Saturday, January 21, 2012

On DVD: Superman (1941)

Max & Dave Fleischer are well-known icons in animation history. The brothers adapted E. C. Segar's Popeye (formerly Thimble Theatre) into a series of classic shorts, and turned Jonathan Swift's novel, Gulliver's Travels, into a full-length animated feature. They also had created their own characters, particularly Betty Boop, in whose series Popeye made his debut in what amounts to what they call in television a "back-door pilot".

In 1941, the Fleischers reached into the world of comics again, striking a deal with National Periodical (DC) to bring Superman to the screen in a series of animated shorts. The biggest difference between Superman and the rest of the Fleischer line for Paramount was that the characters were drawn more realistically, creating a faithful adaptation of the comic books.

Clayton "Bud" Collyer & Joan Alexander, the stars of the Superman radio dramas, reprised their roles as Superman/Clark Kent (Collyer) and Lois Lane (Alexander) for the cartoons. However, there was one instance where Collyer apparently was missing and had to be substituted by another actor. Curiously missing is Jimmy Olsen, however. In the Golden Age, Olsen was introduced as a copy boy at the Daily Star (later Daily Planet), and later became a cub reporter. Sadly, he was left out of the series because, quite simply, there wasn't enough room for him in terms of plot development.

17 cartoons were made in total. Unfortunately, the Fleischers were gone before the series ended, and even though the quality of the cartoons didn't suffer much, their creative presence was missed. It was during this period that an analogue for Olsen, a novice named Louis, was added. Sad to say, Louis wasn't as bright, and to say he was about as sharp as a broken thumbtack would be an insult to thumbtacks. He simply didn't fit.

As most of you probably know, Collyer & Alexander would reprise their roles again for the first Superman animated series, which aired on CBS from 1966-70, but Alexander left the show after the first season. By then, Olsen was a much bigger player in the books, and it was reflected in his inclusion in the Filmation cartoons.

Here's the first of the shorts, more commonly known as "Mad Scientist":

The cartoons have been in public domain for a number of years, but last year WB finally produced a series of their own. Earlier today, I bought one of those public domain releases, this one issued by Genius Entertainment in conjunction with Topps in 2005. Not all of the cartoons are included, and a stick of Bazooka gum that was promised was not to be found. The other downside was that these prints are missing the Paramount opening & closing logos that were included in the print shown above. Who'd ever think Topps would pull an el scrimpo like that?

Rating: A+.


magicdog said...

I've caught these cartoons now and then and they are so beautiful to look at!

Art Deco at its finest!

What interesting it how independent Lois was! Most animated versions of her I'd seen were of her either trying to find out Superman's true identity, or getting rescued by Supes ALL.THE. TIME. In this short, she can't wait to get to the story and is also a pilot! Not bad!!

Unfortunately we don't get enough on the bad guys motivations to know why he wanted to kill so many people. I guess one mad scientist is the same as another.

hobbyfan said...

The "mad scientist" was the generic villain in most of the shorts, but there were a couple where Superman fought the Japanese and one vs. the Germans. Remember, most of these came out during World War II.

Remember, too, that the Fleischers' designs were the template for the toon noir style that came back with "Batman: The Animated Series" 20 years ago.