This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Alfred Eaker’s The Blue Mahler.
Under Kellogg’s sponsorship, the second season of “The Adventures of Superman” had already began steering away from an adult audience. By the third season, the show was aimed almost solely at the pubescent. It was also shot in color, which made it an expensive production, with less money allocated for actors or professional writers. Oddly, it was only aired in black and white, not having its color premier for another decade. In this, Kellogg’s was ahead of its time, realizing that color, being inevitable, would assure the series a long run in syndication.
The third season is an entirely different series than the first two and, with few exceptions, it’s a dreadful affair. The series’ decline continued until its final, sixth season. Although officially cancelled, “The Adventures of Superman” had been picked up for a seventh season with starcoming in as director (he helmed three episodes late in season six) and, reportedly, more money was going to be spent on better scripts. However, Reeves’ premature death put an end to a series which began high and should have bowed out on a better note. Alas, like its star, it was not afforded a happy ending.
The cast still has charisma, but even they can’t save the worst episodes, many of which are excruciating and virtually unwatchable. Still, “The Adventures of Superman“ (along with I Love Lucy) was the longest running series of the fifties, and maintained its popularity for another three decades in syndication. This is remarkable given that its lead, who presented a Super Boy Scout image, had in fact been outed as quite the colorful character, engaged in a sordid affair when he was found dead, allegedly by his own hand.
The third season opens with the godawful “Through the Time Barrier” (dir. Harry Gerstad). The “Daily Planet” staff (all four of them) are teleported to the Stone Age by Professor Twiddle (Sterling Holloway, in his last series appearance). The look on Reeves’ face speaks volumes.
“The Talking Clue” (dir. Gerstad) is marginally better. It’s about a bank robber named Muscles McGurk, and focuses primarily on Inspector Henderson. Robert Shayne enjoys the spotlight, and our enjoyment comes primarily from his.
“The Lucky Cat” (dir. Gerstad) is an engaging, silly story about an Anti-Superstition Society, with Jimmy (naturally) falling for all the old wives’ tales. Larson, Reeves, and the supporting cast are across-the-board charming, and while it can’t compete with the best episodes from the series’ previous seasons, it conjures up memories of the character’s period pulp outings that were still being giggled over and thumbed through repeatedly by adolescents for another two decades.
“Superman Week” (Gerstad again) refers to a celebratory Superman Week in Metropolis, which means Clark Kent is busy as himself and his red caped alter ego. It’s also an indirect sequel to the previous season‘s “The Defeat of Superman,” meaning kryptonite is involved (planted in a bust of Superman). While the green stuff spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E for our protagonist, it’s always a kick to see him weakened by it and trying to overcome its effects. Although Superman Week will hardly make anyone’s top ten list and Gerstad seems to be struggling with directing actors, it’s competently written and not an embarrassing half hour.
“Great Caesar’s Ghost” (Gerstad) focuses on Perry White, at home, being tormented by a gangster (who else?) impersonating a god offended by White’s taking the divine name in vain once too often. Dumb fun and commendably harmless (unlike real religions).
“Test of a Warrior” (dir. George Blair) sees Superman hobnobbing with Injuns. Dated, embarrassingly insensitive, terribly directed and acted. ‘Nuff said.
“Olsen’s Millions” (dir. Blair) is not as dreadful as the previous entry, which is saying damned little. A dumb story is superseded by dumber crooks.
“Clark Kent, Outlaw” (Blair) has more buffoonish thugs and, apparently, Kent has joined them. No surprise then that our ace reporter is actually doing undercover work to smoke out the bad guys. Like a fatigued paint-by-number set but not without its charms, most of which are supplied by Reeves and the regular cast members.
“The Magic Necklace” (Blair): The Tai-Wan necklace is kind of like the Ring of the Nibelungen, except it apparently protects, rather than curses its wearer. Unfortunately, it’s been taken from the museum. Kent goes to Tibet in search of it. Lane and Olsen, not about to be scooped, follow. Naturally, the necklace is going to come in handy when Kent wears it (explaining away his impervious state). It’s rudimentary writing has some appeal, rendering it an episode which is neither remembered for its excellence nor its sheer awfulness.
