Ever since his creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s, Superman has been the definitive super hero. Interpreted in many ways by many artists and actors over the years, one of the most iconic versions of Superman was the 1950s television series starring George Reeves. So how does this lighthearted ’50s series hold up today? Surprisingly well, actually.
The classic opening narration sums up the series better than I ever could:
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! 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!”
Here’s what you won’t find in this series: Lex Luthor or any other villains from the comics, giant robots, heat vision, ice breath, the Fortress of Solitude, Supergirl, Krypto, mysterious cave paintings, and flying around the world backwards to turn back time.
Here’s what you will find: Flying, amazing displays of strength, x-ray vision, Lois Lane being strong-willed and competitive, Jimmy Olsen being a klutz, Perry White barking orders at his reporters, and a surprisingly tough Clark Kent.
The Adventures of Superman came along when cop shows like Dragnet ruled the airwaves. As a result, the entire series gives off as much a “gangster movie” vibe as a comic book one. One gets the sense that the population of Metropolis is 1 percent Clark and his pals, and 99 percent hard-boiled gangsters. And we’re talking old-fashioned, pinstripe suit wearing, cigar chomping, Tommy-gun firing gangers. The title hero spends as much time as Clark Kent as his alter ego, tracking down clues and outsmarting crooks. In one episode, a gangland thug reacts in fear to being around Clark, whose investigative news articles have put just as many felons behind bars as Superman.
There’s a lot one could write about the life of George Reeves, including his sad death. There has been much speculation and innuendo about Reeves’s death, and whether it was related to frustrations about his most famous role. But none of that is relevant to discussion of this second season box set, because this season was before all of that. In these episodes, Reeves’s enthusiasm for the role stands out every time. Whether he’s bickering with Lois, imparting some words of advice to kids, or clobbering some henchmen, Reeves sells the role completely. Many viewers have noted that in later seasons, it is clear how burnt out he felt in the part, but that’s not the case time around. In this set, you get Reeves at his best.
One reason for this is that the creators give Reeves the opportunity to act. Take the episode in which a crook gets plastic surgery to look just like Supes. Reeves plays both parts, and, despite looking the same, gives the villain a completely different personality, voice, and set of mannerisms. For something a little less over-the-top, see the fan-favorite episode “Panic in the Sky,” where a run-in with a giant asteroid leaves our hero without his memory. By rediscovering who he is, Clark/Superman rediscovers why he uses his amazing powers to help others.
And then there’s the whole “glasses” thing. Everyone always wants to know how no one can tell Superman and Clark are the same person when the disguise is merely a pair of glasses (helped somewhat in this series by a fedora)? It’s all in the performance. As Superman, Reeves walks and talks differently than he does as Clark, and that makes the difference. More importantly, this Clark Kent isn’t a nerdy milquetoast as some have portrayed him. Instead, he’s a ruthless investigative reporter, pursuing the truth with just as much earnestness as he does when he dons the cape.
Noel Neill reprises her role as Lois from an earlier serial film, replacing Phyllis Coates from the first season. Although there’s not a lot of romantic tension between Lois and Clark, Lois serves as a rival at the newspaper, always out to beat him to the latest scoop. As Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson provided the comic relief, as did John Hamilton as the gruff newspaper editor Perry “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” White.
The tone of this season varies slightly from episode to episode. While it’s mostly cops and robbers with a cape, a few standouts go back to the hero’s comic book-style adventures. The above-mentioned “Panic in the Sky,” an episode considered a favorite by many, features Superman flying into space to tackle a gigantic, menacing asteroid. In “The Defeat of Superman,” a villain discovers the hero’s one weakness, the always-troublesome kryptonite. Caught in a kryptonite trap, Superman needs his friends to rescue him for once. This is the only time the deadly element appears this season, so hats off to the writers for not relying on it as a story device every single week. Other adventures take the cast outside of their usual settings, such as a Sherlock Holmes-inspired trip to England in “A Ghost for Scotland Yard,” some matinee serial-style jungle adventure in “Jungle Devil,” and a seafaring struggle against a modern-day pirate in “Golden Vulture.”
A little less thrilling are the comedy episodes, which mostly put the spotlight on Jimmy and his knack for getting into trouble. He does his best (worst?) Bogart imitation in “Semi-private Eye,” and he takes over for Perry—much to Perry’s chagrin—in “Jimmy Olsen, Boy Editor.” Sitcom-ish episodes such as these might provide laughs for young kids, but other viewers will want to pass them up in favor of one where Superman throws a bunch of gangsters across a room.
Warner Bros. has packaged all 26 episodes from season two in this five-disc set, all in their original full frame aspect ratio and mono sound. Picture quality is hit or miss, with some scenes looking bright and sharp, and others covered with scratches and grain. Even the worst shots, though, are not so bad that they distract from the action on screen. As for sound, all the dialogue, music, and sound effects have little to no distortion.
Neill and Larson reunite for two commentary tracks, on “Panic in the Sky” and “Semi-private Eye.” They provide some fond reminisces from the series, but also spend a little too much time just watching and not commenting. The “First Lady of Metropolis” focuses on Neill and her role as Lois Lane, where many applaud her for being one of the earliest feminist roles on TV. The real gem among the extras, though, is 1953’s “Stamp Day for Superman,” a special episode made for the purpose of encouraging children to buy savings stamps, which would then earn interest to become savings bonds. It’s essentially a typical Adventures of Superman episode, with our heroes on search for a fugitive bank robber, except that this one is peppered with important messages about investing money wisely. It’s a historical oddity, one that aired on TV only once, and its inclusion here is a real treat for fans.
OK, so the special effects are dated. The flying is an obvious combination of wires and early blue screen work. The guns, knives, and metal pipes that Superman bends are clearly all rubbery. And even Jimmy could figure out that Reeves used a just-out-of-sight springboard to help him leap out of all those windows. Some may find these effects laughable, but I’m of the mindset that effects serve the story, and in this case they do. The performers sell their roles with such good-natured earnestness that we the audience are drawn into their world and their adventures, so that by the time Superman takes to the air, we’re already caught up what’s happening, and we’re flying right along with him.
I went into this set expecting it to be all cheesy and campy, but instead I had great fun with it. There’s not a lot of depth to The Adventures of Superman, but overall, there’s a lot of retro enjoyment to be had here. This is mostly thanks to Reeves and the other actors, who play their roles straight, so we get straightforward super heroics in return.