This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Alfred Eaker’s The Blue Mahler.
“Five Minutes to Doom” (dir. Tommy Carr) is the introductory episode of season two of “The Adventures of Superman.” Already, it is a slicker product than the previous season and, as expected, there are gains and losses. It has lost none of its grit, even with a new, bourgeoisie Lois Lane.
“Five Minutes to Doom” is a noir cliffhanger with Clark Kent using his abilities as a human lie detector test (gauging the heartbeat of a convicted killer) to determine the man’s sincerity. Someone doesn’t want Kent and gal pal Lois Lane uncovering the truth behind a corrupt contract deal, and attempts to assassinate the cub reporters. Lane condescendingly praises Kent for his out-of-character bravery.
Reportedly, director Carr was hard on Noel Neill, the new Lois Lane, whom he found lacking compared to the much missed. defended Neill, and while that’s an admirable example of cast camaraderie, it’s difficult not to sympathize with Carr’s point of view. Neill claimed that she was merely playing herself, but that may be part of the problem with her portrayal of Lane, who often comes across as a Sarah Palin-styled Avon lady huffing and puffing her way through the newsroom, chastising Kent for not being man enough even though we never see his alleged cowardice. Occasionally offsetting this unattractive trait is a winning perky quality, which renders Neill’s Lane consistently uneven.
Surviving the elements, Superman saves the day at the last moment by breaking through a prison wall to halt an electric chair execution. Stylish and moving like quicksilver, this is a helluva opening to a legendary season, despite a fidgety debut from Neill.
“The Big Squeeze” (dir. Carr) is noir for the 1950s family. Dan Grayson has received a Citizen of the Year award from the Daily Planet. Alas, Dan has a past that comes to put the “big squeeze” on him. Kent is obsessively driven to right wrongs and find/allow redemption. (Obsession and redemption are key dual themes in season two).
“The Man Who Could Read Minds” (dir. Carr): Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Lane attend a nightclub act that features a phony mind-reading swami. It leads them to a phantom burglar. The writing is straight out of the 1940s radio drama program tradition. It’s a well-paced, well-acted, and a stylishly suspenseful entry. Reeves steps back, allowing the (considerable and authentic) chemistry between Neill and Jack Larson to breathe. Mutual respect and generosity between cast members developed early, and is a testament to the the show’s longevity.
“Jet Ace” (dir. Carr): Perry White’s nephew Chris is a jet ace pilot with a confidential report for top-secret eyes only. He is kidnapped, and it’s up to Kent/Superman to prevent government files from falling into enemy hands. And Hillary thought she had problems! Needless to say, Kent is up to the job as is the cast and crew in this superior Air Force oater. In this half hour setting, perfect for its topic, there’s no time allotted for celebrity pandering or Tom Cruise-like prancing. It’s a full-throttle narrative without a minute wasted.
“Shot in the Dark (dir. George Blair) is in no way related to Blake Edward’s “Pink Panther.” Rather, it’s about an accidental lens capture of Kent’s alleyway transformation into Supe. Other dark room secrets emerge, along with a shadowy underworld figure believed to be dead. The story was reportedly taken from the daily newspaper comic strip. Sly nods tovoyeurism abound, and guest star Vera Marshe is a scene-stealer as Mrs. Harper. Her shrill, comedic timing is pitch perfect (and with a threatening 50s dress that could kill if moved too far in the wrong direction, it’s no wonder Perry White sends her packing off to Kent). Marshe’s performance is matched by Larson’s multi-faceted Olsen.
“The Defeat of Superman” (dir. Carr): Gangster Happy King has returned to Metropolis and wants to make a deal with Superman. “No deals.” King has a mad scientist at his disposal and he’s played with full-blown ham zeal by character actor Maurice Cass, who could give both Bill Shatner and Ricardo Montalban serious competition in scenery-chewing. Such over the top eyebrow arching works here, especially when he’s equipped with a kryptonite gun, ordered straight from the Acme warehouse. Lane and Olsen come in handy when disposing of the green rock, which Kent hurls into space. Unfortunately for King and company, the offending rock (wrapped in a pipe) comes a-crashing down into their windshield, sending them off a cliff to a fiery fate below. Only in this type of melodrama could such an outlandish, improbable finale be pulled off. This is the first appearance of kryptonite in “Superman.” Reeves leads a fine cast who approach both role and narrative with the earnestness required to convince us. They do, with flying colors.
