Fleischer Studios Superman Cartoons By Matthew Rizzuto
In 1938, a cultural icon from the streets of Cleveland, Ohio soared from the pages of DC Comics and into history.
You see, something magical happened in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1930’s. The times were tough as The Great Depression brought our gorgeous nation to its knees, but a couple of teenagers in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio were incredibly wealthy with imagination and it was the result of their creative drive that would inspire millions upon millions of individuals to follow the epic exploits and the further adventures of an undisputed champion who stood for Truth, Justice and The American Way and was guided by the highest moral principles.
An alien that looked like a human being, who had a secret identity, a job as a reporter, he was an orphan, a refugee, an immigrant, an intergalactic Boy Scout in tights, wore a red cape, could see through walls, was impervious to bullets and had The Gift of Flight. A defender of the weak, the downtrodden, the persecuted, the bullied, the disabled, the oppressed and a believer in Tolerance and Diversity.
His name is Kal-El. He calls himself Clark Kent. The whole world knows him as Superman.
On April 18th, 1938, Action Comics #1 debuted and with that issue, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a new mythology with The Man of Steel. Superman’s impact was immediate, almost as the saying goes, “Faster Than A Speeding Bullet”.
Like many, he was a refugee and an immigrant who traveled a great distance in hope of a better life.
Hungry to know what the power of immigrants can accomplish?
One family is from the country of Lithuania. Another family is from the country of Canada. The sons of those immigrants changed the landscape of fiction on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of Orthodox Jews, immigrants from Lithuania and Canada, created one of the greatest fictional characters ever and the world’s first superhero, from the streets of Cleveland, Ohio:
Superman embodied the ideals and ethical values of the men who made him a reality. He defended the helpless and stood tall against those who dared to target the common man.
Krypton’s catastrophe became Earth’s gift, courtesy of the work and of the genius of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and of their profound invention of Superman.
The men who created The Man of Steel drew great inspiration from their hometown and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster never forgot their roots in Northeast Ohio. Superman’s earliest feats took place in downtown Cleveland, Ohio and several of the key characters in Superman’s continuous saga were inspired by their friends from Glenville High School’s Class of 1934.
Hard to believe, there was another side to Superman. A side that was less boisterous and more secretive. He walked among us as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, quietly observing the world around him.
Like Siegel and Shuster themselves, they masked Kal-El’s inner strength and fortitude with a shy, gentle, reserved and bespectacled demeanor.
In 1988, Jerry Siegel wrote, “Here in Cleveland, we fashioned a being who expressed, back in the Depression, humankind’s hope for a better world. We looked up at Cleveland’s Terminal Tower and visualized a costumed figure (who had not yet seen print) whizzing through the sky around it and then alighting atop it. On a secret, tremendously important mission, no doubt.”
— Jerry Siegel, 1988.
In truth, these two remarkable Clevelanders succeeded in making our world a much better place because of the invention of Superman, courtesy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
In fact, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman is one of the most famous fictional creations of the 20th Century. The first true comic book superstar and an American icon, the caped character quickly leapt from 10¢ comic books to daily newspaper stardom and a popular radio show, starring Bud Collyer as Superman and his secret identity of mild-mannered journalist Kent.
Then, Hollywood called.
Republic Pictures tried to license Kal-El for a twelve chapter serial, but Paramount placed a higher bid and The Man of Tomorrow became a cartoon pioneer: The first science fiction adventure cartoon, setting the bar for all action animation to come.
Naturally, Warner Bros. was the first studio to spoof Superman. Bob Clampett painted him as a buffoon in “Goofy Groceries” (released March 29th, 1941), a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Terrytoons came up with a parody, casting our favorite Kryptonian superhero as a mouse in “The Mouse of Tomorrow” (1942).
This proved so popular several sequels were produced, leading to a full-fledged series of “Mighty Mouse” cartoons. Chuck Jones kidded the Superman legend using Bugs Bunny as his “Super Rabbit”, a Warner Bros. cartoon in 1943.
Warner Bros. even parodied Superman with a Private Snafu cartoon — not only did it parody the Paramount series, but apparently the Army got approval from Paramount for Carl Stalling to use Sammy Timberg’s Superman theme in “Snafuperman” in 1944 animated short comedy produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Friz Freleng and that’s the time when one studio was allowed to use another cartoon studio’s main title music.
