled by having Superman himself tell you. ("That destroyer is on fire! I must rescue the men! Down to the ship! Down!") A necessity of the radio show became a weird aberration in the TV cartoons, as the same vocal device was used as the cartoon Superman flew.
Collyer's approach to playing Superman was fairly serious. In the same interview, featured in a cassette of radio programs, he said that they had to approach the material with some degree of seriousness. They knew that it was pure fantasy, but they treated the material with respect. He said that if they had used a tongue-in-cheek approach it would have ruined the show. There was a degree of exaggeration, but no more so than in any other radio acting of the period.
Judging from some of the radio episodes I've heard, Clark was portrayed as a crusading reporter with a penchant for detective work. Inspector Henderson (a creation of the radio writers) was often at odds with Clark for interfering in his investigations. Of course, Clark's hunches often turned out to be right.
Odd things happened on the radio show that never would have happened in the TV series. In one serialized story, which included guest appearances by Batman and Robin, Lois is arrested for murder. Perry and Henderson seem too ready to accept Lois's guilt. Superman, with the help of his two Gotham City friends, uncovers the truth and sets her free. When Clark first tells Lois and Perry of Kryptonite, swearing them to secrecy, the two immediately plaster it on the front page of the Daily Planet. Our Lois and Perry would never do such a thing. The TV Jimmy only revealed the secret of Kryptonite while under truth serum.
The news about Kryptonite, thanks to the radio Lois and Perry, reaches a villainess called the Black Widow, who seeks to obtain the Kryptonite to kill Superman. Of course, she fails. Der Tuefel, a Nazi scientist, takes some of the Kryptonite and uses it to create the Atom Man, a man with liquid Kryptonite in his veins.
These two plot lines were the inspiration of the two Superman serials starring Kirk Alyn. The first serial, Superman (1948), involved the Spider Lady (read Black Widow) and her efforts to obtain a destructive machine known as the Reducer Ray. The scenes from the radio show in which Superman first encounters Kryptonite are dramatized here to good effect. The Black Widow steals the Kryptonite and uses it against Superman. The Man of Steel foils her in the last chapter with a lead lining under his costume.
Kirk Alyn portrayed Clark and Superman. For the first time an actor gave flesh and blood to the premier superhero. In Gary Grossman's Superman: from Serial to Cereal, Alyn explained his approach. "When I was Clark Kent, I played him for light comedy. When I got to be Superman I puffed out my chest, pushed my voice down and became authoritative." All of this became evident after the video release of the two serials in the early nineties. For the most part, he did make a definite distinction between the two roles. His model, of course, was Bud Collyer's portrayal on the radio.
The other thing that became evident concerning Alyn's portrayal was its tendency to be overdone. He played Kent for light comedy, as he said, and it worked. He must be given credit for pioneering the kind of comic lines and innuendoes about Superman's duality that George Reeves later perfected. Unfortunately, his Superman never seems to be taken too seriously either. Collyer realized the danger in overdoing his Superman, and managed to tread the fine line without going over. Alyn, on the other hand, oversteps that line quite frequently. One example is the close-up that was used to symbolize X-Ray Vision. When the cameraman focused on Alyn the actor widened his eyes as much as he could. In one shot his eyes seemed in danger of bulging from the sockets. Alyn never let you forget you were watching the adventures of a cartoon character.
Atom Man vs. Superman followed in 1950. Alyn's portrayal was a little better, and not quite as overdone. Perhaps it was a matter of having the experience of the first one under his belt and learning from it.
One note for those who have never seen the serials. Early experiments with Alyn suspended by wires failed, and the flying scenes were accomplished using cheap animation. The sight of the "real" Superman becoming the animated one is alone worth the price of the tapes. In the second serial, someone came up with the simple yet brilliant idea of having Alyn stand before a neutral matte screen, place a wind machine above his head, and turn the camera a 90 degree angle to make him seem horizontal. This was a great improvement, though they still used crude animation for the long shots.
All in all, the serials, though skimpy on budget, were entertaining and paved the way for the TV series. In fact, a lot of things later used in the George Reeves series were first given their dry run in the serials. Even the wardrobe worn by Alyn for both Kent and Superman was copied with little modification for George Reeves.
