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The Real Heroes of Superman, Part 3

3rd of an 8-part series. Click here for Part 2.

Welcome back to Part 3 of our series to celebrate the fact that Superman Returns to cinemas next week!  Today we focus on the 1940s Superman cartoons created by Max and Dave Fleischer and Fleischer Studios.  Max, as producer, gets his picture on our header graphic, but there were many people involved in the creation of these gems of animation, so let's begin.

Max FleischerReleased by Paramount Pictures between 1941 and 1943, the Superman cartoons were a series of 17 animated Technicolor shorts, initially produced by Fleischer Studios.  While they have since fallen into the public domain, they are considered by many enthusiasts to be some of the finest examples of work from the Golden Age of Animation.

In 1941, Max and Dave Fleischer had just finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver's Travels (where they first employed a dedicated special effects division for things like cloth and water effects) and were in the middle of production on their next film, Mister Bug Goes to Town.

Dave FleischerBack in the day, most movies were preceded by shorts (typically animated), and Paramount was looking to cash in on the success of the relatively new Superman comic books.  They contracted with Fleischer Studios, who were already animating other shorts for the company (i.e. Popeye) to create a series based on the Action Comics star.

Initially, the Fleischers were reluctant to get involved with another project.  This is what I love about looking back into the past.  Can you imagine a company nowadays that wouldn't leap at the chance to do this, one way or another, no matter how many projects they already had on their plate?

But Superman was not the hot commodity that he is now, and so, in order to discourage Paramount from making the series, the Fleischers quoted them a price of $30,000 per episode (according to the introduction on my Bosko Video DVD) although I've read some quotes as high as $100,000), with the exception being the first episode, at $50,000.  This put the total budget for the series at $530,000, which at the time was a staggering amount for cartoon shorts.

Surprisingly to the Fleischers, Paramount agreed to the price, and the rest, little did they know, would be history.

Superman Introduction Scene

The first cartoon in the series was simply titled Superman and gave us this brief glimpse into the character's origin, narrated by Jackson Beck, who also voiced Perry White in the shorts:

"In the endless reaches of the universe there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens. There, civilization was far advanced and it brought forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection. But, there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocket ship and sent it hurtling in the direction of the Earth just as Krypton exploded! The rocket ship sped through star-studded space, landing safely on Earth with its precious burden, Krypton's sole survivor. A passing motorist found the uninjured child and took it to an orphanage. As the years went by and the child grew to maturity he found himself possessed of amazing physical powers.... The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel, SUPERMAN!  To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never ending battle for truth and justice, Superman has assumed the disguise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper."

While Seymour Kneitel and Isidore Sparber share writing credits on the first episode, it is not clear who wrote the introduction.  Some say it may have been written by screenwriter Jay Morton, who is the one responsible for the famous phrase:

"Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"

Morton is also credited for writing the phrase:

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!"

Many assume that these lines came from the Superman radio program, but actually it was the other way around.  While similar lines did appear in the comic books and the radio show, it was Morton's lines that resounded with the public and were then adopted by the other mediums.

Still from 'The Arctic Giant'

It's interesting to me how each generation has it's own Superman... for a generation of kids next Wednesday, Brandon Routh is likely to adopt the mantle of their hero.  For me, it was Christopher Reeve.  For people a little older, their Superman was the one on Saturday morning's Superfriends show, voiced ever-so-confidently by Danny Dark.  Before that, you had George Reeves... but for a generation before that, eventual game show host Bud Collyer WAS Superman.

Bud CollyerCollyer voiced the character on the radio show from its inception, and then continued the role for the animated shorts.  He insisted on being uncredited in both mediums, feeling that (and rightfully so) that he would forever be typecast as the Man of Steel, which has become known as "The Superman Curse."  What fans loved about Collyer was that he gave Clark Kent and Superman two distinct voices, with Clark's having a higher-pitched (but still masculine) tone than Superman's.  Clark often sounded bemused, while Superman was always calm and confident.  Collyer would often switch voices mid-sentence while uttering the famous phrase "This looks like a job... for Superman!"  He continued to voice the character on the radio show after the animated shorts, and went on to voice him for television cartoons into the late 60s.

After nine episodes, Paramount took over Fleischer Studios and ousted Max and Dave.  The series continued with eight more episodes under the name of Famous Studios, which ultimately cancelled the series once production costs were deemed too expensive, most likely due to war-time budget constraints.  Ironic, considering that while the look of the shorts produced by Famous Studios almost matched those of the Fleischers, the storylines changed considerably, dropping into propaganda territory, with Superman fighting the unflatteringly-drawn Germans and Japanese for the American war effort.