“Superman in Exile” is another winning episode, well-directed by Carr who had a natural feel for this genre, making one wish he had helmed the entire series.
Radiation from “Project X” has escaped its confines, attaching itself to the last Son of Krypton. Irradiated, Superman is forced into exile, since contact with him brings anyone instant death. Meanwhile, Kent goes missing, and Lane is kidnapped. It all works out in this episode which brings back memories of Bela‘s atomic supermen and Action Comics, which featured similar themes.
“A Ghost for Scotland Yard” (dir. Blair) is another episode grounded by a supercharged, hammy performance at its center. Kent and Olsen are in London and a sequence of events leads them directly into the mystery of the late magician Brockhurst whose ghost is haunting Scotland Yard. It plays out like an episode from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Leonard Mudie, as Brookhurst, captures the right flavor needed for such high-strung melodrama. Look for the visual in-joke of a newsstand salesman reading a DC Superman comic. “A Ghost for Scotland Yard” is high tribute to its source material.
“The Dog Who Knew Superman” (dir. Carr) is another odd mix of 1950s noir filtered through the period’s “Leave it to Beaver” sentimentality. It’s helped considerably by Reeves’ chemistry with the canine star.
“The Face and the Voice” (dir. Blair): If only this had been directed by Carr, who had a better grip on molding actors. Still, “The Face and the Voice” remains a fan favorite. It’s also one of Reeves’ own personal favorites, and it’s easy to see why: he gets an additional role.
Reeves plays Boulder, a thug, who comes equipped with typical 1950s thug accent. Although Reeves is damned fine in the part, he’s not as strong as he would have been under Carr’s direction. Boulder goes under the knife, transforming into Superman. The Boulder Superman commits a series of heists before his comeuppance at the real hands of Steel.
“The Man in the Lead Mask” (dir. Blair) continues season two’s streak of above-average, semi-classic episodes. A man in lead mask breaks into a U.S. Post office to steal a wanted poster of gangster Marty Mitchell. A mystery is afoot, as is an elaborate con job. The only misstep is a Three Stooges-like slapstick bow out with Olsen getting stuck in a lead mask. A semi revenge-sequel to this episode will come in the delightful sixth season episode “Perils of Superman.”
“Panic in the Sky” (dir. Carr) is, by consensus, the most popular episode of “The Adventures of Superman.” It may not actually be the best, but it’s damned close. Superman has to redirect a meteor threatening the earth. Colliding with it, he is hurled to the ground below and suffers from amnesia. Although that is a phenomenally rare condition, it’s perfectly believable and acceptable in these circumstances. A haunting scene depicts Kent collapsing in the shower with Olsen struggling to aid him. Perry White waxes frustration over Kent’s dilemma, and here’s where the episode gets clunky. The line delivery is labored, forced, and obvious, and no one recognizing Kent (sans glasses) as Superman borders on the incredulous. Kent’s rediscovery of his own power, however, and reuniting with his memory makes for an action packed episode, and we really believe he can change the course of mighty rivers. A few missteps aside, the cast is profoundly convincing in its emotional delivery.
“The Machine That Could Plot Crimes” (dir. Carr): Together, Professor Quinn (Sterling Holloway) and his computer Mr. Kelso can solve any problem. When Gangster Larry McCoy gains their confidence, he manipulates them into aiding and abetting him in a series of perfectly executed bank robberies. Also at risk is earth’s greatest secret. Holloway walks away owning this episode and although it’s a poorly written, overly silly affair, it’s top notch fun.
“Jungle Devil” (dir. Carr): Neill invites hugs here, cute-as-a-button in her safari gear. The story’s pretty cool too, and one I vividly recall from my youth, particularly the scene in which our heart drops because Lane, Olsen, et. al. believe Kent has died sacrificing himself for his comrades. Even cooler is the scene in which Kent super-pressurizes coal, transforming it into a diamond. His boyish glee, grinning from ear-to-ear, will melt the heart of even the most rabid heterosexual.
