Deck Log Entry # 156 "But I Always Thought . . . ": Superman on Television (Part One)

If a rumour is pithy enough, especially if it involves a famous person and provides a cutting irony or a satisfying comeuppance, then the public will clutch it to its collective bosom, regardless of the facts.  H. L. Mencken proved this some ninety years ago, with his Bathtub Hoax.  I learnt it myself for the first time in 1962, one day at a friend’s house.

 

We were watching the regular afternoon rerun of Adventures of Superman, when my pal’s older brother, a senior in high school, popped his head in, pointed at George Reeves on the screen, and said, “He killed himself, you know.  He jumped out of a window because he thought he could fly.”

 

I was old enough to have read the newspaper report on George Reeves’s death and to remember it.  “What are you talking about?” I asked my friend’s big brother.  “No, he didn’t.”

 

“Sure he did,” he replied.  “He’d played Superman for so long he thought he was Superman and jumped out a window because he thought he could fly.”

 

“You’re wrong,” I told him.

 

He just shook his head, made a plunging-arc gesture with his hand, punctuated the motion with a “Splat!”, and walked off.

 

I looked at my buddy.  He said, “That’s what I heard, too."

 

I knew better than to ask my parents about it.  My folks wouldn’t have known who George Reeves was.  They wrote off Superman as “soopernatural stuff”, as my mom put it, and they didn’t approve of me watching the show in the first place.

 

So, instead, the next day, I asked my teacher about it.  I told her what my friend’s brother had said. 

 

“I’m pretty sure that’s right,” she replied.

 

“But that’s not what happened,” I argued.  “I read it in the paper.”

 

“You’ve probably got it mixed up with something else,” she told me, dismissing my protests out of hand because, of course, nobody ever listens to a kid.

 

Thankfully, the notion that George Reeves fell to his death because he thought he was Superman and could fly is one of the rare rumours that has vanished from public consciousness.  While it was commonplace in the ‘60’s and most of the ‘70’s, it was finally killed by baby-boomers of my vintage.  They grew up and wrote books and magazine articles.  News shows and entertainment programmes dredged up the actual circumstances of George Reeves’s death.  And the belief that Reeves plunged to his death has been supplanted by different suppositions and assumptions.

 

The fact of the matter is no-one will ever really know what happened that fateful hour on 16 June 1959.  But for almost twenty years, thousands of reasonably intelligent people believed that Reeves died jumping out a window---I imagine there are some who still do---and no amount of facts would convince them otherwise.

 

Time has put that rumour to a deserved rest.  But there are still a few other misbeliefs and inaccuracies about the Adventures of Superman TV show that need correcting.   Those are the ones I’m going to talk about here.

 

 

 

Myth # 1.  “. . . Able to Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound!”

 

It was one evening about fifteen years ago, I guess, when the Good Mrs. Benson and I were watching Wheel of Fortune on television.  A certain puzzle, category “Famous Phrase”, popped up on the letter board, and within a couple of consonants, I knew exactly what it was. It didn’t take much longer for the GMB to get it, either.

 

Finally, when the board looked like this . . .

 

. . . the contestant whose turn it was felt sure he knew it, too.  “I’d like to solve the puzzle, Pat.”

 

“About time!”  I shouted at the TV set from my easy chair.

 

“Go ahead,” replied Pat Sajak.

 

Confidently, the contestant recited, “’Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound’.”

 

Bzzzzzzzt!

 

“I’m sorry,” said Sajak.  “That’s incorrect.”

 

The GMB and I looked at each other, dumbfounded.  Of course, it was correct and I was already mentally drafting the letter I was going to write to the show, pointing out its mistake.

 

Shortly thereafter, another contestant got a shot at it.  I guess she hadn't listened too closely to the first contestant's answer, for she said the exact same thing:  “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  And again, the Dreaded Buzzer of Shame sounded.

 

The third player wanted no part of it, though it was obvious the same phrase was going through his mind.

 

“Actually,” said Pat, “it’s ‘Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’.”

 

I was perplexed.  I had always quoted it as “In a single bound.”  Everybody I knew who knew the expression cited it as “In a single bound.”  And I wasn’t about to let go of that without checking myself.

 

I had most of the entire run of The Adventures of Superman on video tape.  (I said this was fifteen years ago, remember?)  I played about a half-dozen of them on my VCR, trying to sample one from each season the show ran.

