Fleischer Studios’ Superman Shorts: A Detailed Look

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Prior to working on the 1941 “Superman” cartoon serials, Fleischer Studios had challenged Disney in the 1930s with popular cartoons such as Betty Boop and Popeye.  Fleischer’s 1939 feature “Gulliver’s Travels” was only the second cel-animated feature (after “Snow White”) and it contained significant early rotoscoping work.

Max and Dave Fleischer, the brothers running Fleischer Studios had a longstanding and successful relationship with Paramount.  When Paramount approached them to produce the “Superman” shorts they were hesitant to take on the additional work and bid extremely high for the job, assuming that Paramount wouldn’t meet the demand.  Surprisingly, Paramount negotiated down to what were still impressive budget numbers for the era and Fleischer Studios ended up taking on the work.

Many cite the resulting seventeen animated shorts as major influences.  Comic book fans today need look no further than the art deco design and darker color tones on “Batman: The Animated Series”.  Since their release though, the copyright on these cartoons has largely been jumbled.  My personal history with the Fleisher “Superman” work first came via a cheaply-produced VHS video from the 1980s that contained the first couple of shorts.  Similar suspect VHS and DVD releases were also made available with the transfer quality varying wildly.

The Fleisher version of Superman’s origin wasn’t overly different from the traditional narrative, save for the fact that he was raised at an orphanage rather than by the Kent family.  That change had little impact on the shorts.  Also of note was Superman’s early super-leaping ability being in place rather than outright flying.  Again, the use of the leap had little impact since it came off in most situations like he was flying.  In fact, these cartoons were produced around the time when Superman officially made the switch from leaping to flying.

In total, most of the familiar characteristics and tropes of Superman were already in place during the time of these shorts.  Clark Kent was a mild-manner reporter who fought crime as Superman.  In terms of character dynamics, viewers immediately saw the rivalry between Lois and Clark play out.

The first short film was simply entitled “Superman” and it included Superman’s origin in its opening minutes.  The plot for the bulk of this short then focused on the dubious plan of a mad scientist who was threatening to use his destruction ray on the city at midnight.  The scientist communicated these plans to the Daily Planet with Lois flying off to get a scoop on the story.  Clark Kent as Superman saved both Lois and the city.  Curiously, Lois and the rest of the Planet’s staff endangered the city by not warning the police of the scientist’s plan.  On an odd note, Lois was shown as being a skilled pilot with access to an airplane.

“The Mechanical Monsters” inspired the opening act of the much later film “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”  It featured a mad scientist with twenty-five giant robots that he used to rob banks and steal jewelry.  After Lois was kidnapped during a Superman-foiled robbery, Superman ended up having to save Lois and stop the scientist.  Note that this wasn’t the same mad scientist from the first cartoon but a certain trend was beginning regarding the antagonists and this episode had a certain formula feel to it.  This short contained the first time in any medium where Clark changed into his Superman suit inside a phone booth.

“Billion Dollar Limited” involved a more-conventional caper with thieves plotting to steal a billion dollars in gold that was being shipped from Metropolis to the National Mint.  Of course, Lois was aboard the train to write a story about the event.  The robbers’ plan was an odd one, as they kept trying to derail the train via three different explosive schemes but didn’t seem to have a way to quickly make off with the majority of the gold if they did happen to cause a train crash.  Superman saved the day (and Lois) by dramatically pulling the out-of-control train to its destination.  Clark pushed his luck a bit at the very end by suggesting in a mocking tone that Superman always happened to turn up where needed.

A tyrannosaurus-like dinosaur that was scaled to Godzilla-like size took center stage in “The Arctic Giant.”  The dinosaur was apparently in suspended animation at a museum after having been hauled back to Metropolis from the Arctic.  Of course, it broke loose and wreaked havoc until Superman could stop it.  Plausibility aside, the last half of this short featured some nice action across all of Metropolis that was very reminiscent of the later Godzilla films.  The short ended on an interesting note with the re-captured dinosaur having been put on display at the Metropolis Zoo – “Jurassic Park” anyone?

“The Bulleteers” would remind viewers of the earlier crime-related shorts.  In this case, a mysterious flying ‘bullet car’ was used by criminals to destroy buildings and they ultimately tried to use it to unsuccessfully break into the city treasury.  Amusingly, the trio of bad guys had a hidden mountain hideout nearby Metropolis and used a loudspeaker to issue what proved to be ineffective threats to the people of Metropolis.  Note that the bad guys’ bullet car was pretty snazzy looking in design, a sort of early transformable vehicle concept.

