Deck Log Entry # 157 "But I Always Thought . . . ": Superman on Television (Part Two)

In the first four days that Part One of this article was on the board, it picked up over six hundred hits.  Wow.

 

Now, I know it wasn’t because I'm such a scintillating writer.  I’m not the kind of fellow who can write a page-turner.  I’m lucky when I get the subject and verb to agree.

 

That many hits in that brief a time is a testament to the enduring appeal of Adventures of Superman.  For any fan who was a kid in the 1950’s or ‘60’s, all it takes is that opening chorus of harp strings and horns to stir those feelings of childhood excitement.  Yeah, we know . . . the cheap sets, the primitive special effects, the never-changing wardrobes, the padded muscles.  We know all of it.  It’s just that it doesn’t matter.

 

It’s a visceral thing.  It resonates not in the mind, but in the heart.

 

In his post on my previous entry, doc photo placed the credit precisely where it belonged---on the talent and professionalism of the cast.  Even in the first season, before the plots turned insipid and juvenile, Reeves and Larson and the others knew they weren’t doing Playhouse 90.  On the first day of filming, George Reeves invited Phyllis Coates to his dressing room, poured her a drink, and offered a toast.

 

“Well, babe, this is it---the bottom of the barrel.”

 

Despite that, they delivered earnest, solid performances, as if they were doing Playhouse 90.  And that’s what made it real, or at least, real enough to us.   George Reeves had appeared in Gone with the Wind, for crying out loud.  A bona fide cinema classic.  Yet, he infused his performance as the Man of Steel with every whit of the same effort and sincerity.

 

His Superman was the kind of person that you wished every adult in your life was like---honest, reliable, knowing, and confident.  He could be firm or tough when he had to be, but he could also put everything aright with a reassuring smile.

 

In “The Evil Three”, Superman confronts one of the villains holding Perry White and Jimmy Olsen captive.  He hoists the crook with one hand and cocks the other back into a fist.

 

“Tell me where they are, or I’ll break every bone in your body!”  And you knew he meant it.

 

At the same time, I defy anyone to watch his scenes with the little girl, Anne Carson, in “Around the World with Superman” and not feel a warm glow inside.

 

Quite profound for a “kids' show” of 104 low-budget, hastily-produced episodes.  And like all things which leave such a lasting mark, a certain number of myths and inaccuracies get mingled in with the facts.  I put the record straight on a couple of them last time out.  Now it’s time to deal with a couple more.

 

 

 

Myth # 3.  The Phrase “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” Originated with the Television Series.

 

During the original run of the Adventures of Superman television series, and for a decade of reruns thereafter, none of us youngsters had any problem with the Man of Steel fighting “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!”  It was as natural and appropriate to us as starting every school morning with the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

The “American way” part has fallen under some negative scrutiny over the past couple of decades.  Some feel it’s unjustly proprietary.  Others feel that the American way has little to do with truth and justice.  And a lot simply feel that it’s just too corny.

 

Whatever the individual opinion, almost everyone associates that closing narration with the TV series.  Such is the overwhelming power of television.  But the fact of the matter is that the expression was first heard on the Adventures of Superman radio programme.  But not at first, which is why many folks miss the connexion.

 

The Adventures of Superman radio series debuted on 12 February 1940. At first, the announcer’s introduction of the Man of Steel varied somewhat with each episode.  Eventually, though, it settled into this regular description:

 

Up in the sky!  Look!

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

It’s Superman!

And now, Superman!  Strange visitor from the planet Krypton, who has come to Earth with physical powers far beyond those of mortal men.  Superman, who can leap tall buildings at a single bound, bend steel in his bare hands, race a speeding bullet to its target, and who wages a never-ending battle against crime and oppression, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.

 

Similar to the classic opening, but with significant differences.  The word “look” follows the directive “Up in the sky!”  Krypton is identified and Superman’s never-ending battle is against “crime and oppression”.

 

By 1941, the narration changed somewhat.

 

Yes, it’s Superman!  Strange visitor from the planet Krypton, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  Superman, who can leap tall buildings at a single bound, race a speeding bullet to its target, 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 and justice!

 

Closer, but still not quite the one that everybody knows.  Note that, here, the Man of Steel fights simply for “truth and justice”.  And it might have stayed that way---except for two events.

 

The first, on 08 December 1941, America officially entered World War II.

 

The second, the Mutual Broadcasting System was about to be challenged in its dominance of kids’ programming, of which The Adventures of Superman was its heavy hitter.  The Blue Network, the lesser of NBC’s two broadcast systems, was looking to grab that market.  In the late summer of 1942, the Blue Network scheduled a new adventure series, Hop Harrigan, as the lead-in for Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, which would now air directly opposite The Adventures of Superman.  It was a one-two punch of counter-programming calculated to knock Mutual off its perch.