“My Friend Superman” (dir. Carr): With super speed, Clark Kent whips out an article on racketeers. Said racketeers soon become an annoyance for Tony the diner owner. No worry, Superman is his friend. Rainy day smiles beam from this episode.
“The Clown Who Cried” is the first clunker from season two and it’s not altogether surprising that it’s directed by autopilot hack George Blair. It’s undoubtedly a clown hater’s wet dream. There’s two clowns—one good (Rollo), one bad (Crackers)—who, amazingly, Superman can’t tell apart. There also damned little fun to be had apart from some labored slapstick and yawn-inducing melodrama.
“The Boy Who Hated Superman” is yet another mediocre entry helmed by Blair. Frankie is a reject from the Dead End kids. He’s a juvenile delinquent and rebel with no cause whatsoever. Jimmy Olsen and Kent take him in. Frankie tries to bring Olsen over to the dark side. Unfortunately, Kent has an aversion to corporeal punishment.
“Semi-Private Eye” is Blair’s third consecutive below-average adventure, although it’s loaded with an irresistible charm supplied by Larson in full Superman’s Pal mode and hard-boiled intrigue from charismatic guest star Elisha Cook Jr.
“Perry White’s Scoop” (dir. Blair): Perry White tries to prove he’ still got it. He fails miserably when confronting counterfeiters. He does get to do more than just scream from behind his desk and scan cheat sheets. Contrived, obvious, and sluggishly paced.
“Beware the Wrecker” (dir. Blair) is an electric return to form. It’s culled from the radio series, period comics and the Fleischer animated shorts, and could be sourced from contemporary headlines as well. A villain, known simply as The Wrecker, explodes planes, trains, and steamships, demanding payment of $100,000.00 to put an end to his acts of terrorism. When Kent, Lane, and Olsen arrive at the pier to investigate, rest assured acts of terrorism will be dealt with.
“The Golden Vulture” (dir. Carr): Superman goes with pirates like peanut butter goes with jelly. Mates, we have a mutiny on hand. Kent walks the plank, sinking Lois’ heart, until he emerges, pulling her in for a splash. Bring the popcorn for a model episode.
“Jimmy Olson, Boy Editor” (dir. Carr) is a story that first appeared in “Superman” magazine. Olsen is editor of the Planet for a day as part of an intern program, and falls into all the traps of such a foolhardy notion. The result is a visit from annoyed gangsters, with Kent, Superman, and Perry White all attempting to set things right. As unmemorable as it is awkward.
“Lady in Black” (dir. Carr) is a winning variation on the second season formula. Olsen is reading a trashy novel, “Lady in Black,” and soon hears mysterious bumps in the night. Kent laughs off his young colleague’s case of the shudders as an overactive imagination, the result of pulp fiction, or acid reflux. The mix of mystery and humor is top-notch as Olsen, with Superman’s help, uncovers a burglary ring and an authentic Lady in Black.
“Star of Fate” (dir. Carr) is a case of hyper-stylish direction and world-class acting serving as spackle for a narrative filled with plot holes. A mysterious box from Egypt is the focus of a bidding war between two obsessed buyers. Once opened, the box emits a poisoned needle. Cue to Superman flying to Egypt to find the antidote in order to save Lois Lane.
“The Whistling Bird” (dir. Carr) can’t overcome its narrative gaps or the indifferent performances from the guest cast. Reeves’ chemistry with returning Sterling Holloway doesn’t save it.
“Around the World with Superman” (dir. Carr) is also culled from the pages of a Superman magazine. It’s a heartwarming tale of an angry, disbelieving blind child, and we really get here the feeling of what a family headed by Lois and Clark would look like. One for the ages, despite writing that at times borders on clumsy.
“Stamp Day for Superman” (dir. Carr). In this is promotional short for the United States Treasury Department, Superman convinces children to collect savings stamps to help their parents purchase savings bonds. It is what it is, but the chemistry between Reeves and the children is authentic.
“Lucy and Superman,” a 1957 “I Love Lucy” crossover, is primarily for fans and primarily a time capsule.