Movie Reviews Index

The Adventures of Superman - The Complete First Season (1951)

Rating: 4 Stars

D: Various. George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, John Hamilton, Robert Shayne. 662 mins. B&W (Warner Home Video, 6-dis) 10/05

Superman's best-remembered shows are the later, color, largely comical and campy episodes featuring Noel Neill as Lois Lane, bumbling, dimwitted crooks, goofy robots, mad "professors," and a cheerful, lovable Superman. It is sometimes forgotten that in its first season The Adventures of Superman was an often violent tele-noir. These shows cast Reeves as a brooding, angry Man of Steel up against a scary group of bad guys, and girls, that you wouldn't want to encounter in a dark alley. The bad guys died in these early episodes. People got roughed up. For early TV, this was daring stuff. Filmed in 1951 but not aired until 1953, The Adventures of Superman proved an instant sensation. And rightly so. This was state-of-the-art television, and these productions still impress today. Episodes like The Haunted Lighthouse and The Evil Three are genuinely eerie. The Riddle of the Chinese Jade is a bit disturbing, as the villain does not hesitate to punch a helpless young woman across the jaw--on camera! The Stolen Costume shocks, as Superman himself inadvertently causes the deaths of the villains! Would this ever have happened in the later episodes, or in the comic strips? Lois Lane is portrayed here as a tough cookie who, when struck, has no compunction about striking back. Unlike Neill's Lane, Coates plays Lois as a dame who needs no man to rescue her (though she's often glad when Superman does show up). Perry White (Hamilton) appears here to be actually editing The Daily Planet, often working in conjunction with the police. The first season owed its origins in part to the Warner Brothers police and newspapers films popular in the '30s and '40s. The show beautifully combined that genre with the comic book superhero, creating a unique series of interest to adults as well as kids. In fact, parents of the era were known to have complained that the show was too violent--unsuitable viewing for their children. These complaints no doubt played a role in turning The Adventures of Superman into the silly campfest it became after Season Three. Too bad. Because, after 54 years, the 26 episodes assembled here remain fast-paced and gripping mini-movies that were years ahead of their time. They are also a tribute to Reeves' talent as an actor, a talent that, sadly, was rarely recognized by the industry during his lifetime. Most of the episodes look wonderful, though The Stolen Costume has a few scratches. Each clocks in at 25 minutes; when the series ran on TV Land in the early '90s, edited 21-minute edited versions were all the viewer got. Extras include commentaries on select episodes by Superman historian Gary Grossman, who wrote the superb book Superman: From Serial to Cereal in the 1970s. Disc 6 proffers the 1950 feature film Superman and the Mole Men, which introduced Reeves and Coates. This swift sci-fi thriller was a huge moneymaker and led to the TV series. Also included is the two-part episode The Unknown People, an edited version of the film, so fans can now easily compare the two. Rounding out this treasure chest are Kellogg's commercials featuring the show's cast and a delightful new documentary: From the Inkwell to the Backlot explains how Superman's producers were influenced by the tough-talking Warner Bros.' films and offers interviews with Grossman, film historian Leonard Maltin and 72- year-old Larson, who still looks and sounds like Jimmy Olsen after all these years. Bravo!

~ David Alex Nahmod