Spencer Gordon Bennet & Thomas Carr – Superman (1948)
This adventure is the first live-action Superman serial and was one of the most successful multi-chapter films ever made. Superman is played by B-movie hero Kirk Alyn. The story centers upon the hero and the nefarious Spider Lady, who is trying to rule the Earth. If she cannot have complete control, she plans on shrinking it with her powerful reducer ray. Much of the episodes center upon Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane and upon his ability to fly.
* 1 – Superman Comes To Earth
After Krypton’s science council refuses to believe Jor-El’s warnings of the planet’s impending doom as it is being drawn towards its sun, he must launch his son to safety in an experimental rocket. On Earth, the rocket is found by the Kents who secretly adopt the child and name him Clark. As a child, Clark develops superpowers. He finds a lost watch for his mother, and saves his dad from a tornado. As an adult he agrees he must leave and adopt an identity of Superman. His mother gives him a costume made from blankets in his rocket that resist fire. Shortly, his foster parents die, and Clark leaves for a train. On a train Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen are going to a story. Clark spots a break in the track and changes to Superman.
* 2 – Depths Of The Earth
Superman saves the train, and Lois calls in the story to a skeptical editor, Perry White. Clark arrives in Metropolis and a cabbie recommends the Daily Planet, and takes him to a building on fire. Superman saves a girl from the building, creating national headlines. Clark asks Mr. White for a job and is told if he scoops Lois and Jimmy at a mine story, he has a job. At a mine explosion Lois learns of a way into the mine, behind the guardline. She goes in but another explosion occurs sealing the shaft. Clark is shown the blocked shaft, and changes to Superman.
* 3 – The Reducer Ray
Superman breaks through and saves Lois and the miners. Back in Metropolis an angry Lois meets Clark Kent who scooped her on the story. Superman’s feats cause many headlines. In Washington, Superman is asked to witness a test of Dr. Graham’s invention that harnesses natural reducer rays, concentrating them to create a beam that can be focused miles away, and create an explosion greater than an atomic blast! The Spider Lady, queen of the underworld, contacts an associate in New Mexico, who tries to use Negative Rays to prevent the test, until a doctor can witness the test for the Spider Lady. Superman stops that effort, and after the test is asked in Washington to guard the relativity Reducer Ray. Later, in Metropolis Professor Leeds spots an approaching meteor. It crashes near the city, and Perry sends Lois and Clark to investigate. On route, Lois leaves Clark who is picked up by Leeds. Leeds takes Clark back to the Metropolis Museum to see the glowing meteor. Leeds thinks it is from Krypton. Although harmless to humans, it causes Clark to collapse.
* 4 – Man Of Steel
After Leeds covers the meteor with a lead lid, Clark recovers. Clark reveals he is Superman, so Leeds agrees to destroy the fragment after testing it. But Leeds’ assistant Morgan has overheard how the fragment can harm Superman. He places a cryptic newspaper ad that the Spider Lady sees. A stool pigeon, Hawkins, tells Lois about Morgan. Lois and Jimmy go to meet Hawkins, and see Morgan. Lois and Morgan are kidnapped by the Spider Lady’s gang. Morgan tells the Spider Lady about the meteor, who then has him killed on an electrified spider web. Then she has Lois placed on the web, because Lois is a reporter.
Superman, Lois Lane and Perry White
* 5 – A Job For Superman
Lois is left only stunned, and the Spider Lady orders Lois be taken to a warehouse in Metropolis. Meanwhile, Jimmy has phoned Perry who sends off Clark. While Jimmy is driving, with Clark, Clark spots Lois unconscious in another car. He has Jimmy drive on while changing to Superman to stop the crooks. Lois tells Superman that the Spider Lady now knows about kryptonite. The Spider Lady publically challenges Superman to stop her from robbing the Metropolis Museum. While the police and Superman are distracted by a staged car accident, the Spider Lady’s men steal the kryptonite from Leeds’ office. They also stop Leeds and Lois who were in the office.
* 6 – Superman In Danger
Superman saves Lois in Leeds’ office from being hurt by an electric device used by the crooks, then flies after the crooks. They use the kryptonite to escape from him. The Spider Lady decides she will need scientific help using the kryptonite and Reducer Ray, so she arranges a jail break for Dr. Hackett, a brilliant scientist with a twisted mind. Clark tries to get Hawkins to give a tip about the doctor, but Hawkins hesitates when spotting men from the Spider Lady. Clark pursues the men, while Lois manages to get a tip from Hawkins. The crooks go to a summer cabin where Hackett is holed up. They say they will return to pick him up disguised by bandages. Clark ties up the doctor and in disguise is taken by the crooks in an ambulance. Lois arrives and unties Hackett, who forces her into her car. The crooks discover Clark, and stun him on a rural road. Hackett spots them and stuns Lois, then jumps from her car as it roars towards the edge of the road and a mountain!