Still from 'Metal Monsters'

Looking back into the past with the gift of hindsight, it is interesting to note that the first Superman short was nominated for an Academy Award in 1941, but lost to Disney's Lend a Paw, starring Pluto.  This was one of only five nominations the studio would get, as Disney was pretty much a lock for the Oscars back then.  How many people remember Lend a Paw?  Exactly.  Also of note is that the Superman shorts were dropped by Paramount and Famous Studios in favor of producing Little Lulu shorts. And how many people remember Little Lulu today? Right.

Still from 'Metal Monsters'

While there are some gems in the Famous Studios episodes, the real treasures are the first nine episodes produced by Fleischer Studios.  With their boldly oversized and fantastic art deco sets straight out of Flash Gordon and Metropolis, pulpy plotlines in touch with the comics of the time, smartly-dressed mad-scientist villians in white lab coats and ties, robots, death rays, and industrial machinery, they are an absolute visual treat.  One only has to watch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or Batman: The Animated Series to realize how much of an influence the series still has on modern filmmakers.

Still from 'Electric Earthquake'

Fleischer Studios may have reluctantly accepted the job of bringing Superman to the big screen for the first time, but it is undeniable that their contribution to the Superman mythos had a large part in the world-wide recognition of the character.  And while the studio's treatment at the hands of Paramount is similar to what happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's creators, we are lucky to have these cartoons as part of our popular culture, as well as part of the Superman canon in general.

Still from 'Volcano'

Tune in tomorrow for Part 4!

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Chesty Larue's picture
I've never seen these

I can't believe those screen shots. They seem like they were drawn on a computer today.  I didn't know they had such detail or backgrounds compared to the Marvel cartoons from the 60s.

Nina Kincaid's picture
Available for download...

... here.  Although personally, I would recommend the Bosko Diamond Anniversary Edition, which used the best 35mm prints available.  These are not the Bosko prints.

seekshelter's picture
aside from the sterotypes...

the fleishcer shorts are awesome. the animation is really fluid and so much more detailed than your typical 7 minute cartoon. the one with the giant robots and mad scientist is classic, which Sky Captain payed homage to so well. i think all of these are available on dvd.

Nina Kincaid's picture

... the stereotypes are no worse than anything else of the era.  It's just a sign of the times.  And to be fair, the Native American in Electric Earthquake is handled pretty well... a well-dressed, educated scientist... albeit the villain, but he is a far cry from the typical "cigar store indian" that everyone was used to seeing at the time.  But yes, the Germans, the Japanese, and for the most part the Africans don't fair too well in the later half of the series by Famous Studios.

Chesty Larue's picture
Did women animate these cartoons then?

Since so many of these seemed to have been done during WWII, wouldn't women have been animating these cartoons while the men were drafted for war?

I also wanted to include a YouTube video here.  I am amazed at how clean and smooth these rotoscoped animations were.


I enjoyed your article on the Fleischer Studios SUPERMAN. I might like to add a few clarification on your text, however. First, it is not Jackson Beck's voice as the narrator as you cite. While I do not know who the man was, he was part of the radio cast as the original announcer, and Back assumed the role much later. Beck was Perry White in the first cartoon, but does not seem to be heard in the others such as, ELECTRICAL EARTHQUAKE, VOLCANO and UNDERGROUND WORLD. Regarding the production costs, according to the Fleischer's Paramount production contract dated May 24th, 1941, 11 SUPERMAN cartoons were ordered, the first budgeted at $50,000, with all others at $30,000. Since a POPEYE cartoon in black and white cost from $12,000 to $16, 500, the SUPERMAN cartoons cost approximated twice as much to produce. Letters I have seen from studio manager, Sam Buckwald indicate that they were shipping the film negatives from Miami to the Technicolor labs in Hollywood. Many of these letters make specific references to production problems causing delays in deliveries. In a letter to Charles F. West at Paramount, dated December 20th, 1941, the delivery date of BILLION DOLLAR LIMITED was already one day late, indicating that photography had been completed the 17th. Another letter indicates recording problems associated with the use of DuPont sound recording stock during recording of the BULLETERS. This letter dated March 17th, 1942 states: We know that there was a great deal of background noise present. This was the first job in which we used DuPont recording stock and we certainly had our hands full. According to our monitor man, the emulsion kept piling up and after this job we went back to good old reliable Eastman. I will call the noise of the splices to Morris Manne's attention when he returns form New York.  He is up there on the re-recording for the next SUPERMAN--"MAGNETIC TELESCOPE". The picture has been entirely photographed and as soon as the rushes are returned to us by Technicolor, we will ship the sound and picture to them for an answer print. The details of these letters is very revealing about the awkwardness of producing from three locations, Miami, New York, and Hollywood. This may also be considered as part of the reason for the added expense and the discontinuation of the series aside from the license fees for the use of the characters.