From 1941 to 1943, Fleischer Studios, the animation company behind such cartoons as Popeye and Betty Boop, produced 17 shorts featuring the Man of Steel. Well, technically, Fleischer Studios produced 9 of the shorts, which were produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The other eight were produced by Famous Studios, which was formed after the Fleischers parted ways, by several of the others who had been part of their company. Nonetheless, all 17 shorts are collectively known as the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. Now, high-definition restorations have been made of the original camera negatives to bring us this Blu-ray release.
Visually, the shorts are fantastic. The animation is great, not just for its day, but for any day. Max Fleischer, who was in charge of the technical aspect of production, pioneered the technique of Rotoscoping, wherein live-action footage is taken and traced over to provide more realistic-looking animation, particularly when it comes to movement. Of course, only some of what you see on the screen can be done that way. For scenes of Superman pummeling giant robots, lifting a train with his bare hands, or flying through the air, the animators were on their own.
(As a side note: The Max Fleischer cartoons are commonly credited with being the first depiction of Superman with the power of flight. Previously in the comics, he just “leapt tall buildings in a single bound.” While technically, Superman flew on the radio before this, the Max Fleischer cartoons were the first deliberate, visual depiction of Superman flying, and it was because of this that the ability would later be adopted by the comics, as well and become an integral part of how the Man of Steel would be portrayed from then on.)
It’s not just the movement that makes the animation of these shorts stand out. It’s the world that animation creates: the sweeping Metropolis cityscape, overrun by all manner of monsters and other threats, from dinosaurs to death rays to the aforementioned giant robots. Sometimes broad and fantastical, sometimes dark and noir-like, the detail involved in creating that world truly makes these shorts works of art. In fact, if you loved Batman: The Animated Series in the early ’90s, you have Max Fleischer’s Superman to thank. Its signature visual style was directly inspired by these 1940s shorts.
The focus on the visual style in these shorts means that dialogue is often minimal. There’s typically a brief bit of exposition at the beginning between Clark, Lois, and sometimes Perry White to establish what’s going on and their role in it. Then, once the action gets going, there’s often no dialogue at all—just Superman doing his thing, accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score and some cool sound effects.
As for the actual stories of these shorts, they tend to be kind of cheesy. You may have a hard time getting on board if you’re not willing to suspend a tremendous amount of disbelief. For instance, in the very first short (simply titled, “Superman”), the Man of Steel stops a death ray by punching it. Not punching the device, mind you, but the actual ray beam—just punching it over and over, until it gradually retreats back into the cannon from whence it was fired and blows it up.
Then there’s “The Magnetic Telescope.” An astronomer creates a “telescope” that’s really just a giant magnet. Rather than looking out into deep space to study things like comets and asteroids, the magnet actually attracts them to within a mile or two of the Earth’s surface, so the astronomer can study them close up, before depositing them back into space where they belong. Surely, nothing could possibly go wrong with such a plan, but just in case, Superman is around to save the day.
Personally, I love the cheesiness and outright ridiculousness off these plots. My favorites are the ones where anything can happen: like “The Mechanical Monsters,” wherein Metropolis is plagued by robot jewel thieves; “The Arctic Giant,” where a dinosaur rampages through the city; or “The Bulleteers,” wherein a gang of rogues holds the city hostage using drivable, automobile-sized bullets.
When the shorts transitioned from Fleischer Studios to Famous Studios, the focus shifted away from those fantastical stories. Instead, many of the later cartoons show Superman and Lois Lane in the midst of World War II. We see acts of sabotage, problems in munitions factories, and more. We also see a number of pretty racist portrayals of certain people and cultures. These shorts are preceded by a disclaimer, stating that the portrayals are wrong, but to censor them would be to pretend they never happened.
I’ve talked before about Superman’s relationship to the ongoing war effort during WWII. As powerful as Superman is, one would think he could defeat the enemy singlehandedly. How do you depict a character like that in the context of a real war that was affecting the lives of millions, without being disrespectful to the actual soldiers who were fighting it without superpowers? “The Eleventh Hour” has an interesting take on this issue and gets a bit more serious than many of the other shorts in the process.
For the first few shorts, the voices of Superman and Lois Lane were provided by Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander, who also played them on the Superman radio show that aired around that time. The show was wildly popular, and for many years, their voices were definitively associated with those characters. Bud Collyer, in particular, was known for his iconic transition from mild-mannered Clark Kent’s voice to the deep, authoritative voice of the Man of Steel, as he said, “This looks like a job… for Superman!” He does the same transition in the shorts; however, as I mentioned before, dialogue in these shorts is minimal, so there are several shorts wherein, “For Superman!” is the only thing he gets to say in the Superman voice.
Joan Alexander continued as Lois throughout, but beginning with the 8th short, “Volcano,” the voice of Clark/Superman changes distinctly. IMDb lists the actor as Lee Royce. He’s reasonably good, but his voice isn’t as iconically Superman as Bud Collyer, and he doesn’t do the Clark-to-Superman transition.
In addition to the shorts, the Blu-ray also has three featurettes. Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow talks about the making of the shorts, from the animation to the voices to the soundtrack. First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series talks about the impact the shorts have had and features interviews with Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Dan Riba, and others who were integral in bringing Batman: The Animated Series and the subsequent shows in the Timmverse to life. Finally, The Man, The Myth, Superman talks about Superman as modern mythology and the role of the hero in the stories we tell, now and throughout history.
These shorts are an iconic part of Superman’s history and essential to understanding his evolution into what he is today. They’re also very entertaining. If you’re a fan of Superman and want to see his early adventures in all of their 1940s glory, this Blu-ray collection is a must-have.
Creative Team: Max Fleischer (producer), Dave Fleischer (director), I. Sparber (writer, director, producer), Seymour Kneitel (writer, director, producer), Dan Gordon (director, producer), Winston Sharples (music), Sammy Timberg (music)
Released by: Studio Distribution Services
Click here to purchase.