Superman vs. Hollywood
How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon
By Jake Rossen
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Jake Rossen
All rights reserved.
In Des Moines, Iowa, an eight-year-old Superman fan, James Henderson, put on a Superman suit, jumped off the second-story landing and crashed. Said he, with a sprained ankle, "The darned thing wouldn't work."
— TIME magazine, August 10, 1942
Almost immediately following his debut in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), Superman's publisher — known for years as National Periodical Publications before settling on the more familiar moniker of DC Comics — charged press agents Allen Ducovny and Robert Maxwell with tailoring the character to radio. The airwaves remained the premiere comfort media of the nation, spinning science fiction and fantasy tales for a youthful demographic yet to be weaned on video games and sensory-assault summer blockbusters.
Unlike today's creator-owned comics properties, Superman belonged solely to the publishers; his true fathers, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, were therefore entitled to no recompense when their character appeared in another medium. If National felt the urge to prostitute him in wildly unfaithful incarnations, the duo could do little but sigh. Fortunately, their employer's respect for Superman had yet to devolve.
Ducovny and Maxwell orchestrated a sample track that featured raucous sound effects and the "Look, up in the sky!" mantra that would later become an embraceable cliché of the character. The now-archaic Hecker H-O Oats cereal company liked what it heard and signed on to sponsor the series, funneling it a budget and then petitioning stations for airtime.
The duality of Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent — one an alpha male of the highest order, the other drenched in faux meekness — initially convinced Maxwell he would have to hire two actors to play the bipolar title role. Radio veteran Clayton "Bud" Collyer's audition assured him otherwise: Collyer's Kent was a high-pitched milquetoast, but after dashing into a phone booth, his Superman came from the diaphragm, possessed of a guttural growl that would prompt any two-bit hood to rethink his ill-gotten acquisitions.
Collyer, who had made his name on such radio swashbucklers as Terry and the Pirates, brayed resistance to the role. Like the many actors to come after him, he feared that portraying such a broad, well-known character would rob him of opportunities to branch out in the future.
National offered a compromise: since they wanted to maintain the illusion that Superman was a real entity, and since Collyer feared typecasting, they would agree not to credit him with the role. While many actors would've found the idea of anonymous performing repugnant, Collyer was enthused. He signed on.
The performer had little to do when the fifteen-minute series The Adventures of Superman premiered on February 12, 1940. Superman's infantile origins were detailed, and it wasn't until the labored exposition expired in episode 2 that Collyer was able to don the tights in the theater of the mind.
More than eighty-five stations transmitted Superman's robot-smashing exploits to the masses. The syndicated program's 5:15 p.m. time slot was conducive to the youth of the country's school obligations; they could watch the show to either avoid homework or reward themselves for having done it. Ten weeks in, it had become the highest rated of any thrice-weekly entertainment series on the air.
Producers figured Superman would need some downtime in between bouts of saving his adopted home. As in the comics, the Daily Planet was his place of employment. Perry White emerged as his gruff, leather-voiced boss, and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen made himself readily available for regularly scheduled kidnappings and mortal peril. Both supporting characters were inventions of the radio producers, though Siegel had earlier devised an anonymous copyboy in the comics who bore a resemblance to Olsen.
Over the course of the series, several different actors assumed the role of Lois Lane. Rolly Bester and Helen Choate each contributed performances as the mischievous feminist, but eventually the part fell to Joan Alexander, an accomplished radio performer. Producers, unhappy with her delivery, canned her; she won the role back during a blind audition. Of the three actors to portray Lane, she tallied the most performances, though Rolly claims the more impressive trivia credit by being wed to Green Lantern comics scribe Alfred Bester.
Some time into his employment, Collyer demanded his two-week vacation. Not wishing to interrupt the program, Maxwell and his writing staff created the idea of Kryptonite, long-lost remnants of Superman's home world that would prompt an extreme allergic reaction in the Man of Steel. During Collyer's break, listeners sat in rapt attention as Superman did little more than moan in the background, felled by the noxious mineral. Later, Collyer's sabbaticals would be hidden by the arrival of Batman and Robin, fellow National crime fighters who guarded Metropolis in his absence.
