Ken Leighton 9 a.m., March 24
DVD Rentals: Adventures of Superman
The untimely demise of poor little Dickie Bird was but a harbinger of things to come. The first fleshly souls to introduce me to the concept of death were my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Aaronson, and George “Superman” Reeves.
Bubbie was as big as the wingback chair from which she seldom moved and had a voice only dogs could hear. We never spent much in the way of quality time together -- she died when I was four.
Superman and I still visit on a regular basis.
Forget about other roles the actor might have undertaken throughout his career: George Reeves was Superman! I’ve seen Gone With the Wind with an audience at least 6 times. In a tradition older than the Grampian Hills, on each occasion, when a red-headed Reeves first appears as half a Tarleton twin, some guy in the crowd will invariably gasp out loud, “It’s Superman!”
I was a kindergartener when Reeves died and able to phonetically make out the word “Superman” splattered across the front page of the Chicago American. Even a child could surmise that Reeves’ headline-making presence signaled a fatal career move for the mild mannered reporter.
Recess couldn’t come soon enough. Word on the playground painted a disillusioned Reeves so drunk at a party that he jumped out a window in order to prove that he really could fly. For years I followed John Ford’s maxim, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” and embraced the schoolyard urban legend as gospel.
Thanks to syndication, childhood favorites such as The 3 Stooges, Warner Bros. Cartoons, The Honeymooners, and Adventures of Superman have pretty much never been more than a click of the remote control away. The compulsory release of all six seasons of AOS in four DVD box sets make channel surfing obsolete.
The early black-and-white shows at least tried to approximate kid noir, something perfectly suitable for father and son viewing. Color came and with it a complete shift in tone. From storytelling to acting and blocking, the color episodes are kid’s stuff no matter how you look at it.
The performances became broad and cornball, the storylines equally cheesy and impossible to take seriously. With their focus on comedy and desire to showcase cartoonish secondary characters, AOS began courting an audience comprised solely of 9-year-old boys.
With all of this emphasis placed on children in the '50's, it was merely a matter of time before I struck politically incorrect gold in the form of The Superman Silver Mine.
Bit actor Dabbs Greer is allowed a rare chance to strut his stuff in a dual role. Greer had small parts in over 250 movies and TV shows. He was a staple of many film noir including numerous appearances for Don Siegel.
Greer authors both philanthropic ex-prospector Harrison Pebbel (any relation to Walter Pidgeon in The Bad and the Beautiful?) and his evil twin Dan Dobey, a two-bit hood with a metal plate strategically planted by the screenwriter at the base of his skull.
Pebbel wants to donate a piece of his silver mine to the Daily Planet's Children's Camp Fund. Dobey, along with his dopey henchman/comic relief Boris (Charles Maxwell), plots to kidnap Pebbel so he can impersonate the southern bumpkin and steal his fortune.
Apart from Reeves' gut stretching over his utility belt, all of the later season episodes share one commonality: given the enormous amount of light that color film stock demanded in the 1950s, the shows all look as if they were shot just inches from the sun. Pebbel's powder blue suit matched with a red and white polka dot bolo tie alone must have commanded a billion kilowatts.
Scenes most treasured in the color classics are those involving the participation of the eternally irascible John “Perry White” Hamilton. You think audiences are quick to spot Superman in GWTW? With over 300 films to his credit, Hamilton appeared in 5 times the amount of features as Reeves. There was much more of cranky John to go around. (Sure wish I had a dollar for every time someone shouted "Great Caesar's Ghost!" during a screening of The Maltese Falcon.)
And lest we forget, long before John Hamilton played Superman’s editor-in-don’t-call-me-chief, Perry White, he was Flash Gordon’s father!
The formula chugs along until the riotously tasteless climax where Dobey makes his downhill escape. Why waste time by having the Man of Steel fly down and scoop him? It makes more dramatic sense to have Superman magnetize a hunk of pipe, aim it at the metal plate in Dobey's head and pull him back to justice!
