February 02, 2013

Superman Saturday: Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

Local racketeer Chip Donelli takes protection money from the businesses along Spruce St., including the candy store run by Jimmy Olsen's mother. Clark Kent, as Superman, has attempted to "explain" to Donelli that this kind of activity is frowned upon in polite society; however, so far the application of violence has failed to knock sense into him. In retaliation for Clark's interference, Donelli abducted Lois Lane and brought her to a remote cabin. The plucky girl reporter quickly escaped, with a briefcase containing the records of Donelli's racketeering.

Donelli hopes that a brush fire, set accidentally by his henchman, Spike, will take care of Lois and the incriminating briefcase. Meanwhile, Clark and Perry White search, not only for Lois, but for Jimmy, who has disappeared into the forest . . .

Episode 32: Donelli's Protection Racket, Part 5 (1940/04/24)


Clark and Perry White have had no luck locating Jimmy, who had struck out on his own, relying on his skills as a Boy Scout to find Lois, according to the owner of the gas station where they stopped. They demand to know why he didn't stop Jimmy. "He ain't my boy," retorts the gas station owner. What a curmudgeon. I think I like him already. With the brush fire looming closer, the three of them set out to rescue Jimmy and Lois.

Unfortunately, they are overheard by Donelli and Spike. Seizing the opportunity to rid themselves of some meddling journalists, Donelli suggests they start a backfire: "Good citizens help stop fires," right? And if certain Daily Planet staffers and a certain briefcase get caught in between, well, that's just too bad.

In the meantime, Jimmy has.found Lois. I suppose that the talented Ms. Coates has come back from her junket to Aruba or wherever she was, because, finally>, in part 5 of 6, she has a speaking part. Lois has twisted her ankle and can hardly walk. Jimmy tries to help walk her out, but it is unlikely that they can outpace the fire.

Separate from White and the gas curmudgeon, Superman starts to beat out an escape route through the fire using a 50-foot tree. This one, fortunately, doesn't blow up. Luckily, Jimmy and Lois stumble into his clearing, but thanks to the smoke, they can't see Superman in his jammies, so they think it's only Clark. Taking their hands, he carries them both out of the fire—so swiftly, it seems as if they are flying. Imagine that.

White and the gas curmudgeon also stumble upon Superman's clearing, which enables them to escape the flames and find the road again. Shortly they are joined by Clark, Lois, and Jimmy. Clark makes another excuse for yet another act of unintentional badassery. Yeah, he just ran through a forest fire with a teenage boy and a grown woman under each arm. 'T'warn't nuthin'; all in a day's work for our favourite mild-mannered reporter. Everyone is saved! Huzzah!

Hold the phone.

Chip Donelli isn't beaten just yet. He's got one more plan to avoid the big house, involving a certain spot just up the road, and a small box in the back seat of his car . . .

What is Donelli’s plan?

Is it a bomb?

I’m pretty sure it’s a bomb.

Episode 33: Donelli's Protection Racket, Part 6 (1940/04/26)


Yeah, it’s a bomb.

Donelli’s "little box" is a new explosive he wants to try out: half the size of TNT and twice as powerful.He will plant the bomb in a culvert and wait for the Daily Planet journalists to drive past before setting it off. He orders Spike to go back to the forest fire area to keep an eye on them—adding that if Kent separates from the rest, he is to "make sure it looks like an accident afterward."

Up at the fire, the Planet gang has found their way back to Perry White’s car. White, Lois, and Jimmy plan to head back to Metropolis and write up their expose on the Donelli racket, thanks to a briefcase full of incriminating evidence.

Guess what Clark decides to do.

Ostensibly sticking around to tie up any loose ends if the police arrive on scene, Clark-as-Superman actually wants to investigate some movement he saw in the woods. It turns out to be Spike, who tries to shoot Superman in the head. Spike's instructions, you will recall, were to make it look like an accident. I submit to you that no medical examiner in Metropolis is going to buy that the late Clark Kent tripped and bumped his head on some bullets. Fortunately, Superman's skull is impervious to bullets, so Spike whines that he "didn’t mean nuthin'" by it.

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns, there's a scene in which a bank robber shoots Superman point-blank in the eye with a handgun. After they have watched the flattened bullet tumble harmlessly to the ground, Superman (Brandon Routh) looks the goon in the eye, briefly, with a Mona Lisa smile on his face. The smile says that Superman is going to enjoy making the next few minutes very uncomfortable for the goon. Despite Superman Returns’ many weaknesses, this scene (as well as the space shuttle/airplane rescue scene) are worth the price of admission.

That is the sort of satisfied smirk that Bud Collyer's Superman must have on his face, as he plays a game of catch with Spike at 200 feet, terrifying him enough to spill Chip Donelli’s plan to ambush Perry White and company. In fact, Superman scares Spike straight, convincing him to warn White away from the culvert. Superman streaks to the rescue, clutching Spike, who is afraid of being dropped. "Don’t wiggle, Spike," Superman taunts.

As White’s car speeds toward the booby-trapped culvert, they see Spike warning them away, when the car suddenly stops—as though someone had pulled it to a stop. The bomb explodes, harmlessly. Then, Perry, Lois, and Jimmy see Clark Kent coming out of the bush, dragging Chip Donelli with him. "I found him lying in the field. He was stunned," lies Clark. They demand to know how he caught up to them so quickly, and Clark explains that he ran into Spike, who turned over a new leaf, then they high-tailed it to the culvert via a short-cut.

"He'll back up every word I say," says Clark. "Won't you, Spike?" he adds, in his Superman voice.

At the end of the program, the announcer raises a very good question. How long can Superman maintain his secret identity? Clark has taken credit for something that Jimmy thinks he saw Superman do. Perry White seems to have his suspicions as well. And, to top it off, Clark basically just revealed his secret to Spike! The scriptwriters do actually realize that his actions have consequences. I haven't been giving them enough credit.

At some point during this serial, the announcer who introduces the program has begun pronouncing "Superman" as though it is two words: "Presenting the transcription feature, Super Man!" No one else does this. It's a bit annoying.

All in all, a fairly conventional story, but a decent one—one of my favourite serials of 1940, actually. The last episode is especially good, particularly Superman’s sadistic midair toying with the hapless Spike. This is not your grandfather's Superman. Wait, that’s not true. This is your grandfather's Superman. It’s just not your Superman.

Next week: Thrills and danger on the airstrip, as Superman tries to solve the mystery of the Airplane Disaster at Bridger Field!