Thursday , May 23 2024
These public-domain cartoons still hold up.

DVD Review: Max Fleischer’s Superman – 1941-1942

The first cartoon in the set of 17 animated shorts is simply titled “Superman.” Nominated for an Academy Award, it provides a very brief history of the character leaving Krypton for Earth, being taken to an orphanage, and how he poses as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a metropolitan newspaper known as the Daily Planet. It offers the basic template of the series as reporter Lois Lane gets in trouble while working a story, in this case a mad scientist (voiced by Popeye’s Jack Mercer) plans on lashing out at the city with his Electrothanasia-Ray, and needs to be saved by Superman, who always prevails.

For a kid in the ‘40s seeing these colorful cartoons on the big screen must have been impressive and unlike much else they would see. Plus, they were all in on the secret as Clark gives them a knowing wink. Superman’s adventures, which run from nine to ten minutes, find him fighting against robots, birdmen, a mummy, a gorilla, a dinosaur as well as human opponents from gangsters to the Axis powers. It’s the depiction of the Japanese that likely causes the disclaimer that this “collection is intended for the adult collector and is not suited for children” although in comparison to some of the racial caricatures from cartoons of this era the buckteeth and broken English are pretty tame.

While the stories are rather simplistic, the animation holds up today. The artists make great use of color, light, and shadow. Sammy Timberg’s delivers a dynamic score that punctuates the action. The packaging purports to be “remastered from superior, original vault elements!” but unfortunately the cartoons haven’t been cleaned up. There are quite a bit of scratches and imperfections throughout, yet they likely haven’t looked this good in ages.

The Fleischer Studios worked on the first nine, which appear on Disc 1, until director Dave Fleischer left his brother Max and Paramount Pictures took over and produced the remaining eight, which appear on Disc 2, with their Famous Studios. Two noticeable differences between the studio’s cartoons are Famous’ shorts mostly had Superman involved in the war effort, and for some reason the classic introduction "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" was inexplicably altered to the nature-based "Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!"

There are three special features included although since the Exclusive Sneak Peek of the animated Green Lantern has appeared on other DVDs, it shouldn’t be considered special. “First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series” features interviews with people like historian Jerry Beck; Richard Fleischer, son of Max; Fleischer Studio animator Myron Waldman; and from Superman: The Animated Series Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Dan Riba. “The Man, The Myth, Superman” examines the tradition of heroic storytelling. It’s very interesting for fans of mythology.

These Superman cartoons, which have fallen into public domain, have been previously available in a number of home-video releases and can be found online. Before this collection, the cartoons and the “First Flight” feature were part of the 2006 Superman DVD releases.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Founder and Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at

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