In 1951, superheroes had no respect as a live action art form. With the successful Superman radio show wrapping up, attempts were made to turn that into live action, with out an animated flying Superman. A short feature film was made and recut to become two episodes of a television series. A number of actors signed on, as the show had no sponsor and their agents assured them that the episodes would never see the light of day, so they should just take the money and run. That series got a last minute sponsorship from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and ran for six years, ending with the death of its star.
Cast and Crew Information
George Reeves as Clark Kent and Superman
John Hamilton as Perry White
Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen
Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane (season one)
Noel Neill as Lois Lane (seasons two through six)
Robert Shayne as Inspector Bill Henderson
Written by David T. Chantler, Jackson Gillis, Whitney Ellsworth, Ben Peter Freeman, Robert Leslie Bellem, Robert Maxwell, Peggy Chantler Dick, Dick Hamilton, Roy Hamilton, Leroy H. Zehren, Wilton Schiller, Eugene Solow, Dennis J. Cooper, Peter Dixon, Monroe Manning, Lee Backman, Oliver Drake, Roy Chanslor and Jay Morton
Directed by Thomas Carr, George Blair, Harry W. Gerstad, Lee Sholem, Philip Ford, George Reeves, Lew Landers and Howard Bretherton
This is available on DVD in multiple 26 episode packages. The first two seasons were 26 episodes each in black and white, and the last four seasons were 13 episodes each and in colour. Amazon has the series available in a complete series DVD shrinkwrap, season one DVD, season two DVD, seasons three and four DVD, and seasons five and six DVD. Amazon also offers digital copies of the individual seasons: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.
The first season, particularly discs 2-4 of the DVD collection (episodes 7-24) establish a very different tone for the series than most incarnations of Superman. This is, essentially, a crime show, and that first season is shot very much in the style of 1930s gangster films. The audience is respected, and the series never forgets that Clark Kent’s day job is investigative reporter. In most episodes, mundane criminals use some sort of gimmick to commit crimes. Clark does the investigation, and once he figures out who they are, how they accomplish their crimes and where they are hiding out, Superman shows up to play cleanup in the last two episodes. As the series progresses, it gets goofier, but still respects the audience more than the contemporary I Love Lucy or Leave It To Beaver.
The loss of Phyllis Coates. She was the only major cast member to have signed a new contract elsewhere by the time the show got a sponsor, so she was replaced by Noel Neill, who played Lois in the movie serials starring Kirk Allyn. Coates was significantly better that Neill at acting, and (in my opinion) also had a better look for the part. Coates had much more natural rapport and chemistry with the rest of the cast as well.
It’s hard to be original when you are creating the fifth adaptation of the same source material using the same producer as a previous incarnation. (In this case, it follows the radio series, though with more Clark Kent and less Superman early on.) The special effects budget forced them to change the approach, and it works well, giving a focus and style I haven’t seen in any other incarnation, including the radio program itself. (At the time of this writing, I am listening to episode 192 of the radio show.) The crime emphasis is refreshing. I give it 4 out of 6.
The effects are clearly on a budget that doesn’t allow multiple takes. Although they are quite impressive for a 1950s TV series whose later seasons were aimed at children, they are clearly effects from a 1950s TV series whose later seasons were aimed at children. I give it 4 out of 6.
The stories are surprisingly good early on. The first three or four episodes are a bit shaky, but once the show finds its footing, it works fairly well through the black and white run. With the shift to colour it got a bit sillier, but it was still far more grounded than it could have been. The only fantastic premise from the first two seasons was that driving the feature film that became episodes 25 and 26. The logic is internally consistent, at least, for the bulk of the series. In the last two seasons it begins to drift a bit, but is refocussed nicely with the final three episodes, all of which were directed by series star George Reeves. I give it 5 out of 6.
The acting from George Reeves and Phyllis Coates was excellent. In fact, George Reeves is now my favorite actor to play Clark Kent (though I still prefer Christopher Reeve as Superman.) Shayne does good work in his recurring role. Larson and Hamilton overact at times, but likely because they were directed to do so. (It probably doesn’t help Larson to be cast as a character half his age.) Noel Neill is the only truly weak link in the regular cast. She came into acting from a modelling background, and as often happens in such cases, she seems to have no experience doing anything but standing around and looking pretty. I give it 4 out of 6.
The production is well done. I wouldn’t have expected the series to be possible on 1950s budgets, but they did a decent job. True, they use a lot of stock footage for Superman’s flights, but that’s not unexpected, and they always filmed fresh footage for anything that involved other actors or other powers. I give it 5 out of 6.
The emotional response is surprisingly good. I got a bit tired of Kent winking at the camera about his dual identity, but the stories themselves work very well, particularly in the black and white seasons. This is a strong example, and possibly the only live action example, of the version of Superman that is primarily a detective series. I give it 5 out of 6.
Overall, this is an enjoyable series. I recommend the first season unconditionally, and then follow from their according to personal tastes. I give it 4 out of 6.
In total, The Adventures of Superman receives 31 out of 42.
Additional Notes and Comments
George Reeves’ personal life is quite interesting, and was represented quite nicely in Hollywoodland.
Don’t be surprised when watching the pilot episode when Clark’s adoptive parents are named Eben and Sarah Kent. Superman’s history has been rewritten over time. Originally, he was raised in an orphanage on Earth, with no adoptive parents of any kind. In the radio show’s original origin, the baby arrived on Earth, grew to an adult in minutes, and then met a man and his son on a fishing trip and decided on a profession and name in a conversation with them, after swearing them to secrecy. It wasn’t until the early 1940s when the radio series retold the origin that the Kryptonian baby was adopted, and the radio series named his parents Eben and Sarah. The comic didn’t include adoptive parents named Jonathan and Martha until after this series had hit TV.