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Tag Archives: Thomas Carr

Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

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Brick Bradford (15 chapters) (Jan. 5-April 12, 1948)

Brick Bradford is the worst of the three Columbia serials produced by “Jungle” Sam Katzman that I’ve seen so far, and that’s saying something.

The previous couple of Katzman-produced serials I watched — Jack Armstrong and The Sea Hound (both made in 1947) — suffered from a similar lack of focus across their 15 weekly chapters, but Brick Bradford takes it to a new level by setting up a tantalizingly trashy science-fiction scenario and then abandoning it halfway through.

Brick Bradford was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr and based on the daily newspaper strip created by writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray that began in 1933.

Brick Bradford was a square-jawed, spacefaring, time-traveling adventurer in the mold of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He’s played by serial superstar Kane Richmond, who also starred in Spy Smasher (1942), one of my favorite serials, and as Lamont Cranston, a.k.a. The Shadow, in The Shadow Returns, Behind the Mask, and The Missing Lady (all 1946), as well as innumerable other B movies and chapterplays over the course of his career. When he appeared in Brick Bradford he was pushing 41, and he would only appear in one more film before retiring from acting — William Nigh’s Stage Struck (1948).

Richmond is definitely not the problem with Brick Bradford. He still looks great and can carry himself in a fistfight. The problem is that it leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end.

Chrome-domed, bespectacled scientist Dr. Gregor Tymak (John Merton) invents an “interceptor ray” that could be used to shoot down atomic weapons, but that could also be easily tinkered with and made into a terrifying weapon. Definitely not something that should fall into the wrong hands.

Tymak has also invented a “crystal door” that can be used to move through space and time, or through what Tymak calls “the fifth dimension.” He uses it to travel to the far side of the moon, which no one has ever seen before. Despite what you may have heard, the dark side of the moon is as bright as high noon in California, has a breathable atmosphere, and is the perfect place to mine “lunarium.” It also has plenty of moonhabitants, who are mostly overweight middle-aged men with capes and Centurion helmets.

Unsurprisingly, producer Katzman’s vision of life on the moon isn’t too far removed from his vision of life in the jungle, but I felt like there was some cheesy good fun to be had on the moon with the evil dictator Zuntar (Robert Barron) and his queen Khana (Carol Forman), and their war against the “exiles,” a group of scientists from the earth who were able to reach the moon and form a utopian civilization. For the first half of Brick Bradford, Brick and his sidekick Sandy (Rick Vallin) travel back and forth to the moon through the crystal door, battling the evil super spy Laydron (Charles Quigley, the hero of the 1946 Republic serial The Crimson Ghost) on terra firma and Zuntar and Khana in orbit.

In chapter 8 of the serial, however, Brick and Sandy use Tymak’s experimental “Time Top” to travel from 1948 America to 1748 Brazil and team up with pirates to find some secret plans Tymak hid in the past among some buried treasure. This diversion is mercifully brief, but when it’s over there is literally not one more mention of the moon or anything that happened on it.

There’s some fun stuff with Tymak’s “Z-ray machine,” which is worn around the neck like a tourist’s camera (Tymak explains that the Z-ray “creates the illusion of invisibility, just as the mirror reflects the illusion of form”), but aside from that the last five chapters of the serial are a boring collection of fistfights and cliffhangers in and around Tymak’s farmhouse in the California countryside. It’s standard serial stuff, and I probably wouldn’t have found it so frustrating if I hadn’t spent every minute wondering what was going on up on the moon. Imagine if a Flash Gordon serial introduced Ming the Merciless in the first several chapters and then completely forgot about him for the climax!

Jesse James Rides Again (13 chapters) (June 2-Aug. 25, 1947)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.

Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.

Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.

Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.

The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.

Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).

So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).

Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.

If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.

But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard ( Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.

As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.

The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.

Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.

Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.

Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)