July 30, 2011

Introducing: Superman Saturdays

I've always loved Superman. It goes right back to my childhood, thanks to reruns of The New Adventures of Superman and (of course) the Super Friends on Saturday mornings. My small collection of comic books included a few Superman issues. I think that 1978's classic Superman: The Movie, starring the redoubtable Christopher Reeve, was the first live-action movie I saw on the big screen. And I was a fan of Smallville for at least the last five years of its 10-year run. (Never watched Lois & Clark more than a couple times, though.)

During my university years I became vaguely aware of an old-timey Superman radio serial, because of a midnight program on CBC titled Night Camp. (Night Camp was also my first experience with Ella Fitzgerald, incidentally - double plus!) However, I only recently discovered archives of the show on the Net; something like 1100 of 1400+ episodes are still extant. And so I became hooked on Superman in all forms of media: print, radio, television, and film.

Also growing up, Saturday afternoon was the day for old and bad movies, usually sponsored exclusively by a manufacturer of adjustable beds. This is how I discovered The Planet of the Apes and its various sequels, and of course Godzilla, my one guilty pleasure. Clearly, Saturday was the day set aside by God for relaxation and the enjoyment of B-grade entertainment.

The Adventures of Superman certainly fit that bill. They're wonderfully silly. They reflect an era when the Last Son of Krypton spent his non-working hours punching up crooks and rescuing fair maidens from burning buildings instead of the more epic challenges posed by villains like Doomsday and Darkseid.

Hence, "Superman Saturdays." In honour of wonderful silliness, I am devoting part of my weekend to the appreciation of pulp. From time to time it may be "Serial Saturday," if I feel like digressing. But for the most part, Superman - especially old-timey Superman - just never gets old.

So gather around your radio console with a tasty and nutritious bowl of Kellogg's Pep, and look! Up in the sky!

Episode 1: The Baby from Krypton (1940/02/12)

Listen! [MP3]

"Boys and girls! Your attention please! Presenting a new, exciting radio program, featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality! Faster than an airplane! More powerful than a locomotive! Impervious to bullets!"
"Up in the sky, look!"
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
"And now, Superman. A being no larger than an ordinary man, but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on Earth. Able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound! Hurtle a 20-story building with ease! Race a high-powered bullet to its target! Lift tremendous weights and rend solid steel in his bare hands as though it were paper! Superman! A strange visitor from a distant planet! Champion of the oppressed! Physical marvel extraordinary who has sworn to devote his existence on Earth to helping those in need. As our story begins, we ask you to come with us on a far journey - a journey that takes us millions of miles from the Earth, where the planet Krypton burns like a green star in the endless heavens . . .

The planet Krypton is doomed - doomed, I tells you!

According to its chief scientist, Jor-El, possibly in as little as a week, Krypton will be drawn into the sun and torn apart. Their only hope is to evacuate the planet and settle the Kryptonians on Earth. This news does not go over well with the Kryptonian ruling council, which mocks Jor-El and dismisses his dire predictions. He announces that their blood is on their own hands; for his part, he will look out for himself and his family.

Returning home, Jor-El completes a prototype spaceship which he plans to fire at the Earth. If the test is successful, then he will build a bigger ship capable of carrying himself, his wife Lara, and their infant son Kal-El. Suddenly, huge subterranean earthquakes announce the imminent destruction of Krypton. Jor-El urges Lara to get into the prototype, but she insists instead on saving Kal-El. As Jor-El, Lara, and the rest of Krypton dies, the spaceship and its tiny occupant escape.

Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, which devotes a single page to his origin story, and a mere frame to his Kryptonian heritage: mentioning only that he was rescued from doom when his scientist father put him in a rocket and sent him to Earth. So this radio episode may very well be the first time that Superman's origin is explained in any great detail. In fact, it's very similar to the prologue of 1978's Superman: The Movie - it lacks only Marlon Brando as Jor-El, condemning General Zod to the Phantom Zone.

Krypton, we are informed, is "millions of miles away," and on the other side of the sun from the Earth. Apparently it's within our own solar system and visible by telescope. How Jor-El intended to see if his rocket test was successful is not explained in detail; does his "high-powered telescope" see through the sun?

Second, we learn that the Kryptonians are a race of supermen "advanced to the absolute peak of human perfection": to get somewhere, they need only step as far as they want, whereas we puny Earthlings can step three feet at the most. This premise is consistent with Superman's original origin story, but at odds with its later evolution, in which Superman's power comes from Earth's lighter gravity and the radiation of its yellow sun. Jor-El proposes evacuating the population of Krypton to Earth. Did the scriptwriters think through the implications of thousands or millions of Supermen immigrating to Earth?

I just have to keep reminding myself: This is a children's program. We're supposed to thrill to the amazing adventures of the Man of Tomorrow, not think too hard about it.

As a further point of interest, Lara was played by Agnes Moorehead, best known for her later role as Samantha's mother Endora on Bewitched.

Will baby Kal-El's rocket make it to Earth?

Or will this be the shortest radio serial in history?

Stay tuned for the next adventure!

