The character of Superman, first created in comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, has a longer history of screen adaptations than most people realize.
Though many know the most recent movies were preceded by the 1978 movie Superman, which starred Christopher Reeve and was followed by three sequels in the 1980’s; and some are aware that pop culture has a friendly niche for the 1950’s Superman television show featuring George Reeves, two episodes of which were mashed into a theatrical release titled Superman and the Mole Men in 1951; fewer know of the serials Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman, that ran before feature films in theaters in the late 1940’s, and in which Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play the role in a screen adaptation.
The very first on screen version of the Superman character, however, goes back even earlier—to a brilliant series of nine animated shorts produced by the ground breaking animation studios of Max and Dave Fleischer from 1941 to 1942, and eight more produced by different directors under the studio’s reorganized identity as Famous Studios from 1942 to 1943.
The first nine in particular, from the studio that created the wildly imaginative Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons and the landmark Gulliver’s Travels animated feature, are considered high points in the history of animation. They are visually beautiful, and in tone and mood are essentially a film noir version of the character, infused with strong elements of science fiction in keeping with the era’s fascination with characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
Amid 1940’s fashions and wonderfully stylized Art Deco architecture, Superman battles mad scientists, remote controlled flying robots, an enormous Godzilla style monster, a not quite Kong-size giant gorilla, artificial earthquakes, villains in a bullet shaped flying rocket car and a comet drawn down from space by a giant magnet—along with other more prosaic villains and natural disasters.
All of this is portrayed in a beautifully rendered and art directed 1940’s style of cinematography, with moody pools of light, silhouetted figures, long shadows cast against walls and window shades, a deep rich color palette and terrific evocations of effects like electric arcs, x-ray vision, human and machine flight, nighttime city scenes, mist and atmosphere that would have done many traditional directors and cinematographers of the period proud.
The stories were simplistic to fit into the cartoons’ eight minute format, part of which was taken up with introductions and credits, but they were engaging and managed to be more coherent than many contemporary movie scripts.
Watching them today, the characters can seem a bit naive—with plucky Lois Lane the eternal damsel in distress, never quite making the connection between Superman and her co-reporter Clark Kent in his round-rimmed glasses and fedora—but the series played it straight, right down to the hand painted version of the Paramount opening logo. It deftly avoided the camp silliness into which the character would later descend in the hands of DC Comics in the 1960’s.
This is also not the nearly omnipotent planet-moving Superman that came later; this is a Superman for whom stopping a runaway train or breaking free of high tension wires requires real effort, and his heroic actions involve a greater sense of personal risk—without the need for awkward plot devices like Kryptonite. As a result, he is a much more engaging character.
Though the cartoons themselves are not as familiar as they deserve to be, they are the origin of many of the character’s pop culture badges. It was in this series that he struck the heroic pose—fists on hips, cape waving in the wind, changed clothes in a phone booth after announcing “This is a job for Superman!” and transitioned from “leaping tall buildings in a single bound” to actually flying.
My favorite of the shorts is the second in the series, The Mechanical Monsters, in which the blend of film noir, science fiction and art deco elements is at its best, and which was obvious inspiration for 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (in look and feel, if not in coherent storyline), and perhaps parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The cartoons had a dramatic influence on subsequent animators, down to the current day, and were the models for the best of the Warner Brothers TV cartoons of the 2000’s, even though their style and approach were better applied to Batman than to revival of the Superman character.
The Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons have been available on the Internet Archive and YouTube for some time in versions of varying quality. Recently they have been beautifully remastered from the original negatives by Warner Brothers (though with a few oddly unnecessary changes) and released on DVD and iTunes, as well as being made available on their official YouTube channel for all to enjoy.
I know it will never happen, but I like to imagine what it would be like if this were the version of the character green-lighted by the current studio for big budget production with a good director—a retro-future film noir period piece with a more human and vulnerable hero.
That would be just super.