Monday, May 4, 2015

When the cinematic Superman was animated

Shorts! is an event that examines the short films and serials, both live-action and animated, of classic film, hosted by Movies Silently. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

So are you ready for Batman v Superman? You better believe this is gonna be the summer movie the fanboys will be lining up around the block for - but have you noticed something about it, based on the trailer, at any rate?

It's awfully dark.

And, um... grim.

If you saw Man of Steel, you know that this movie is simply continuing the pattern begun there, influenced, no doubt, by the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, where bright colors - hell, any colors - are verboten and "realism" (HA!) is the order of the day. We've come a long, long way from the halcyon days of Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner's Superman, whom many fans credit for having established the ideal cinematic look of the iconic superhero. Take a few steps further back in time, however, and you'll find another Superman made for the movies that was as far removed from Zack Snyder's version as blackest night is from brightest day. (Oh, wait, wrong superhero...)

From 1941-43, Paramount released 17 animated Superman shorts (in Technicolor!) made by Fleischer Studios, later known as Famous Studios. Fleischer was an animation studio founded by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, who also created cartoons featuring Popeye, Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Bimbo. They pioneered a unique process called rotoscoping, in which animators trace over live-action footage. It would evolve over time and be used by major studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers; by maverick indie filmmakers like Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, Richard Linklater and Nina Paley; in TV shows and music videos; and in foreign countries, including China, Japan and the Soviet Union.

It was the Fleischers who first made Superman fly. They didn't like the way it looked whenever Supes leaped tall buildings in a single bound, so with the permission of the Superman comic's publisher, who we know today as DC Comics, they ditched the leaping and made him fly instead. Eventually the change was made in the comics as well. Rotoscoping flying sequences, not to mention things like Supes lifting heavy objects, was tougher, so they had to wing it, so to speak.

The premiere short debuted on September 26, 1941, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. (It lost to Disney.) It quickly summarizes the origin of the Man of Steel (he was raised in an orphanage?), and also introduces Lois Lane. The Daily Planet and Perry White are there too, but go unnamed. Supes fights a mad scientist with a death ray. Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander supplied the voices of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois, respectively, both in the cartoons and on the radio show.

After the first nine episodes, Paramount took over Fleischer Studios, and by the end of 1941, the Fleischer Brothers went their separate ways. The studio was renamed Famous Studios, and with World War 2 on, the stories became more war-related. The entire run of cartoons would have a tremendous impact on future storytellers, including comics greats Frank Miller, of The Dark Knight Returns fame, and Alex Ross, of Kingdom Come and Marvels; and animators Bruce Timm, of the Batman and Superman animated series from the 90s; and Hayao Miyazaki.

Superman was created in 1938, so the Fleischer shorts are as close to the original vision of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as it gets. This is a much more down-to-earth Supes, relatively speaking. No spinning around the earth against its rotation here, nor any exchange of earth-shattering, skyscraper-destroying punches with General Zod. Supes has to work a little harder to get the job done, but these shorts have an excitement all their own that probably played well on the big screen.

The stories are formulaic, but straightforward, and with a minimum of dialogue. Some of them could almost play as silents. There's lots of crazy pseudo-science and criminal geniuses with ray guns or bullet cars or giant magnets, and Supes tends to cause as much destruction as the bad guys he fights, but to movie audiences of the early 40s, I imagine this looked to them the way Pixar looks to us now. I love how Collyer deepens his voice when he says "This looks like a job for Superman!" as if talking in a deeper voice will help preserve his secret identity, even though he doesn't wear a mask! 

But that's the thing: the superhero genre was still being shaped during this time - I doubt if anyone even thought of it as a genre back then - and no one cared about making these characters "realistic" or "relatable," the way they do in the movies today. They damn well didn't give a crap about "continuity," either! They just wanted to tell fun, exciting stories. There's a lesson to be learned here.

Lois' character, meanwhile, is extremely recognizable as the same one we know today: the headstrong reporter who'll do anything to get the story - and always ends up needing Supes to bail her out of trouble. As usual, she's infatuated with Supes but disdainful of Clark (who is less of the awkward doofus here than in the Reeve films). What impressed me most was how much the Fleischers let Lois do things. Yeah, Supes always ends up saving her from trouble, but she gets a piece of the action fairly often. In one short, she fires on the bad guys with a machine gun; in another, she escapes an erupting volcano by crossing hand-over-hand across a suspension cable, even as chunks of molten lava fly around her; and in a third, she saves a little girl from a rampaging gorilla. Lois is as much an icon as Superman, and her legend was built through these shorts as much as his.

It would be incredibly cool of WB if they ran some of these shorts in front of Batman v Superman this summer... don't you think?
When Tom & Jerry were movie stars


  1. I'm in love with the look of the Fleischer Superman cartoons. I've been steering Gavin toward them, but he prefers Raggedy Ann and Andy, and Hunky and Spunky. I'm not giving up. My Supers wouldn't.

    1. I know about the Raggedys, but not Hunky and Spunky. Is that Canadian?

  2. I've never seen these early Superman animations, but I agree with Caftan Woman about the look of them. The colours are gorgeous!

  3. They are, aren't they? And these cartoons still hold up well, despite all the subsequent changes to the character over the years.

  4. Thanks so much for joining in! I used to watch these a lot when I was a kid and enjoyed them immensely. I agree that the whole dark and gritty superhero thing is so overdone these days, it's nice to see a more optimistic, colorful take on the character.

  5. You said it! Thanks for another great idea for a blogathon.

  6. I forgot to thank you for that information on how Superman came to fly because of the Fleischer shorts. It's rather like William Gillette putting on the deerstalker and giving Sherlock Holmes "elementary".

  7. So I guess those didn't originate with ACD. Never knew that.

  8. Why I'm not surprised with your choice? ;)
    I can't go with the dark Superman mood in the last few years. I know him shiny and bright in blue and red, from cartoons like these and comic books. And, yes, it'd be great if those cartoons were shown right before the new movie!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. I swear I didn't plan on doing another Superman post so soon! I had struggled coming up with a topic, and then when I saw that cartoons counted as shorts, that's when I thought of this.

  10. These are wonderful films. I am always amazed at how fast they move, especially compared to today's bloated superhero movies. The Superman radio shows are fun. Many are available online.

  11. Well, being shorts, I imagine they didn't have a lotta time for cumbersome subplots or excessive detail.


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