This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Alfred Eaker’s The Blue Mahler.
Today, few seem to pay mind to the artists, writers or creators of comic book characters. When Denny Stephens and I walked into Denny White’s comic book shop as Indiana adolescents, we immediately knew—without looking at the credits—if a book was penciled by Jack Kirby, Frank Robbins, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, Mike Ploog, Curt Swan or Wayne Boring. In their place now, a bland homogeneity permeates both the world of comics and the shops which market them. One book looks the same as the next, blending without seams, shorn of rough edges, entry points, atmosphere, originality, color, or inherent personality. One could say the same regarding the recent spate of films based on DC characters (not so with their television work, including animation where they rule their Marvel rivals. On the big screen, Marvel does it better). While the 1950s Television Superman was nowhere near as imaginative as stories being cranked out by Otto Binder in Superman Magazines (TV didn’t have the budget or, still in its infancy, the know how) the first season of The Adventures of Superman is something of a silver age within itself.
, , Jack Larson, John Hamilton, Robert Shane, Tommy Carr and each put an stamp on the characters and episodes, a personalized milieu and individuality that today is alien to an audience whose primary concern towards character tends to Biblical fidelity and adulation.
For many, George Reeves remains the quintessential portrayal of Clark Kent and his alter ego, Superman. It’s not out of nostalgia, or because he was the first actor to portray the pulp character. In fact, he wasn’t the first at all. That honor belongs to Kirk Alyn who starred in the serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Alyn, who interpreted Kent as a kind of bumbling Jimmy Stewart character, simply doesn’t inspire. That lack of inspiration isn’t just limited by the serial’s quality: certainly, many of the later television and big screen incarnations were equally poor in their writing and execution. Rather, it’s due to Alyn’s Kent, who set the blueprint for the later Christopher Reeve performance. Kent really isn’t Kent. He’s Superman, and the newspaper paper reporter is just a façade.
It’s hardly a secret that George Reeves had no love for playing a role that later actors would kill for. For Reeves, this was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Not only was he playing a little boy’s pulp comic book character who wore underwear outside of his pants, but he had been reduced to television. Like many actors of his time, including Alyn, who had refused to repeat the role for TV, Reeves was suspicious of the new medium. It was called small screen for a reason, lacking the glamour of the big screen.
Earlier, Reeves’ career had been on a roll, having played the Tarleton twins in Gone With The Wind (1939) and landing a critically acclaimed starring role in So Proudly We Hail (1942) before being drafted into service for WWII.
After returning from the Air Force, Reeves discovered he had been forgotten by studios. Adding to that woe was the unexpected death of the producer who had aided his career. Still, known for his ability to quickly memorize dialogue, along with a rugged physique, Reeves landed roles in low-budget serials and features, which were rushed productions, and in live television. Although he was successful on the small screen, the quality of scripts he was offered seemed to confirm his trepidation.
In 1951, studio executives and producers unanimously chose George Reeves for the starring role in Superman and the Mole Men, which was to be followed by one season of a television series. Producers saw something of the quintessential Superman/Kent in Reeves that neither the actor himself, nor post-Christopher Reeve audiences could see. Producers envisioned Reeves as embodying Kent/Superman as a barrel-chested father figure (he is closest to Wayne Boring’s Superman). As Whoopi Goldberg astutely observed in a documentary about the actor, “Reeves’ disappointment in not becoming the next Gary Cooper inspired him to put his all into Kent.” Reeves refused to play Kent as a slapstick idiot. His Superman is merely an extension, or an afterthought to Clark Kent. As two villains observed in one of the series’ episodes, “it’s not Superman we need to worry about, but Kent.” George Reeves’ aggressive Clark Kent was far more of a threat with his typewriter than Superman was merely banging two heads together.
The first season’s writing meshes well with this portrayal of Kent. It’s not as well-matched in seasons 2-6, with Noel Neil’s Lois Lane and John Hamilton’s Perry White making occasional snide comments about Kent’s “being afraid of bullets or running to hide from danger,” which we never see as Reeves’ portrayal of a tough, fearless reporter remains consistent throughout the series run.
Still, despite his enthusiasm for playing Kent, Reeves was told, and hoped, that the series would be shelved and forgotten. He seemed to get his wish when producers sat on that first season for two years, trying to find a sponsor. That delay turned out to be a blessing for sponsors.
By the time The Adventures of Superman beamed into 1953 living rooms, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been elected President and the country was swept up in a style of leadership that came to be known as Rockefeller Republicans. Reeves/Kent/Superman fit that mood like a glove. Reeves’ Kent/Superman has a genteel, patristic quality that no other actor has given the role(s). His type of conservative echoed Ike and the Webster definition of conservative as a moderate. Tradition was valued, but never at the expense of being bought by special interests (the NRA and religious right).