Paramount, the studio who paid handsomely for the rights to Superman, used the character in trio of animated shorts after the 17 Fleischer/Famous Studio masterpieces.
First, they created a classic Popeye cartoon, “She Sick Sailors” (1944), which cast a star struck Olive Oyl, smitten with The Man of Steel, as the object of affection between her rival Supermen, Popeye and Bluto.
Next, they allowed sci-fi pioneer and Oscar®-winner George Pal to use the famed red and blue costume and shield in a Puppetoon short, “A Hatful Of Dreams” (1945) — as little Punchy dreams himself as Superman to win the heart of beautiful Judy.
Finally, a strange combination of two comic strip legends, as Little Lulu defeats a fairy tale giant as “Super Lulu” (1947), a cartoon directed by the legendary Bill Tytla.
In 1948, Superman was finally personified in a weekly live action movie serial by actor Kirk Alyn. The Sam Katzman chapterplays, “Superman” in 1948 and “Atom Man vs. Superman” in 1950, were produced on the cheap.
Unable to come up with a low cost way to make Alyn fly, Katzman turned to cartoon animation.
Director Howard Swift, famous for his work on Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940), set up his own commercial animation studio shortly after the Screen Gems studio shut down (Swift was a director there) and was brought in to add several shots of Alyn’s Superman in flight.
You decide whether he succeeded or not. From what I gather, it didn’t fool any of the kids in the audience, but it didn’t matter. Everyone loved it.
These odds and ends of super-minutiae from the 1940’s reflect the fame and popularity of The Man of Steel’s early years. Siegel and Shuster’s mighty Superman has been a pop culture icon for 80 years, including a comics sensation, a big hit on radio, a TV hero, an Oscar®-winning movie star, a Broadway Musical splash and a staple of animated programming and so much, much more almost continuously since Superman’s first publication on April 18th, 1938 in Action Comics #1, as this aptly demonstrates.
The first incarnation of Superman in motion pictures was in animation, specifically Fleischer Studios cartoon series that began in 1941 and it was this cartoon, even more than the comic books, that shaped how we think of the superhero.
The Fleischer and Famous Superman cartoons are a series of seventeen animated Technicolor short films released by Paramount Pictures and based upon the DC Comics comic book character Superman created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster.
The pilot and first eight shorts were produced by Fleischer Studios from 1941 to 1942, while the final eight were produced by Famous Studios, a successor company to Fleischer Studios, from 1942 to 1943. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was the final animated series initiated under Fleischer Studios, before Famous Studios officially took over production in May 1942.
The first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios (the name by which the cartoons are commonly known). In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts.
These cartoons are seen as some of the finest, and certainly the most lavishly budgeted, animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation.
In 1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer had recently finished their first animated feature film, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and were deep into production on their second, “Mr. Bug Goes To Town”.
They were reluctant to commit themselves to another major project at the time when they were approached by their distributor and owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures.
Paramount was interested in cashing in on the phenomenal popularity of the new Superman comic books by producing a series of theatrical cartoons based upon the character.
Having enjoyed only moderate success with their many and varied short – subject endeavors, the Fleischers had their next series foisted on them by Paramount. The popularity of Superman, who had been created just a couple of years earlier by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and appeared in National Allied Publications (today DC Comics), Action Comics and Superman Magazine, was something that was beyond belief!!!
The story goes that a Paramount representative proposed a “Superman” cartoon series to the Fleischers, and Dave Fleischer (Max’s brother) replied that it would be virtually impossible to accomplish.
With the requirements of realistic animation and special effects, the cost of doing such a series would be prohibitive.
The Fleischers hoped to discourage Paramount from committing to the series, so they informed the studio that the cost of producing such a series of cartoons would be about $300,000 per short—an amazingly high figure, about twelve times the typical budget of a six-minute Fleischer “Popeye The Sailor” cartoon during the 1940’s.
When Paramount asked how much, Dave decided to quote such a high price that the studio would immediately say no. Fleischer said $100,000 – four times the cost of an average cartoon. Surprisingly, Paramount said yes and the Fleischers were obliged to produce a “Superman” series.
To their surprise, Paramount negotiated it down to a budget of $50,000–half the requested sum, but still, two times the cost of the average Fleischer short and the Fleischers were committed to the project.
The first cartoon appeared in September 1941, backed by a tremendous Paramount promotional campaign, including coming attractions trailers. Completely unheard of for a cartoon short.
