"The Adventures of Superman" was, in the 1950s, the ultimate adventure show for kids, a series that transcended low budgets, often laughably bad scripts, and a torturous shooting schedule each season to become a genuine 'TV Classic'. Next to "I Love Lucy", the series is, perhaps, the most frequently rerun of any show of that decade; in shooting several seasons in color, it was a major trend setter (particularly as there were VERY few color televisions at the time); as a show that was syndicated, and not owned by a network (Kellogg's Cereal sponsored and financed the program) it paved the way for all the syndicated programs that followed. It's place in television history cannot be denied, and it's story is complete with drama, success, and tragedy, and a hero whose life and strange death still fuels controversy, to this day.
Superman, DC Comics' high-flying hero, had already achieved success on radio, in animated short films, and in two movie serials, when a low-budget feature film, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, paved the way for the television series. The film replaced serial star Kirk Alyn with brawnier, square-jawed George Reeves, a youthful 37-year old whose promising film career had been derailed by WWII. He was joined by Phyllis Coates, replacing the serials' Noel Neill as ace reporter Lois Lane, and the pair made the transition to television, joined by 19-year old Jack Larson, as photographer/cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, and veteran character actor John Hamilton as editor Perry White. Helmed initially by veteran producer Robert Maxwell, the series utilized the same 'assembly line' formula of the movie serials, shooting multiple episodes at one time (which was why the cast always wore the same outfits), relying on action-heavy scripts heavy with Gothic atmosphere, and creating 'master' FX shots that were reused constantly, keeping the budget within acceptable limits. (While the 'flying' shots have been the object of humor over the years, the use of wires and a 'flying pan' in front of a rear projection provided the most realistic 'look' yet achieved, and the technique would still be in practice when SUPERMAN RETURNS was filmed, 55 years later.) Reeves' 'Man of Steel' was a street brawler, unafraid to duke it out with villains, and his 'Clark Kent' was every bit as no-nonsense as his 'Superman'. The program was actually quite adult, for a comic book adaptation, and the first season episodes are considered the best of the series.
When Phyllis Coates left the show, in 1953 (believing it would not be renewed, she signed for other film work), Noel Neill returned, softening the character of Lois Lane, but participating in some of the series' greatest episodes, including the most popular episode ever filmed, "Panic in the Sky", where Superman attacks an asteroid 'head-on', resulting in amnesia and near doom for Earth. By now, the 'wired' take-offs of Superman were replaced by vaulting off a springboard (after Reeves had barely escaped serious injury after dropping over ten feet when the 'liftoff' wires broke).
When Whitney Ellsworth took over production duties for the series, pressure from Kellogg's (due to the show's tremendous popularity, and investigations into the detrimental effect of violence on children) to tone down the mayhem resulted in episodes becoming increasingly silly and far-fetched. As this coincided with the series' move to color, the marked difference is clearly evident. The color episodes (particularly in the last two seasons) are, by-in-large, held in far less regard than the black and white ones.
By the series' final season, George Reeves would look chubby, and far older than his 43 years, Noel Neill would sport flaming red hair, and the episodes, shot on a very tight budget, were nearly unwatchable (other than the series' finale, "The Trials of Superman", directed by Reeves, where the cast are all placed in "Perils of Pauline"-style catastrophes).
While Larson and Neill would move on to other projects, and John Hamilton soon passed away, George Reeves found himself type-cast as Superman, with his career considered to be at a standstill. The assumption that depression resulted in his committing suicide in 1959, at 45, has, however, been the subject of debate for over 40 years. It turns out that Kellogg's was prepared to finance a new season of "Superman", that Reeves had several upcoming directing opportunities, he was about to be married, and that on the night of his death, he was in excellent spirits. There is a growing belief that his 'suicide' was actually murder, by a 'hit man' hired by either by his ex-girlfriend, or her jealous husband. While the truth may never be known, the news of his death devastated a generation of children, who truly believed he WAS Superman.
While Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh may be the definitive "Men of Steel" for their generations, and Dean Cain and Tom Welling have their fans, George Reeves, and "The Adventures of Superman", carry on a legacy that will never fade away. Each year introduces new fans to the series, and reminds us baby boomers of how fortunate we were to be there, at the beginning.
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