Sunday, April 09, 2006

SUPERMAN (1941)

Just how mad is the mad scientist in Superman? Is it his megalomaniacal note, Unabomber style, to Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet newspaper? Is it the fact that it is the latest in a series of megalomaniacial notes, all Unabomber style, to Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet newspaper? Is it his threatening the city of Metropolis in the text of the latest letter with his "Electrothanasia Ray"? Does his madness reach heretofore unknown levels of insanity because he is apparently known only by the monicker "The Mad Scientist"?

No. All of this proves well enough that he is quite mad (though the last bit of evidence is merely circumstantial), but none of it even approaches the pinnacle of his true madness. No, the prove of that is discovered through his pet raven, the companionship of which does not necessarily define madness (though it is often a signifier that you own a laboratory in the 1930's & 1940's), but rather, it is the way he treats the bird that does. On the large door of his mountain lair, the Mad Scientist not only has a lock about mid-level on the door for him to keep out the outside world, but he has a lock built mere inches above the floor, where his pet raven can unlock or lock the door with him. You see, the Mad Scientist in Superman is the villainous equivalent of a Crazy Cat Lady, bestowing little human-like attributes to his pet and doting on it totally. So, he has a little lock made for his bwainy widdle baby to play doorman with him. I'm surprised the weirdo doesn't dress the raven up like Edgar Allan Poe...

I goof on the Mad Scientist only out of love. For I have nothing but love for this first film in the Superman cartoon series produced by the Max Fleischer Studios for Paramount beginning in 1941. Superman was already huge on the pop culture scene by this point, having landed from Krypton onto Earth in Action Comics in 1938, and the rest, as they say, was history (which is actually a truly stupid cliche, since everything that happens to everyone is, technically, history; its significance and stature only depends on where, who and what you are in the world. And also, who is telling it...) But, to put it simply, practically the entire world knew of Superman by 1941, and it is no surprise that someone tried to tackle him in animation. What has always been surprising to me is that no one tried to tackle any of the other superheroes at large in comics at that time, especially given how much theatrical animation there was in those days. Perhaps it was the lessons learned in producing this series that gave other studios or companies pause to reflect, and considered it not financially sound to pursue. All the same, it is a shame that Captain Marvel, Batman or Captain America (who did have live-action serial adventures produced) or even a character like the Sub-Mariner, never made it onto the animated screen in the 1940's.

But we do have the Superman series, and what a series it turned out to be. Though there were ups and downs in quality, even the lowest film in the series has a unique visual appeal unmatched at the time, and often since, and some scenes in certain episodes are actually still quite compelling both dramatically and actionwise even now. It is a landmark series in animation history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the thrilling opening adventure, titled simply Superman. The series was quite expensive to produce, at $50,000 for the first episode alone (that is in 1941 dollars -- 65 years ago -- imagine the cost today for ten minutes plus of animation).

As in most Superman ventures, there is the necessary telling of a truncated version of his origin story, being born on the planet Krypton and rocketed to earth by his scientist father when he discovers that Krypton is doomed to explode. He lands on Earth, and as he grows up, he learns eventually that he has superhuman abilities. As an adult, he takes on the alter ego of Clark Kent, and works as a "mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper". This style of opening narration would also be used in the Superman radio and TV series in a strikingly similar manner (as if it were the only way to tell the story), and is almost as familiar to audiences as the character himself. Oh, yeah... there's that whole "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" business wrapped up in it, too. (I'm sure you've heard of it. If you haven't, I don't want to know you.) And, just before the story begins, there is that shot of the stoic, powerfully muscled Superman himself, ready to protect us "in a never-ending battle for truth and justice" (but not, it is shocking to discover, "The American Way").

They morph this image into that of Clark Kent, and the story begins with a aerial shot of the Daily Planet building. "Managing Editor" Perry White uses the intercom to call in his star reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane, informing them that he has received "another note from the Mad Scientist". Not "a mad scientist; "The Mad Scientist". (Every town should have one.) The letter reads:

"Beware - you fools!

