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DVD Review: Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

Max Fleischer and his brother Dave had the honor and challenge of bringing Superman to the silver screen for the very first time. Fleischer’s cartoon studio was known for Popeye and Gulliver’s Travels by the time Paramount came to them asking if they would take on the project. They did and in so doing put on film Superman as much of the world would come to know him. This two-disc DVD set contains all seventeen theatrical shorts from 1941 to 1942.

With a bit of hesitation the brothers accepted the project of animating the Superman comic books. Already a radio hit, the problem was how to make the cartoon move swiftly, remain action packed, and hold the audience’s attention for about nine minutes while making it all seem more realistic than other cartoons of the day. The Fleischer Studio had already perfected the use of rotoscoping (drawing over filmed live action) so making Superman realistic didn’t take long to figure out. Adding to the cartoon appeal were the radio voices of Joan Alexander and Bud Collyer, Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman, as the public had grown to know them. On radio and in the comics Superman was really only able to leap or hop from place to place, thus the line in the opening about being “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Since jumping around would look a bit silly on film, the Fleischers got permission to make Superman fly.

The first short, “Superman” a.k.a. “Mad Scientist,” sets the pattern and flow of the episodes that follow. Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane is sent on a story along with or followed by fellow reporter Clark Kent and winds up in trouble. She will either be taken hostage/prisoner at first or she will “stumble” into the situation because she hides out or sneaks into the best place to get the story. But have no fear as Kent/Superman are nearby and can hear her scream. So in swoops Supes and gets beat around for a bit, saves Lois while trying to curb further destruction by the bad guy, and finally captures the villain, mostly through his super strength and sometimes outsmarting them.

The fun lays in watching the various villains Superman faces and takes on. Not only does he nab mad scientists (“Mad Scientist,” “The Magnetic Telescope”) but foreign threats such as the Japanese and Germans (“The Japoteurs,” “Jungle Drums”) along with crime lords, who impersonate Superman, and organized thieves (“Showdown,” “The Bulleteers”). It gets better as the Man of Steel does battle with giant/supernatural beasts like a thawed out T-Rex, a giant circus gorilla gone crazy, ancient Egyptian mummies brought back to life, and underground-dwelling birdmen (“Artic Giant,” “Terror On The Midway,” “The Mummy Strikes,” “Underground World”). Superman must also deal with the Earth itself, either manipulated by humans or on its own be it stopping an earthquake or redirecting the lava flow of a volcano (“Electric Earthquake,” “Volcano”).

The animation overall is great with vivid colors, and the humans, animals, and all things mechanical move very well and appear very realistic either in main focus or in the background; the landscapes and other scenery also look great. The kicker is the stereotypes of the ‘40s. It’s one thing to have robbers in classic mask and thick, five o’clock shadow but the Japanese are outrageous as they all have buckteeth and talk like Mr. Moto. I mean there’s not much to do about it or cry over; I simply think its funny the way that Hollywood saw these people in that day. I personally am not offended as it’s just a cartoon and the product of a different time, so laugh and get over it. The DVD packaging even states that this collection is intended for the adult collector and is “not” suitable for children. Go figure.

We don’t get to see too many of Superman’s skills other than his X-Ray vision, super strength and new ability to fly; he mostly uses his muscle to clear his way and win the day as he saves the girl, stops destruction, and puts an end to the villains short reign of terror. We do however get to witness Lois Lane fly a plane, drive a train, shoot machine guns, and still end up writing a hell of a story.

The two bonus features are a fascinating further look into the creation of not only the Fleischer shorts but also Superman as a myth throughout time. Both are filled with info on the effect that these cartoons had on the comic and recent cartoon versions. They are two good pieces even if they are a bit short at only about thirteen minutes each. Well worth the time for collectors and fans of all types from the average viewer to the diehard comic books guys to the movies buffs and just plain ol’ geeks.

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