Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Episode #164: Superman: Serial To Cereal!
Serial To Cereal began with a review the history of movie serials, beginning with the first one, The Perils Of Pauline in 1914, during the silent movie era. Serials were short, episodic movies, shown at theaters before the main feature. A new chapter of a serial would be released each week for about twelve to fifteen weeks. Each episode would usually end in some form of cliffhanger until the final one, which would wrap up the whole story. One of the mainstays of movie serial production was Republic Pictures, which was considered the bottom of the barrel by the rest of the movie industry. The larger studios considered Republic as the first step down the ladder to obscurity and unemployment for actors.
When National (DC) Comics was looking for a movie studio to produce a Superman serial, Republic's competition was Columbia Pictures. Republic Pictures was not willing to give up control of the production to National, so Columbia won the competition to produce what became two Superman serials. Columbia was not new to movie serials, having made serials of other comic book and comic strip properties, such as Mandrake The Magician (1939), Terry And The Pirates (1940), The Batman (1943 & 1949), The Phantom, Brenda Starr - Reporter and The Vigilante (1943). The studio would also make one of the last movie serials, Blackhawk (1951), starring Kirk Alyn, who would play the Man of Steel in both Superman serials.
Sam Katzman would produce the two Superman serials. He was an expert at getting the most production value out of a dollar, and was known to have never lost money on one of his films. He ground out serials and B movies. People who worked with him described him as a benenvolent despot. Actor Kirk Alyn described Katzman as a nice guy, one of the best once you got past the money stage. He was cheap only to a point. While Katzman would cut production costs and overwork people, an actor could negoiate with him for more money. Fellow Superman serial actor Noel Neill said that Katzman helped keep Columbia Pictures afloat. Columbia Pictures was not in the same class as MGM, 20th Century Fox or Paramount.
Future Adventures Of Superman director Tommy Carr co-directed the first Superman serial with Spencer Gordon Bennet. Kirk Alyn starred as Clark Kent/Superman and Noel Neill was cast as Lois Lane. Tommy Bond, who, as a child actor played the bully Butch on Our Gang, portrayed Jimmy Olsen in the serials.
Serial To Serial took a good look at Kirk Alyn's acting career, and provides many details of the production of both Superman serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950). Alyn had more fun on the second serial. The flying effects and scenes were better, more realistic.
The book also details the rise of television, and the threat the new medium was to movies. TV was credited for ending movie serials in theaters. The movie industry suffered a decline during the early years of television. Gary Grossman describes what it was like to work on a TV production during the industry's early years. Like the movie industry, crews worked 6 12 hour days.
Superman And The Mole Men, a 90 minute movie first released to theaters, served as the pilot to the Adventures Of Superman TV show. It was filmed on the old RKO studio lot in Culver City, California, where the first season of the series would be as well. The RKO lot was where the classic film Gone With The Wind was filmed. The movie and series starred George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen. Later seasons would be filmed at California Studios and ZIV Studios.
Jack Larson remembered wandering the lot when he wasn't on call for filming, and seeing the Tara set. Gone With The Wind happened to be George Reeve's first movie role, as one of the Tarleton twins who vied for Scarlett O'Hara's affection.
Grossman also devoted a section of the book to actor George Reeve's acting career. Reeves had an almost photographic memory, which made it easy to learn his lines. Gary quoted many members of the Adventures Of Superman cast and crew as they shared their memories about working with Reeves, and all of them had kind words to say about him. Phyllis Coates found him a very giving man. On many weekends he would give her daughter a gift. Tommy Carr found George to be one of the easiest actors he ever worked with. One vivid memory Jack Larson had of Reeves was smoking with a cigarette holder.
Playing the Man of Steel was not easy for George Reeves. The padded muscles under the costume was uncomfortable under the hot studio lights. He was injured early in production when a cable broke during a flying sequence, and George fell to the floor. He refused to use wires for the flying sequence, so a platform was made that he would rest in, and be filmed in front of scenery projected on a backdrop, with a fan blowing in his face to simulate flight.