 

In response, Superman’s producer, Robert Maxwell (who, in one of those quirks of the broadcasting business, had sold Hop Harrigan to the Blue Network) knew he had tone down certain extreme aspects of the Superman plotlines, if he wanted to secure the good graces of the various parental watchdog groups that monitored children’s programming.  To their gimlet eyes, Jack Armstrong was seen as a wholesome show; The Adventures of Superman, not so much. 

 

Maxwell also wanted to insert a regular dose of patriotism.  You see, the first year of war hadn’t gone too well for the U.S. forces and it wouldn’t hurt to remind the listeners of what we were fighting for.

 

As related in Flights of Fancy, by Michael J. Hayde (BearManor Media, 2009), Maxwell turned to writer Olga Druce.  Miss Druce, a former Broadway actress, was a double-strength injection of parental approval for Superman.  Not only was she a producer of children’s theatre, she was a trained child psychologist.

 

A paragraph from Flights of Fancy related Miss Druce’s account of her entry into radio for Jeff Kisseloff’s book, The Box: An Oral History of Television.  “I was hired originally by the Superman people to clean it up,” she recalled, “because it was too racist, too violent, and parents were objecting.”

 

When the season-opener was broadcast, on 31 August 1942, a new version of the introduction, rewritten by Olga Druce, was heard over the airwaves for the first time:

 

Look!  Up in the sky!

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

It’s Superman!

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!

 

Sound familiar?

 

 

Myth # 4.  At the Hollywood Premiere of From Here to Eternity, George Reeves’s Appearance on the Screen Resulted in So Many Audience Responses of “Look!  It’s Superman!” That the Studio Executives Edited Virtually All of Reeves’s Scenes Out of the Film.

 

In the spring of 1953, George Reeves landed the part of Sergeant Maylon Stark in From Here to Eternity, a motion picture based on James Jones’s best-selling novel of the same title.  Set at the Army’s Scholfield Barracks, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, in the weeks just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it tells a meandering tale of two soldiers in particular.  Private Prewitt, portrayed by Montgomery Clift, is a former champion middleweight boxer who resists pressure from his commanding officer to join the regimental boxing team.  Meanwhile, First Sergeant Warden, played by Burt Lancaster, is having an affair with the same C.O.’s wife.

 

Reeves’s part as Sergeant Stark is mostly a minor one.  He appears in several group scenes; however, he has one pivotal scene with Lancaster.  Warden, who faces court-martial if his indiscretion is discovered, is stunned to hear from Stark that the C.O.’s wife has had many extra-marital lovers, including Stark himself.  It’s a key moment which alters the emotional direction of Lancaster’s character.

In the source notes for Flights of Fancy, Michael Hayde states that the news of the audience’s reaction to Reeves’s scenes and his subsequent exorcism from the film was broken by a Hollywood Reporter columnist.  Mr. Hayde adds that the same story was spread by Jack “Jimmy Olsen” Larson, who attended From Here to Eternity’s premiere on behalf of Montgomery Clift.

 

I can personally attest that Mr. Larson did, indeed, provide this account.  In that same Tomorrow segment from 1976 that I mentioned in Part One, I watched as he brought up the subject:

 

I was present at an extraordinary thing . . . . The Superman show had gone on the air, and here was the biggest film of the year.  Columbia [Pictures].  All the brass were there.  Sneak preview.  And George came on the screen and the audience went wild.  “Superman!”  And he was cut from that film, I mean, to the bone.  And I was, of course, sick for him.

 

Coming from a source so very near the horse’s mouth, it’s understandable that it’s taken as true.

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

 

In this case, Michael Hayde did the legwork for me.  One of the references used for his book was the fanzine The Adventures Continue, published from 1987 to 2001 by Dan Rhoden and Jim Nolt.  TAC # 13 (Spring, 1977) carried an article titled “Setting the Record Straight”, by actor Jim Beaver, who is currently working on a comprehensive biography of George Reeves.

 

As the article describes, Mr. Beaver spoke with Fred Zinneman, the director of From Here to Eternity, and Daniel Taradash, the film’s screenwriter.  Zinneman went over Reeves’s scenes with Beaver in detail and insisted that, not only were Reeves’s scenes not cut in any way, there was no pressure put on him to do so.  Taradash told Beaver that every line he wrote for Sergeant Stark appeared in the final released version of the movie. 

 

Beaver confirmed this himself by seeking out the first production draft of the script, held in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library.  Everything in the draft with regards to Reeves’s part appeared in the 1953 release.

