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An Excerpt from "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," by Larry Tye

Order Superman The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero from Amazon

Here's an excerpt from Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," by Larry Tye, just out from Random House in paperback.

This was no time to launch another Superman experiment. Not in 1951, when the whole comic book world was running scared from critics like Dr. Fredric Wertham and the PTA. Not when the medium into which he was being catapulted, television, was so callow it was unclear whether it would succeed and it was perfectly clear that actors with real promise would opt for Hollywood or Broadway. Not when Superman himself was being labeled a sociopath.

But that wasn’t the way National Comics or Robert Maxwell thought. They knew that there were more children than ever in America, where soldiers had come home from Europe and made up for lost time by igniting an unprecedented boom in babies. They also knew that radio was dying as a venue for children’s adventure and that movie serials wouldn’t be far behind. While TV might be new and untested, so were comic books when Superman broke through in that medium. Now was precisely the time when the battered Superman of the static page could use a lift onto the small screens turning up in America’s dens and playrooms. For Superman’s owners the question wasn’t whether but when to push ahead, and whom to sign up as the Man of Steel for this most up-close of mediums.

Maxwell and director Tommy Carr screened nearly two hundred candidates. Most made their living as actors, although some were full-time musclemen. Nearly all, Carr said, “appeared to have a serious deficiency in their chromosome count.” So thorough – and perhaps so frustrating – was their search that the executives stopped by the Mr. America contest in Los Angeles. One choice they never seriously considered, despite his later claims, was Kirk Alyn, who had done well enough for the movie serials but had neither the acting skills nor the looks around which to build a Superman TV series. The search ended the day a barrel-chested B-movie actor named George Reeves showed up on the studio lot.

When the offer came in 1951 to play the TV Superman, George was torn. He had barely heard of the Man of Steel, knew that the $600 a week he was offered was a pittance, and realized that the chance of getting a real acting job would be harder once the movie studios saw him playing a comic book character or any role in a medium that Hollywood disdained. Yet he needed the money and, as his agent advised, there was a slim chance that the new show would even be broadcast and a slimmer that one anyone in Hollywood would notice. Television, after all, was in its infancy, with the nation just witnessing the first-ever coast-to-coast broadcast in the form of a speech by President Harry Truman. “Take the money and run,” George’s agent said. Reluctantly, George did. “I’ve played about every part you can think of. Why not Superman?” he told a friend. To his Lois Lane co-star he confided, the first time he met her, “Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.”

The new Lois was Phyllis Coates who, like many in Hollywood and in the growing Superman family, was using a pseudonym. In her case it sounded more like a real name than the one her parents gave her: Gypsie Ann Evarts Stell. The tall, slim brunette had gone from chorus girl on vaudeville to actress in second-tier movies. She was glad to land the role of Lois less because of the professional opportunity – “I’d never read Superman comics, never heard the radio show, never heard of the character” – than because of the paycheck, which she needed to pay doctors and physical therapists’ bills for a daughter born with a displaced hip. Getting the job was easy. Her agent called and told her, “Wear a suit and low-heeled shoes.” The next morning at the RKO studio “I met Bob Maxwell . . . I read for him and he said, ‘I think you’re perfect for the part.’ It was that simple: I didn’t even get a call-back on it, they just decided that I was it. And there were a lot of good gals up for it.”

The first production was a fifty-eight-minute movie called Superman and the Mole Men that was a way to tease as well as finance the TV series. The story was set in the small town of Silsby, where the National Oil Company had just drilled 32,740 feet to create the deepest well in the world. Up came not just petroleum but four small humanoid creatures whose home was in the center of the Earth. The residents of Silsby, stirred to a frenzy by a shotgun-carrying rabble-rouser named Luke Benson, assumed the worst about the subterranean beings and vowed to find and exterminate them. Luckily Clark Kent was reporting on the oil drilling and did a quick change when he saw the gathering mob. “I’m going to give you all one last chance to stop acting like Nazi storm troopers,” Superman lectured the townspeople. When his words were unheeded he disarmed Benson and the others and helped the underground creatures return down the well. It was exactly the sort of morality tale that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had brought to their early comics and that Maxwell tackled on the radio. Having Superman take this stance was especially brave coming just as Senator McCarthy – striking a pose like Luke Benson’s – was beginning his meteoric rise. It also sent a message to Dr. Wertham and his followers: the real threat was the Nazi-like citizens of Silsby, not the superhero roused to violence as a last resort.

