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

Sept. 14, 2011 | 6:36 a.m.

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.”

superman fleischer poster1 Fleischers Superman at 70    the best on screen Man of Steel?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.

superman gallery2 Fleischers Superman at 70    the best on screen Man of Steel?

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

  1. RLD says:

    There is a continuity error in "The Mechanical Monsters". When it first lands to steal the gems it is number 5 on the back and number 13 on the front. Later front and back are 13.

  2. mike says:

    These were great cartoons. I love the one with the Magnetic Telescope.

  3. Phil says:

    They were also the origin of the famous phone booth change.

  4. oli says:

    These shorts seem like they really need some TLC and need to go through a restoration process and released on blu ray.

  5. Christopher Beaver says:

    And why exactly did Superman need to disguise himself as Clark Kent? The point was . . .

    • jason says:

      He did not disguise himself as Clark Kent, his adoptive parents who found him, named him and raised him as an ordinary human being.

      Now if you're asking why does he continue to be Clark Kent after finding out he's from another planet with amazing powers, that speaks to innate goodness. In addition to using his powers for good, he also sees the need to stay close to humanity (and ergo, not forget *his* humanity)

      As a reporter, he can keep up with current events and breaking news and find out where around the globe Superman might be needed, and he can also write human interest stories on people of Metropolis.

  6. Alan Dean Foster says:

    Magnetic Telescope was my favorite also. Aside from the fantastic animation, where else in a '40's film can you see cops nearly destroy a city because they don't understand science? Underground World also had some brilliant moments.

  7. Marvin Moskowitz says:

    Mr. Solomon has been sharing this type of deep knowledge of animation for many years. Los Angeles should fete him as a rare treasure – someone who KNOWS what he's writing about.

  8. Anna Romao says:

    My favourite "Showdown" in 1940's . Because some people thought real Superman stole any things. But real alien Superman got fake Superman who was a thief. I love it.

  9. Timothy T. says:

    Wow this is awesome. I love how everything has weight and I especially love the clanking, puppet-like robots.

  10. Dave says:

    "The Mechanical Monsters" is (for my money) the greatest cartoon ever made, but my absolute favorite moment is in "Showdown," when the real Superman confronts the fake one to dead silence. A brilliant moment.

  11. Michael Bradley says:

    "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman!" Actually comes from the Superman radio show, which premiered a full year and a half before the first Fleischer cartoon. I talked about this on my podcast, The Thrilling Adventures of Superman (episode 32 specifically), which can be found at greatkrypton.com.

  12. Baramos says:

    Huh, most of these shorts were on those "150 Cartoon Classics" videotapes when I was a kid, but it seems as if the classic "The Japoteurs" never made the cut! I wonder why?

  13. This is the version of Superman that the Siegels and Shuster families will both equally own in 2013, due to the fact that they signed the copyright termination contract before 2012.All they have to do now is wait for the date of the termination to take affect and then they will be free to do as they please with their 1930's version of Superman.

    The smart thing they can do is sell their First rights to publish new 1930's Superman adventure comic books.Obviously they'd have to change the name of their comic book but I can definitely see huge interest in new adventures of a 1930's Superman with Lois Lane and everything that makes Supes great but minus Lex Luthor of course since Dc comics would still own him and everything else that came after the Action comics books.Best examples are his ability to fly and other amazing powers he got while under the Dc comics branch.

    2013 is going to be a fun year.I can't wait to see what happens next.The year Man of Steel comes out and Dc comics loses the other half of the Superman copyrights.

  14. VR says:

    Nope nope nope, Bruce Timm’s company did the best version of Superman on screen.

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