The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Web Magazine and Sourcebooks

Volume 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

The Thunder Child DVD Reviews: Adventures of Superman: produced by Warner Home Video [www.warnerhomevideo.com]
Review by Ryan Brennan

By the time I was allowed to watch TV on a regular basis in the afternoon, Adventures of Superman had already been on the air six or seven years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was still just about the most exciting show a kid could see. Superman had been a popular character ever since his introduction in Action Comics.

His exploits had spawned a popular radio show and two movie serials, those weekly short chapter plays with the literal cliffhanger endings, so very similar in many ways to a television program. But nothing packed the punch of Adventures of Superman. Now it's possible to relive those wonderful moments of yesteryear with Warner Bros. DVD release of the entire first season of Adventures of Superman.

The show actually began in 1951 as the movie Superman and the Mole Men, directed by Lee Sholem. This short 58 minute feature also served as the pilot for the TV series. Later, it would be cut in two and edited down to make the two-part episode "The Unknown People". This first effort marvelously set the tone for the series that followed. Although lacking most of the humor exhibited in the series, the look of the show, the noirish photography, and certain key aspects of Lois and Clark were set. We would still have the pleasure of meeting Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson), Perry White (John Hamilton), and Inspector Henderson (Robert Shayne) as none of them appear in the pilot.

The shows are presented in chronological order (but without air dates mentioned). The DVD affords us the opportunity of watching the programs one right after the other. In doing so it becomes quite obvious how the production saved money by re-dressing and re-using many of the sets and props. There is a distinctive radio that pops up in several episodes as well as a beach/cave set that figures in at least four shows. Stock footage, film scenes that can bought cheaply from a stock film library, liberally dose the show.

One such piece of footage inadvertently creates a cameo appearance for character actor Ivan Treisault in one of his many Nazi roles on a set remarkably similar to that of beach/cave set mentioned. Another episode, "Crime Wave", is singled out as a "bottle" show, one which consists of even more stock footage than usual in order to keep costs down and is chock full of violent action.

. Disc 1
"Superman on Earth"
"The Haunted Lighthouse"
"The Case of the Talkative Dummy"
"The Mystery of the Broken Statues"
"The Monkey Mystery"
"A Night of Terror"

Disc 2
"The Birthday Letter"
"The Mind Machine"
"Rescue"
"The Secret of Superman"
"No Holds Barred"
"The Deserted Village"

Disc 3
"The Stolen Costume"
"Treasure of the Incas"
"Double Trouble"
"Mystery in Wax"
"The Runaway Robot"
"Drums of Death"

Disc 4
"The Evil Three"
"Riddle of the Chinese Jade"
"The Human Bomb"
"Czar of the Underworld"
"The Ghost Wolf"
"Crime Wave"

Disc 5
"Unknown People, Part 1"
"Unknown People, Part 2"

Even film shot originally for the show became stock footage, notably when Clark Kent ducks into an alley or Superman takes off or lands. It's all part of the fun, though, and this is a nicely produced show, the level of quality consistently comparable to "B" films of the 1940s.

Many of the stories are presented as mysteries, a strange event occurring that eventually brings the Daily Planet personnel into the fray. Sometimes they are front and center from the beginning. Some of the best episodes are "The Human Bomb", in which Trevor Bardette attempts to control Superman for 30 minutes, "The Evil Three", a very effective Old Dark House sort of tale with eccentric characters, "Ghost Wolf", in which a werewolf may be on the prowl, "The Deserted Village", where someone is attempting to poison the atmosphere, "Runaway Robot", wherein Lucien Littlefield's goofy inventor loses control of his robot to bad guy Russell Johnson, and "Mystery of the Broken Statues", Lois being kept on her toes as she tries to track down thugs who are buying and breaking plaster figurines all over town. "Drums of Death" is unintentionally the funniest episode with some extremely unconvincing situations and juxtaposition of dialogue that simply produces some howlers.

The special effects, while done on a budget, are generally well done, especially for a show with such unusual needs. We see a bullet convincingly bounce off Superman's chest (only once in this first season), X-ray vision is nicely conveyed, walls are broken through, street pavement is smashed open, rifle barrels are bent, and the Man of Steel flies, frequently.

The flying effects were achieved in various ways, footage of Reeves flying generally pleasing if we suspend our disbelief about a man soaring through the sky. The sound effects through the series contribute a great deal towards getting these visuals across well. The worst effect occurs in "The Unknown People" when Superman swoops to save a falling Mole Man, the action produced through some poor cell animation.

And no little credit should go to the music. Another cost cutting measure for thrift minded producers was the use of library music. Like stock footage, this was music that was already available and covered any number of moods and actions. In this case, the Mutel (Music for Television) library of David Chudnow was utilized. These tracks had been heard in poverty row films of the 1940s but were well chosen and lent Adventures of Superman a very special ambience. (This music is available on a Varese Sarabande CD release.)

The production design is also interesting. Shot on the RKO backlot, the show had access to the standing city street sets which could be re-dressed for whatever location was necessary. Perry White's office is a wonderfully designed room, almost ageless with its dark, rough grained walls and doors, minimalistic desk design, and corrugated glass panels masking White from prying eyes in other buildings.

Directing duties were split between Lee Sholem (11 episodes) and Tommy Carr (15 episodes). All of these black & white episodes have a pleasing palette of grays and blacks, giving the overall tone of the images a dark, enigmatic atmosphere. Often, characters are shot with intense backlighting and only enough fill light to produce visible faces for television broadcast. A number of well known character actors are littered throughout the shows. Tristram Coffin, Phil Pine, James Daly, Robert Easton, John Doucette, Frank Reicher, Jeff Corey, Dabbs Greer, Tony Caruso, Dan Seymour, Larry Blake, Mabel Albertson, Rhys Williams, and Paul Fix.

The transfers here are the best the show has ever looked. However, "The Stolen Costume" is clearly from an inferior source, lacking the fine grain and image definition of all the other shows. And the end credits for "The Unknown People Part 2" also seem to be from an inferior video source.


Superman and the Mole Men/
"The Unknown People"

The special features provide us with the original feature length version of Superman and the Mole Men. There is a great deal of footage cut, naturally, to pare it down to TV length, as the chase scene is considerably shorter along with other trims early in the movie. The music score is also entirely different and is missing the familiar cues of the regular series.

Additionally, a few of the Kellogg's cereal commercials are included, as well as a sparkling Technicolor print of a George Reeves' short film, Pony Express Days, directed by B. Reeves Eason, in which Reeves plays a young Buffalo Bill Cody.

There is also a fun short documentary, Adventures of Superman: From Inkblot to Backlot, that features Jack Larson, Leonard Maltin and several others. Last, and definitely least, are the commentary tracks. These tracks provide little information, one in particular becoming rather annoying as the narrator repeats many times how good George Reeves looks as Superman.

The foldout packaging is well designed, colorful and provides useful episode information while viewing. There is a minor screw-up: the plot summaries for episodes 14, 15 and 16 are jumbled. Nevertheless, it doesn't usually get much better than this and any fan of Superman should want in their collection. Hopefully Warner will devote the same care to their eagerly awaited release of the second season.

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