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.

Views: 2237

Comment by Richard Willis on April 24, 2013 at 3:01pm

As for the gun-ducking, maybe the gun he ducked was an actual metal gun. After that if a crook threw a gun at his chest and he didn't duck it was probably made on rubber. 

Comment by Richard Willis on April 24, 2013 at 3:17pm

In 1987 a college student shot and killed both of his parents. In 1988 he was convicted after 3 1/2 hours deliberation. He apparently had serious mental problems and was reacting to being told they would stop paying for his college education because of his poor grades. He told a psychologist that a D&D character was controlling him. Just like today, a person with mental problems who kills and has ANY association with video games or anything considered outside the mainstream is presumed to have been made insane by it. Today there are still people who truly believe the D&D game can turn someone into an insane killer.

Comment by Kirk G on April 24, 2013 at 3:32pm

When I was as Michigan State U back in 1974-80 (don't ask) there was a student who disappeared (didn't show up for classes, dorm room nor anywhere he hung out).  A manhunt was organized and public safety (MSU Police) showed up in his dorm room to interview suitmates, etc.  One of the "detectives" saw a collection of push pins arranged in his bulletin board in a peculuar pattern, and asked what it was. Turns out it was a logo or image of Dragons and Dungeons.

There upon, a rumor swept campus that they were searching the steam tunnels where steam pipes were running underground to deliver heat to all MSU buildings, for the missing kid. It was thought that he had either started playing D&D for real, or that he had been hiding down there and gotten cooked by the extreme heat.

As it turns out, the kid had hightailed it to Denver and was staying with his divorsed father. The reasons for his sudden flight from school were never discussed, but it was implied that it was personal and would not be discussed.

To this day, the rumor persists of the honors kid who played D&D so much that he went crazy and started playing it down in the tunnels beneath campus.  It won't die.

Comment by doc photo on April 24, 2013 at 3:54pm

Wasn't the MSU D&D story turned into a made for TV movie starring Tom Hanks?

And back to Superman - I always found the Christopher Reeve portrayal as a bit too earnest. George Reeves on the other hand radiated a genuine warmth that made you believe that the Man of Steel was a really great guy. Unless of course you were a mad scientist or gun toting criminal in which case - look out!

Comment by Commander Benson on April 24, 2013 at 4:17pm

" I always found the Christopher Reeve portrayal as a bit too earnest."

That was precisely what was wrong with Christopher Reeve's portrayal of Superman.  As a consequence, it turned a character that was honest and upright and fought for justice and turned him into a thin caricature of a character that had all of those traits.  Reeve's Superman was Dudley Do-Right scaled down a couple of factors.

 

It wasn't as much Reeve's fault as it was that of the director and writers, who limned the character that way.  ("Ah, c'mon, nobody's that honest and decent, so let's make Superman look a little ridiculous for being that way.")  That's why you had such over-the-top lines as Superman telling the warden at the end . . . .

 

"No, sir, don't thank me, warden.  We're all part of the same team."

 

It was Reeve's first Superman film that launched the perception of the Man of Steel as a "big, blue Boy Scout", and the modern crop of comics writers has been running on that image ever since.

 

Comment by Luke Blanchard on April 24, 2013 at 4:40pm

Regarding Superman's age, I like the idea of an older Superman for the same reasons the Commander gives, but I think Siegel and Shuster likely originally conceived him as a young character. My recollection is he's referred to as a young man in an early episode of the radio show.

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 24, 2013 at 6:10pm

I'll never forget in grade school classmates always reminding me that Superman had killed himself by jumping out a window. One did so to the point of near-torment. As I grew older, I read about the true circumstances of George Reeves' suicide, only to then learn as a young adult about the theory of George Reeves' murder. It was and is a compelling arguement. Both Jack Larson and Noel Neill seem to believe the murder-theory. Morbid as it sounds, I would prefer that people believed that Reeves was murdered by either his jilted mistress or his jilted mistress' mobster boyfriend.

"It's the romantic in me."

As corny and dated as The Adventures of Superman was*, and I have the first four seasons on DVD and grew up on them, it was George Reeves who transcended both the show and the character into iconic status. He was the best friend/father figure/champion we all wanted to share adventures with and the one person we knew 100% that could save us. From anything. Well, except kryptonite.

It was his Clark Kent that was a revelation. Calm, good-natured, ever compotent and not a nerd, he was no mild mannered reporter, he wasn't the fool or the butt of everyone's jokes. He commanded respect and, in some ways, was just as heroic as his Super Alter-Ego.

Christopher Reeve took Clark more in the direction of the comic book but not only could you believe a man could fly but the glasses and acting socially inept is a good disguise. Sorta. But he looked like Superman, though some of his dialogue was more on a Superboy's level.

"You are here for a reason."

Somehow it's comforting knowing that somewhere Superman and Lucy Ricardo exist in the same world!

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 24, 2013 at 6:14pm

* It's like my love of The Thin Man. Very dated acting style, stiff, stilted and melodramatic but William Powell and Myrna Loy** shine so much and act so naturally, their performances forgive the other faults of the film.

 

**I believe the Good Commander is familar with Miss Loy! ;-)

 

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on April 24, 2013 at 7:09pm

For me, Christopher Reeves, was Superman. I just absolutely love those first 2 movies. I personally didn't care about the age of the actor playing Superman. I was 5 when the first movie came out, so anyone over 8 was "old" to me. Even now when I catch those first couple of movies to me it looks like Reeve is genuinely enjoying himself. I had to jump in here and defend my man. He seemed to be taking a killing here.

I watched the old TV show, but it just never did much for me. I watched it more out of wanting to watch anything superhero related than to actually enjoying the show.

Comment by Misery in Spades on April 24, 2013 at 8:37pm

"It was Reeve's first Superman film that launched the perception of the Man of Steel as a 'big blue Boy Scout', and the modern crop of comics writers has been running  on that image ever since."

Commander, I've found an even earlier description of Superman as a 3-fingered saluter--in "All in Color for a Dime" (1970, paperback edition), SciFi writer Ted White, in the first essay of the book ("The Spawn of M.C. Gaines") on page 25, says, "Superman was a myth-figure: he was our dreams personified, even as must have been Siegel and Shuster's. Superman was, almost literally, the perfect Boy Scout. We believed in Boy Scouts then." 

I doubt White's description was as wide-reaching as Reeve's performance.

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