The Adventures Continue

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The Adventures of Superman:
Ultimate Super-Hero Portrayal, or Low-Budget Disappointment?

by Kirk Hastings

In his 1991 book, "Comic Book Heroes of the Screen," published by Citadel Press, author William Schoell has this to say about George Reeves and The Adventures of Superman:

[George] Reeves was more successful than he ever realized. He is still remembered three decades later when other actors who starred in "A" productions during the same period are totally forgotten. And his fans remain devoted.

Perhaps too devoted. There is a somewhat fanatical cult surrounding The Adventures of Superman which refuses to see the program's shortcomings or the value of any of the Superman vehicles which came after. The TV show had only a mild sense of wonder and never examined Superman's character or even his abilities (in any startling fashion). Even by the standards of the fifties, the effects were rarely worth raving about. Although the series was filmed in color by the third season, the scripts remained as colorless and unmagical as before. Superman was usually pitted against the most bland and mundane of villains. Where were the outrageous, larger-than-life antagonists of the comic books? The cosmic plots and deadly weapons? Why were there no costumed superfoes? Compared to the stories in Superman and Action Comics, the TV shows were as dull as dishwater. This wasn't really Superman as a comics fan knew him, but only a pallid imitation.

The steadfast devotees of the TV series are fond of taking futile potshots at the Christopher Reeve movies of the seventies and eighties. Although those films certainly have their own shortcomings, they are in every way superior to the forties serials and fifties television program, and they are much more faithful to the spirit of the comic books.

To be fair, it must be added that, despite his tirade above, elsewhere in his book Mr. Schoell does admit (referring to Superman and the Mole-Men) that "George Reeves is fine and authoritative as Superman, without being crude or macho. His Clark Kent is worthy of respect, even though [Phyllis Coates'] Lois Lane doesn't think so."

But is Schoell's assessment of The Adventures of Superman and its "devoted fans" really completely fair?

There is no doubt that the production values on the Christopher Reeve movies were top drawer. This was to be expected; the budget for the entire run of the 104-episode TV series wouldn't have covered the expenses for the first fifteen minutes of even one of the Superman films. And there is no doubt that a large budget can do a great deal toward making any film project look much more slick and attractive.

But it takes much more than just a large production budget to make a film (or a TV series) interesting and memorable. If production values were all that mattered, then we would be forced to disregard all television programs made before 1966 (when color broadcasting came into wide use) and all black-and-white motion pictures made before 1954 (before the advent of Cinemascope) as dull and unwatchable. And what about the many classic Broadway plays that, in their original runs, often consist of only a few actors emoting in front of one or two painted backgrounds? Should we automatically reject these productions out of hand because of their small budgets and "lack of decent production values"?

I think not. The primary characteristics that make a film (or a TV series, or a play) truly memorable are the overall concept, the story, and the characters. If these three assets are fresh, imaginative, and compelling, then you have an exceptional production that people will remember.

It just so happens that it is in precisely these three areas where The Adventures of Superman (especially in its first and second seasons) excels. The TV series handled the Superman character in a way that was distinctly different from all previous versions-and all interpretations since. It is this singular approach to the Superman character that makes The Adventures of Superman a unique vision unto itself.

The two major forces behind this vision were two very remarkable, creative men-producer Robert Maxwell behind the camera and actor George Reeves in front of it. Maxwell, who had produced the Superman radio series in the 1940s, prepared to realize his film version of the Man of Steel during the summer of 1951. The character had only been done in live action once before, in the Columbia serial productions Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), both produced by Sam Katzman and starring Kirk Alyn. Though Maxwell's interpretation of the popular superhero would share some minor similarities with Alyn's version, Maxwell wanted a different approach to the character. He wanted something more adult and more dramatic than the serials, and something much more realistic than the previous cartoon or comic book renditions. He wanted an adult time slot for his series, and in order to achieve this he needed to 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. There would be no reminders whatsoever (except perhaps for his costume) that this character's roots lay in cartoons and comic magazines. Realized by classically-trained actor George Reeves, this flesh-and-blood Superman would be a determined crime-buster who lived in the real world, got involved with real people, and fought real criminals. 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. (Sorry, Mr. Schoell, but that's why there were no "cosmic plots" or "outrageous, larger-than-life costumed superfoes" on The Adventures of Superman. Such devices might be exciting to twelve-year-olds reading a comic book, but such subject matter simply won't hold the interest of serious-minded adults in a weekly television series-unless perhaps the whole thing is treated as a spoof, as in the later Batman TV series with Adam West.)