 

I want to make clear:  I’m not casting aspersions on Jack Larson.  There’s no way to know what input---ultimately mistaken input---he received from friends and industry insiders at the time.  Hollywood is a gossipy town, and suspicions often take the weight---and have the consequence---of fact.  I have no doubt that he genuinely believes that his version is the truth.

 

In terms of the impact on George Reeves himself, the fact that he wasn’t cut from the film made little difference.  The part of the tale that is true was that the shouts of “It’s Superman!” came loud and abundant from the audience.  And that wasn’t lost on the industry big wigs who heard them.  From that moment on, George Reeves was indelibly stamped as Superman.

 

There’s no denying that the Man of Steel torpedoed Reeves’s chances for Hollywood stardom.  But there is compensation, and a very good one, I believe, in the fact that he continues to be beloved and respected by the generations of now-adults who thrilled to his amazing adventures on the small screen.  Google “George Reeves” sometime, and see how many websites dedicated to his life and his career pop up.  And not all of them are by old-timers like me.

 

I think he would have been pleased far beyond that of mortal men.

Views: 1049

Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on April 30, 2013 at 1:20am

Thanks, Commander! The From Here to Eternity myth is one I'd heard before, too, so it's good to get to the truth of it.

And I'm currently enjoying Jim Beaver's work on Justified. (Only a little more than halfway through the latest season, but he's great as Sheriff Shelby.) I had no idea he was writing a book on Reeves!

Comment by Figserello on April 30, 2013 at 1:52am

Wonderful research.  I've never had the opportunity to watch the George Reeves TV show, but I can see why people loved it.  Whatever about the merits of the show itself, and I'm sure there were many, there's just something fantastic about Superman himself.  People were arguing about different interpretations of the character in your last post, but so long as he is presented within certain parameters, he's just a great character, that it would seem our culture needs.

 

Even Lois and Clark and Smallville, for all their faults, were huge hit shows that managed to speak to their contemporary audience.

 

As the world changes from that of Superman's 1930s debut, perhaps the creators will have to be more careful regarding what they have to pare off and what to keep.  So long as they keep away from Zero Dark Thirty thuggery going forward.  Superhero comics in general have certainly gone down that path, so it's not such a reach to see it happening with Big Blue himself.

 

“Well, babe, this is it---the bottom of the barrel.”

 

That's such a sad quote. 

 

Anyway, as I say Superman is a massive iconic figure, and it would seem, difficult to get past once you've played him, even if that wasn't apparent to anyone when they set out to make the 50s TV show.  All the actors who've been associated with the character so far have had extremely limited success branching out into other roles, even though those on the big screen at least have been very good actors.  Even Dean Cain and Tom Welling had a certain hunky presence, and should have had a bit more success outside the role.

Comment by Figserello on April 30, 2013 at 1:54am

And I'd be interested, Commander, in what you made of the recent-ish film about George Reeves' final days.  I've never seen it, but I've wondered if it was any good.  By definition, as it can't answer certain questions, it would have to be unsatisfying as a movie, but still.

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 30, 2013 at 12:38pm

Another winner, Commander. The Adventures of Superman were as much a part of my childhood in the 70s as it was to the kids from the 50s.

The movie Figs is refering to is Hollywoodland that starred Ben (Daredevil) Affleck as George Reeves with a few scenes in the Superman outfit. It was well made but ultimately depressing.

What got my attention was the statement about the radio show being "too racist". Can you please elaborate?

I heard the Here To Eternity story, too. No matter how you tell it, it's still crushing to an actor. It would like watching Les Miserables and shouting "WOLVERINE!!!" every time Hugh Jackman was on screen. Which is what I did though that's neither here nor there! ;-)*

*Anyone wanted to see a "Woverine Vs Gladiator" movie afterwards??

Comment by Commander Benson on April 30, 2013 at 2:25pm

Thanks, Figs, for the kind words.

Yes, this one did involve a great deal of research.  Most of the time, all I have to do is dig out an old comic book or two, to make sure I get the issue number right or to find a fan letter that I recalled.  But this one required some effort.  And the more I dug, the more I came across work performed by others that had made the path easier for me.  So I had to make sure that I properly credited those folks.

 

And sometimes I have to put the pieces together myself.  My two-parter on Ultraman a year ago was like that.  I had scads of information about the show throughout its various stages.  But the path the show took from gestation to broadcast in America wasn't linked directly in any single source of my information.  So I had to painstakingly research such things as the F.C.C. and the business strategies of United Artists at the time.  It was a matter of fitting each bit of information into its proper place until I finally had all the links.