The scientist in “The Magnetic Telescope” might remind some of the mad scientist in the first short, but this one was more so motivated by not losing his legacy after authorities question the safety of his giant magnet project.  The project involved pulling a comet close to Earth and it accomplished that goal, but the police caused problems by shutting down the magnet before the comet’s path was stabilized.  Guess who had to save Metropolis from the comet?  Pieces from the falling comet didn’t quite inflict the damage to Metropolis that one might expect, but they added a certain disaster film thrill to the situation.  A ridiculous setup led to a pretty entertaining second half of Superman vs. comet action.  The final scene contained a nice zinger moment with Lois flirting with Superman until she realized that she was actually sharing a darkened room with Clark.

A Native American scientist was at the center of the short “Electric Earthquake,” with him making threats via the Daily Planet. The scientist hoped to have Manhattan vacated, but initially no one took his threats seriously.  Except for Lois, who went to investigate and, not a big surprise, ended up being captured.  The scientist’s plan was to use a high-electrical-charge earthquake machine, at least until Superman announced in rather disinterested fashion that it was time to save the day.  The racial angle of this story was complicated since the scientist spoke with a stilted stereotypical tone but he was cast against-type for the era due to being quite smart and crafty.  Frankly, the plausibility of his plan wasn’t any worse than that of the prior mad scientists in the series.  By naming Manhattan in the story, this short further confused the Manhattan vs. Metropolis intended location of the Daily Planet and Superman’s adventures.

The island of Mount Monokoa faced a volcanic threat in “Volcano.”  Lois and Clark were sent together to investigate the natural disaster, with Lois wasting no time in screwing over Clark by stealing his press pass soon after arriving on the island.  Luckily, Clark’s distraction meant that Superman was able to save Lois from the volcano’s eruption just in time.  Given the shorts’ prior focus on mad scientists and criminals, this Superman vs. nature story was a nice change of pace.  One oddity was the voice for the Daily Planet chief and narrator being different in this short than in its predecessor.

“Terror on the Midway” was a great title and the short focused on animals getting loose at the circus.  Lois and Clark happened to be reporting on the evening’s circus performance when the action unfolded.  The centerpiece of the short involved a giant ape rampaging in what was surely a home to 1933’s “King Kong.”  Lois actually did something heroic in the story, saving a girl from the giant ape.  Superman then saved everyone else and managed to apprehend the ape.  Again, this was a nice change-of-pace story.

The creative team on the “Superman” shorts switched up for the final eight shorts with the dissolving of Fleischer Studios at the discretion of Paramount.  Dave and Max Fleischer hadn’t been talking to one another and the studio was in constant financial troubles, relying on Paramount for funding.  Paramount restructured the studio in to Famous Studios while ousting Dave and Max Fleischer.  Production on the “Superman” shorts then continued.

The racially-questionable short entitled “Japoteurs” focused on the launch of the world’s largest bomber plane and a Japanese plot to steal it.  Japanese secret agents somehow manage to stow away on the plane and take control.  They were not alone though, since Lois had also stowed away during a pre-flight press tour and she was able to radio for help.  This was a job for Superman and he subdued the Japanese agents, eventually landing the plane on a city street.  The plane in the story was quite impressive in size and, despite the creative change behind-the-scenes, the story itself flowed just fine.

“Showdown” brought petty criminals back into the fray, with one man’s questionable idea to dress as Superman while performing a string of robberies.  Curiously, the press believed that Superman really was behind the crimes and it was up to Lois to clear his name.  Unfortunately, Lois was duped as well during a physical confrontation with the crook.  Superman finally stepped into the situation, discovering that a crime boss was behind a greater thievery plot.  Eventually the criminals were all brought to justice, but it was odd how lackadaisical Clark behaved in both the story’s misunderstanding-filled opening and also at the end.  A footnote regarding this episode involved the brief appearance of an annoying office boy who was a poor substitute for Jimmy Olsen.

Lois and Clark headed to Japan in “Eleventh Hour” and were detained by the Japanese in what looked like a hotel.  Clark as Superman snuck out on a nightly basis to sabotage various Japanese targets.  The Japanese issued a warning to Superman that a reporter would be executed if he kept committing acts of sabotage and that led to Lois nearly being killed by a firing squad.  Superman saved the day though and, after Lois was freed, sabotage acts by Superman continued.  The context and logic around the internment of Lois and Clark was a bit strange.  Note that Superman actually killed Japanese individuals in the course of the short.

