Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Look! Up in the Sky!

The following material has been extensively revised since it first appeared yesterday afternoon:

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video, $39.98) hits video stores today -- all 26 episodes on five discs, in addition to a breezy 17-minute featurette about the show's history, the pre-series feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (later re-edited/re-scored to create Episodes 25 and 26, "The Unknown People," also included here), and a few of the Kellogg's cereal commercials featuring George Reeves that played during the original series run. There were great episodes still to come in subsequent seasons, but in this first season from 1951 -- known to many Superman fans as "the film noir season" for its brooding B&W atmosphere and often hardboiled depiction of crime -- virtually every episode is memorable. There are a lot of us, I'd say, who have been waiting for this set even longer than we've been waiting to see Tom Welling put on his Man of Steel duds, so this is a happy day.

I just received my set a few days ago. As it happens, I felt I had spoiled my appetite for it a little by plunking down for a DVD-R set of the entire series on eBay a few months ago, before this release was announced. Having seen all the episodes recently, I decided to start with Disc 5, where all the extras (apart from the audio commentaries) are collected. SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN has never looked better; the B&W image is bright and detailed, even in muted light scenes. Fans who have only seen this story as the two-part "The Unknown People" will be interested to see some scenes cut from the broadcast version, a different musical score, and revel in following the story without commercial or episode interruption. And because "The Unknown People" is a re-edited version, these episodes are slightly darker and not quite as crisp as the original feature.

The "From Inkwell to Backlot" featurette focuses on the show rather than George Reeves' death, which is as it should be, especially for the first season. It's an okay overview, though I feel the set would have been enriched as a whole if the commentators (including Leonard Maltin and Superman from Serial to Cereal author Gary Grossman) had allowed themselves to be a little more specific in their trivia. For example, it would have been useful for them to introduce Steve Carr (the show's dialogue director and brother to frequent director Tommy Carr), because he shows up in some role or other in almost every episode. (Grossman does point him out in at least one commentary.) Carr plays Eddie in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, the doctor on the train in "The Monkey Mystery," the film director in "Czar of the Underworld," a sinister Peruvian in "Treasure of the Incas," he even appears in drag in "Double Trouble"... plus he's the guy who is pointing up at the sky in the frame grab above! Once you know about Steve Carr, you start seeing him everywhere. (There's a great moment in "Czar" when George Reeves opens a trailer door and finds Steve Carr standing there, and breaks into a huge grin, acknowledging how ubiquitous he is.) There are also instances where the same actors show up in different episodes playing different characters, but I'll leave those for you to discover. I was pleased that the commentators acknowledge Jack Larson's comic gifts and give Phyllis Coates her due as the best of all Lois Lanes. Sexy without being showy and feisty despite showcasing one of Hollywood's all-time great screams, Coates makes Lois a feminist heroine, standing up to lynch-mob leaders, mob bosses and psychopaths alike.

Speaking of psychopaths, there is some great horror in the set. Some people have written to ask me for Halloween viewing recommendations, and you really can't go wrong with "The Haunted Lighthouse," "Mystery in Wax," and "The Evil Three." "The Haunted Lighthouse" is like a classic Hardy Boys mystery (none of which had been filmed yet), "Mystery in Wax" is a creepy wax museum story with a cackling madwoman whose laugh will disturb your dreams, and "The Evil Three" points the way to Tobe Hooper territory. There's even a terrorist episode, "The Human Bomb," which reveals that the famous opening shot of people pointing skyward ("It's a bird! It's a plane! It's SUPERMAN!") is actually a relooped shot of people supposedly watching a man strapped with dynamite standing on a high window ledge of the Daily Planet Building with hostage Lois Lane.

Since originally posting an earlier draft of this entry, I've taken a look at several episodes in this set and was most impressed by what I saw. The episodes have been brought to disc looking brighter and crisper than I've ever seen them before, so they have an aspect of fresh experience -- and I can recite dialogue from some of these. (Who can't? "No comment until the time limit is up!") The first time I saw Clark Kent run down that alley in a shot that's duplicated in many first season episodes, I actually exclaimed that I'd never seen that alley look so clean and beautiful. There is one exception, however: the episode "The Stolen Costume," which looks dupey and covered with faint scratches throughout; it's the only ugly duckling in this swanage of episodes. This is the episode in which Superman's secret identity is first uncovered by criminals and are flown to a snowy mountaintop while Superman ponders what to do with them; they try to escape and... It's one of many moments in this set where you have to pinch yourself and ask "They really got away with putting this stuff in a kid's program from Kellogg's?"

Actually, the episodes presented here are full-strength, with occasional highlights that go a whit too far around the bend of good taste (there's one, "The Birthday Letter," where an abducted disabled girl cries hysterically as her leg braces are removed by a gangster to prevent her going anywhere) ; when they were originally shown on television, they were subjected to some sponsor-demanded cuts. In fact, if you've only seen these episodes on commercial TV during the past 20 years or so, chances are you saw them either cut or time-compressed to fit more commercials into the half-hour. To see these episodes in their entirety -- for example, with the Polish oppression-themed prologue intact at the top of "The Monkey Mystery" -- can be a revelation.

My only complaint so far is that the packaging is a little odd, with four of the discs "double-layered" on clear plastic hubs. Thus, every time we want to watch Disc 2 or Disc 4, we must remove Disc 1 or Disc 3 to get at them. I'm also a bit concerned that the overlapping may cause scratching on the uppermost discs. Were these little extra troubles really necessary?

I can remember watching a condensed episode of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN on a Kenner toy projector I had as a kid, and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. To be able to hold every episode from Season 1 in my hand is like a dream, and to see how good 99.5% of this material looks is a dream come true. I recommend this set as the perfect companion for a night of high-flying nostalgia in your own Fortress of Solitude.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Gabriel7:59 PM

    At this point, the entire run of the original Adventures of Superman is now out on DVD, and it's interesting to compare the first two seasons (black and white) with the later episodes (shot in color). The stories, pacing, direction, and performances (even George Reeves) were clearly superior in those first b&w seasons, both of which I have on DVD now.

    It appears that the ever-budget-conscious National Comics reacted to the increased cost of shooting in color by tightening the already-taut purse strings to the point that special effects, sets, schedules, etc. were strained almost to the breaking point. Occasional small bloopers in scenes were even left in because the schedule didn't permit a lot of re-shooting.

    Probably the hurried shooting schedule and the strain of trying to stay fresh playing the same characters for years affected the actors as well. Of course, the show had an unusually high concentration of real pros before and behind the cameras, and they never really let us viewers down.

    But those first two seasons made the show's reputation and remain just as exciting as ever to watch. Yes, the first season's occasional excesses, as you pointed out, were not suitable for kiddies (though we may not have cared). But the fast-paced action, suspense, and film-noir atmosphere--plus George Reeves' high-octane heroism--had us kids happily glued to our television sets when it was time for Superman!

    The second season with Whitney Ellsworth producing was somewhat tamer, but there were still plenty of thrills for kids and grownups: Superman's first encounter with Kryptonite, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen getting into trouble with endless dangerous attempts to get a story, even Perry White getting out of the office to show Jimmy how old-time reporters chased down a story, all delivered by directors who knew how to keep the action going and a cast more than able to supply that action.

    I don't have a lot of faith in kids' programming on TV today, but then I'm spoiled--when I was their age, I had George Reeves and the marvelous Adventures of Superman! (And, thanks to DVDs, I still do!)


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