 

That's why, at first, I was disappointed in the apparent unpopularlity of my Ultraman piece---the number of hits stayed low for quite awhile.  For about the last six months, though, the numbers have surged, so I guess it just took awhile for its audience to find it.

 

No such problem with Adventures of Superman, though.  It's too much a part of our social culture, and probably will be until the last baby boomer dies.

 

I did not see Hollywoodland, at least, not from start to finish.   A while back, while flipping channels one afternoon, I caught it and watched a few scenes of it.  These were scenes taking place at a point in the film after the TV series had aired and Reeves was adjusting to the overwhelming popularity of it.

 

I viewed about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, of it, and I didn't like it.  The biggest flaw for me was Ben Affleck playing the part of George Reeves.  Affleck has none of the natural charm and warmth that Reeves did.  Certainly, Reeves could play tough quite convincingly.  When he was forceful as Superman (or in any other rôle he played) there was no question that he was in charge.  But the warmth and niceness Reeves showed in the part was all him.  Ben Affleck might be the nicest guy in the world, but it doesn't come across on camera.

 

Case in point:  take the scenes between Superman and the little girl, Anne Carson, in the episode I cited in the article, "Around the World with Superman".  If you've seen that episode (and if you haven't, it's available on YouTube), imagine Ben Affleck in Reeves's place and you'll see the difference.

 

As to the final conclusion of Hollywoodland, as I understand it, the film tried to have it all ways, dropping hints at all of the prevailing theories on Reeves's death.  I'm not crazy about the various theories of homicide because none of them are based on evidence.

 

Now before any of my fellow Legionnaires with long memories read this---yes, at one time, I firmly believed that Reeves had been shot by Lenore Lemmon, either accidentally or in a moment of anger.  I was wrong about that, but not because I wasn't following the evidence.

 

The notion that Reeves was shot by a hitman, hired by either Toni Mannix or her husband, Eddie, is absurd.  I've seen layouts of Reeves' Benedict Canyon house.  There were several people downstairs that night, and in order to break in through any door or window and go up the stairs to Reeves' bedroom, a hitman would have had to walk by a room full of people.  No hired assassin would take that big a risk of being seen.

 

For that matter, he wouldn't have done it at all on a night with a house full of people.  Too many chances of being seen or someone trying to play hero.  And if Reeves death was supposed to look like a suicide, having to shoot one of the other persons on your way out would torpedo any suicide cover-up.  No, if it had been a staged hit, the assassin simply would have waited until the next night, or the next.

 

My belief that Lenore Lemmon shot Reeves was based on something I believed about firearm forensics.  Reeves' autopsy showed a lack of powder burns on his skin and hair surrounding the entry wound of the bullet that killed him.  Now that sort of thing is evidence.  Evidence is not stuff like Toni Mannix felt jilted when Reeves dumped her for Lenore Lemmon or Eddie Mannix would have wanted revenge for Reeves' affair with his wife.  That's supposition. 

 

But the lack of powder burns is evidence.  And interpreted it as meaning the barrel of the gun couldn't have been close to Reeves's skull when the trigger was pulled, which meant someone else had to do it.  And since the hit man idea is ridiculous, then it had to be Lenore Lemmon, logically the only person present in the house who would have known where Reeves kept the gun in his bedroom.

 

However, I was wrong, wrong because I didn't know what I was talking about.  That's why you have to go to school to be a forensic technician, and a lot more school to be a medical examiner.

 

Michael Hayde's Flights of Fancy discusses Reeves's death.  It doesn't spend a great deal of page count on it, because it wasn't the thrust of his book.  And he doesn't advocate any particular theory to Reeves's death.  He just lays out the facts---again, facts, not suppositions---and lets the reader do what he will with it.

 

Hayde presents the narrative of the police report on Reeves's death and the information contained in both autopsies performed on him. He includes documented statements from the two medical examiners who conducted the autopsies.  And he provides general information on forensics, particularly in the case of gunshot wounds, provided by other medical experts.

 

And here is the key thing which I discovered I had gotten wrong, in my overconfident belief in my own knowledge of forensics:  a gunshot wound inflicted when the barrel of the gun is in direct contact with the skin will not result in powder burns being strewn across the surrounding surface of skin and hair.

 

A direct-contact gunshot blows all of the powder residue inside the body---in Reeves's case, his skull---and this was consistent with what was reported in his autopsies.  Ergo, the lack of powder burns or residue on the skin and hair of Reeves around the entry wound supports the incidence of suicide; it doesn't decry it.

