Suspended Animation #208
The first Superman cartoons produced by Paramount in the early 1940s show the Man of Steel at the height of his popularity battling mechanical monsters, subduing an arctic dinosaur, thwarting an electrically induced earthquake and saving a tropical island from an erupting volcano.
“The Superman cartoons are great!” enthused Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. “They’re full animation and the earlier ones adhere very closely to what we were doing in the comics.”
In 1940, Superman was one of the most popular comic-book characters with regular appearances in both Superman and Action Comics, his own comic strip, a popular radio show begun in February and a host of top-selling merchandise in every department store in the nation. Superman was Super Business.
It was natural that the next entertainment arena for the strange visitor from Krypton to conquer would be the motion picture screen. The August 28th, 1940 edition of Variety announced that Republic Studios, the major studio to produce weekly theatrical serials, had been negotiating for the rights to produce a Man of Steel serial but was unable to come to terms with the price for the character set by the comic book publishers. In addition, Republic had refused to give veto power to Superman’s parent company, National Periodical Publications, which the publisher firmly required.
Republic reformatted the script it had been developing for Superman into the serial Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940) featuring a un-super-powered hero named the Copperhead. The following year in 1941, Republic produced the highly popular serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel based on Superman’s biggest comic book competitor and, to add insult to injury, used the balsa-wood dummy it had built to be used in the proposed flying scenes for the Superman serial for the Big Red Cheese instead.
The September 4th, 1940 issue of Variety announced that a deal had been made with Paramount to produce the animated adventures of Superman. Paramount was deeply financially entwined with the Fleischer Studio, famous for its series of cartoons featuring Betty Boop and Popeye, and who had recently relocated to an expensive, brand new studio in Miami where it had produced its first feature length animated feature Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
The announcement of the Superman series deeply concerned the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, for a number of reasons including the fact that for the first time Paramount was dictating what cartoons they would be making, and it foreshadowed future problems. Another concern was animating realistic-looking human figures rather than funny animals or exaggerated comic strip creations like Popeye, especially with the limited number of qualified animators who had any understanding of human anatomy.
In addition, the Fleischers would not be able to participate in any of the merchandising profits from Superman as they had with Betty Boop and Gulliver’s Travels.
In an attempt to discourage Paramount, Dave Fleischer told the studio it would cost approximately $100,000 per cartoon (roughly four times the cost of an average cartoon) and would take seven months’ production time (more than twice the normal amount). To the Fleischer brothers’ surprise, Paramount agreed to the terms although later re-negotiated the cost to $50,000. Subsequent cartoons in the series were later budgeted at $30,000 each.
A series of model sheets for the characters had to be created using cube and block shapes rather than the traditional circles used for animated characters of the time. While a few scenes made use of the Fleischer rotoscope technique, the majority of the scenes were hand drawn. Expensive and time consuming character shadows, elaborate special effects animation and detailed animation layouts contributed to the attention to detail.
The series marked the first time that a ring was around the globe of the Daily Planet. Studio publicity proclaimed that more than forty buckets of various colored paints were used to paint cels and backgrounds.
The first Fleischer Superman cartoon, simply named Superman (although later referred to as the The Mad Scientist) took almost six months to complete and was released on September 26th, 1941. It begins with a short recap of Superman’s origin showing the explosion of Krypton. The sound of the explosion was the sound of an apple being wrenched in half which was then amplified to the decibel level of gunfire.
The voice of Superman for the series was provided by Bud Collyer who also performed Superman and Clark Kent’s voice during the radio series. Joan Alexander who portrayed Lois Lane in the radio show also did so in the animated cartoons. Collyer’s name remained a secret to audiences until 1946. Jackson Beck who would later be the narrator of the radio series starting in 1943 did voice work for the animated series.
Jack Mercer, well known as Popeye, provided the voice of the Mad Scientist. The design and attitude of the character was influenced by actor Boris Karloff’s character in The Black Cat (1934).
While Dave Fleischer is credited as director with story credited to Seymour Kneitel and Isidore Sparber, the key animators for this first outing were Steve Muffati and Franke Endres who for all intent and purposes actually directed the short under Fleischer’s supervision.
The story concerns newspaper reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane being assigned to investigate the threat of a mad scientist who threatens to destroy Metropolis with his “electrothanasia ray” at midnight. Plucky Lois flies an airplane out to interview the scientist just as easily as most people drive a car and is captured.
The ray blasts the Tower Bridge, sending cars and pedestrains tumbling to oblivion. Animator Sidney Pillet used a Paramount newsreel that recorded the crack-up of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washingon in November 1940 as a guide. The sound of the death ray was created using the crackling and hissing of a sizzling steak.
Hearing a report of the attack, Clark Kent transforms into Superman and uses his body to shield the Daily Planet building from the next attack. Superman literally punches the beam back to its source, causing the machine to blow up.
In the chaos of the destruction, Superman frees Lois and captures the mad scientist who is thrown in jail. Originally, Superman could leap an eighth of a mile (“able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”) but when that feat was animated, the Man of Steel looked like a grasshopper or a kangaroo. So with the permission of National Comics, Superman was given the power of flight that later was used in the comic books.
Superman received an Academy Award nomination as Best Animated Short but lost to Disney’s Lend a Paw with Mickey Mouse and Pluto. Superman’s success spawned a series of seventeen memorable cartoons.
Time Magazine in its June 1942 issue stated, “Some 20,000,000 Supermaniacs can hardly wait for Superman’s ten-minute, one-reel cartoon to appear in more than 7,000 movie houses. Artistically, Superman shorts are the movie cartoon at their worst. Superman looks and acts like a wooden pupet. So do all his playmates. There is little his creators – the old Fleischer Studios (now Famous Studios Inc.) at Miami, Florida – can do to improve their hero – even King Disney can’t animate human beings satisfactorily.”
You can judge for yourself:
Next week: The story of the sequel where the Mad Scientist escapes written by Jerry Siegel and seen by thousands of Superman fans but generally forgotten today.