“Destruction Inc.” involved the mystery surrounding the murder of a munitions plant overnight security guard.  Lois went undercover to investigate and she eventually learned that one of the factory supervisors was plotting with two workers to blow up the munitions plant.  According to their plan, the new overnight security guard would inadvertently throw a switch that would destroy the plant.  Lois’s presence was discovered but she was nearly killed in a rigged torpedo test.  Superman soon appeared to save Lois and, with her information, stop the munitions plant explosion.  While not uninteresting in execution, the motive behind the factory workers’ plot wasn’t entirely clear and that confused the story a bit.  A weird comedy character named Louis briefly appeared in the short’s opening and he stuck out like a sore thumb with his caricature-like styling.

The supernatural found its way into the “Superman” shorts in “The Mummy Strikes.”  The Egyptologist Dr. Jordan was found dead at a museum and his assistant Jane was blamed for the murder.  Clark was pulled into the matter by a mutual friend named Dr. Wilson, with Lois spying on Clark’s doings.  Wilson provided Clark with a lengthy back story about Jordan’s research into a pharaoh’s tomb, with Jordan having violated an ancient warning while investigating a ‘fluid of life’ that was connected to the pharaoh.  Jordan had given a recreation of the fluid to the pharaoh’s dead guards but they hadn’t immediately reanimated.  However, they did come to life after Superman successfully opened the pharaoh’s casket.  Superman had to stop the guards while also saving Lois and Dr. Wilson.  After everything has wrapped up, Clark actually had the opportunity to write a story about one of Superman’s heroic efforts since Lois was recovering from injuries sustained at the museum.  The supernatural turn in the story was expected, but the ‘fluid of life’ sub-plot perhaps made matters more complicated than was necessary.

Nazis in Africa took center stage in “Jungle Drums” when they downed a plane with Lois inside.  She initially escaped the Nazis with the coordinates to a safe American position.  Unfortunately, she was captured by African natives en route and interrogated by the Nazis, who learned about the American safe position from her.  Crazily, Clark was in a different plane that happened to fly over and see the wreck of the plane that had contained Lois.  He parachuted onto the scene and only then changed into Superman.  The situation resolves itself when Superman saved Lois and she was able to radio a warning to the Americans, who foil a German plot.  Hitler was shown in the last scene learning of the events.  This was a curiously jam-packed short with an unflattering depiction of African natives.  The Nazis had an impressive statues-with-guns base in Africa that was evocative of similar bases used by Cobra in the “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” cartoon series.

The Daily Planet bankrolled a cave exploration for local scientist Dr. Henderson in “The Underground World.”  Henderson’s father had disappeared in a massive set of caverns and Lois went with Clark to accompany Henderson’s mission to find his father.  Clark arrived late to the caves, finding that both Lois and Henderson had been captured by half-human, half-bird ‘hawk men.’  The hawk men had a civilization underground and were poised to drop Lois and Henderson into a pit of molten gold used to make statues.  Superman saved the day and also dynamited the entrance to the cave.  The point where Clark arrived later than the others to the cave was convenient and the entire concept of the hawk men living in the edge of the cave begged many more questions than the short answered.  Note that the hawk men in this short didn’t seem to have any connection to various incarnations of DC Comics’ “Hawkman” mythos.

“Secret Agent” was the last short in the series and, sadly. Lois didn’t appear in it.  Instead, the female lead was a blonde federal agent who, oddly, happened to have a similar appearance to Lois and was voiced by the same actress.  Clark met that woman early in the story while happening to witness her unsuccessful pursuit of Nazi saboteurs.  The woman had a list of the saboteurs’ names and their plans that she needed to physically get to Washington D.C.  Luckily, she was given police escort to do so.  That escort was ambushed by the Nazi saboteurs and the woman nearly died after falling unconscious in a draw bridge’s gear system.  Superman stopped the Nazi saboteurs, saved the agent, and then flew the agent to Washington D.C.  While viewers surely knew that Superman would save the day, the short’s dense plot and large scope made for an exciting few minutes.  One production curiosity was the use of what seemed to be live-action aerial footage above Washington D.C. at the very end of the short.

 

Conclusions

As mentioned in my introductory remarks, the “Superman” short film series of the early-1940s proved to be hugely influential on later animated and super-hero work.  The animation was flat-out gorgeous and the use of then-advanced techniques made the work still stand out today.  The music by composer Sammy Timberg was absolutely fabulous, as were the period sound effects.

While the stories didn’t match the same level of quality or sophistication as other aspects of the production, none were awful and most were quite entertaining.  If anything, each short simply had a major plot hole or two that was likely often attributable to the creative staff trying to shoehorn big story ideas into what amounted to only being a few minutes of time.

The Fleischer brothers continued to find work in the entertainment industry after their removal from the “Superman” shorts.  Unfortunately, neither brother again reached the same heights independently that they had achieved while working together under the banner of Fleischer Studios.

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