Celluloid Superman: Paramount Cartoons from the Fleischer Studio

Guest blogger John McElwee writes:

It’s 1941. You’re Paramount, newly in receipt of a white-hot fad off comic pages and radio — only this one flies and lifts up passenger trains. How in deuce will you translate that to a motion picture screen? Audiences then weren’t so accustomed as we are to super heroics. Hopalong Cassidy leaped a ravine to credible effect. Superman vaulting a skyscraper was plain silly to everyone but kids and the brain damaged. Republic’s previous Captain Marvel serial was tailor-made for such patronage, with flying effects astoundingly good and all-round invulnerability of that character almost believable.

Paramount could presumably have gone a live-action route with Superman (has anyone ever seen their deal memo with National Periodicals?), but I’m guessing animation was figured on from the day ink dried between the parties. What right-thinking Paramount star hopeful would agree in 1941 to don tights and a cape? Could Sterling Hayden, Jon Hall, or Robert Preston ever have lived that down? Paramount might spend millions and still end up with another Doctor Cyclops.

Dave Fleischer told of quoting big numbers to animate Superman and Paramount unexpectedly agreeing, his look-back suggesting a giant brought to heel by the independent Fleischers who could take this commission or leave it. Paramount doubtlessly bristled if such was the case. Where did this Florida shop get off telling New York what cartoons it would or would not make? Max Fleischer’s lavish operation was an iron lung with Paramount supplying the air. Unplug it and the patient dies. I’ve got the feeling Superman had lots to do with erosion quickening between them. It didn’t help that the Fleischers were themselves quarrelling (in fact, Max and Dave stopped speaking). For Paramount sharks, that was like blood on the water, but more on this anon.

So what was this foreign concept called Superman? He’d been around just two years. Youngsters liked him, but adults (and exhibitors) knew less of comic fads than I would now of video games catching fire. One showman called Superman just too extreme to get by. Extremity might have been defined in terms of inflated rentals for the new cartoons. They’d cost more to make and that translated to increased costs for booking. Bad vibes toward the series might have had origins here.

Exhibitor response was hostile in any case. They figured Paramount had rocks in its head for sending them dramatic cartoons, the term itself an oxymoron as far as adults were concerned. Superman cartoons are very silly. ‘Tis a little like Popeye, but Popeye is funny, while Superman is supposed to be serious. Even the kids make fun of it and the animation is terrible. That was Ray Peacock of Onalaska, Washington talking, his a self-described venue for loggers and mill worker patronage, but did this broadside represent audience sentiment in general?

Superman - The Magnetic TelescopeThe Magnetic Telescope. Negative comments far outweighed praise throughout 1942 trades I canvassed, and the mainstream press, when it could be bothered, took out hatchets as well.

Artistically, Superman shorts are the movie cartoon at its worst. Superman looks and acts like a wooden puppet. So do all his playmates. There is little that his creators — the old Fleischer Studios (now Famous Studios, Inc.) at Miami, Fla. — can do to improve their hero — even King Disney can’t animate human beings satisfactorily, said TIME magazine regarding Volcano in July 1942. There is never any suspense, since Superman always wins, no matter what happens. But his idolators (of all ages) seem satisfied to see him flex his muscles.

By December of that year, the novelty of Superman seemed spent. These cartoons are getting to be just cartoons. Ads Paramount ran asserted smash biz and exhibitors fairly begging for more. The reality was that Superman had not and would not duplicate Popeye’s extraordinary appeal. The sailor man’s super shows of strength got laughs and that’s what folks wanted in drawings that moved (has that really changed, by the way?). Trade support, a lavish pressbook, and trailers (two of them) would not alter that fact of audience life.

Fans yap over cartoon favorites being ahead of their time, but I’d submit we still haven’t caught up with Fleischer’s Superman group. Nearly seventy years out, they are like seventeen Fabergé eggs still awaiting proper rediscovery and appreciation. Warners released the group on DVD. I watched and was entranced. Others schooled in animation arts could tell you better what makes these such treasures. My layman eyes can only report back of a cartoon experience unique and infinitely pleasurable. Maybe Superman was just too good for crabby 1941-43 showmen.

That time frame, by the way, allowed for stimulating addition of wartime themes putting Superman at Allied service (though kids surely wondered why he didn’t just fly over and settle Hitler/Tojo’s hash straightaway). Most striking were orgies of destruction the Fleischers put in each cartoon. Buildings collapse, volcanoes erupt, and earthquakes tremor. Death rays jut out of every window. You couldn’t begin staging such havoc in live-action. Modern CGI attempts come off less effective than Fleischer’s animated efforts.

