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September 14, 2011

Fleischers’ Superman at 70 — the best on-screen Man of Steel?

Posted in: Animation,Video

Superman fans are awaiting the feature film starring Henry Cavill, set for 2013, but Sept. 26 marks the 70th anniversary of the first — and arguably the best — screen version of the Man of Steel: Max and Dave Fleischer’s animated shorts.

Although their studio was searching for a new character to replace Betty Boop, whose cartoon series had ended in 1939, the brothers Fleischer initially turned down Paramount’s offer to animate “Superman.” In an interview given later in his life, Dave Fleischer recalled: “I didn’t want to make ‘Superman.’ Paramount wanted it. I told them because it was too expensive, they wouldn’t make any money back on it. The average short cost nine or ten thousand dollars, some ran up to fifteen. I couldn’t figure how to make ‘Superman’ look right without spending a lot of money. I told them they’d have to spend $90,000 on each one … [and] they spent the $90,000. But they were great.”

The “Superman” cartoons were great: The most polished animation and dramatic direction the Fleischer studio ever created brought the comic books to life. The series lasted for only 17 installments, but they created a signature version of the hero that helped defined his essence as he flew across all of pop culture.

Lois Lane is portrayed as a spunky newspaper reporter, reminiscent of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday.” Her dedication to getting the scoop for the Daily Planet invariably lands her in life-threatening danger: Only Superman can save her. Fortunately, he’s always on hand.

In “The Mechanical Monsters” (1941) Lois hides inside the giant robot that loots a fabulous jewelry exhibit. Superman follows them back to the mad scientist’s lair, where he smashes an entire robot army into so much scrap metal. Lois is nearly caught by a rampaging gorilla that destroys the big top in “Terror on the Midway” (1942), and she’s attacked by the long-dead guardians of a ancient pharaoh “The Mummy Strikes” (1943). Superman quickly disposes of these threats, and even tackles Axis agents in “The Japoteurs” (1942).

Mild-mannered Clark Kent somehow misses all the excitement, but he turns up at the end of each film to congratulate Lois on another great story.

The look of the “Superman” cartoons reflects those lavish budgets. The animators were able to pencil test much of their work, a luxury that hadn’t been possible on their cheaper Betty Boop and Popeye shorts. The movements are more fluid and convey a believable sense of weight.

The elaborate backgrounds in “Terror on the Midway” evoke the look of circus poster art; the scientist’s lair in “Mechanical Monsters” is an art deco fantasy of streamlined curves. Imaginative camera angles and movements, moody lighting and deep shadows heighten the sense of drama. The stylized artwork and sophisticated camerawork give the “Superman” shorts a brooding film noir atmosphere.

The “Superman” cartoons were the last hurrah of the Fleischer studio. The failure of their second feature, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” which was released three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, marked the end of the Miami-based studio. The Fleischer brothers were deeply in debt to Paramount, and their bitter quarreling prevented them from working together effectively. Paramount executives fired the two brothers, changed the name of their operation to Famous Studios and moved the artists back to New York.

The “Superman” series ended with “Secret Agent” in 1943, less than two years after it began. But the cartoons live in the hearts of superhero fans and animation buffs. (Director Kerry Conran, for instance, offered an homage to “The Mechanical Monsters” in the 2004 movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”). Although many filmgoers don’t realize it, the Fleischer cartoons also introduced two classic phrases into the American imagination: “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” and “Faster than speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”

– Charles Solomon

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