 

And there is no other evidence pointing to anyone else pulling the trigger.  No evidence---just juicy suppositions and an unwillingness to believe that Reeves did himself in.

 

So I'm convinced now that George Reeves committed suicide.  I have no idea why or what demons drove him to do it that particular night.  I have ideas, but they're only suppositions, too.  But the evidence says suicide.

 

 

Comment by Commander Benson on April 30, 2013 at 2:51pm

And thank you for your good words, as well, Philip.  I take it very kindly.

 

As to your question as to how the 1940-1942 episodes of the Adventures of Superman radio show were "too racist", I have to admit to drawing a blank on any hard information.  I haven't listened to very many of them myself, and I've found no direct commentary on the subject anywhere on line.

 

In her statement that Robert Maxwell hired her because the show was "too racist, too violent, and parents were objecting", Olga Druce may have been simply repeating what Maxwell told her, rather than expressing her own opinion on the show.  And even if it is what Maxwell told her, he might not have believed it himself, but simply was spitting back the complaints he had received from parental watchdog groups.

 

Any charge of racism in the show could probably be attributed to things characteristic of the era, like exaggerated dialects and stereotyping of minorities and foreigners.  And as Figserello can certainly attest  from some of our discussions (heh), even good-minded people can have large differences in opinion on what is racist and what is not.

 

Now it's easier to extrapolate the reason for the charge of "too violent".  The level of violence in the  1940-2 Adventures of Superman was probably no worse than what it was for any other adult drama of the day.  But Adventures of Superman was supposed to be a kids' show---or at least it was perceived that way by the parental watchdog  whiners.  And let's be upfront, the show was marketed toward kids.  Its print advertisements depicted Superman primarily with children.  So it wasn't as if Maxwell didn't know the age bracket of most of the listeners gathered around the Philco to listen to the Man of Steel's adventures.

 

I imagine my viewpoint is pretty much what Maxwell's was---that kids of the age to enjoy The Adventures of Superman aren't negatively affected by the occurrence of fictional violence.  They understand that it is fiction and real life is different and they are as capable of understanding the dramatic impart of violence in a fictional work, just as an adult is.

 

In a curious repeat of history, Robert Maxwell went through the same thing as the producer of Adventures of Superman television series.  He was removed after the first season because Kellogg's, the sponsor, felt his episodes were too violent and film noir-ish for the kiddies.  They wanted Superman to operate in a nice antiseptic, fluffy world full of cartoon gangsters and whacky inventors.

 

But ask, just ask, anyone who was a kid then which episode he preferred---"Night of Terror" or "The Brainy Burro".

Comment by Mark S. Ogilvie on April 30, 2013 at 4:20pm
I think Reeves and the other actors under estimated where they were and what they were doing. I wasn't young enough to see Superman first run but I saw it in syndication and it reminded me of the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon serials. They may not have been Casablanca but they were good to watch. I was old enough to wonder how the glasses did the trick but that was about it.
But I'm sure it was tough for him to be stuck only as Superman just as Adam West was stuck only as Batman. A good ride while it last but once it's over what do you do? I remember seeing this interview with Diedra Hall

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUy2UvRSLKQ

and she talked about Electra Woman and she was pretty ok about it, but then she's had a good career since. That probably makes it easier. Still I can think of a lot of talented actors and actresses who for one reason or another never really got traction in their careers, but they'll always be remembered for one show or one part.

The one thing that struck me years later when I got the Superman radio shows was how much more dramatic the death of Krypton was on the radio than it was on the tv show.
Comment by doc photo on April 30, 2013 at 4:26pm

How sad if George Reeves did indeed die by suicide. Admitedly, I always bought into the murder scenario because it seemed to make the most sense. Or maybe it is because I wanted it be so, thus avoiding the possiblity that he was at such a low point that he would take his own life.

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on April 30, 2013 at 8:24pm

I think the Deidre Hall example shows how somebody can transcend being typecast ... if you look at her career as being typecast as Electric Woman, and not as Marlena Evans on Days of Our LIves.

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 30, 2013 at 9:32pm

Patrick Duffy went from being The Man From Atlantis to Dallas but he's the exception to the norm, I'm afraid. Adam West is getting regular work because he was Batman in the 60s, not in spite of it.

Lynda Carter, despite being drop dead gorgeous and an under-rated actress, could never escape Wonder Woman.

Even Hallie Berry's career was in trouble somewhat after Catwoman. Now I hear that she'll be playing Storm again after she said that X-Men III was the last time.

Not to mention, Hugh Jackman, for all the movies he's made since X-Men, still plays Wolverine for the sixth time!

Not to mention (again) the actors who played Superman after George Reeves haven't had a major success since.

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