This is the sixth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
After the success of “Superman and the Mole Men,” the production crew went right to work on filming of the first season of the television series. Once again George Reeves was Superman, Phyllis Coates was Lois Lane, and now they were joined by John Hamilton as Perry White and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen.
Much like the film, the fist season of the television series took it self very seriously. “The Adventures of Superman” was a crime drama, every bit as legitimate as Jack Webb’s “Dragnet.” Superman himself was the most science fiction element the first season had, with Superman mostly taking down small time crooks and crime bosses. Most episodes also had a fair amount of mystery elements as well.
The fist season also contained what would be on of the series’ most memorable episodes, “The Stolen Costume.” In this episode, Superman’s costume is stolen by a two-bit burglar who would moments later be shot by police. He didn’t die instantly, and was able to make it to the apartment of one of Metropolis’ crime bosses. Before he died, he gave the costume to the crime boss and told him where it came from. The crime boss and his girlfriend pretty soon put together that Clark Kent is Superman and they try to blackmail him.
Unsure how to proceed, Superman takes the couple and strands them on a snow-covered mountain. He tells the couple that they will have to stay there, in a cabin at the top of the mountain, until he can find something to do with them to make sure they never blab about his identity. He tells them he will bring food, and warns them not to try to climb down because their lives “wouldn’t be worth a nickel.” Of course, once Superman has gone they do try to climb down and they end up falling to their deaths.
This is one of the darker shows the series ever did, and the audience is really left to wonder if Superman had left them there to die. Sure, he promised to bring back food, and he almost certainly would have, but he exiled these people to a snow-covered mountain with no contact with the outside world. And really, what was their crime? They had planted a bomb in Clark’s apartment, but they knew it wouldn’t kill him, he’s Superman. So their only real crime was in knowing Superman’s identity. He subjected these people to what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and ultimately condemned them to death, to protect his secret. This episode took Superman to dark place he had never been to before or since.
The second season was lightened up some, though still dealt with some very dark and adult themes. The first episode of the second season dealt with Clark Kent and Lois Lane – who had been replaced by Noel Neill from the serials, due to Phyllis Coates being unable to return – trying to prove a man on death row was innocent, mere days before he was scheduled for execution. The second season also saw more science fiction elements being introduced, like Kryptonite in “The Defeat of Superman” and a super computer that could solve any problem in “The Machine That Could Plot Crimes.”
The second season also featured another one of the series’ most memorable episodes, “Panic in the Sky.” In this episode, Superman is sent to destroy a meteor that is on a collision course with Earth. If it hits, the impact would be devastating. Upon impact with the meteor, Superman is knocked back to Earth with a severe head injury that causes him to have amnesia. He is conscious enough to change back from Superman into Clark, and spends the rest of the episode thinking he is only Clark Kent and that Superman is missing. This episode was so popular that it was remade twice, as “Superboy Lost” on “The Adventures of Superboy” and as “All Shook Up” on “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.”
The first and second seasons recycled many of the wire shots filmed for “Superman and the Mole Men,” just changing the background when necessary. They also invented the famously side-view flying technique, which has become the flying image most associated with the series. To avoid the wires that George Reeves refused to use, the take-offs were done using a spring board and landings would involve Reeves climbing up a ladder and then jump off into frame.
The second season, while softened up a bit from the first season, was able to maintain its popularity to the point where it was not only renewed yet again, the decision was made to film in color for the third season. This is important, because color television didn’t exist yet. It isn’t just that it existed, but was too expensive. That was the case in the 60s. In the mid-50s, when both Superman and “The Lone Ranger” began filming in color, color television didn’t exist and even if a television could read a color signal, there was not yet a way to even broadcast in color. This was an extremely visionary decision to make for a television series during that time.
During the black and white seasons, as with the serials before them, Superman’s costume was actually grey and brown instead of blue and red. When filmed in black and white, there is almost no contrast between blue and red, and they both just come off as being dark grey. Many of the sets were also painted in grey tones to film better in black and white. For season three, George would be given an actual blue and red suit, and some of the sets would be repainted to look better on color film.
The series was toned down again, and would remain very much more of a children’s show throughout the rest of its run. The series began to focus much more on the science fiction elements, including mad scientists, robots and even an alien in season five’s “Mr. Zero.” The number of episodes per season was also cut in half from 26 to 13, to facilitate the added cost of filming in color. “The Adventures of Superman” ran for another four years, totaling 104 episodes spread out over six seasons.
At the end of the show’s sixth season, it was still as popular as ever. A seventh season was a guarantee. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be…
“Adventures of Superman(1952–1958)”. imdb.com.
“The Adventures of Superman”. supermanhomepage.com.
“Adventures of Superman”. tv.com.
“Barely a superhero show, Adventures Of Superman was a surprise success”. avclub.com.