 

And, by gosh, every time, announcer Bill Kennedy’s opening narration proclaimed “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

I recalled that the Fleischer animated Superman cartoons of the ‘40’s and the radio version of The Adventures of Superman also used the same opening.  Maybe one of those had it as “in” and not “at”, I thought.

 

I had all of the Superman cartoons on video tape.  I played the cartoons produced by Fleisher and the later ones produced by Famous Studios.  Not all of them used the bullet/locomotive/tall building intro, but the ones that did all said “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

I had audio tapes of the radio show.  By then, I knew what I was probably going to hear, but I had to be sure.  Speeding bullet---check.  Locomotive---check.  And, yes, “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

Wheel of Fortune had it right.

 

Since then, I’ve come to realise that this is probably the single most misquoted phrase to appear in any books, articles, or web pages that mention Superman.  So I know I’m likely performing that well-known act involving a bodily function and a rope here, but if you taken nothing else from these 156 Deck Log articles of mine, just remember this one thing.

 

Not “in”.

 

“At".

 

 

 

Myth # 2.  Whenever a Criminal Fired a Gun at Superman on the TV Show, the Man of Steel Would Let the Bullets Bounce Off His Chest, But He Would Always Duck When the Crook Threw the Gun at Him.

 

 

Remember Tomorrow, hosted by Tom Snyder?   It ran from 1973 to 1981, sandwiched between The Tonight Show and the end-of-broadcast-day triptych of Sermonette, the national anthem, and the test pattern.  (If you don’t know what the test pattern was, ask your grandpa.)  Tomorrow was a wee-hours talk show for us insomniacs.  Snyder, a former television reporter and anchorman, would interview individuals usually linked by a single theme.

 

On 18 October 1976, the show’s guests were the three performers who portrayed Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Inspector Henderson on the Superman television series---Jack Larson and Noel Neill and Robert Shayne.  Filling a fourth chair was Gary Grossman, author of Superman: Serial to Cereal (Popular Library, 1977).

 

About mid-way through the hour, the show came back from commercial, and Snyder said to his four guests:

 

In the pictures that I saw, when Superman would stand up and someone would be shooting at him with a gun, the bullets would bounce off of his chest . . . But now, when the crook knew the gun was empty, he would take the gun and throw it at Superman.  And Superman would duck and let the gun fly over his shoulder.

 

Tom Snyder wasn’t the only one to raise that odd scenario, or to do it on nationwide television.  Around the same time, comedian David Brenner had made the first dozen or so of what would be 158 appearances on The Tonight Show.  Much of Brenner’s early material plumbed humour out the illogical things one saw or did in day-to-day life.  (“Have you ever noticed when you’re about to enter the post office, there’s a sign on the door that says ‘No Dogs Allowed Except Seeing-Eye Dogs’?  Who’s that sign for?”)

 

Brenner used the bullet-and-gun thing in some of his routines.   So the bullets go bouncing off of Superman’s chest, he would point out, and then the crook would throw the gun at him---and, every time, Superman would duck!

 

At the time, I nodded with Snyder and chuckled at Brenner, fully in agreement.

 

It’s a common observation.  The other day I Googled “Superman ducks gun”, and I counted thirty separate, non-connected hits on it before I gave up because there were too many more pages to go.  Not only were dozens of folks wryly commenting on it, but quite a few responders actually tried to provide rational, in-fiction explanations for it.

 

It was about five years ago that I got the idea of doing a “But I Always Thought . . . “ article on the Adventures of Superman television series.  The problem was determining what, if any, popular misconceptions about the show existed and then, if there would be enough to build an article out of them.

 

One of the first things I thought of was the Superman-always-ducked-the-gun meme.  It was a widespread belief, but a perfect example of the kind of thing I was looking for, if it proved to be untrue.  Well, I didn’t have the time to sit down and view fifty-two hours of Superman episodes. So I did the next best thing.

 

I contacted Jim Nolt and Lou Koza, editors of “The Adventures Continue”, the most comprehensive Adventures of Superman site in existence.  If it’s in any way, shape, or form connected with the series, then it’s there somewhere on their site---and it’s accurate.  (And before you ask, yes, they have it right---“able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”)

 

I sent e-mails to both Mr. Nolt and Mr. Koza, asking them about the ducking-the-gun business.  Both gentlemen were gracious enough to reply.  They both told me the exact number of times on the show that Superman ducked a gun hurled at him, and the number was the same in both replies.