My Electrothanasia-Ray
strikes tonight at 12.


Total destruction will
come to those who laughed
at me and failed to heed
my warnings.


Beware - I strike
at midnight!"


Four lines; only two exclamation points. He is clearly a madman, because a phony madman would try to conceal his bluff with a multitude of exclamation points, some of them in the middle of a sentence. There is clearly a cool but evil cucumber at work here, revealed in his ability to maintain his punctuation despite the buzzing in his brain. Sadly, Lois is less restrained, for she has been driven insane by her need to prove she is the best reporter alive. (She is exactly why people hate reporters.) After Perry declares, "This nut might prove dangerous!", she accepts Mr. White's approval on the story before he can finish saying "Welllll...", and she is out the door. Lois dons an aviator's cap and flies off in her own plane to track down the Mad Scientist.

We find him first, and at the only place where he could reside: on the top of mountain outside of Metropolis, in a huge, looming lair, and judging from his decor and choice of machinery, he apparently has Ken Strickfaden, who built the electrical devices for the Universal Frankenstein series, in his employ. The camera zooms in through a window at a throne room, with the scientist's pet raven perched atop its back, and with the scientist staring at the pendulum on a loud, ringing clock. The scientist leans forward on the throne further with every added hour in the ringing, until twelve are counted out, and he declares, "The hour has come!" The raven hops onto his shoulder, and the insidious pair head to the laboratory. A tremendous gun, set atop a mound clearly concealing its power supply and works, leans its barrel ominously out of a slit in the roof of the lair, and the scientist marches up to a workstation and switches on the power. A light jumps on, and a loud humming noise kicks in as the turbines rev up, and then Mr. Mad S. turns the power up, causing a sequence of wires and cords to throb and light up. (It's Tesla coil heaven!) The raven is hypnotized by the bubbles percolating inside one of the machine's tubes, but his attention is drawn by the droning of a plane outside of the window. He hops up to the workstation to warn the scientist, and the baddie shuts down his destructive plan momentarily.

It is here where the scientist proves his madness once and for all. As Lois, who's idea of getting a story is to go directly to the person who is causing the trouble and getting kidnapped (at least she has an unerring nose for rooting out the villains right away), reaches the door, the scientist and his itty-bitty widdle pet unlock their respective locks, and Lois is grabbed and dragged inside. The door slams shut, and then we see Lois' shadow as she struggles in the arms of the scientist. The raven watches from the bottom of the door as he locks it fastidiously with his beak, and then the camera follows the raven on his hopping trek back up the stairs, and into the laboratory, where the scientist is seen lashing Lois tight to a chair. "So, you want a story?", the scientist asks rhetorically. "I'll give you the greatest story of destruction the world has ever known!" Since RKO hadn't stolen and messed with The Magnificent Ambersons yet (that would be the following year), we have to assume he means what is about to happen with his Electrothanasia-Ray. He fires up the machinery again, and lets loose with a powerful ray that blasts a busy bridge miles away. The ray explodes and melts a huge section out of the middle of the bridge, and Lois can only watch the destruction helplessly on a video screen.

The scene cuts to the Daily Planet, where Clark, Perry and the other reporters are hearing of the disaster over the public airwaves. The newsman reports of "cars and pedestrians hurled into the river below!" Clark, sitting at his desk separate from the others, says openly in his mild-mannered way, "This looks like a job--", and then switching his voice to a slightly lower and more manly register, finishes "--for Superman!" He ducks into a nearby store room, shuts the door, turns on the light, and by his silhouette on the glass, we see him changing out of his street clothes and into his famous costume. He sneaks out carefully (also taking the time to switch off the light -- what a guy!), and then zooms out of the window and into the night. A terrific tracking shot shows him flying off to search for the source of the disaster.