George Reeves' portrayal of Superman, however, was much different. George has been accused of primarily playing Clark Kent, becoming Superman only in the last act to rescue Lois and Jimmy. In some episodes, this is true. Another criticism is that his Kent and Superman are too similar, that he didn't put enough difference between the two. This, too, has some validity.
Nevertheless, if we were to concentrate solely on these two points we would miss the subtlety of George's approach, and therein lies what made his Superman so memorable.
As mentioned before, Kal-El spent his childhood and his early adulthood as Clark Kent. Therefore it is Clark who is the reality; Superman is the persona Clark chose as the outlet for his powers and his drive to fight crime and disaster. George Reeves was the first to realize this.
If you examine how he played Clark Kent, you notice a fascinating fact. Except for the occasional scripted obligatory fear and bumbling, George played Kent as he would have any other investigative reporter. There were occasions when Clark said things like, "This tension is getting to be too much for me. I'm getting out of here." Generally, they were excuses to get away and change to Superman. There are also those rare occasions when Clark finds himself having to fight the crooks. In "The Golden Vulture," for example, there is a marvelous comic fight scene in which the pirates try to capture Clark while he desperately tries to escape and change. In "Perry White's Scoop," the counterfeiters are unloading paper from a boxcar. Clark jumps out of his car, grabs one of them, gets ready to punch him, and suddenly calls out nervously, "Lois, you'd better get some help!" He then allows himself to be conked by the crook. This shows a Clark who, try as he might, is totally helpless when he tries to display a little nerve. Elements such as these keep the old "mild-mannered reporter" image going, without turning Clark into a total wimp.
For the most part, however, George's Clark is much in the tradition of crusading reporters from any movie about the press. There is a definite reason for this. By playing Clark straight, by molding him in that tradition of movie and TV reporters, George grounded him in reality. I don't think it's an accident that we first meet George Reeves as Clark Kent in Superman and the Mole Men. It gave us time to see him in the role, establish the reality of Kent, and help us accept him.
I have said Kirk Alyn never let us forget we were watching the adventures of a comic book character. I'm sure George felt the costume did that for him, without his having to do anything else. Creating a reality for Clark, he let some of that blend over into his Superman. As a kid watching the show, I knew somewhere inside that the actor I was watching couldn't really fly or burst through walls or stop cars with his bare hands. Nevertheless, I believed it because George Reeves made me believe. His two most frequently displayed powers were flying and having bullets bounce from his chest. I believed the flying scenes had been filmed by having George suspended by wires from a helicopter that flew over the city. I believed that he wore a bulletproof vest under his Superman shirt, and that the crooks were firing real bullets at him. They bounced off the vest, you see. In other words, though I knew some trickery was involved, I still bought it. I bought it because George Reeves was selling it, and he sold it well. He made all the trickery look real. He made me believe in Superman.
One can say that, as the years went on, George's enthusiasm for the role lessened. In an overall sense, this may be true. As he got older it probably became harder for him to perform the stunts necessary to keep Superman believable. A closer examination of the later episodes of the series shows that his enthusiasm ebbed and flowed. It depended a lot upon the script. A good solid story brought out a better performance. He obviously enjoyed himself in "Flight to the North." The dilemmas posed in "The Big Freeze" recalled those of "Superman in Exile," and his performance in the latter equaled that of the former. In "The Seven Souvenirs," the ingenuity of the mystery Superman has to solve again results in a fine performance. Superman's scolding of Mr. Jasper recalls some of the belligerence of the first season. As Gary Grossman pointed out, "[in 'Perils of Superman'] the pride of directing a good solid script brings out the best in Reeves." Let's add that the pride of performing in a good solid script also brought out his best.
My introduction to Superman was through George Reeves. When my father bought me my first Superman comic book, after having watched the show for between several months to a year, I was disappointed. The artists didn't draw him as he really looked. The shield was wrong, the cape didn't hang the right way, and what was that curl of hair on his forehead? Though I eventually accepted the comic book portrayal (probably when I learned it had come first) George Reeves was still the way a real Superman would look. In spite of the fine work and efforts of Bud Collyer and Kirk Alyn before him, and Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain after him, to me the George Reeves TV series is still the definitive dramatic version of Superman.
George Reeves still makes me believe in him.
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