Adventures of Superman - Seasons 3 & 4
The producers of The Adventures of Superman, in an amazing leap of faith in the longevity of their program and its appeal, and the future of broadcast and home-viewing technology, chose to shoot the series in color starting with the third season, even though they were only printed in black-and-white until 1965. And to cover the increased costs -- including the need to shoot entirely new stock footage, build new sets, test every article of wardrobe and set decoration to see that it photographed well in color but also in the black-and-white that would be printed for at least a decade, and redesign and reconceive the Superman costume, etc. -- they limited the 1955 season to 13 new episodes instead of the usual 26. A similar strategy was followed for the fourth season, and the two have been combined in one five-platter package by Warner Home Video. The series by this time was oriented more toward preteens than to the wider family audience that the first two seasons had been aimed at; the actors portraying criminals played their roles much more broadly, for comic-relief effect, and the plots reflected the increasingly juvenile level of the comic book itself, which, in the mid-'50s, seemed aimed at challenging elementary-school readers. However, the best of the episodes -- and that's easily half of what's in this set -- also contained ideas and humor that could appeal to any teenagers or adults watching, so that they wouldn't tune out. With the "deez, dem, dose" dialect employed by the actors portraying mobsters, we also got fascinating elements of science fiction, in a story called "The Deadly Rock, and human interest by the gallon in "The Wedding of Superman" and "The Girl Who Hired Superman" (of which the latter also included pretty good crime and suspense elements). The full-screen (1.33:1) film-to-video transfers are a bit uneven in quality but always impressive, either for their sharpness and detail or the depth of their color in certain scenes. Some sequences also show a surprising amount of wear and blemishes, and other sequences, such as the ten-minute mark in the episode "Superman Week, seem washed out and grainy. The most interesting and entertaining moment from a technical standpoint comes from that episode, which includes a television interview with the Man of Steel; it's a transcendent moment in the melding of time and technology to see the black-and-white image of Superman on the screen in the middle of the color setting for the rest of the shot. Despite the low-level of sophistication in the plotting, there are some entertaining episodes in these two seasons. "The Seven Souvenirs, which introduced Phil Tead to the cast (he would later play a very different recurring character), offers an intriguing mystery and also an early look at a manifestation of the cult of celebrity. Generally it's all satisfying viewing, and the sound has also been handled well; the score (which is sometimes amazingly lush, as in the action scenes from "The Talking Clue") is as sharp as the dialogue, and one can now hear not only the slight flubs in lines that crept in (the budget was stretched so thin that retakes were avoided unless absolutely essential) and also the little under-the-breath remarks that came out of various characters. Oscar-winning editor Harry Gerstad, who had handled the second season's assembly of shows, did what he could as a director on many of these episodes under the circumstances, which mostly meant letting some talented character actors, such as Harry Tyler, Leonard Mudie, and Charles Watts and, especially, Sterling Holloway and Phil Tead, do what they do best. And there are some recognizable future stars in among the guest casts, including Chuck Connors and Paul Burke, the former two years away from doing The Rifleman (and still mostly associated with "heavy" roles at the time) and the latter a decade out from the series Twelve O'Clock High and the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. Disc four is chock-full of great episodes: "Jimmy the Kid, with Jack Larson's Jimmy Olsen impersonated by a career-criminal double; "Dagger Island, an early take on Survivor about relatives on a deserted island contending for an inherited fortune; "The Wedding of Superman, something of a companion episode to the second-season "Jimmy Olsen, Boy Editor, this time presenting an unusual female-oriented episode told from the point-of-view of Noel Neill's Lois Lane (one wishes heartily that the second reel looked at beautiful as the first, but some of the shots are washed out; it is an acting tour de force for Neill, however, and a rather beautiful episode); "Blackmail, which gave Robert Shayne's Inspector Henderson the center stage; a fascinating human interest story, "The Girl Who Hired Superman, with guest star Gloria Talbott; and "The Deadly Rock, a superb kryptonite-related story that alludes to events seen in the second-season episode "Panic in the Sky" (as well as having the distinction of featuring as a guest star Robert Lowery, who played Batman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin). But there are also excellent episodes on disc three: "The Unlucky Number, with John Berardino as a guest star and "The Big Freeze, which was an unusual story hooked around the suspense surrounding an election. The fifth platter is loaded up with special features, leading off with "Adventures of Superman: The Color Era," which tells how the producers came to shoot seasons three, four, five, and six in color, and features interviews with Jack Larson and Noel Neill. The main focus concerns the changes that overtook the series, and one of the best moments comes when screenwriter David Chantler appears discussing the juggling act that he had to do in the authoring of screenplays about a nearly invulnerable character. "Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Special Effects of Adventures of Superman" is highlighted by interview segments with Thol "Si" Simonson, the special-effects genius behind the series, who finally gets the recognition he is due. And there are excerpts from the new Superman documentary Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman, dealing with the character from his initial comic-book conception to the 2006 movie incarnation. Each platter opens to a simple, easy-to-use two-layer menu, although the first disc opens with a somewhat annoying promo reel pushing the new incarnation of the Man of Steel. Each episode gets the same four chapter markers matching opening credits, first half, second half, and end credits.