Superman's Black-And-White Flights On The Silver Screen
Many mere mortals think that the 2013 Superman movie is the character's sixth outing on the silver screen, but the Krytptonian hero has found his way onto the big (and small!) screen many times over the last 75 years.
1948 marks the first live-action movie appearance of Superman. This was in a 15 part black and white serialized adventure simply called "Superman". Serials were played at movie matinées, with each installment ending in a cliffhanger to goad audiences back the following week to see the resolution. Serials were churned out as cheapies to fill out the bill with feature films, and even a big name character like Superman was no exception. The character's flight was depicted through cost-effective cartoon animation.
One funny consequence of this hybrid animation approach is that it worked relatively well for depicting takeoffs, but not landings. The footage transitions between live-action Superman on the ground to animated Superman taking to the air fairly well. But landings were so difficult to animate that Superman lands behind cars and buildings an awful lot. Better yet, he seems to often overshoot where he's going, disappears out of camera range, just so he can run back into frame. Oh, and Superman flies past the same rocky hill in every installment.
One cute thing is that lead actor Kirk Alyn only received credit as playing Clark Kent. Columbia promoted the film with the claim that they couldn't find anyone to play Superman, so they had to hire the actual Superman. Noel Neill's portrayal of Lois Lane made such an indelible mark on the character that she went on to play Lois in the next serial, as well as five seasons of the 50s television show. Director Thomas Carr also went on to the next serial and TV show. I guess if you can work opposite a guy in unfortunately baggy tights without cracking up, you've got a job for life. Oh, and those tights were actually grey and brown instead of of blue and red to photograph better in black and white.
None of these cheap shortcuts limited the first "Superman" serial's tremendous success, so in 1950 a second 15 part serial "Atom Man Vs. Superman" hit screens. This time Superman was pitted against his arch-enemy from the comics, Lex Luthor. Kirk Alyn returned as the Man of Steel, while Lex was authored by cinema stalwart Lyle Talbot. When not at each other's throats in the film, Alyn and Talbot became friends off-screen - famously swapping recipes (both were fond of cooking) between takes.
The second serial does improve on the flying effect somewhat, by simply turning the camera sideways and having Alyn raise his arms above his head. Smoke was blown down onto him yielding something of an impression of flight. Longer sequences continued to use the animated method.
In this second sequel outing, the cheapness is even more apparent on-screen. The production attracted some critical ire, but more importantly attracted one of the largest audiences ever in the serial era. If anyone was left with a sour taste after this sequel series, it was soon forgotten as the blockbuster TV show took to the air just two years later. If you'd like to see for yourself, both classic serials have been released together on DVD.
1978's lavish movie adaptation finally gave Superman the scope that he deserved, so it was up to other countries to carry on the tradition of showing the character in the cheapest way possible - which is my rather thin segue into sharing clips from Superman films flying in from our friends in far-off lands.
Pick up both serials in one DVD collection and help out Retro Thing