 

One.

 

It occurred exactly once---in the eighth episode of the first season, “The Mind Machine”.  Superman bursts in on syndicate boss Cranek, before the mobster can stop Lois Lane from giving testimony against him to a Senate committee.  The Man of Steel orders Cranek away from the machine which will destroy Lois’ brain and the hood pulls his gun.

 

You can see here what happens next . . . .

 

So, yes, Superman dodged a gun.  But it didn’t happen every time he was shot at.  Or even sometimes.

 

It happened only once.

* * * * *

 

 

Two down, two to go.  Like I tend to do, I got a trifle long-winded, so we’ll wind things up next time when we take a look at another couple of misbeliefs about the amazing Adventures of Superman.

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Comment by Fraser Sherman on April 29, 2013 at 6:55pm

I agree Chris Reeves' Kent was too big a dork--it fit in with the campy portrayal of Luthor (and yes, I agree the Batman show probably influenced that). I do like Superman in the film but the film itself is unimpressive, and it's unfortunately it had such a big influence on the comics.

I think George Reeves made a great Clark, but as Superman he wasn't terribly super--nowhere near the extra presence Superman should have. Of course I didn't see the show until I was in my later teens--that may be a factor in our differing assessment.

Re the "big boy scout," I think that fits the Silver and Bronze Age Superman stories where he's helping out ordinary people--his neighbors, the folks in Smallville the girl who needs a cat down from a tree. It's very much in the good-turn-every-day tradition. As an assessment of his character and personality, no, it doesn't work. I much prefer Roger Stern's assessment (quoting the old Boston Blackie show) that Superman is "friend to those who have no friend, enemy to those who make him an enemy."

As far as the "leap tall buildings" quote--fascinating how our memories can mislead us.

Comment by Richard Willis on April 27, 2013 at 2:01pm

Commando Cody said:

I loved the George Reeves portrayal of Superman and Clark Kent when I was a kid.

I also liked (and like) George Reeves' Clark Kent. He was strong and confident. Of course, it made it harder to understand why so few people recognized him as Superman. Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent was a little over the top, but it was easier to believe he could throw off suspicions.

I think the decision to spend a lot of money on Brando was in fear that nobody would pay to see a superhero movie unless there were big name actors. I suspect that the campy portrayals by Gene Hackman et al were following in the footsteps of the last successful superhero project, the BATMAN TV show. I also never liked the barren Krypton. The concept of the crystals has continued since then in the movies and on SMALLVILLE. I guess it was an attempt to make it seem REALLY alien. I did like the Phantom Zone portrayal. Maybe the MAN OF STEEL movie will make some changes to these things.

Comment by Commando Cody on April 27, 2013 at 1:34pm

I loved the George Reeves portrayal of Superman and Clark Kent when I was a kid. But, as I got older, I recognized that Reeves was too old for the part, out of shape in the later years, and the stories were for the most part boring and puerile. Superman spends the whole episode looking for a lost circus elephant? Really?

Christopher Reeve's Superman was a revelation. He looked the part, both in face and body. Of course he was young; the story was about the first appearance of Superman (plus, the producers obviously hoped for sequels). While a less experienced actor than Reeves, Reeve made me believe that Superman and Clark could be perceived as two different persons, even by the people who were closest to him. The special effects were stunning at the time, leaving behind the stock shots of Reeves jumping out a window from a springboard and prone suspended from wires.

What really irked me about the Superman movie was the time and money wasted on Marlon Brando's Jor-El and the sterile, ugly Krypton. I can't say I cared much for Gene Hackman's campy Lex Luthor either.

Comment by Andrew Horn on April 26, 2013 at 8:41am

Commander said, But Reeve's Clark Kent was---I'll say it, again---a dork.  He fumbled and stumbled and hesitated and fawned.  Barney Fife was a more competent deputy sheriff than Reeve's Kent was a reporter.  Nothing about Reeve's Kent inspired respect.