The same cannot be said for “The Bully of Dry Gulch” (dir. Blair), which is memorable as one of the worst half hours in the entire history of television, surpassing even “Test of a Warrior” and “Through the Time Barrier” in sheer incompetence. Olsen is in trouble with a bully cowboy named Gunner. Like all bullies, our antagonist is a coward at heart (think Donald Trump as a tumbleweed). Only Reeves’ escapes primarily unscathed.could have improved on it. It’s that wretched.
“Flight to the North” (dir. Blair): Chuck Connors is Sylvester J. Superman (see, he has the same last name) and has a mule sidekick and…. Chuck made a better Rifleman. Understandably, Connors never returned to “Superman.” This had to be a résumé low. Blair is better suited to directing the jackass.
“The Seven Souvenirs” (dir. Blair): Reeves clearly gets some enjoyment out of interacting with Phil Tead as Mr. Willy. Predictably, Tead (he will later play Professor Pepperwinkle) is a scene-stealer. More yawn-inducing gangsters are involved (Superman wraps them up with a bendable crowbar and gets to utilize his x-ray vision.) Innocent fun is the order of this episode, and you’ll find yourself beaming ear-to-ear in spite of yourself.
“King for a Day” (dir. Blair) finds Jimmy Olsen in the role of a 24 hour monarch. Both the regular and visiting cast seem to be competing for most embarrassing performance. Blair directs on auto pilot, as usual.
“Joey” (dir. Gerstad) is hardly a promising start to the series’ fourth season. Stiff, indifferent acting, phony sentimentality, and poor writing sink this episode about a gangster and a horse. Even the horse looks bored.
“The Unlucky Number” (dir. Gerstad): Guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. Oh wait, it’s a rigged election type of thing, with sinister, shadowy Illuminati in the wings, kind of like the ones Donald Trump always warns us about.
“The Big Freeze” (dir. Gerstad): A freeze ray gun transforms Superman into a frosted treat. Avon is needed now more than ever to bring out Superman’s natural complexion. It’s not that bad of an episode, actually, and we at least get to see Superman doing something. That said, it’s not very good either.
“Peril by the Sea” (dir. Gerstad): Perry White is sucking uranium out of the sea. Hell, there’s even a submarine.
“Topsy Turvy” (dir. Gerstad): Professor Pepperwinkle taps the spirit of, concocting the most senseless inventions. This one makes people think they are upside down. Lois and Jimmy strain not to grate the audience, but clipping fingernails generates more excitement.
In “Jimmy the Kid” (dir. Phil Ford), Jimmy Olsen has a double who also happens to be a gangster (imagine that). Could this mean the exposure of Kent’s secret identity? This is drama! Inquiring minds want to know.
“The Girl Who Hired Superman” (dir. Ford) is a spoiled Paris Hilton type wants to be entertained by Superman, and she has lots of cash to donate to a charity. See Superman climb up a ladder. See him jump down.
“The Wedding of Superman” (dir. Ford) is awash in 1950s June Cleaver saccharine. It is based on a period comic book, and tolerance is limited to nostalgic sentiments. Reeves’ appeal remains intact, but Neill is never more decorative than here.
“Dagger Island” (dir. Ford) centers around a treasure hunt, skullduggery, a faked death, and cheating. Sound like one reality series too many.
“Blackmail” (dir. Gerstad) is about (drum roll please….) blackmail. Rest assured, whenever something as shady as blackmail is involved, series cop Inspector Henderson will come a-calling.
“The Deadly Rock” (dir. Gerstad) shows improvement. Kent’s boyhood pal is also weakened by the deadly rock from krypton. The series writers should have utilized this kind of drama more often. At least the excitement level rises above a straight line. Lois is bound and gagged, which is probably a plus.
“The Phantom Ring” (dir. Ford) again dives into Wagnerian terrain with a coin that renders people invisible. Kent gets whacked in a plane, but as we know….
“The Jolly Roger” (dir. Ford): How can you go wrong with Superman and pirates? You can’t. Neill’s pixyish island gear helps move things along: she’s at her most charismatic while in full damsel in distress mode, and never more appealing than when being potentially violated.