Too bad the screenwriter couldn’t figure a way to have Dobey's noggin house a lead plate and a piece of kryptonite, thus causing and curing the same problem simultaneously.
If The Superman Silver Mine is low rent fare aimed at the kiddies (and potentially offensive to a particular group of people), Flight to the North sits beneath the barrel's bottom.
Talk about suspension of disbelief; Chuck Connors (the best brush-cut in the business) plays a traveling hillbilly named Sylvester J. Superman. He obviously reads The Daily Planet, the great metropolitan newspaper known for its coverage of Superman's exploits, for why else would he show up on the paper’s doorstep to answer a personal ad? Oh, yeah. He's a dumb cracker.
With his beloved mule Lulubelle in tow, Sylvester grabs a room at a Metropolis flophouse. The desk clerk (and Lassie's favorite uncle) George Chandler takes one look at the hotel register and automatically assumes him to be the Man of Steel. Aside from West Hollywood, this is the only place in America where you'll find a motel that caters to men and their pet donkeys.
Time to set another sub-plot in motion. Enter regular Superman heavy, Ben Welden, this time cast as the nefarious, but lovable in a bumbling, stupid sort of way, 'Leftover' Louie Lyman. 'Leftover,' who was just released from prison, shows up at Clark Kent's office threatening harm if the reporter continues to give him bad press.
Guess what flea-pit 'Leftover' is bunking down at? That's right, the George Chandler Arms. When 'Leftover' first enters the room, pay particular attention to the way his bunkmate 'Buckets' (Ralph Sanford) is positioned on the bed. Instead of using the headboard to prop him up, 'Buckets' rests his noggin on the opposite end of the bed.
Artful composition? Nah! The set designer probably didn't have the time or funds to construct a fourth wall forcing director George Blair to block his actors accordingly. The resulting mise-en-scene is extraordinary: They talk on the bed, they stand and continue talking, and then sit back down. All in one long take. Jean Renoir eat your heart out!
'Leftover' and 'Buckets' squabble over who makes the best lemon meringue pie, a subject common among hardened ex-convicts. 'Leftover' insists that it's his old girlfriend Marge (Marjorie Owens) while 'Buckets' swears his mother's pie is the sweetest. The two wager half of their stashed loot and may the best pie win!
'Leftover' show's up on his ex's doorstep and wouldn't you know it, Marge (Marjorie Owens) just finished baking a lemon meringue pie! Judging by the conspicuously placed framed portrait of some stud, it's clear that Marge is an unfaithful tramp. Life in the slammer must have been hard on 'Leftover.' After only five years, Marge fails to recognize her former beau. She even refuses her ex a slice of her pie.
Marge was the one that placed the newspaper personal. She wanted Superman to fly the pie to her boyfriend (Richard Garland) stuck in a remote Arctic weather station. Just as 'Leftover' is about to abscond with the pie, Sylvester shows up in response to the ad. Yet another bright Daily Planet reader quick to accept the yokel-imitation for Metropolis' #1 son. Talk about fighting a never-ending battle with illiteracy...
Somehow, and it's never explained how, Sylvester takes the money Marge donated to the Daily Planet's children's fund, rents a plane and, with Lulubelle by his side, heads to the North Pole. Imagine Marge's boyfriend's surprise when both Supermen and a pair of asses (Lulubelle and 'Leftover') come knocking on his igloo.
All ends happily as the lovers are reunited. With the girl out of the picture, 'Leftover' and 'Buckets' are free to devote their lives to rough trade. And Marge's Tundra-tookie gets a home cooked reminder of his gal. Superman owes a huge debt of thanks to those Metropolis deviants who took time away from their pillaging and looting long enough to help him to play embryonic Fed-Ex driver.
More like this:
- Go tell it on the mountain: a pictorial history of the Paramount logo — May 6, 2013
- See the book, read the movie — April 4, 2013
- The Shining is The Evil Dead — April 3, 2013
- If I Cast the The 3 Stooges — April 9, 2012
- Warner Bros. Reveals New Superman Logo for Man of Steel — April 2, 2012