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: 2171

Comment by Richard Willis on May 2, 2013 at 1:52pm

Commander Benson said:

On 29 April 1981, The Greatest American Hero aired the episode "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys". John Hart once again plays the Ranger, in the then-modern day, and he is the boyhood hero of the show's hero, Ralph Hinkley.

This brings to mind another bone-headed corporate move. When John Hinkley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the producers of The Greatest American Hero stopped referring to their main character as Ralph Hinkley, just calling him Ralph after that. I guess all the people in the country with that surname were supposed to change their names too.

Comment by Richard Willis on May 2, 2013 at 1:53pm

Commander Benson said:

That's kind of like me saying, "Between Bill Gates and myself, we have over 75 billion dollars."

This line is priceless!

Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on May 2, 2013 at 2:40pm

From what I recall, GAH phased out the name Hinkley -- students called him "Mr. H." for a while, and eventually began to call him "Mister Henley." Or, at least, that was the plan I read about in an issue of our newspaper's TV Guide-type magazine (TV Week, IIRC). Whether the show stuck around long enough to completely execute it, I don't remember.

Comment by Commander Benson on May 2, 2013 at 2:59pm

Close, Mr. Staeger---it was "Mr. Hanley".


The Standards-and-Practices boys at ABC finally got over having the willies about it and went back to calling him Ralph Hinkley with the beginning of season two.

Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on May 2, 2013 at 4:03pm

Ah, thanks for the correction, Commander. I'll update my memory banks... about the revised name, and about the reversion to the original!

Comment by Andrew Horn on May 3, 2013 at 12:08pm

Mark said, "But I'm sure it was tough for him to be stuck only as Superman..."

I read an article some years ago that argued against the suicide theory because he was apparently starting to do well. Superman was going to get renewed and having already directed a few episodes (The Brainy Burro being one of them by the way :) ), he was being offered more and also starting to get some interest as a tv director elsewhere.

I don't know how reliable this information is, but I will attest to the fact that I really read it.:)


Comment by Philip Portelli on May 3, 2013 at 12:29pm

I also read about George Reeves getting more director gigs so his career wasn't over by any means.

Comment by Commander Benson on May 3, 2013 at 12:39pm

"I read an article some years ago that argued against the suicide theory because he was apparently starting to do well. Superman was going to get renewed and having already directed a few episodes (The Brainy Burro being one of them by the way :) ), he was being offered more and also starting to get some interest as a tv director elsewhere."

I've read and heard similar things---which are nothing more than certain individuals' evaluations of George Reeves's psychological state at time.  (None of these folks, incidentally, were trained psychologists or psychiatrists.)  These opinions in no way rebut the scenario that George Reeves committed suicide.


Everyone who takes his own life isn't a poster-model of clinical depression.  Many, many people who are severely depressed are masters at concealing it around others.  They disguise it well and appear to be completely satisfied with life, even happy.


And it's not always a deliberate concealment of their moods.  Many people have an undercurrent of depression running through their psyches, but the strength of their socialisation keeps it surpressed---except for occasions when something brings it to the fore.  These triggers can be one or more of a variety of things:  holidays, when joy is virtually mandated and the subject realises that he doesn't feel it; or wakefulness in the wee hours, which seems to intensify certains moods or fears in all of us; or alcohol, which removes the inhibitions which keep our egos in control.


Just as some people who say they want to die, deep down don't really (the classic "cry for help", e.g., Ogden takes a bottleful of sleeping pills, then calls someone and says, "I just swallowed a bottleful of sleeping pills", knowing that person will call for an ambulance), there are some people who carry a desire for death but never say so.  And often their suicides are spur-of-the-moment, when mood and means conflate into one tremendously fatal moment.


I don't doubt anyone who states "George Reeves looked happy to me" in those days before his death.  But what they saw isn't necessarily everything that was going through Reeves's mind.



Comment by Commander Benson on May 3, 2013 at 12:51pm

"I also read about George Reeves getting more director gigs so his career wasn't over by any means."

People are often depressed, and quite deeply, even though an empirical look at their lives suggests that they shouldn't be.


Yes, supposedly, Reeves was getting offers to direct and, yes, he enjoyed being a director.  But if his life's dream had been to be a major Hollywood star, then all the directing jobs in the world might not have offset his depression over that failure.


Some folks can deal with life's disappointments, even tremendous ones, and adjust and move on.  Others cannot.  Their lost dreams continue to eat away at them like a slow-acting acid, despite their success in other venues.  Depression is, often, not logical. 


All I'm saying is, all of the positive things in Reeves's life at the time don't necessarily mean that Reeves was happy, and they certainly aren't proof that Reeves wouldn't have killed himself.



Comment by Philip Portelli on May 3, 2013 at 1:08pm

I did a little research (for a change) and learnt through Wikipedia that George Reeves' last major movie role before 1951's Superman and the Mole Men was 1949's The Adventures of Sir Galahad, a serial so it's not like he was doing "A" pictures prior to portraying the Man of Steel.

When he died/committed suicide/was murdered, he was only 45 but in the late 50s, that may have been too old to finally become a big movie star, instead of a character actor. Also, acting styles were changing with the coming of Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston and the like.

I'm not saying that he wasn't depressed or that he couldn't have committed suicide, but nothing has been proven to my satsifaction at any rate. Besides, weren't there two bulletholes?



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