Robert Maxwell was hired by National Comics (now DC) to produce the first season of The Adventures Of Superman. Superman And The Mole Men would be split into two episodes and be retitled The Unknown People for television. Jack Larson recalled that Maxwell's production experience began on radio. Maxwell's early TV episodes resembled those of a movie serial. These were more violent when compared to later seasons. The first season was produced in 1951, but did not air until 1953, when Kellogg's became the show's sponsor.
Production was always done under a tight budget. All of that season's scripts would already be written by the time filming began. All of that season's scenes on one set would be filmed at one time. The actors would have no feeling for which story their scene would go with.
The cast did not expect much from the show, it was just another acting job. Phyllis Coates was under contract for another TV pilot when the second season went into a production. Since she would not be available for the Superman show, her place was taken with the first Lois Lane from the serials, Noel Neill. George Reeves, Jack Larson, John Hamilton (Perry White) and Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson) were the only cast members who appeared in all six seasons of the show. They also had worked for the Warner Brothers Studio during their careers.
Another, bigger change in the production was National Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth taking over as producer with the second season. He would remain in that capacity through the remaining five seasons. Superman comics editor Mort Weisinger would spend several weeks in California, working with Ellsworth. They would develop script ideas and polish finished scripts that were turned in by the show's writers. It may have been efficient, but the writers may have felt limited in using their imagination under such tight controls.
Ellsworth made a big change to the series. He didn't care for the level of violence in Maxwell's first season episodes, especially the episode The Evil Three. In that show, a wheelchair bound woman was pushed down a set of stairs to her death. Whitney gave the rest of the series a much lighter tone geared more suitable for children. The criminals were less menacing and more bumbling.
Serial To Serial also gave a brief summary about each principal actor's career. Growing up, Jack Larson was a big Superman comic book fan. The popularity of the Superman TV show was totally unexpected. He became typecast as Jimmy Olsen, and developed a new career through his real love, writing. Larsen became a playwright and even wrote a libretto.
Phyllis Coates began as a dancer who moved into acting, and also worked at Warner Brothers and Monogram Studios. She appeared in many westerns.
Noell Neill would reprise her role as Lois Lane in the serials for the last five seasons of the show. She was born into a newspaper family. Noell was part of a groundbreaking TV studio at Paramount Studios in the late 1940's. She also performed as a singer in Bing Crosby's nightclub. Like Coates, Neill appeared in westerns, for Henry Aldrich B movies.
John Hamilton made a career out of playing judges, politicians, police officers, or any other important official. He played the District Attorney in The Maltese Falcon. It should be noted that a different actor named John Hamilton performed in westerns for Republic Pictures. Hamilton was an old school actor who was loved and respected by the cast, and was always a professional on the set. He began his career in vaudeville, and also performed in musical and dramatic stage productions, as well as radio. During the TV show, he lived in a hotel apartment with his son. Hamilton struggled to make ends meet with his salary from the show. He had a dirty sense of humor, which he shared with George Reeves. The sight of Reeves telling off color jokes while wearing a Superman costume would probably have been quite a sight. Heart problems affected Hamilton's acting abilities in later years. He would sometimes forget his lines. The problem was solved by having John act from behind Perry White's desk as much as possible. There, his script pages could be laid out in front of him so he could read off of them. In watching all six seasons on DVD, he never seemed to be reading his lines. Hamilton died from a heart ailment on October 15, 1958. George Reeves would outlive Hamilton by only about eight months.
Robert Shayne sold stocks, bonds and securities until Black October in 1929. He then became an actor around New York before continuing his career in California. He always strove to make working conditions better for actors. Some of his efforts brought him under FBI scrutiny during the Communist scare of the 1950's, because of some past affiliations, but George Reeves stood up for his fellow actor and friend.
The book also discussed many of the character actors who played guest roles on the series. One of the most famous guest stars was Sterling Holloway, who was probably most well known as a voice actor for classic Disney animated movies, such as the Stork in Dumbo, Kaa the snake in Jungle Book and, most famously, as the voice of Winnie The Pooh. He made several appearances in The Adventures Of Superman. In one anecdote, he was given a compliment for his performance when Superman burst through the wall to rescue him. Holloway seemed to show fear, but he was actually trying to keep himself from bursting out with laughter.
