19 December 2003 | BrianDanaCamp
First live-action Superman is good in parts, but flawed
The 15-chapter serial, SUPERMAN (1948), is best in its early chapters as it details the more familiar parts of the Superman story, including an elaborate sequence on Krypton dealing with the planet's destruction and Jorel's sending his son off in a rocket to Earth. We see Clark growing up with the Kents and heading off to Metropolis and a job at the Daily Planet where he meets Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. We see Superman doing superheroic things in these early episodes like rescuing people from a burning building or rescuing miners trapped in a tunnel.
However, after roughly the first third, each episode follows tried-and-true serial formula with standard cliffhanger endings as Superman gets hit with kryptonite or Lois gets trapped somewhere and only Superman can save her. There are even long stretches where Superman doesn't use his powers at all. It all comes to a disappointingly abrupt ending and anticlimactic resolution.
Superman fights an unlikely villain in the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) and her gang of standard-issue thugs--middle-aged crooks in suits, ties and fedoras who are constantly slugging Jimmy and kidnapping Lois. The Spider Lady gets help from a renegade scientist who has an agenda of his own, but he's so badly acted that he slows the film down considerably. The Spider Lady (who loses her ridiculous mask after her first few appearances) is more of a standard serial villain, and, while not unattractive, is coiffed and dressed like a film noir floozie and would probably have been more at home sidling up to Humphrey Bogart in a gambling joint than fighting Superman.
That said, there are considerable points of interest here. When Superman flies, the effect is created through animation as a fluidly animated Superman cartoon figure takes over for the live actor (Kirk Alyn). This tactic allows the makers to show Superman flying through a variety of locales and settings. While the contrast may be jarring at first, it does acknowledge the comic book origins of the character.
Noel Neill is a perfect Lois Lane and is as spunky as they come. When thugs attack, she recklessly plunges into each fight with the verve and daring normally associated with the standard square-jawed cliffhanger hero. When she's not fighting, she's smiling, always eager to get the story and clearly loving her job. A seedy character named Hawkins (played by Frank Lackteen with undetermined accent) is an informant who gives Lois tips about Spider Lady's activities. Lois is always happy to see him and at one point pays for his tips by taking him to lunch at a restaurant called Luigi's (surely a foolhardy act for an informant). None of the characters gets a single change of costume throughout the serial, but it's more noticeable on Lois. Neill played Lois in a second serial, ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN, and later in the TV series, "Superman," opposite George Reeves.
Jimmy Olsen, on the other hand, gets little of consequence to do, other than getting constantly knocked out by thugs and stating the obvious when needed. He's played by Tommy Bond, better known as Butch from "The Little Rascals." (In the TV series, Jack Larson was a vast improvement in the role.) Pierre Watkin makes a good, dyspeptic Perry White, behaving more like J. Jonah Jameson from "Spiderman" than the Perry we know and love.
A point should be made here about the sequel, ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950). It improved on this serial greatly and had a more comic book-like villain in Lex Luthor (well played by Lyle Talbot). It also had Superman doing a great many more Superman-like things and offered a new twist in each episode. It had a better story structure and more satisfying resolution. The characters also got to change their outfits.