 

Maxwell knew not only the limits of his budget, but the limits of what an adult audience would tolerate. Even if he could have afforded it, it is highly unlikely that he would ever have had his Superman nonchalantly leave a 100-foot watercraft sitting dry-docked on the street in front of police headquarters with the bad guys tied to the railing (as in Superman, The Movie). Nor would the thought have even entered his head to have his Superman try to turn back time by flying around and around the earth at speeds approaching (or exceeding) the speed of light. Adult viewers in the 1950s would have laughed at this kind of silliness and switched over to another channel to watch Dragnet (or perhaps Martin Kane, Private Eye).

Realism and a heightened sense of drama permeated every aspect of Maxwell's Superman, and George Reeves had precisely the right kind of qualities as an actor to carry that vision to fruition in a believable way. For instance, later Superman actors (such as Christopher Reeve or Dean Cain) would just magically "levitate" up into the air when they wanted to fly. Once airborne they would kind of float or hover there, their capes rippling slightly in the breeze, accompanied by some minor "air" sound effect (or even no sound effect at all). Kirk Alyn actually turned into an animated cartoon whenever he left the ground! Not so with Maxwell's Superman. When his Superman flew, he went all out. To the accompaniment of some appropriately dramatic music, George Reeves would run right up to the lens of the camera (situated at ground level) and then, at the very last second, leap mightily up into the air with a loud whooshing noise. Reeves achieved this thrilling effect by jumping onto a springboard-the same kind used by Olympic athletes-to launch him high up over the camera, where he would then do a somersault and land on a mattress situated directly behind the cameraman. This took quite a bit of athletic ability, but fortunately Reeves was more than up to the task. Once airborne Reeves's hair and cape would blow wildly in the wind and he would be accompanied by what sounded like a hurricane-force gale. This guy definitely didn't "float" in the air. He really moved when he flew!

The same was true when Superman would leap out of the window of the Daily Planet building. Reeves would come running up to the window at full gallop and leap out with such force that his legs would be horizontal with the floor by the time he passed out of camera range!

True to the original character as conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Maxwell's Superman was incredibly strong, but not unbelievably so. He certainly could not support the entire San Andreas Fault on his back and lift it back into place (as Christopher Reeve did in Superman: The Movie). Nor could he effortlessly lift a helicopter up with one hand. He could support a small, two-seater airplane on his back (as in the TV episode "The Mind Machine"), but he had to noticeably strain to do it. Yet such limitations in his powers served to make the TV Superman 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 his tenacity all the more.

And Maxwell's 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".)

Christopher Reeve's Superman, though definitely possessing a certain charm, gave us the distinct impression that his career as the Man of Steel was just a lark to him; he was having fun. The same was true with Dean Cain. He seemed more concerned with catching the eye of Lois Lane than he was in fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Not so with George Reeves' Superman. 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? A scene from the TV episode "Czar of the Underworld" is typical of Maxwell's vision of the Man of Steel, and how it differs significantly from other interpretations both before or since:

It is night. Luigi Dinelli, a mafia-type crime boss, is relaxing in an overstuffed chair in his lush penthouse apartment. He is dressed in an expensive silk robe and puffing on a large cigar. Suddenly Reeves's Superman comes crashing in through the window, showering broken glass all over the richly-carpeted floor. Dinelli jumps up."Hey, what's the big idea?" Dinelli snaps.