The TV series opened the way every Superman project did, with a creation story. It welcomed back old fans of the comics and radio productions and introduced new ones to the narrative. The opening narration was word-for-word the same as in the radio series, which isn’t surprising since Maxwell oversaw both. On Krypton, Jor-El tried and failed to convince the ruling council that its planet was about to be sucked into the sun, then he sent his infant son rocketing to Earth. Here, a young Clark watched his powers slowly surface the way they did in the Superboy comic books, and he heard his mother explain, when he was twelve, why he could see through rocks and do other things that set him apart. His adoptive parents were the Sarah and Eben Kent dreamed up by novelist George Lowther and brought back to life on the radio. The storyline was familiar, but TV added a decidedly new kick to the myth. Here was Superman in real life, and he was sturdier and more steadfast than what kids had pictured from the cartoons, imagined on the radio, or seen at the big-screen serials. Here, finally, was a flesh-and-blood Superman worthy of Jerry and Joe’s hero.

The pace of filming for TV was even more frenetic than it had been on Mole Men, with just twelve days to complete each batch of five half-hour episodes. That meant working from seven in the morning until dusk six days a week, with no time for retakes. George (and the whole undertaking) was saved by his photographic mind which let him memorize the twenty-four pages of dialogue that came his way every day. Scenes were shot in blocks. Monday might be Daily Planet sequences. Tuesday all eyes would on the gangsters in their boxy suits and rumpled fedoras. It drove the actors mad, reading lines without knowing the context of the story or even which story it was. The newspaper never had a newsroom – that would have required too many desks and extras – just cramped private offices. Other money-saving precepts: No need for more than two gangsters, limit crowd scenes to the opening one where everyone was looking skyward, and make sure the actors never changed clothes so stock scenes could be spliced in anywhere. Clark stayed in his gray double-breasted suit with padded shoulders. Jimmy wore out his sweater and bowtie. Lois had one hat, one suit, and one set of earrings. On Krypton, Jor-El used Buster Crabbe’s old shirt from the Flash Gordon serial while other ruling council members recycled costumes from Captain Marvel and Captain America movies. So what if they were the competition? What mattered to the Superman team as with most other TV crews back then was being on budget, which was just $18,500 per episode, or barely enough for a single set in a B picture.

Special effects also were done on the cheap. The bullets that bounced off George were blanks and the revolvers he bent were made of soft lead. With a mere $175 budgeted for each episode’s flying, it is not surprising that George took another spill. It was the pulley that gave way this time. “That’s enough of that,” he announced after he dusted himself off. “Peter Pan can fly with wires, but not Superman!” In another episode George was set to burst into a room. The cast had rigged a door of balsa wood held up by two-by-fours, but they forgot to take out the extra lumber. “George came running up the stairs right into the frame,” recalled Lee Sholem, who directed that show. “The balsa wood barely gave way because George bounced off the heavy wood, and fell to the floor – unconscious.” George wasn’t the only one taking his knocks. Playing Lois, Phyllis Coates, who prided herself on adlibbing rather than following a script, moved closer than called for to a thug she was confronting and “he decked me! I was knocked out cold, and they sent me home – that left me a little black-and-blue, but I was back at work the next day.” A knockout blow was no reason to stop filming; the director reshot the scene before Lois’s face started to swell.

But it worked. It worked because fans wanted to be fooled, and because of the way George turned to the camera and made it clear he knew they knew his secret, even if Lois, Jimmy, and Perry didn’t. This Superman had a dignity and self-assurance that projected even better on an intimate TV screen than it had in the movies. George just had it somehow. He called himself Honest George, The People’s Friend – the same kind of homespun language Jerry and Joe used for their creation – and he suspended his own doubts the way he wanted viewers to. He looked not just like a guy who could make gangsters cringe, but who believed in the righteousness of his hero’s cause. His smile could melt an iceberg. His cold stare and puffed-out chest could bring a mob to its knees. Sure, his acting was workmanlike, but it won him generations of fans. Today, when those now grown-up fans call to mind their carefree youth, they think of his TV Adventures of Superman, and when they envision Superman himself, it is George Reeves they see.

End of excerpt

Visit the author's website

The author will be speaking around the country this spring/summer/fall, including a talk at LA's Skirball Cultural Center at 2 pm on June 2, 2013, with Jack Larson, Dick Donner and Geoff Johns.



My Comments: I've read the book and I think that it's a must read for any true Superman fan!

  Order Superman The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero from Amazon