Thursday, January 22, 2009

Episode #55: Happy Birthday, George Reeves!

Elvis Presley is not the only celebrity born during this first week of January. George Reeves was born as George Keefer Brewer on January 5, 1914, and died under mysterious circumstances on June 16, 1959, in Woolstock, Iowa. His parents were Dan Brewer and Helen Lescher. They divorced when George was an infant, and his mother Helen moved to California. There, she later married Frank Bessolo, who adopted George in 1927. Their marriage lasted for fifteen years. They divorced while George was away visiting relatives.
There are many stories about the almost obsessive relationship Helen had with her son. There is one story that she told him that his birth father committed suicide. George is supposed to have met his real father as a young actor at the Pasadena Playhouse, which strained their relationship for several years.
George began acting and singing in high school, and continuing pursuing both at Pasadena Jr. College. He was also an amateur boxer until his mother convinced him to quit. He joined toe Pasadena Playhouse to hone his craft, and would eventually be signed by Warner Brothers. His film career began in 1939, when he played one of the Tarleton Twins courting Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind. His film credit listed his name as George Reeves, the name he would use for the rest of his career.
George married actress Ellanora Needles in 1940. They had no children during their nine year marriage.
Reeves starred in short films and B-pictures but was eventually released from his contract by WB. He eventually signed with 20th Century Fox, but only made a few films for them before his release. He freelanced in a number of westerns, and then Director Mark Sandrich cast George in So Proudly We Hail (1942). Reeves played Lt. John Summers in the Paramount Studios war movie which co-starred Claudette Colbert. George won critical acclaim and a lot of publicity for his role. It would be the high point of his career.
Reeves was drafted into the army in 1943, and transferred to the U. S. Army Air Forces. He was assigned to the Broadway show Winged Victory, produced by the USAAF. It enjoyed a long Broadway run, as well as a national tour and movie. George transferred to the Army's 1st Motion Picture Unit where hw was involved with training flms.
Mark Sandrich died while he was in the Army. It seems Sandrich thought George had star potential. Jack Larson, Jimy Olsen in the '50's Superman TV show, in an interview in one of the DVD sets of the series, said that the only bad thing George ever said about his Superman role was that if Sandrich hadn't died, he wouldn't be stuck in this "monkey suit."
After WWII Reeves returned to Hollywood but struggled to find roles. Some of the roles he did win during this time were a number of thrillers with Ralph Byrd and the serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad produced by Sam Katzman. He also played a gold hunting villain in a B-movie Jungle Jim film starring Johnny Weismuller, who was one of the more famous Tarzan actors of that era.
George moved to New York City for a brief time after his 1949 divorce, trying to advance his career. He performed on radio and on TV anthology shows, but returned to Hollywood in 1951 for a role in the movie Rancho Notorious.
This same year George Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a TV series. George, like Jack Larson, was reluctant to accept his role, because TV was considered beneath a "serious" actor who aspired for movie success. This was before TV toppled movies as the top form of entertainment.
Superman And The Mole-Men was a B-movie that also served as a pilot episode. It would be shown as a two-part episode. The flying effects were not as advanced as would later be shown in the series, for the time. The show was filmed with tight budgets and shooting schedules in all six seasons. All of the scenes in Perry White's office would be filmed in a row, leaving the actors without a feel for what story they were filming for. The series aired nationally beginning in 1953. the cast was shocked at the popularity of the series and their own celebrity. They had originally thought that after the first season, that would be the end and noone would ever see it. The first two seasons were filmed in black & white, and the remaining four seasons were filmed in color, eventhough they would not be broadcast in color until the next decade. This move made the series more attractive for syndication in the 1960's. Because of the added cost of color production only half of the normal number of episodes were filmed in the last four seasons.
Phyllis Coates, the original Lois Lane for the series, was replaced by Noel Neill beginning with the second season. Because of the amount of time between the end of production of the first season and the beginning of the second, Phyllis had already committed to another show.
the cast felt typecast, and their contracts were also restrictive in gaining more work, giving the producers thie right to demand their exclusive services with a month's notice.
Also in 1951 George Reeves began a long term affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix. Eddy was not upset about the affair because he had his own mistress.
To expand his career George formed a production company, but no projects were ever filmed. At the end of the last season of Superman he did direct a number of episodes. George did make sporadic apearances on TV and movies during the run of the Superman TV show. His most famous movie role during this time was as Sgt. Maylon Stark in From Here To Eternity. There is a famous but apparently false story, depending on what you read on the internet, that a preview audiance was totally distracted by "Superman" appearing in the movie that his role was largely cut from the film. Apparently there was no preview audience and the film was released as the producers originally intended.