I grew enamored of expert voicing brought over from radio that you wish could be duplicated by boy-men enacting super heroes today. Was a then-listener’s own diction improved for tuning in each night to these sonorous speakers? If so, let’s relieve talent of Stairmasters and put them on an OTR regimen instead.

I keep lauding the Fleischers for Superman, but credits show they were out after nine shorts, The Japoteurs being the swan song for the old team. Paramount must have had ducks in a row for their takeover, as I saw no diminution of quality in the final eight.

Jerry Beck has a really good video at Cartoon Brew showing how Paramount continued using the Superman character after the initial animated series ended. The Man of Steel and pretenders (Bluto among them) show up with Popeye, Little Lulu, and elsewhere. It’s as though Paramount was looking to get value out of usage rights bought and paid for, even if interest in further Superman adventures per se had waned.

Fred MacMurray took wing and bullets bounced off his caped outfit (sans the “S” emblem) for a dream sequence shared with Claudette Colbert in the company’s No Time For Love (1943), played not unexpectedly for laughs. Paramount’s deal with National Periodicals presumably allowed for costuming and super-powers very close to NP’s protected image. Had special effects so inept as those of MacMurray aloft been utilized for a live-action Superman, both would surely have been laughed off screens.

You’d expect as much for ludicrous Columbia serials tried in the late forties. Live on the ground but cartooned (absurdly so) in the air, they cheated ticket buyers hopeful of Superman as something other than pen and ink. Hopes were further dashed with television’s scratch-penny budgets applied to flight against process screens and leaps through soft walls, though George Reeves conferred greatness by sheer force of personality and fine ensemble work with a game cast.

You could say Superman got no respect until the late seventies when a couple generations’ worth of comic buyers made big-scale adaptation viable at last. As for Paramount’s cartoons, there was eventual turnover of negative materials to National Periodicals and customary indifference to follow. Flamingo TeleFilm Sales distributed the seventeen to syndication, a number too small for stations to strip weekdays in the preferred manner, but broadcast in fifty or so markets from March 1956 enabled kids to compare Paramount’s Superman with the wider-seen Reeves model. NP let copyrights lapse in all seventeen cartoons and an unnamed scrounger found color elements in someone’s office there (we should give that guy a medal). 8 and 16mm prints began turning up on lists and collectors were fascinated by such rarities, especially as the shorts had by then pretty much disappeared from television. We’re probably lucky the things survive at all.

Some would say Warners’ DVD is an inauthentic record of what Paramount produced. There are purists and there are purists. I’m more of the first persuasion than the last, being fussier over things besides Superman cartoons maybe, of which I’ll confess to having seen but a few before getting this post ready (and to repeat, if I may — they’re great). End titles are unfortunately replaced on nearly all shorts, clipping music cues much as C&C syndicated prints did when ringing down curtains prematurely on RKO features. An intro segment about Superman’s Krypton origin is repeated on several cartoons, whereas original release found it only in the 1941 pilot.

With regards comparisons between Warners and the previous Image/Bosko collection, I’d prefer not going there, being exhausted still from perusal of animation discussion groups wherein such matters are parsed in hair-splitting detail. Mind you, I respect their scholarship and would wish for half so much knowledge. One goes deep into that world like Superman in one of his subterranean adventures and comes away a little intimidated perhaps, though at the least much better informed. For the record, I’ll mention two names notable, Ray Pointer and Jack Theakston, resident experts at many such venues and always handy with straight dope on animation topics.

I mentioned earlier the fallout and booting of the Fleischers from Paramount. That topic really engages me. It’s high drama and you could make a movie telling of it. I always figured Hollywood for a hardball racket, but those Paramount-ers must have had scales on their backs for reptilian ways encouraged by placement within executive ranks. I’ve read accounts by Michael Barrier, Leslie Cabarga, and Richard Fleischer representing varying P.O.V’s as to what happened, and my reckoning says Max and Dave got a bang-up screwing to make Roscoe Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, and Clara Bow look like honorees at a Paramount testimonial dinner.

My mind’s made up. I’m not accepting whatever vice-presidency they offer. The Fleischers took a corporate hammering not unlike those dealt to cartoon-makers before and later. Even Disney sustained lumps from unscrupulous producer/distributors, and look how they treated Tex Avery and Bob Clampett! Something about animation artists brought out the worst in a front office. I’m thinking they were undervalued and maybe still are. Being cartoons are perceived as for kids, does that put their creators by way of being treated as such?

John McElwee has written over seven hundred posts on his fascinating website Greenbriar Picture Shows, all focused on Golden Era movie favorites, how they were sold and exhibited, plus many rare images you won’t see elsewhere. It’s all yours to enjoy — but be warned: browsing his extensive archives is addictive!

Hat tip to the folks at Matinee at the Bijou, who were kind enough to send John McElwee’s work our way.