The Adventures of Superman - The Complete First Season
This release of Adventures of Superman: The Complete First Season was originally intended to appear in late 2004, but it was delayed, reportedly by problems in finding suitable materials, a difficulty that -- as of this release in October of 2005 -- is still an issue for the later seasons. The series got most of its complete run issued on VHS through Columbia House, but it had a hard-luck history on laserdisc as well. The only one of the 1950s television series owned by Warner Home Video to be chosen for issue in that format, it eventually made it out on four 12-inch platters representing eight episodes plus four of the early 1940s Fleischer/Paramount-generated animated Superman shorts, and even one of those laserdiscs was delayed because of source problems involving one of the second-season episodes. This DVD set has overcome most of those difficulties and then some. Most of the 26 episodes are transferred from sources so clean that the space-scape opening almost looks 3-D, and the transfers are so sharp that on episodes such as "The Haunted Lighthouse, one can now very clearly see the shadows of the actors cast on the backdrop representing the sky over Moose Island. As author Gary Grossman points out on his commentary for the episode, on a 1952 or 1953 television screen that would not have happened, or otherwise have been an issue. Grossman is one of two commentators who participate in the bonus audio tracks for this set (the other is George Reeves biographer Chuck Harter), and they both have a fair amount of fun reminiscing about the show, but they also miss opportunities; no one seems to have bothered researching (and certainly not discussing) the careers of any of the supporting and guest actors in the series. Additionally, the half-hour format of the episodes limits what they can say, and they really should each have done at least one more, which could have allowed them to be more expansive. They do make some important and valid points about the early episodes of the series being, in effect, "mini-movies" (and mostly mini-film noir productions) and intended for general audiences, not just kids, which explains -- along with producer Robert Maxwell's association with the radio series that preceded it -- the very high body count and levels of violence in many of these episodes. A lot of these shows look and feel like miniatures of the kind of hard-boiled crime movies that Eagle-Lion was releasing in profusion during the late '40s. But they miss opportunities to discuss the gradual evolution of the series into a pure kids' show in more detail. Each episode looks about as good as it ever has or, likely, ever will, with the exception of what is probably the best episode of the season, "The Stolen Costume." Clearly transferred from a less-than-first-generation source, it is the only episode marred by significant scratches and other blemishes. It's still watchable, as the best episode of the season, but it's a disappointment. One or two other episodes, such as "Treasure of the Incas, look a little flat in visual tone, but they're not deficient in any serious way. And everything else is a delight to the eye and ear. Some of these programs may still give viewers chills almost 50 years after their initial broadcasts, with "Mystery in Wax" leading the way with Charles Chaplin alumna Mira McKinney as a mad sculptress faking the deaths of prominent citizens to build up publicity for her wax museum. There are also a fair number of blacklistees turning up in these shows as well, which predated the shutdown of television to many alleged communist sympathizers (series co-star Robert Shayne was investigated by the FBI for his union activities, and that's one reason he was missing from some shows in the first season). Each of the first four discs contains six episodes, presented in the order in which they were broadcast; each episode gets a single chapter marker, and there are "play all" and individual access options available on all of the discs, accessible through a cleverly designed and very entertaining menu, which also allows two routes of access to the commentary tracks where available. The last disc contains the two-part episode "The Unknown People, which was recut from the 1951 feature Superman and the Mole Men -- the latter appears as a bonus feature on the disc. The pairing of the overlapping material gives viewers the chance to compare the two productions, which was never possible (or, at least, easy) to do before. The fuller development and dramatic content of the feature-film version is very satisfying, but the tighter editing and much more intense scoring of the television version makes for a more engrossing and emotionally involving experience, and the decision to recut the movie for television was the correct one, although the feature-film edit does give viewers the chance to see more footage of one of the very last appearances by John Ford/Preston Sturges alumnus J. Farrell MacDonald. Also present on the last disc is the feature documentary "Adventures of Superman: From Inkwell to Backlot," which includes interviews with surviving co-star Jack Larson and also expert Allan Asherman and others (including the creators of the current series Smallville), which reveal some information about the series and its creation, as well as some of the high points of the season at hand. Surprisingly, there is no use made of footage from either later seasons or from the two Columbia-produced serials (both of which are now owned by Warner Home Video) that preceded the series, which would have better illustrated the virtues of the special effects in the series (one never saw Superman fly in the serials) and the casting of George Reeves in the title role. The producers have gone to the trouble of locating uncut, original versions of the episodes, including "Crime Wave, which exists in two very different cuts. One would like to see the alternate, censored version as well, and it would have been nice to have included the coming attractions (alluded to at the end of part one of "The Unknown People") that originally accompanied the end credits of each show (and which do exist), as well as one complete version of the opening with the original sponsor's credit. On the plus side, the producers have included a short string of Kellogg's cereal commercials featuring Reeves in character as Clark Kent and Superman. In all, the five-disc set is a better result than one initially expected from Warner Home Video, but still only about 40 percent of what it might have been with a truly concentrated and knowledgeable effort.