The show's special effects supervisor Sol Simonson was given a lot of credit for the way he could produce great special effects on a tight budget. He made it possible to show Superman flying more convincingly than ever before. He made the trick walls just right so that when George Reeves burst through, fake bricks would fly everywhere. That's not to say that everything went right on set. Sometimes the fake walls were made a little too sturdy, and Reeves wouldn't be able to punch through. Or the shoulder pads under his costume would slip.
Superman: Serial To Serial wasn't just a fun, nostalgic trip down memory lane. It chronicled the darker side of the production, namely the tight purse strings held by National (DC) Comics. The cast was given low pay. Noel Neill recalled that the most she got was $250.00 per episode. George Reeves had to renegotiate his contract to get $2,500 per episode. Jack Larsen recalled that that each $25.00 raise was a battle. Their contracts tied the actors to a 30 day on call period, which limited their chances to audition for other roles. Poor residuals ran out after a number of years. But none of the cast members blamed producer Whitney Ellsworth. They knew he was under his own budget strains, especially when the series began to be filmed in color, starting with the third season. The higher production costs because of filming in color meant that less episodes were produced. The book details how some of the poor quality of some of the color episodes were caused by tight schedules and budgets, low pay and not enough time for retakes.
The last chapters of the book detail each year of production, and the appendix lists cast and credits for bothe serials and the TV series.
Gary Grossman is the co-founder of the Weller/Grossman production company. He earned a B. A. in Communications from Emerson College in Boston, and a Master's Degree in Urban Affairs from Boston University. At the age of 15 he worked as a disc jockey at WHUC in Hudson, New York. Grossman would work at Boston TV station WBZ , and taught TV production at Boston University. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980.
He also wrote the book Saturday Morning Television, published in 1988, which chronicled 30 years of Saturday morning television. According to his website, http://www.supermanbook.com, he serves on the Board Of Trustees of Emerson College and is President of the Alumni Association. Gary Grossman watched The Adventures Of Superman when it was originally broadcast. His family had the first TV set on the block, so he was the most popular kid in the neighborhood. To research Superman: Serial To Cereal, Grossman conducted extensive interviews and even visited George Reeves' final home at Benedict Canyon. Whitney Ellsworth was very protective of Reeves' memory, but Grossman still found Ellsworth's answers to be honest. While preparing to interview Noel Neill, he bought a Superman t-shirt, which he dropped on the sidewalk, on top of George Reeves' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For more information about Gary Grossman and Superman: Serial To Cereal, you can find it on his website.
The main reason I wanted to read this book is that when I think back on my first memories of Superman, watching reruns of the 1950's TV show during the early 1960's come to mind. I looked at comic books even then, before I could read, but the TV show stands out among my earliest memories of the Man of Steel. I did have a Superman costume, but in my memory I no longer had the cape, and the S shield had been washed off. But that didn't stop me. I would borrow one of my Dad's clean red bandanna handkerchiefs and use it as a cape. Sometimes I would just wear a white t-shirt, underwear and socks and pretend to be Superman without the blue and red costume. I even remember having a pair of children's sunglasses that no longer had lenses in them. These were my Clark Kent glasses. In our living room was a footstool next to our couch. I would lay on it and pretend to fly, imitating the whistling wind sound from the TV show, as Superman flew. I would even lean from one side to another and bank, as George Reeves did when he changed direction in flight. One time, when my mother had a friend visiting, I was wearing my t-shirt, underwear and socks.My mother asked me, "Don't you think you should get your clothes on?" I told her, 'But Mama, I'm playing Superman!" Sad to say, I don't think I could get a bandanna handkerchief tied around my neck to use as a cape, not that it would even fit. You probably wouldn't even notice it. And I definitely don't look as good playing Superman in my t-shirt, underwear and socks as I did way back when. Be grateful I'll never make the public suffer having to look at that sight. Just have pity for my wife.
Next Episode: The Superman Family Of Titles Cover Dated January/February 1955: Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #3 & World's Finest Comics #74!
And in two weeks, in honor of Curt Swan's birthday: Curt Swan's Earliest Comic Book Stories! Our look at Superman and Action Comics will resume two weeks after this episode, with the issues cover dated August 1958, Superman #123 and Action Comics #243.
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