Nor was the Eisenhower conservative prone to anti-government sentiments. Indeed, the idea of conservatives allying themselves with confederacy sentiments would have been unthinkable to an ideology still under the influence of its founding father figure, Abraham Lincoln. Of course, this was before Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats infiltrated and sabotaged the conservative American party. It was also before the appearance of radical right-wing Dixiecrat offspring who have rendered conservative and bigot as synonymous.
Indeed, in Superman and the Mole Men, Reeves’ Superman seems to symbolically echo mounting warnings of the threat of uneducated right-wing thugs dismantling an authentic conservative tradition.
Nor would Reeves’ Kent be given to bigotry and homophobia. He proved an advocate for gun control in Superman and the Mole Men, and, although hetero, his best pal was the gay Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson). It’s no wonder that Reeves’ Kent/Superman is indeed an alien to millennials who only see conservatives as extremist kooks.
Off-screen Reeves was a passionate drinker, known for his partying and decade-long affair with a mafioso’s wife. However, the actor took his role seriously enough to stop smoking and give Kent-like moral advice to the show’s pubescent audience. In this he had a model in William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, which is apt; Reeves’ Superman is more of a noirish B–Western cowboy than a sci-fi character (and it probably is no coincidence that the series début director was Tommy Car, who had previously helmed several episodes of Hopalong Cassidy and Dick Tracy). When finally released, the success of The Adventures of Superman took everyone, including Reeves, by surprise, and he immediately transitioned into mantling a public persona.
The consensus, for once, is right in ranking the first season of The Adventures of Superman as the best. It’s heavily inspired by the preceding noir radio show (with Bud Collier voicing Kent/Superman). There really never has been anything like it before or since. The second season has its gems, and some actually prefer its slicker sheen, but few of the episodes were well-written, and set the stage for the low-quality, Kellogg’s-sponsored, family friendly version of later color seasons (many of which can compete with the ineptness of‘s script writing).
Naturally, the special effects throughout are dated and sub par (the Mole Men ray gun is a decorated vacuum cleaner, Superman’s flies by placing the actor on a glass table, etc). Seen today, it becomes clear that the enduring legacy of The Adventures of Superman‘s six seasons are primarily due to Reeves’ performance.
Additional standout performances include Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen andas Lois Lane (still, the yardstick measure of both characters). The Lois Lane a portrayed by Noel Neil from seasons 2-6 was uneven, through no fault of the actress. In contrast to Coates’ brassy portrayal, Neill gave Lane a charmingly perky, petite quality, but was often reduced to June Cleaver-like decor. It’s a testament to Reeves that he responded well to both actresses. His chemistry with Larson, and at the opposite end, Robert Shayne (as Inspector Henderson) was equally winning.
Special effects always date and, in a few years, it’s a given that 2013’s Man of Steel, like 1978’s Superman, will look antiquated. Unfortunately, ’s film neither has a good narrative, nor a charismatic lead performance to ground it, such as in Superman II (1980). Although in slight defense of actor Henry Cavill, the Kent of Man of Steel, like Dean Cain’s Kent from the TV series Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, proves more influenced by George Reeves than Christopher Reeve.
The Adventures of Superman actually premiered in theaters with Superman and the Mole Men. Dispensing of a pointless mythology-making origin, it gets straight to the action. and is far more a testament to the Clark Kent/Superman character than its predecessors (the dual serials) or offspring. Here, Kent is pure 1950s Americana. A tough but genteel defender who inherently knows that “Truth, Justice, And The American Way” means justice and civil liberties for all, including minorities, misfits, and outsiders.
Reeves’ Kent is too shrewd to be bamboozled by the Goebbels-like argument of “you’re a bigot for being bigoted against our bigotry.” When local racists deny civil liberties to illegal aliens, Kent pulls a Wyatt Earp and disarms the entire town, literally interpreting the second amendment as one for a sanctioned militia whose job it is to restore peace and communal order.
Later, the film was retitled The Unknown People and divided into two parts for TV series broadcast. It can been seen in its original incarnation on both the series DVD set and as a bonus on the Christopher Reeve Superman movie Blu-ray set.
The first five episodes were all directed by Timothy Carr. “Superman on Earth” served as the first season pilot and says in only a few minutes what it took Zack Snyder an hour to tell poorly. Simple and to the point, it sets the thirty minute tone to follow: Kent is the focus with Superman as the exclamation point. It utilizes and smartly condenses the Krypton narrative and gives Clark Kent a quicksilver-like upbringing in Small Town, during which he finds out why he has powers and abilities far beyond mortal men.