In 1946, Maxwell embraced the offer by civil rights activist and counterfeit Klansmen Stetson Kennedy, proffering a two-piece narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to a squealing audience.
"The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan," Kennedy would later remember. "The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left."
Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman's radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of their audience was composed of adults. But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. "Even back in the '40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings. I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating."
Kennedy infiltrated the group and served up its secrets to Superman, then watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg's, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post–World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast-table staples, and Superman's battles with the close-minded continued.
Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the anti-Red Collyer. When infidels threatened to blow up a synagogue in a symbol of religious persecution, Superman laid their plans to waste. The story line caught the attention of TIME, which finally coerced Collyer into disclosing his identity to the masses. (His alter ego had already been revealed to his local religious community: his Sunday school classes were populated by children eager to hear the testimony of Superman.)
In 1949, Collyer begged off any future obligations to the character. (Michael Fitzmaurice would take over the role for the show's final year.) By then, Collyer had invested nearly a decade and two thousand episodes into the mythology, which makes him the most prolific actor ever to have assumed the mantle, though not the first to don the suit. That honor goes to Ray Middleton, who appeared in costume during the 1940 World's Fair for "Superman Day."
"He was a resplendent figure," gushed the New York Times of his modeling, "attired in his tight-fitting blue pants, red boots, red cape and helmet to match."
* * *
Contrary to public assumption, Walt Disney was not the first person to produce a cartoon featuring sound. Archaically charming as 1928's Steamboat Willie is, 1924's My Old Kentucky Home gets due honors for being the first animated subject to have a soundtrack. The short's producers also included a sing-along bouncing ball, which they had developed during the silent film era to entice viewers to aid and abet the communal theater experience.
The ball and the sound cartoon were just two of many innovations pioneered by Fleischer Studios, an oft-forgotten contributor to the animation industry. While Disney's empire swelled with the success of feature-length animated films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Max and Dave Fleischer saw little of the recognition historians would later feel they were due.
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1883, Max had been an art editor for Popular Science Monthly and a cartoonist for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper. He and brother Dave formed their animation studio in 1921, drawing on a shared interest in engineering to propagate a series of revolutionary advances in the animation business. (Brother Charles, interestingly, had devised the infuriating claw arcade game that has frustrated millions of people — including the government: he had to destroy hundreds of machines when they labeled it a gambling device and came after him.) Max had perfected the art of rotoscoping, which allowed artists to trace the movements of live-action models. The result was a startlingly realistic physical cadence for their trademark animated clown, Koko.
In the 1930s, cartoons were still primarily the realm of funny animals; animators used the medium to create fantastic imagery not yet possible on film. Fleischer stepped away from that model when he introduced Betty Boop in the early part of the decade. Boop had originally been cast as a literal dog — an inauspicious origin for a woman who prided herself on her sexual charms — but time and thought morphed her into a full-fledged femme fatale, her curves and batting eyelashes serving as innocuous sexual fodder for audiences. Artists had fun flirting with her excesses: a breast popped out of Betty's dress for a fraction of a second in Betty Boop's Rise to Fame. In other entries, Betty had to deal with the veiled sexual advances of potential employers. In a "stag" film intended only for distribution to the military, Betty herself made advances on a wary Popeye.
In 1934, Boop's popularity emboldened nightclub siren Helen Kane to sue the Fleischers and their distributor, Paramount, alleging that they had based the character on her onstage persona without permission and thus adversely affected her earning potential. (One would imagine the reverse would be true, that an ersatz Boop appearing live would entrance clubgoers.) Lawyers for both sides argued ceaselessly over the provenance of Betty's "boop-oop-a-doop" catchphrase. The judge eventually found on behalf of Paramount, due in part to their deeper legal resources.
The character's good-natured sexuality was extinguished that same year, when Mae West's real-life pout prompted Hollywood to institute the Hays Code. The edict governed "good taste" in theaters: gone were Betty's curves and dripping sexual subtext. She eked out a smothered existence until 1939. Disenchanted, the Fleischers refocused their attention on their license of King Features' Popeye strip. The barely intelligible sailor proved popular with audiences, particularly the cinematic device of having him imbibe spinach when he needed extra strength to ward off nemesis Bluto.