* 7 – Into The Electric Furnace
Superman finds Hackett’s cabin empty, then spots Lois’ car in time to save her. The Spider Lady reveals her plan to Hackett. They plan to capture Clark Kent to trap Superman. Hawkins is forced to phone a tip to Kent, but Lois answers and instead she and Jimmy go to the meeting place. There Jimmy is kidnapped. At the Daily Planet, Clark gets a call about Jimmy, and goes to meet a crook, secretly followed by Lois. Clark offers to have Superman show up if Jimmy is freed. Instead the crooks have Clark locked up in a room in a warehouse, while Jimmy is left unconscious on a conveyor belt headed into a blast furnace.
* 8 – Superman To The Rescue
Superman rescues Jimmy, but the crooks escape when they toss a piece of the kryptonite at Superman, which ends up in the furnace releasing kryptonite fumes. Lois arrives and blows a police whistle making the crooks leave. Hackett complains about the failed caper, and the Spider Lady learns he is willing to betray her. In Washington, Superman arranges a trap by having a newspaper story say the reducer ray will be taken by truck for study at Metropolis University. The Spider Lady sends a group to hijack the truck and stop Superman with kryptonite. Superman stops the crooks, but overhears on their car radio that the Spider Lady has found out the ray really is being transported by train, and that another group plan to derail the train.
* 9 – Irresistable Force
Superman stops the train before it reaches where the blast occurs. Perry assigns Lois to pick up Dr. Graham at the airport. The Spider Lady has Lois delayed while she poses as Lois and picks up Dr. Graham. When Lois gets to the airport she picks up Hackett disguised as Graham. While Graham is being taken to the Spider Lady’s cave hideout, Lois takes Hackett and an assistant to the reducer ray at Metropolis University. When Lois becomes suspicious of Hackett studying the device, she is captured and the ray is rigged to explode. But Jimmy had photographed Hackett and Lois at the airport, so when Clark sees Lois didn’t pick up Graham he leaves.
* 10 – Between Two Fires
Superman arrives in time to save the ray machine and Lois. Jimmy spots Hackett and his assistant, and follows them. Jimmy is captured in a building where Graham is now being forced to recreate his ray device. While Hackett leaves, Graham tells Jimmy he’ll use a machine to secretly signal for help. Graham’s signaling causes static on the city’s phones. Clark and Lois are sent to investigate the cause of the static. Clark figures out it is a coded message. Lois is sent off to locate the source of the signal, while Clark stays with two phone employees. The crooks spot Graham’s signals, and leave after rigging the building. Jimmy escapes their moving car, while Lois enters the building which erupts in flames.
* 11 – Superman’s Dilemma
Superman manages to save Lois again. Dr. Graham is forced to agree to finish another reducer ray machine that Hackett has built. Graham says he’ll need a new chemical compound called mono-chromite. The Spider Lady’s men find a chemical engineer Fred Larkin to supply it. After looking it up and seeing it is a restricted compound, Larkin tells them to come back for it, and calls Perry White for advice. Perry assigns Clark to see Larkin, but an angry Lois arranges for Clark to end up arrested for driving a stolen car, while she and Jimmy visit Larkin. The crooks pick up from Larkin a crate that Jimmy is hiding in. They punch out Larkin and lock Lois in Larkin’s vault. Superman leaves his jail cell to get to Larkin’s office where he saves Lois from suffocating. On route, the crooks spot someone is in the crate and shoot at the crate.
* 12 – Blast In The Depths
Luckily, Superman had earlier found the truck, and replaced Jimmy. Superman leaves Jimmy with the crooks trussed up, and returns to the jail, where Clark is released. Hackett decides to try another engineer. Men are sent to try mining engineer Fred Collier to get ore to make mono chromite, but Collier resists and is shot. Perry has Lois check Collier’s office, where she finds a mining map. The crooks return and kidnap her. Clark and Jimmy arrive too late, but Clark spots a mark Lois left (?+) that Clark figures out refers to a mine at Questionmark Crossing. At the mine, while the crooks carry out ore, Clark is captured and left handcuffed to Lois. The crooks rig an explosion in the mine, and outside punch out Jimmy.
* 13 – Hurled To Destruction
The explosion stuns Lois long enough for Superman to get them outside. Meanwhile, Graham is forced to reveal more about his machine. It will need a special tube that takes months to build. The Spider Lady has her men go to Metropolis University, posing as reporters to steal the original tube. Perry has Clark and Jimmy go to the university, but Jimmy goes ahead while Clark checks on something. At the university, two crooks drive off with the tube while another forces Jimmy to drive in his car. Clark arrives and spots Jimmy. Superman appears and stops the car. Jimmy asks Superman to leave the crook with Perry for an exclusive. At the Daily Planet, while Superman changes to Clark, Perry ends up struggling with the crook who ends up knocking Perry out of the window to fall to his death!.