He should have just stuck around the building where he works, because the Mad Scientist has that lined up in his sights next. He fires the ray at the base of the structure, and the whole place starts to rock and quake! Copy editors, file cabinets and beams are flung about, and the building begins swaying. Superman notices the destruction and flies back to the building in time to catch it from crashing into the next building. (How the building underneath his feet supports this immense weight is a question best left for someone far smarter than I. But, lest you think Superman catches the building while floating mere centimeters above the roof, it is shown quite clearly that Supes has a very firm footing on its surface.) Superman pushes the building back up into an upright position, but it starts to fall the other direction, so Supes grabs the spire atop its roof and pulls it straight. He then flies down to its base, where the ray is still doing its damage, and pushes the beam away from the building. It knocks him down, but he struggles mightily against its uncaring and unceasing power, and finally succeeds in pushing the force back towards the lair from whence it came.

The scientist is watching this on his monitor, and starts to panic. He turns up the power even higher, and we see a variety of pulsing tubes and wires as the energy builds up in the ray. Superman is resistant to the added power at first, but the ray finally wins out, and pushes Superman violently back down to the ground (in a series of awesomely rendered tumbles). It looks like Superman is finished, but if you think that's true, then it means you didn't count on the Superman theme music as his secret weapon. Because, whenever that terrific score kicks in during a fight, you know that Superman has turned the tide of battle. Here, the familair music starts up, and Superman gives it his all in one mighty burst. He starts punching the ray, one lasered segment at a time (don't ask how that is possible), and up the beam he goes until he nears the barrel of the gun. The scientist sets the machine to its maximum level, but Superman is able to resist even this, and makes it to the gun. He bends it into a pretzel, and pushes the force of the ray the other direction. The ray turns in on itself, with the energy causing the barrel and then the machine itself to bubble and burst through its metal jacket. Superman, in the meantime, tears his way through the crumbling walls, and locates Lois, freeing her from her bonds. Throwing her over his shoulder, he follows the scientist and the raven as they try to escape their doom, charging down the staircase and out the front door of the lair, with the walls falling about them. Superman grabs the scientist and flies off in the nick of time (as he does), as the walls of the lair give way to the massive explosion of the Electrothanasia-Ray. (I imagine that the raven, who was left behind, is sitting up on the mountain, sadly and slowly moving his lock back and forth in its bolt on the now crushed and useless door that once led into their lair. He mourns the loss of his owner, and cries when he sees the shattered remains of the mad scientist's lock, all the while plotting his revenge on Superman. But, I digress...)

There is a swell tracking shot of the cityscape below as Superman flies the scientist to jail and Lois back to safety. Once in jail, the mad scientist grabs the bars, and his image is frozen into a picture in the next issue of the Daily Planet. The headline reads, "Superman Captures Mad Scientist"; the byline reads "Story by Lois Lane"; and a sidebar headline reads, "Superman Vanishes - Public Still Mystified". A sub-headline for the story states, "Superman's Identity Still A Mystery". Perry White shakes Lois' hand and congratulates her on the "great scoop". Lois is more than ready to give credit where credit due, and replies, "Yes, sir! Thanks to Superman!" Clark Kent, sitting at the next desk, looks at the camera, and gives it a wink and a smile.

Even if this weren't one of the prize films of my childhood, it would still rate highly on my list for its soundtrack alone. The Superman theme from this series has been my secret theme music in times of peril and crisis since I first saw the film. Many people are shocked by this, assuming that naturally, since I am about ten times more a Batman fan than I am of the Infant of Krypton, that it would be the Batman TV theme that got me through the day. And yes, I have used that music often, as well, but not nearly as much as I have the Superman theme. The Batman is great for cruising on your bike, but the Superman theme is a real get-up-and-go affair, and you somehow seem to walk faster and prouder when you hum it to yourself. Bill Cosby had his themes on his go-kart; I had mine in my daily life, and it's always been Superman.

But as mad as that might seem, there are far worse levels of madness. I have a cat, but I'm still not dressing him up as Superman. You would have to be truly mad to do something along those lines...

Superman (Max Fleischer, 1941) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 9

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