Thursday, March 27, 2008
Superman, the Spider Lady and 15 chapters of pure fun.
Superman's first appearance was, of course, on the cover and in the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, but such was his popularity that he was soon spilling out into other media. His enormously entertaining radio show (with Bud Collyer playing Clark Kent/Superman) went on the air in 1940. In 1941, the Fleicher studio Superman cartoons--which still rank among some of the most entertaining animated shorts ever made--began rolling out into the theaters.
A prose novel written by George Lowther (who also penned radio scripts for Superman and the Shadow) was published in 1942. A newspaper comic strip was also going strong during ththe '40s.
Superman's first live action foray into the theaters came in 1948. Superman was a 15-chapter serial produced by Columbia picture. Kirk Alyn is an effective Superman and very believable as the meek Clark Kent. Noel Neill has yet to be toppled from her throne as the prettiest Lois Lane ever. Former "Our Gang" member Tommy Bond is Jimmy Olsen.
The first chapter is an excellent retelling of Superman's origin, starting on Krypton with Jor-el vainly trying to convince his fellow Kryptonians that their planet is about to blow up. Jor-el saves his infant son by sending him to Earth via rocket, where the boy is adopted by the Kents. The first chapter ends with a grown Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis when some criminals attempt to sabotage a speeding train. Will Superman be able to save the day? Wait till next week to find out.
As the story unfolds in the successive chapters, Clark and his fellow reporters fight the machinations of the Spider Lady, a criminal mastermind trying to get her hands on both some Kryptonite and a destructive new ray gun.
A few months ago, I was baby-sitting four kids (between 6 to 11 years old) every Friday night for some weeks. For most of each evening, we'd play games or I'd let them play with stuff from my toy collection. But every time they were over, we'd pause for 15 minutes to watch another chapter of Superman.
At first, I had no idea if they'd enjoy this particular old black-and-white artifact, but they had no trouble at all getting into it. Though they mentioned a few times they wished it was in color (kids nowadays--whataya gonna do with 'em?), they were otherwise were enthralled from start to finish.
I was very strict about watching only one chapter per week--thus giving them the pleasant experience of a cliffhanger. We started keeping track of the number of times Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen were knocked out by crooks--thus holding a contest of sorts between them.
The best part of the viewing experience was when Superman would take flight--this was done by having the live-action Kirk Alyn transform into an animated Superman. If anything would make a modern child sniff disdainfully at this serial, I thought, it would be that primitive special effect.
But instead, their reaction was "Hey, he turns into a cartoon! Cool!" They loved it and easily accepted it as the way things work in that particular corner of the Superman universe.
Unfortunately, my baby-sitting duties came to an end before we could move on to the 1950 sequel Atom Man vs. Superman. In fact, in order to finish the first serial, I had to cheat a little and let them watch two chapters a night the last few weeks I had them over.
Both kids and adults nowadays are often spoiled by modern special effects and reluctant to give the beauty of black-and-white photography a proper chance.
But it can be done. If you can get a kid to sit down in front of an old movie serial or Ray Harryhausen film or any old-time entertainment, then the power and charm of good storytelling will get 'em every time.