Now, for those of you who do not know, why was Superman’s classic \S/ insignia red and black in the Fleischer Superman cartoons and for a short time in the comics?
Well, the answer is right in Cleveland, Ohio: Red and black are Glenville High School colors, the alma mater of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster!!!!
For a short time, Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wanted to create something different and they most certainly did!!! The artists and animators of the Fleischer Studios cartoons were trying to make Superman adventures look very real. They liked the black and red \S/ and used it, but interestingly enough, that was not the \S/ that was used in the comics at that time.
The first cartoon in the series, simply titled “Superman”, was released on September 26, 1941 and was nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to “Lend A Paw”, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.
The Fleischers didn’t disappoint anyone.
Even their major competitor, Walt Disney was jealous of their success.
“Superman”, as the first episode was titled, delivered exactly what the customers wanted to see: An exciting, dramatic, adventure with plenty of action and special effects.
“A tremendous amount of preparation went into the production of each Superman short. They were very carefully laid out ahead of time, because the cost was so tremendous”, says Myron Waldman, one of the animators on the Fleischer Studios Superman Cartoons. “The stories were very complete. Then, we had to keep that tempo going and pick it up for the climax. Each scene had to have a dramatic look about it.
That required quite a bit of thought. There were many more scene cuts than usual and you had modeling, too, on the character…that meant somebody had to go back and do it. You’d indicate it on one or two drawings and then they would go back and put in all the modeling. You would also indicate on your drawings where the light was coming from. All that was taken into consideration. In the settings, you’ll notice, there’s a lot of foreground stuff, to get different depths of perspective. We got an extra dimension that we didn’t worry about too much in the other cartoons.”
Pencil tests were made on these productions, a rare luxury for Fleischer shorts and much of the elaborate gimmickry was handled by an effects department the studio had established during production of “Gulliver’s Travels”.
Airbrush work, special paints and hard to believe, double exposures were used to create some of the dazzling light rays and similar effects in the “Superman” series. Model sheets were provided by Superman co-creator and illustrator, Joe Shuster.
These cartoons are, without question, the most cinematically sophisticated the studio ever produced. The camera angles are indeed dramatic and thoughtfully chosen.
Each shot flows into the next, with a variety of pans, dissolves, and other linking devices. Effective use is made of shadows in practically every scene, and such qualities as speed, weight and depth are vividly realized.
The biggest problems in conceiving the Superman series was striking a balance between animated realism and cartoon fantasy.
In the first short, action scenes are well handled and rotoscoping gives even some casual sequences at the Daily Planet a remarkably realistic look, but then Lois Lane takes off in an airplane to visit the hideout of a mad scientist and the plane soars into space like a rubbery bird.
The animators weren’t accustomed yet to treating an entire cartoon in realistic fashion. In fact, the scientist has a ‘comic relief’ falcon that mimics his every move, but these flaws are overridden for the most part by the film’s excellent visual effects, especially at the point when Superman repels the scientist’s destruction ray by flying toward it and punching each lightning bolt in to oblivion.
Subsequent entries in the series hammered out a more consistent format, emphasizing larger than life villains, mechanical monsters and futuristic equipment, all well suited to a stylized and atmospheric approach.
These cartoon films are among the best fantasy cartoons ever produced and feature a gallery of spectacular and memorable highlights: Superman stopping The Mad (Luthor) Scientist’s destructive and deadly Electrothanasia-Ray in “Superman”; the camera taking Superman’s point of view as he leaps in to the air in “The Bulleteers”; The Man of Steel grabbing both ends of a disconnected wire and letting a surge of power flow through his indestructible body in “The Magnetic Telescope”; using his X-ray Vision in “The Mechanical Monsters” to find Lois trapped inside a robot or rescuing a passenger train as it plummets off a trestle into a rocky canyon below in “Billion Dollar Limited”.
The voice of Superman and Clark Kent for the series was provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed The Man of Steel’s voice during the Superman Radio Show. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Other Superman radio alumni Jackson Beck and Julian Noa played other key roles as well.
Popeye himself, Jack Mercer, played the voice of The Mad Scientist (Lex Luthor) in the first cartoon!!!
Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers long-time musical collaborator.
Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to lend realism to the human characters and Superman. Many of Superman’s actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (flying, lifting very large objects and so on).
In these cases, the Fleischer lead animators, many of whom were not trained in figure drawing, animated roughly and depended upon their assistants, many of whom were inexperienced with animation, but were trained in figure drawing, to keep Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman “on model” during his action sequences!!!