The passing of years gives the episode a golden age sheen. With the origin presented as a synopsis put quickly behind us, Kent transports himself to Metropolis where he meets Perry White (John Hamilton), Lois Lane (Coates), and Jimmy Olson (Larson), landing a job as an intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet after Superman briefly appears for a rescue and saves the day.
The episode ends on Reeves’ self-depreciating humor when, as Kent, he looks at the camera and says: “Who knows, Lois? Maybe I’m a super man.” It’s a joke we are in on with Reeves, unlike Lane and company. Charmingly, Reeves’ invites us to laugh with him, as opposed to laughing at his peers who can’t see through a simple disguise of horn-rimmed glasses. Character actors Robert Rockwell (as Jor-El), Dabs Greer (as a man saved by Superman), and Frances Morris (as Ma Kent) give the pilot a commendable sense of period seriousness, as does the regular cast. The weak link is the dated, overtly amateurish acting of Tom Fadden as Pa Kent.
“The Haunted Lighthouse” was a series favorite. Omitting Lane and White, it features Kent and Olsen. Actor Larson was closely associated with multiple figures in theater and the arts, including Montgomery Clift (with whom he had a romantic relationship). In his first starring role as Olsen (he merely appeared toward the end of the series’ pilot), Larson imbues the episode with a sense of dread, naïveté, and humor, which extends from an extensive Grand Guignol theatrical tradition. He does it so effectively that since the series ended in 1959, no live action portrayal has attempted such a comparatively extensive focus on this character.
Choosing to take a vacation on the fog-laden Moose Island with relatives he hasn’t seen since he was an infant, Olsen discovers stolen identities and criminals using the lighthouse for a smuggling operation. He calls on Kent for help. Naturally, Kent brings along his blue, red, and yellow suit and teams up with the coast guard to put a stop to illegal activities. The underground cavern, moody lighting and atmospheric fog place this episode securely in the radio show’s noir tradition. Aunt Louisa and a talking parrot seem to know something Olsen doesn’t in regards to his co-worker.
“The Case Of The Talkative Dummy” is the first episode to feature Inspector Henderson (a character taken from the radio show). Celebrating his birthday at a nightclub ventriloquist with Kent and Lane, Jimmy Olsen discovers the dummy being used by criminal elements to pass on codes for an armored car heist. Whattya know? It’s an inside job, and despite vague motives, the episode moves like a nifty, second-run B–quickie with Kent acting as a Sam Spade type. Chemistry between the principals, always a plus in the series, sells us in spite of a few narrative shortcomings. It ends with Henderson speculating, “who knows? Maybe Kent takes off his glasses, changes his clothes, and turns into Superman.” Some detective that Henderson.
Like the previous two episodes, “Mystery Of The Broken Statues” follows in the crime noir spirit. After witnessing hoodlums buying and then smashing ceramic items in various curio shops, Kent and Lane embark upon a mystery, in the way of items found within the smashed figurines and pieced together codes. Preposterous and fun, Superman ties up potentially violent loose ends.
What makes this a winning episode is the genuine chemistry and latent eroticism between Reeves and Coats, which reportedly was intense enough to worry Reeves’ off-screen girlfriend Toni Mannix. When Lane is kidnapped and threatened by a gangsters, it’s Kent who lands the first punch, possessing a sense of danger, risk taking, and seriousness of purpose that few of the character’s big screen incarnations would take.
“The Monkey Mystery” could only have been made in the age of McCarthyist commie-fearing hysteria. Along with his daughter Maria, scientist Jan Moleska is declared an enemy of the state for his secret formula to combat atomic threats, and is hiding in a cave from the secret police. After Moleska is murdered, Maria, with her father’s formula secured within a locket, heads for the United Sates. She intends to personally give the president this formula to save his country from the sinister spy organization. Both she and a shadowy foreign enemy all make their way into Metropolis street drama, which involves the organ grinder Tony and his monkey, Peppy, who wears a Superman shirt to entertain children. Lois Lane inadvertently receives a message from Peppy, which is actually an enemy spy planning to abduct Maria.
Thus, aian, delightfully far-fetched mystery unfolds. Peppy goes missing with both friend and foe searching for him. Jimmy Olsen, as prone to leaping into danger as Lane, gets beaten up when trying to defend his simian pal. And, after much head spinning, it all ends well and on a note of humor in this example of solid, early television pulp writing.