George's most famous guest role on TV was on the episode of I Love Lucy when Little Ricky wanted Superman to appear at his birthday party. Lucy got herself stuck on the ledge outside the apartment when she cobbled together a crude Superman costume when it seemed that the real one might not make it in time. At the end of the episode, after Ricky mentions that it was the dumbest stunt she pulled in fifteen years of marriage, George says the famous line, "And they call me Superman!"
Reeves was popular with the cast. He publicly and vocally supported co-star Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson) whe he was investigated by the FBI for ties to the Communist Party. The accusations were eventually found to be false. Reeves and Noel Neill began touring in 1957, where George was able to show his musical talent.
In 1958 George ended his relationship with Toni Mannix and became engaged with New York society plagirl Lenore Lemmon. The cast remained friends with Toni, and with George, but none of them appeared to like Lenore.
In 1959 the producers decided to produce a seventh season of the Superman show. John Hamilton (Perry White) had passed away the previous year. George was slated to direct more episodes and seemed to look forward to production.
On June 16, 1959 George Reeves died from a single gunshot wound to the head, in the Benedict Canyon home Toni Mannix had bought him. He lived there with his fiance Lenore. She and three other people in the house were drinking at the time, and a later autopsy showed George was legally drunk at the time of his death. His friends all knew his affection for drinking. The circumstances of his death was clouded not only by the drunk witnesses, but by the fact that George's body was embalmed before the autopsy. Valuable clues were lost. Reeve's mother fought for a 2nd, inconclusive autopsy before his body was finally cremated. His remains are entombed at Mountain View Cemetary and Mausoleum in Altadena, California.
George's will left everything to Toni Mannix, including the house. There are questions about Lenore and several thounds of dollars of travelers checks that Geroge had bought for their honeymoon. She left California and returned to New York , where she lived the rest of her life, passing away in 1989.
Eddie Mannix died in 1963 from the heart condition that plagued him for many years. Toni Mannix lived for many more years, but suffered from Alzheimer's disease in her later years. One interviewer claimed to interview her and listen to her confess to George's murder. This was during the time she suffered from dementia, but the interviewer claimed the confession occurred during a time of lucidity.
Phyllis Coates, 81, Jack Larson, 80 and Noel Neill, 88 are still alive.
The first season of the TV show is considered by fans of the series to be the best, myself included. It had a film noir tone to the episodes. Stories involved gangsters who fired a lot more bullets than in later seasons. That first season wsa produced by Bob Maxwell. He may have gone over budget and was fired from the series. He would go on to produce the TV show Lassie. Whitney Ellsword would produce the remaining seasons, under budget, outlining stories with Mort Weisinger. Even the second season was geared more toward children. Beginning with the color episodes of the third season Superman was firmly established as a children's show and the stories were of a far lighter tone. the violence of the first season, as it was, was muted to a large extent. The entire series is available on DVD, and is still a good way to introduce very young children to Superman.
What I enjoyed most about George Reeve's acting in the series was his portrayal of Clark Kent. He played Clark as mild-mannered, but not a weakling or spineless person as was common in the comic books of the time. His Clark could get forceful when he needed to, grabbing a pair of mobsters by the arm and escorting them to the back of the building when he needed some information out of them. In another episode he was a passenger in a small plane. When he saw Lois or Jimmy needing his help, he hit the pilot on the jaw, knocking him out, put the plane on autopilot and jumped out to become Superman and save them.
The book Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, The Lady & the Death of Superman by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger supports the premise that George Reeves was murdered and lays out their proof. Some critics have alleged that parts of the book have been fictionalized to support their premise. Depending on what you read on the internet some critics allege that their forensic evidence is backwards to what would be found in a murder scene. The book is still an interesting source about his life, career and relationships, as well as a source of information about the Superman series. Read the book and draw your own conclusions. The movie Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, also takes this view.
Whatever the circumstances of his death, George Reeves protrayal of Superman still holds up, even through the often silly stories, today.

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My Pull List is my spoiler free review blog of the comic books I read every week. It can be found at Send e-mail about this blog to mypulllit@gmail .com.

Thanks for listening to Superman Fan Podcast, and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Superman and all related characters are copyright DC Comics.

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