“Faster Than A Streak of Lightning!!!! More Powerful Than The Pounding Surf!!!! Mightier Than A Roaring Hurricane!!!! This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton, The Man of Steel: Superman!!!!”
Most people wouldn’t recognize this curious alternative to Superman’s celebrated introduction since it’s the more famous “Faster Than A Speeding Bullet” opening that is so familiar today. Hard to believe, the phrase “Faster Than A Streak of Lightning” very well could’ve become a cornerstone of American pop culture.
The fact is both slogans were heard in the Fleischer Studios “Superman” cartoons shouldn’t be a big surprise: They were both written by Superman’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel.
It is not generally known what a great influence the Fleischer films had on the Superman mythos. The character was only four years old when Paramount Pictures contracted Max and Dave Fleischer to produce a series of cartoons based on the popular character.
The Fleischer’s, creators of “Betty Boop” and “Popeye” oversaw the production of 17 classic “Superman” shorts between 1941 and 1943. Those films were an important, if somewhat unsung aspect of the Kryptonian hero’s development.
Many people are unfamiliar with these shorts, despite the fact that they were The Man of Steel’s first cinematic incarnation, pre-dating the Kirk Alyn movie serials of the late 1940’s and the George Reeves TV series of the 1950’s.
The first episode features a one-minute origin segment that’s a bit spotty — did you know that Krypton was a planet of supermen? Or that Clark Kent grew up not with the Kents, but in an orphanage?!
Obviously in 1941, Superman’s beginnings were far from concrete. The fact that the superhero was still in his infancy at this point is also evident by the lack of familiar supervillains in the series. Lex Luthor (That is, if you count the first cartoon.), Mr. Mxyzptlk, General Dru-Zod, Brainiac, Metallo, The Prankster, Bizarro, Toyman and the rest of the nefarious company are nowhere to be found.
Instead, Superman’s foes include common thugs, mad scientists, dinosaurs and Nazis. What a crowd!!! There’s also a lack of subject matter modern day fans are used to — no traces here of Kryptonian storylines, superhero crossovers or love interest subplots, but none of that even matters.
The beauty of these shorts is in the care applied to each segment. Unlike the admirable Emmy®-Award-winning “Superman” and “Batman” cartoons of today, produced by Warner Bros. Animation, these cartoons were produced as short films with all the attention to detail that you would normally find in an animated Disney feature.
After all, the Fleischer’s only made seventeen shorts over a period of almost three years. Compare that to the relative factory line production rate of the modern Warner Bros. series.
The animation is consistently good and frequently atmospheric, often using shadows to lend a moody aspect to the proceedings — Superman changes into his costume in silhouette, moronic criminals obsess over their plots in extreme shadow, entire scenes unfold as dark forms against a wall.
Rather than fly, at times, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman seems to hop around with an almost balletic grace, even though, the concept of Superman flying was first invented in the comics.
One breathtaking shot in particular in “The Mechanical Monsters”, portrays The Man of Tomorrow stepping out of a phone booth and simply rising up, up and away!!!!
As The Man of Steel shoots into the air in one seamless motion, the camera tracks up with him while the skyscrapers speed past and disappear. Finally, he comes to an effortless stop, levitating among the clouds. It’s a beautiful shot.
The stories tend to be formulaic and straightforward in these 7 to 10 minute films — the nasty supervillain is introduced, Lois Lane is endangered, Superman saves the day — and there is none of the character development that modern audiences have come to expect, although there is a bit of the playful banter between Lois & Clark that would become a benchmark of the characters in later years, especially in comics.
It is interesting to note how often World War II plays an important part in these stories. In several instances, Superman encounters the Nazis or some form of Axis threat.
Of course, in the 1940’s, even Donald Duck was doing war bond shorts, so it should come as no surprise that The Man of Steel was defending democracy and reminding people everywhere about the fascists threats.
Even noted scumbag Hitler even makes a cameo at one point!!! Unfortunately the occasional racist sentiment surfaces, as in the segment about Japanese saboteurs entitled, “Japoteurs”. One episode even has Superman taking it upon himself to sabotage the Japanese war effort!!! Truth, Justice and The American Way, indeed!!!
This is a classic, groundbreaking series and a must see for any animation or Superman fan.
One might even say this original series is “Mightier Than A Roaring Hurricane!!!!”