After the first five episodes being directed by Carr, “Night Of Terror” is the first under the direction of Lee Sholem (Superman And The Mole Men, Tarzan And The Slave Girl, and Tarzan’s Magic Fountain). Lois Lane, taking a needed vacation, stops at Restwell Tourist Cabin lodge in the Blue Hills and discovers its receptionist, Mrs. King, lying face down on the floor. After reviving the injured woman, a scarred gangster named Solly confronts Lane, and socks her on the jaw, knocking her out. The gangsters are using the cabins to sneak criminals on the lam across the Canadian border, which is a half hour from the resort. After having already killed Mrs. King’s husband and discovering that Lane is a reporter, Solly’s partner, Mitch,calls their boss for advice. The big guy is sending in Baby Face Stevens, a professional hit man, to dispose of the witnesses. Although neither Solly nor Mitch have met Baby Face, they are aware of his reputation as a wisecracker who never misses.
Lane briefly escapes and gets a call into the Daily Planet. However, it is Olsen, rather than Kent, whom she reaches before being caught by Solly. An intense sequence follows. Olson leaves Kent a note with the Planet secretary Miss Bachrach and heads to the Blue Hills. Unfortunately, Miss Bachrach knocks the note off the desk, leaving it for the janitor to collect with the trash and burn. Once Kent gets wind of the trouble brewing for his co-workers, he interrogates Miss Bachrach, who defensively shrieks in response to the reporter’s desperation and anger, “The name of the place was Sleep Well or Deep Well… something with a well.” Slipping into his primary colors, Superman takes flight. Olsen arrives and is mistaken for Stevens by the gangsters. As Olson, Lane, and King plot their escape, the real Baby Face arrives, but so does Superman, who does exactly what we expect of him.
Reportedly, Coates was actually knocked out by the actor playing Solly, when he forgot to pull his punch. The scene remains intact as filmed. Again, we have an episode carrying on the radio show’s noir spirit, but Sholem doesn’t seem as natural in directing actors as Carr.
“The Birthday Letter,” directed by Dennis Cooper, is the type of episode that endeared Reeves’ Superman to children of the fifties. Today, this type of overt sentimentality would never fly. Yet the heart-tugging is contained within a classic noir feel and, in that, actually carries on a tradition from earlier films, such as High Sierra (1941).
Handicapped seven-year-old Kathy Williams (a quintessential 1950s name) has sent a letter to the Daily Planet asking Superman to take her to the county fair so he can assist her in riding on the roller coaster. Perry White promises that the Planet will take her, but Lois Lane knows only Superman himself can make Kathy’s birthday wish come true.
While Kathy’s mom is at work (she leaves seven-year-old Kathy home alone) the telephone rings. Kathy answers it. Unwittingly, a gangster has dialed the Williams home number by mistake. He gives Kathy the time and place of a meeting before being shot to death by pursuant enemy gangsters, which makes the girl an audio witness to a homicide.
After a little investigation and seeing the Planet article about Kathy, the dead men’s cohorts add it all up, pay Kathy a visit with Slugger dressed as a phony Superman and kidnap her, hoping they can get much-needed information about the meeting place. Mom blames the real Superman while Slugger, a lug with a heart of gold, bonds with his new adolescent pal and tries to save her from his bosses. It ends predictably with the bad guys brought to justice and Superman flying Kathy to the fair. While hardly innovative, the episode is an engaging example of Reeves’ Superman as having a super heart, which is of course more important than super powers. By all accounts Reeves enjoyed his pubescent audience and interacted with them well; that chemistry is evident in “The Birthday Letter.”
“The Mind Machine” is classic science fiction noir, which seems heavily inspired by the radio show. Dr. Stanton and his assistant John Hadley are at work in the lab on a scientific device, which enables the doctors to make contact with a person’s mind to treat nervous disorders. Three masked men break into the lab, kidnapping Stanton and his machine, warning his assistant that if he goes to the police, Stanton will be killed.
Naturally, Hadley goes to Kent. Stanton is kidnapped by the crime lord Mr. Big, who wants to use Stanton and the machine to connect with the minds of witnesses against his organization who are testifying before Senator Taylor. The first witness is Mr. Big’s former accountant. Through the transmitter, which works like a visual radio, the witness’ mind blanks. Fleeing the investigating committee, followed by Lois and Clark, he hijacks a school bus. Superman comes to the rescue but the witness is dead from severe brain damage. The deaths of various witness remains unknown to Stanton.
One potential witness is Lois Lane, who plans to go through with her testimony despite pleas from Perry White and Clark Kent. Stanton find out the truth by this point. Kent is with Hadley flying in a plane trying to locate the transmission when they discover that the time of Lane’s testimony has been moved up.
Through radar, Kent and Hadley locate the signal, but time is crucial. Kent knocks Hadley out, puts the plane on auto pilot, flies down below, putting Mr. Big and his thugs out of commission as Stanton destroys his own machine. Hearing the plane sputter, Superman lands it safely.
The episode ends with Lane, “Why should I need your help when I can always count on…”
“Superman,” winks Kent. The acting is solidly performed by cast in this imaginatively directed (by Sholem) episode.