Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Superman (aka The Mad Scientist)

Episode Number: 1
Airdate: September 26, 1941

Writer: Seymour Kneitel, Isador Sparber
Director: Dave Fleischer

Awards: Academy Award Nominee for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) - 1942

Voices: Bud Collyer (Superman), Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), Jackson Beck (Perry White, Narrator), Julian Noa (Perry White), Jack Mercer (The Mad Scientist).

A strange note appears on Perry White's desk from a Mad Scientist who is planning on destroying the city with an Electrothanasia-Ray at midnight! Perry assigns the story to Lois who boards a small airplane and rushes to the scientists laboratory.

The Mad Scientist sees Lois land and plans a trap for her as she approaches. After capturing Lois, the Mad Scientist follows through with his threats and starts destroying the city.

Upon hearing about the destruction on the radio, Superman jumps into action and starts saving buildings and people. But it seems that the death ray may be too much for our hero as he falls to the ground and is trapped by its beam.

But Superman never gives up and soon he is back on his feet and starts punching the beam back into the cannon from which it came! The next task: Stop the Mad Scientist and save Lois Lane!

Review (Warning! Spoilers!): This is the premiere episode of the groundbreaking animated series by the famous Fleischer Studios. With a budget of $50,000 per short, three time the normal budget for a Fleischer cartoon, the studio was able to produce high quality films, full of colour and excitement. The films look great and have become a high point in the Golden Age of American animation.

While watching this film, a modern fan of Superman will notice some glaring differences from the modern Superman that we know and love. The opening scene states that Krypton is inhabited by a race of Supermen; Modern versions of Superman have Kryptonians as ordinary humanoids on Krypton but given powers on Earth due to the Earth's red sun. Passing motorists find baby Superman and place him in an orphanage with no mention of the Kents raising the child as their own. Superman seems quite weak compared to modern interpretations (kryptonite had not yet been created). The name of the newspaper publisher (which at the time was called Daily Star, not Daily Planet) is not mentioned, probably because of legal issues with newspapers of the same name.

One of the biggest differences is that Superman doesn't fly in this cartoon. He "leaps tall buildings in a single bound." In the comics at the time, Superman could leap about an 1/8th of a mile. This is something that carried over to this series. Flight is something that the Fleischers introduced in a later episode.

It should be noted that the phrase "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" was created by the Fleischer Studios for this series and has become a traditional way to describe the Man of Steel.

This short serves as a welcome introduction to Superman to a world of viewers who probably didn't know who he was since he was only introduced in the comic three years prior. The story is a classic superhero melodrama in every way, in fact, it could be argued that this series is the reason these stories exist.

The Mad Scientist, voiced by Jack Mercer (Popeye), is an early foreshadow to Lex Luthor with his giant laser that threatens the city. A huge plot hole that always left me scratching my head is how Lois knew where to find the Mad Scientist. They only had a note to go off and it didn't have a name. When Perry assigned her to the story, she immediately flew to the Scientist's laboratory. How did she know? That some really good investigative journalism.

Audiences were so impressed with this film that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon). It ultimately lost to Disney's Lend a Paw.

There is so much I could say about this cartoon but I'm leaving some of the information for other episode reviews. So stay tuned!

DVD Releases: Since this series is public domain, countless independent companies have released these cartoons on DVD. Listed below are some of the better releases.
The Complete Superman Cartoons - Diamond Anniversary Edition
Max Fleischer's Superman
The Superman Cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer
Superman - The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection
Superman - The Movie (Four-Disc Special Edition)
Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition

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