Reign of the Supermen #270: George Reeves

Source: The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
Type: TVI admit it. I haven't seen very many episodes of the 50s television series, and really, none beyond the first, noir and white season. What HAS struck about those early episodes though is how hardcore Clark/Superman is. This is a Superman that, when thanked by a dangerous rioter for saving his life, answers "It's more than you deserve", shrugging off an attempted handshake. This is a Superman that leaves a couple of thieves on top of a mountain (from which they fall to their deaths) after they discover his secret identity. And speaking of secret identity, Clark Kent is just as much the hard man. He's a gutsy investigator who makes threats and punches criminals. The only reason Phyllis Coates' Lois Lane thinks he's "mild-mannered" is because he keeps disappearing in moments of crisis, although maybe her standard is herself. This is one feisty Lois Lane, kicking and slapping and believably able to get out of trouble herself (unlike photog in distress, Jimmy Olsen). No, Clark Kent isn't much of a milquetoast. Though it's not the personality profile I think of when I think of Superman, George Reeves' performance as a thoroughly impatient man (in both identities) is a complete hoot. I love it.

It's probably difficult for people who didn't grow up with it to realize how important the series was to the Superman mythos. The first time I heard the opening narration, I already knew every word. Sure, most of the speech was used to preface the radio show, but that hasn't had the same kind of longevity, nor have I eve heard an episode of it. No, it's the ubiquitous television medium, running and re-running the Adventures of Superman for decades, that has cemented words like "Faster than a speeding bullet..." and "It's a bird! It's a plane!" into the shared modern mythology of the 20th and 21st centuries. How much of Perry White's comic book portrayal is owed to John Hamilton's role on the show? "Don't call me Chief!" and "Great Caesar's Ghost!" are both there and indivisible from the character. It even allowed Inspector Henderson to cross over from radio and eventually (1974) into the comics. Had there not been a Superman tv show in the 50s, how much of that would still be associated with the character? How much might he have migrated away from his original concept? Batman escaped the camp of his television series, perhaps because it was so tonally dissonant from what Batman was really about. With Superman, they hit much nearer the mark and so the collectively remembered Superman is Reeves'. The way the show was written, made (here, allow me to say how surprisingly good the effects were) and acted put its stamp on the franchise in a way that has affected every film/television portrayal since, not to mention kept the comics in a kind of mythological equilibrium. Creators can never get too far from what the tv show did.

10 comments:

Sleestak said...

One of the more memorable moments for me of the show (other than the gangsters plummeting from the mountain top) was when one villain was hypnotizing the Planet staff to find out who Superman was. He even questioned Lois accusing her of being Superman's secret identity. That the question of a woman turning into a Superman was made had me, and probably lost of others go "What?"

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

When I tell anyone about the show, I describe it as Old Testament Superman. There's the running joke about how he would duck from bullets but then throw the gun back at the bad guys. As a kid, I always thought it would be damn scary to have Superman throw ANYthing back at me. I kept waiting for one guy to get it in the eye or kneecap.

Hollywood Kryptonite is a great book detailing the death of Reeves. I'd check it out.

Anonymous said...

My favorite non-comics Superman. And by a much wider margin, my favorite non-comics Clark Kent.

Tom Foss said...

Wayne: I always heard it as he would stand there and let the bullets hit him, but then duck when they threw the gun. I was quite happy recently to see a first-season episode where he stood there for the gun-throw as well.

Siskoid: If you haven't listened to the radio show, you're missing out. It's not too hard to find online, but the first two episodes are especially worth a listen for your series. Historically, they make up (as near as I can tell) the third iteration of Superman's origin story, and yet they're one of the most radically different I've ever seen. I posted on them here and here, with embedded audio, if you're interested.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the easy access Tom! Of course I was going to cover the radio show at some point. Maybe it'll be sooner than later now!

hiikeeba said...

Growing up in the late 60s, every summer I would visit my grandmother for a week or two in North Texas. A Dallas TV station played Superman, Batman and Green Hornet back to back (usually followed by Godzilla movies). I can still taste how sweet the coke was when at 10 am and 3 pm, she would let us have one. Whenever I can, I watch those shows, and it all comes back. Thanks for reminding me. I think I can almost smell her cookies.

Siskoid said...

That is a superb shishkebab of television!

Matthew Turnage said...

I also have seen little beyond the first season, but I love the take on Clark Kent in the show. In many ways, its different than any other iteration, but I can see the links both forward in Byrne's version (Byrne said the show was his first exposure to Superman, before the comics) and backwards to the Golden Age version. Early Golden Age Clark Kent was much more of a coward than the Reeves version, but he was also a crusading reporter who would ask tough questions and went after corrupt politicians, gangsters, etc.

The Mutt said...

I'm a child of the 60s, so George will always be my Superman. What makes the show stand out to me is that Clark was not a wimp. He was a tough, crusading reporter.

My Saturdays as a child began with Superman, The Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, Sky King, Robin Hood, the network cartoons of the day, local pro wrasslin, then a Tarzan movie. By then, Dad took control and it was sports.

Siskoid said...

Geezer.

;-)

 

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