SUPERMAN - THE FLEISCHER/FAMOUS CARTOONS (1941 - 1943)
Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Directed by: Dave Fleischer (The Fleischer shorts)
Clark Kent – “This looks like a job for Superman!”
Ask any cartoon historian for a list of highly regarded pieces of animation from the 20th century, and chances are that alongside the opera themed Bugs Bunny cartoons and Disney’s Snow White, the Superman shorts created by the Fleischer brothers would be next on their list.Running from 1941 – 1943, 17 cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios (later Famous Studios) and despite being almost as old as Superman himself, those ‘mini movies’ have remained just as popular today as they were back then.The first animated short was budgeted at $50,000 which was a CRAZY AMOUNT OF MONEY for the time period, but due to the popularity of Superman in the comics, Paramount stumped up the cash for Max and Dave Fleischer to inject life into the animated character and history was made.Although the cartoons only ran for a few minutes in length they always had enough time to have Superman battle an imposing threat, be it rampaging circus animals, some mechanical miscreants or a dinosaur.Yes, A DINOSAUR!It may not seem like such a great idea nowadays to have the Man of Steel go toe-to-toe with a T-Rex, but the sheer fun and adventure of the cartoons welcomed such ideas and it worked really well.Of course with this being Superman there was always just enough time to save Lois Lane when she needed a bit of help as well, making for a well rounded escapade.
The first toon simply titled ‘Superman’ gave a brief explanation to Superman’s origin, before quickly moving on to the more sinister threat of a mad scientist’s scheme to terrorise the city.The story was pretty straight forward but the true strength of the cartoon lay in the use of slick animation which showcased Superman’s abilities, whilst creating a sense of realism against the backdrop of an animated world.This may have been a cartoon, but as it was the early 1940s there was no ‘Smallville’ or ‘Superman: The Movie’, so outside of the comics this acted as an introduction to the wondrous things Superman could do.The format allowed for all the fantastical things that for financial reasons would never happen in live-action and people loved seeing Superman up on the big-screen.It was a hit and from that point on each story would pit the Man of Steel against yet more ways to test his abilities, and the next short ‘The Mechanical Monsters’ (1941) saw him up against a criminal’s plot to rob the city by using robot thieves to do his bidding.This was possibly the most famous of all the Superman shorts, and was packed with stunning imagery that leapt off the screen at every opportunity.Whether it was the policemen’s attempts to protect the House of Jewels from being robbed, Superman’s battle with the robotic thieves or the way he used his cape to protect Lois from being covered in molten liquid, the action never stopped.The animation benefitted from rotoscoping, a technique used to turn live-action footage into cartoons and by the next short, ‘Billion Dollar Limited’ (1942), Superman was using his great strength to keep a derailed train on track, proving he could deal with anything thrown his way.
During the production of the cartoons Fleischer Studios were taken over by Paramount and became Famous Studios, which saw Max and Dave Fleischer no longer attached to the project.The most notable difference was the change in themes for the stories which drifted away from a sci-fi element towards tackling the then ever present problem of World War II. Some of the stories took on an element of propaganda, with the shorts ‘Japoteurs’ and ‘Eleventh Hour’ being prime examples and they featured terrible stereotypes of Japanese soldiers.By 1943 Paramount had decided that Superman’s popularity at the box office was on the decline, so they cancelled the series.In some regards this was probably for the best as the quality of the later tales was not quite up to those at the start, so this put a stop to any further decline in quality.With 17 stories in the can, Superman bowed out at the right time and the Fleischer (and Famous) cartoons became classics which influenced many a cartoonist over the years, including Bruce Timm and his work on Batman: The Animated Series.Since those early days, the Man of Steel has featured in numerous cartoons, but the Fleischer shorts will forever remain the first time when audiences believed Superman could do almost anything.
CARTOON HEROES: *Superman was created in 1938, meaning the animated shorts appeared just 2 years after he made his debut in Action Comics #1!
*The titles of all 17 animated shorts were....‘Superman’, ‘The Mechanical Monsters’, ‘Billion Dollar Limited’, ‘The Arctic Giant’, ‘The Bulleteers’, ‘The Magnetic Telescope’, ‘Electric Earthquake’, ‘Volcano’, ‘Terror on the Midway’, ‘Japoteurs’, ‘Showdown’, ‘Eleventh Hour’, ‘Destruction Inc’, ‘The Mummy Strikes’, ‘Jungle Drums’, ‘The Underground World’ and ‘Secret Agent’.
*The opening speech during the credits to describe Superman which said ‘Faster than a speeding bullet!More powerful than a locomotive!Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!’ was adopted into the radio show, the live action TV show and has become part of the mythology.
*Bud Collyer (Superman) and Joan Alexander (Lois) provided the voices of Superman and Lois on the Superman radio show.
*When changing from Clark to Superman Bud Collyer would put more emphasis in Superman’s voice as he uttered the line “This looks like a job for Superman” and dashed to a nearby place to change costume.This was to show the dramatic change between characters and was something he employed on the radio show where the listener wouldn’t be able to see the transformation.
*Superman’s costume featured a red ‘S’ inside a black shield and not the more famous yellow one associated with the character today.
*The Fleischer cartoons are currently in the public domain, which means that they are available on a number of different DVD releases.Many of these have been budget releases which vary in quality, but a set of digitally remastered versions appear on the Ultimate Superman DVD collection.