"Oh, the window?" Superman replies sarcastically. "I was in a hurry. I just took a short cut."

"Oh, a wise guy, huh?" Dinelli growls. With a curt command he calls his two slouch-hatted bodyguards into the room-but Superman makes short work of each of them with a no-nonsense punch to the jaw.

"Any more, Luigi?" Superman smirks. In response Dinelli smacks a nearby table lamp with the back of his hand. It crashes loudly to the floor and the room goes dark. He pulls a pistol out of his robe and fires all six rounds in rapid succession at the costumed intruder. Of course, the bullets have no effect whatsoever upon the invulnerable Man of Steel.

"Now what are you going to do with the empty gun?" Superman taunts. In utter frustration Dinelli hurls the pistol at Superman, but it bounces harmlessly off his broad chest. Superman smiles sardonically, then strides over to Dinelli. "You're going with me," he says.

"Oh no I'm not!" Dinelli replies. He tries to bolt.

"Oh yes you are!" Superman corrects him, knocking him to the floor with one punch. In the next scene we see is a close-up of the bodyguards lying sprawled over each other on the floor. Superman, carrying the unconscious Dinelli, is just crossing the darkened room to the window. He disappears out of frame. The bodyguards begin to stir and look up. There is a loud whoosh of air as Superman (off camera) exits the room with his captive. The bodyguards stare in stupefied amazement as Superman's mighty backwash rolls over them, blowing off their hats and threatening to hurl them clear across the room.

The remainder of "Czar of the Underworld" progresses more like a hard-boiled 1940s gangster movie than a comic book superhero story. Such was Maxwell's unique concept of the character. Many other early episodes of the series were representative of the same 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 epic. "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? The examples go on and on.

Maxwell's "rugged" approach was also evident in the other characters in The Adventures of Superman. 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 from him-and often did. There is simply no comparison between Maxwell's Lois Lane and the one portrayed by Margot Kidder in the Superman movies. Kidder's portrayal borders on satire, and never moves very far away from its comic book roots. Her Lois Lane is like a live-action cartoon in every sense of the word. Not so Phyllis Coates. Her Lois Lane was gritty and down-to-earth in every way.

The same is true for Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent. Whenever Reeve puts on Kent's suit and glasses in the Superman movies he becomes a walking parody of a real person. His "clumsy buffoon" persona bears no resemblance to anyone in the real world. No one in his right mind would act like Reeve's Clark Kent does in order to hide his identity as Superman. The sheer ludicrousness of his behavior would only serve to draw more attention to himself, and the fact that he is trying to hide something.

Maxwell's Clark Kent, as portrayed by George Reeves, is far more believable. In fact, he is somewhat more believable than the comic book version of the character, who seems like he is always pretending that he is afraid of his own shadow in order to "protect" his secret identity. This idea works fine on the comic book page-but it would be completely impractical in the real world. Maxwell/Reeves's Clark Kent cannot be considered in any way to be a "timid soul." In fact, he is 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 actually 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. They knew that their Clark Kent had to be as realistic as any of the other characters in the TV program, or it just wouldn't be accepted by the audience (especially the adult audience) on a weekly basis. This is something the producers of the current WB TV series "Smallville" also seem to understand -- but that's another story for another time.

In his book, William Schoell is exactly right in asserting that the four Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve are "much more faithful to the spirit of the comic books". What he fails to realize is that this is exactly what Robert Maxwell and George Reeves were trying to avoid with their Adventures of Superman TV series. They didn't want 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 this 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. 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. "We brought life to the character. You have to agree with that," Phyllis Coates echoed.

Did Robert Maxwell and George Reeves really come up with something truly compelling in their unique interpretation of the Superman character? The fact that The Adventures of Superman -- and George Reeves -- still has a large and loyal fan following after 50 years should certainly answer that question.


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