* 14 – Superman At Bay
Clark enters the outer offices in time to capture the crook, Anton, and then rescues Perry who is hanging on the window ledge. Anton’s capture makes headlines, since he is an aide of the Spider Lady. She and Hackett agree to have him allow himself to be arrested, so he can talk with Anton. Lois and Jimmy capture Hackett outside the Daily Planet. Outside the jail they spot a crook pickup a cigarette butt tossed out by Hackett. It has a coded message. Jimmy takes over delivering the message to a store. At the store after Jimmy hides and hears a crook radio the Spider Lady, he is captured and the crooks rig the store to explode if someone uses the door. Meanwhile, Graham now has the second ray machine ready. The Spider Lady has him target the location where Hackett and Anton (and Lois) are in the jail. After Clark is phoned by Lois, Superman rescues Jimmy who warns about the plan to target the jail.
* 15 – The Payoff
Superman saves Lois from the explosion but the other two are killed. The ray’s use causes headlines. The Spider lady publicly says that because it is Superman’s ally, she will soon destroy the Daily Planet building. Superman reconstructs a recording of Hackett talking to Anton. The recording mentions somewhere called the Dog’s Eye. Lois and Jimmy go off to investigate reports of stalled cars in the foothills, thinking it may be related to the ray’s use at the jail. They get captured and taken to the Spider Lady’s cave hideout. Meanwhile, Clark figures out where the Dog’s Eye refers to. It is a mine near Metropolis. Superman goes and finds one of the Spider Lady’s men who uses kryptonite. Superman is dragged into the Spider Lady’s hideout where she holds another piece of kryptonite to prevent him from stopping the ray machine. But Superman is wearing a lead-lined costume and faking being unconscious. He resists the ray’s beam and Dr. Graham turns it on the fleeing Spider Lady killing her.
Soaring onto screens only ten years after Supes made his debut on the printed page, Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman became the two most popular serials ever made. Despite some crude effects, cardboard characterizations, and the dated conventions of the serial itself, these are still a lot of fun to watch for undiscriminating fans of Krypton’s first son.
Based both on the character’s popular radio drama and his early comics from the 1940s, the first serial, Superman, spends its first few chapters retelling Supes’ origin story by taking viewers back to the matte-painted world of Krypton. Though obviously low-budget, these scenes with frustrated scientist Jor-El preparing his son for his space voyage are some of the best moments in this outing. They have inventive set designs and costumes, good use of stock footage, and a palpable sense of danger. Before long, however, Superman arrives in the visually drab Metropolis and falls back into more typical serial cliffhanger fare. Jimmy Olsen is stuck on a conveyor belt heading towards a blast furnace, virtually every character is subjected to at least one kidnapping, and Kryptonite becomes the film’s essential ingredient. It’s the only thing that really keeps the plot moving forward by constantly putting our hero in jeopardy.
In a never-ending quest to get the relativity reducer ray in working order, the Spider Lady is this installment’s weakest aspect, a matter that isn’t helped by Carol Foreman’s stiff performance. Mostly vamping around a cool lair decorated with a giant electrified spider web, the character is neither intimidating nor particularly fun to watch; she passes off most of her duties to an inexhaustible supply of virtually identical goons.
Alyn, a former dancer and serial star, is not at all bad as the Man of Steel although he would be eclipsed by George Reeves just a few short years later. His wide-eyed performance does little more than bring the two-dimensional character off the printed page, but that was really all that was necessary at this point. Though he manages to fill the iconic uniform well in many scenes, he’s far less physical than you might expect. He gets into more fist-fights as Kent than Superman, and his puffed-chest heroism can occasionally be mistaken for smugness. But the biggest stumbling block for audiences viewing these serials today has been Superman’s jarring flying effect. Watching Superman you really will believe a cartoon can fly. Alyn repeatedly leaps through a window so a primitively animated version of the Man of Steel can take over, soaring off to rescue Lois and Jimmy yet again. Though you ultimately gets used to this effect, it’s never convincing, often pulling you out of the moment and diminishing Alyn’s overall presence on the screen. Making matters more difficult, animation is used to achieve many of the film’s other “super” effects as well, including having bullets bouncing off Superman’ chest, breaking through brick walls, and flying rocket ships.
Although probably the weakest of the live-action Superman adventures, Superman: The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection is still chock full of vintage enjoyment, and remains a good entry point for anyone who has never delved into the serial format before. Though crudely made, it’s important to remember that these films will ultimately aimed at kids. The technical shortcomings are easily made up by fast-paced action, breakneck plot twists, and a truckload of derring-do. It may never rise above anything but silly fun, but it’s still fun; these lighthearted serials offer an amusing viewing experience not far removed from the character’s comic book origin
Subtitles:Spanish and French idx/sub