Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Heart of Superman

As much as I love black-and-white photography, I would normally agree that color works better for superhero-oriented TV shows and movies. After all, the superhero business is literally one of primary colors.

But there's always exceptions to this. The Adventures of Superman ran for six seasons from 1952 to 1956. The first two seasons were filmed in black-and-white--it's these two seasons (most especially the first season) that are the best. And this is in no small part because of the black-and-white photography.

In part because of the legacy of the radio show and in part because of special effects limitations, Superman didn't fight supervillains and only occasionally ran into super-scientific threats. His opponents were gangsters and spies. The plots were constructed as mysteries--this meant there was stuff for Clark Kent to investigate and figure out before Superman could swoop in and punch everyone silly.

These early episodes were often gritty and dark, with a very high likelihood of a few corpses turning up before the end credits rolled. They were photographed and lighted in a very Film Noir-ish style that fit these types of stories perfectly. Consequently, The Adventures of Superman looked better and worked more effectively in black-and-white than it did in color. The Film Noir influence is particularly apparent in three of the best Season One episodes: "The Haunted Lighthouse," "A Night of Terror," and "The Evil Three."

What balanced out the grittiness and kept the show fun was its cast. George Reeves brought a personable confidence to both Clark and the Man of Steel. Lois Lane, whether played by Phyllis Coates or Noel Neill, was brass and brave. John Hamilton was magnificently crouchy as Perry White.

But I think it was Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen that really brought heart to the show. Jimmy was often over-eager and naive, but Larson's performance combined these traits with an inherent courage and a determination to stand by his friends. In later seasons, Jimmy was reduced more and more to being comic relief and nothing more. But in the first season--well, take a look at the clip I'm including. It's a scene from "A Night of Terror." Jimmy, Lois and one other character are about to be shot to death by gangsters. Notice that Jimmy is standing protectively in front of the two women. He's obviously terrified and helpless to do anything really effective. But by golly, he'll take a bullet before he allows either of the women to be hurt! Take note of this, modern-comic-book-writers-who-have-no-idea-how-to-deal-with-Superman's-traditional-supporting-cast. That's the way to write Jimmy Olsen!

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