By that time, Paramount had acquired the screen rights to Superman, after Republic Pictures let their option from National expire. Republic had figured on producing a film serial but found the task of making the character fly an impenetrable roadblock.
Paramount had no such concerns — if they were to have Fleischer Studios animate the character, no valuable actor would have to be strung up on Peter Pan's rented wires. The studio approached Max with the offer, figuring he would leap at the chance to work on such a prized property.
They were wrong.
"Doing something like Superman required a great deal more realistic study than what they had been doing with the cartoon animals," said Fleischer historian Ray Pointer. "Cartoon human figures like Popeye and Betty Boop had been their foundation." Superman would require a more involved commitment to human anatomy.
The Fleischers had attempted "realistic" human animation only once before, with their feature Gulliver's Travels. Intended to usurp Disney's dominance in animation, it was only a modest success, damaged in no small part by their truncated eighteen-month production schedule. (Disney had spent four years perfecting Snow White.) Dismayed by the reception, Max wasn't enthused about tackling such a formidable license as Superman. He quoted Paramount a budget of $100,000 per episode, astronomical for any medium at the time.
To Fleischer's surprise, Paramount accepted his proposal, inadvertently forcing the animation studio to mature. "Paramount did them a favor by moving them forward into an arena that no one else was doing, which was an animated science fiction series with realistic characters," Pointer said. "In that respect, they wouldn't be saddled with doing bad imitations of Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons, which is what they had been trying to do."
Max and Dave used the generous funds to develop pencil tests for their animation, then a luxury in the medium. Dave sketched out the art deco–inspired look of the series, with buildings seemingly influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Joe Shuster's Superman model, prepared as a reference for the animators, was a broad-shouldered Adonis, his villains as menacing as they appeared in the comics series. All told, the Fleischers wound up spending $50,000 for the debut episode. Compared to the $14,000 spent on an average Popeye cartoon, Superman clearly benefited from the new standards in the industry. (Subsequent episodes saved money by reusing the same intro segment, and were brought in at a more reasonable $30,000.)
Likely at the urging of National, Paramount enlisted both Collyer and Joan Alexander to reprise their radio performances for the animated series. (All voice actors went uncredited.) In the first installment, simply titled "Superman," Collyer's Kent was at his most prepubescent, the better to contrast the hero's booming baritone. He would deepen the reporter's timbre in later shorts.
With no worries on the soundtrack front, the Fleischers nonetheless became embittered by the ideosyncrasies of the production. The brothers had recently abandoned their studio in New York City for the more inviting climate of Miami. They professed the need to expand to handle the workload, but Pointer believed the motive was less noble. "Max and Dave had summer homes in Miami and they loved it. They thought they could just go down there and make a big production center. Plus, Miami gave them a tremendous tax incentive." Paramount was eager to have them commence work on Gulliver's Travels — and to avoid the New York labor strikes that had plagued Fleischer Studios in 1937 — so the distributor funded the move.
"But from a logical standpoint, it doesn't make sense," Pointer argued. "There weren't any lab facilities down there, so they had to ship back and forth to New York. In the case of the Supermans, they had to send them to Technicolor in Hollywood. You're sending that stuff thirteen hundred miles, and you're running the risk of the plane going down and the negative being lost in a fire."
No such tragedy occurred, but the byzantine shipping schedule resulted in several delays. The third installment, "Billion Dollar Limited," was scheduled for a December 17, 1941, release. Memos from the studio to Paramount estimated its completion at December 19; the studio implored its distributor to "lean" on Technicolor to deliver the print sooner. "It certainly is swell of you," Fleischer employee Charles West wrote.
Regarding the segment "The Bulleteers," West wrote complaining that the DuPont sound recording stock was flaking off and harming the film. Worse, the Fleischers' insistence on their own homegrown ingenuity came back to bite them. "Their cameras were self-built," said Pointer. "The thing that's interesting is that mechanized animation cameras started to come into being in the 1930s, but the Fleischers had built their own equipment, so everything they did was jerry-rigged. If you really know where to look, even in the first Superman cartoon, there are camera abrasions due to a flaw in the equipment." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood by Jake Rossen. Copyright © 2008 Jake Rossen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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