I would agree. I have to say that I never understood the warm nostalgia this movie engenders. While it was arguably the best we could expect at the time, I found it silly, and not in a good way. As I think I've said in other posts here, the general attitude in those days - in the time between the raw action oriented serial era (and I think the TV show comes out of that) and the movies we thankfully have today - was that comics are stupid and therefore the movies should be deliberately stupid to reflect that. What nobody then chose to think about is that we kids didn't find them stupid, and from what I read in interviews and such, I don't think any of the creators at the time - regardless of how seriously they took their own work - were trying to be that way. Kids and fans always deserved better and thankfully these days there seems to be an effort to deliver (Green Lantern and Superman Returns notwithstanding). For what it's worth, the market has spoken, and in this case it's for the better. Let's hope they can keep it up.

Andy

Comment by Andrew Horn on April 26, 2013 at 8:24am

Commander said, The official reset of Superman's age to twenty-nine appeared in a one-page piece in Superboy # 171 (Jan., 1971).  It stated, essentially, that Superman would remain eternally twenty-nine years old and that the adventures of Superboy would no longer be set in the 1930's.  Instead, the Boy of Steel's adventures would perpetually take place approximately fifteen years before whatever the current real-time year was.

Maybe this was what I was remembering?  In any case my memory of him - and I go back to Wayne Boring - he was no kid.

Andy

Comment by Commander Benson on April 26, 2013 at 5:42am

"Regarding Christopher Reeve's performance in the Superman movies, I found his Clark Kent entirely consistent with the way Clark Kent was presented in Silver Age comics, particularly Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane. He seemed like a Kurt Schaffenberger drawing come to life."

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you here, CK. 

 

Certainly, the Silver-Age and Bronze-Age Clark Kent was presented as unassertive and dull, with clumsiness added on later.  But Christopher Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a dork.

 

Despite his perceived personality flaws---which usually only Lois Lane castigated him for---the comic-book Clark Kent was a competent newsman and his counsel was respected.  If you look at the Silver- and Bronze-Age stories, you'll see that many times Lois or Jimmy or Perry seek out Kent's opinion on a matter.   He was respected enough for Perry White to instal him as acting editor of The Daily Planet in Lois Lane # 62 (Jan., 1966) and he was deemed competent and presentable enough for Morgan Edge to put him in front of a camera as a television reporter and, later, on the air as an anchorman.

 

But Reeve's Clark Kent was---I'll say it, again---a dork.  He fumbled and stumbled and hesitated and fawned.  Barney Fife was a more competent deputy sheriff than Reeve's Kent was a reporter.  Nothing about Reeve's Kent inspired respect.

 

Obviously, we're talking about perspectives here, and yours was different from mine.  Certainly a lot of folks agreed with your assessment of Reeve's performance as Clark Kent.  Some contemporary Superman writers are still tending to depict Kent with some hayseed still left in his hair, based on Reeve's Kent.  But it didn't ring true to me.

 

 

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 25, 2013 at 9:48pm

The Baron said

which means they (Superboy's adventures) should now be set in 1998.

Which would make Clark part of the Britney Spears/ N'Sync generation. Oh my!

 

Comment by Luke Blanchard on April 25, 2013 at 3:35pm

I didn't know about the 1971 decision; it filled the picture in a bit for me. The difference in the look of Swan's Superman is partly due to the inkers, which complicates things. The Swan/Anderson Superman sometimes had a jowl-y look. The Swan/Dave Hunt version of the 80s is the one that looks youngest, most like a 20-something.

 

In "Lex Luthor--Super Scap-Hunter!" from #282 Luthor de-aged Superman to the point when he was just out of college and first hired by Perry. If he was only 29, assuming he spent three years at college that wouldn't be all that much younger.

Comment by Commander Benson on April 25, 2013 at 2:57pm

Forgive me, Luke---I wasn't tying the date of Superman officially becoming twenty-nine to when you began to perceive Swan as drawing the Man of Steel as younger looking.  I imagine you assumed it correctly in that it probably took Swan a while to modify his rendition of Superman's appearance.

 

I never really noticed this "youthening" of Superman's face that you did.  The thing I noted was at some point, Swan began to draw the Man of Steel with a leaner face and a thicker shock of hair.  Perhaps this is the same thing you saw, and thinking upon it now, I can see where it was an effort to make Superman appear younger.

 

 

Comment by The Baron on April 25, 2013 at 2:28pm

"the Boy of Steel's adventures would perpetually take place approximately fifteen years before whatever the current real-time year was."

Which means they should now be set in 1998.

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