Episode 2: Clark Kent, Reporter (1940/02/14)

Listen! [MP3]

Not surprisingly, the baby Kal-El's flight to Earth is successful, if a bit longer than anticipated: by the time he arrives on Earth, he's a grown man. Since Jor-El expected to watch the prototype rocket land on Earth through his high-powered telescope, he apparently expected the trip only to take a few minutes or hours. Instead, it took something like 20 years - by which time, both Jor-El and his telescope would have been clouds of superheated gas. So we'll have to chalk up the rocket test as a failure. Kal-El survives anyway. Luckily, he apparently has no need of food, air, or in-flight entertainment on his 20-year journey.

Arriving on Earth, then, the adult Kal-El emerges from the rocket and immediately flies away to explore, and ends up "hovering with his curious power" over a highway somewhere in Indiana. The prologue of the first episode had said only that he could leap an eighth of a mile into the air - again, consistent with the comics of the day. This Superman is capable of true flight, another apparent first for his radio incarnation, of which there were several, as we will see in the future.

Meanwhile, a local, identified only as "the Professor," is going into town: taking his son Jimmy to the fair on a trolley. While the motorman is getting a drink of water, the trolley begins to roll downhill, out of control. Fortunately, Superman swoops down from above, rips the roof off the trolley and pulls the Professor and Jimmy out before it crashes. Hang on - were we not told, in the first episode, that he can "hurtle a 20-story building with ease"? Was he unable to drag a mere cable car to a stop, or lift it off the tracks? Superman's career of gratuitous vandalism begins right from day one on Earth.

In return for the rescue, Superman requests that Jimmy and the Professor promise to keep their knowledge of him secret. (No doubt he waved the wreckage of the trolley under their noses.) He also asks for advice: he is a stranger to Earth, so how can he best learn about humanity? The Professor suggests that he get a job at a "great metropolitan daily" as a reporter. Jimmy adds that he can't get a job dressed in Superman's blue tights and cape, and suggests he take an Earth name: something nice and inconspicuous, say, "Clark Kent." Superman thanks them for their help, warns them again not to reveal his new identity (possibly adding, "You wouldn't want to meet with another unfortunate accident, would you?") and flies off.

This exchange raises a whole bunch of plot holes. Superman knows he comes from a planet that no longer exists. Yet he cannot remember his own name? How did he learn English? How does he know what a newspaper is, or what a reporter does? (I know, I know, it's a kid's show.)

At the Daily Planet, in the office of the editor, Perry White receives a phone tip on a story out West concerning railroad sabotage, in which a man named "the Wolfe" may be involved. Here we have two more radio firsts: in the comics, Clark Kent originally worked for the Daily Star, and his editor was George Taylor. Perry White would be introduced to Action Comics later in 1940.

White bemoans the fact that he is shorthanded whenever a big story breaks. Fortunately, Clark Kent has been been waiting around the Planet offices, hoping to talk to White about a job. Here, again, I pause and ask: Is he sitting around the city desk in his Superman jammies? If not, how did he acquire Earth clothing? Did he stroll into a menswear store in the aforementioned jammies and buy a suit? What did he pay with? Did he mug a helpless victim in a back alley and steal his clothes? (It's just a kid's show . . .)

Since Clark has no experience, White tries to brush him off. However, he gets a phone call from the Wolfe himself, threatening that something bad will happen to a train called the Silver Clipper en route to Denver. Clark uses his super-hearing to eavesdrop on White's phone call, pretending that he is familiar with the railway situation. Impressed, White decides to take a chance on him. He tells his secretary, Miss Smith, to get Clark a cash advance and plane tickets out West. However, the airport is closed down because of fog. Miss Smith leaves Kent to wait in an anteroom while she finds his cash. She warns him to stay away from the window, as it is 20 stories up.

Kent decides he can't wait, jumps out the window and flies away as Superman. Here, I gave a little silent cheer. Forget the legendary phone booth; Supe almost never used one anyway. The window trick has always been my personal favourite way that Clark Kent would quickly change to Superman. He jumped out of the Galaxy Building in the first Action Comic I ever read.

However, then Miss Smith returns, and sees the open window. Since no one saw Clark leave the anteroom, she assumes the worst. On that note, the episode ends.

Superman was played by the legendary Bud Collyer, already a major name in radio by the time he took this part. Collyer had a bit part in the first episode, but here he makes his debut as Clark Kent/Superman. He shows that he gets the dual identity: when he plays Clark Kent, he pitches his voice in a high tenor range, but when he changes to Superman, his voice drops considerably. You really can believe that Clark Kent and Superman are two different people. Of all the various incarnations of the character, only Collyer and Christopher Reeve played Superman's dual persona so well.

I've "complained" a bit about some of the plot holes, and I'll do so again, for a little while, at least. No doubt the producers wanted to get right into the adventures, without fiddling around too much with a plausible origin story for Superman. So now that Supe's somewhat awkward transiton to normal Earth life has been taken care of, let's just get on with beating up bad guys.

Will Superman arrive in time to save the Silver Clipper?

Did Jimmy enjoy the fair?

Will Clark Kent's repeated defenestrations force the Daily Planet to weld the windows shut?

Don't miss the next exciting installments!