April 28, 2009

Written by James Napoli

Film noir was just beginning as a live action style in the 1941 that spawned the first theatrical Superman animated shorts; and the gorgeous, hand-drawn cityscapes that grace the time capsule-worthy gems in Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942 tell us instantly how startlingly original they must have been back then. Animation buffs could hardly miss the shorts’ influence on Batman: The Animated Series (if further proof is needed the subject is discussed at length in the bonus materials), and indeed as one watches these remarkable mini-epics they seem to foreshadow even The Dark Knight. Not that the films feature a conflicted, tortured hero (in fact Superman has yet to become associated with that level of angst–although as many a blog post reveals, that day seems to be coming), but the smooth-flowing animation style and the shadowy, purple/black backgrounds draw the viewer into a pretty cool little world. A world that was, by all reports, unheard of in the theatrical short film arena, especially in the then-new franchise called Superman, which had only a few years before made the leap from its premiere as a comic strip to its premiere on radio.

Watching the first few selections on the DVD (including such evocative titles as The Mechanical Monsters, Billon Dollar Limited, The Arctic Giant and The Bulleteers) is fairly exhilarating. The nicely restored colors pop, the inventiveness is on display in every frame and the action sequences are not only exciting….but are almost always dialogue-free. The bulk of these shorts contain very few spoken words beyond set-up and resolution, and it is almost odd (though captivating after one gets used to it!) to see so much information conveyed visually. As our hero rides a hurtling rocket or stops entire massive structures from colliding with earth, it clearly feels like one is watching the predecessor to what would become the live action, action sequence. And it demonstrates the incredible faith these Superman interpreters had in their vision. The documentary included as a special feature reveals that pioneering animator Fleischer (Betty Boop) and his director brother Dave didn’t really want to take up the challenge of creating the first Superman cartoon—they already sensed how iconic the character was and how much they would need to work to make it convincing—so they asked Paramount for a dollar figure they were certain would be turned down. When it wasn’t, animation history was made.

The stories are arch and goofy to a 21st Century viewer, each one involving some mad scientist, escaped creature or hell-bent wartime enemy unleashing destruction upon the world, and Superman showing up at the last minute to save the intrepid Lois Lane (always conveniently and directly involved in every disaster), who never puts it together that she was with Clark Kent only moments before. But it is the joy of watching these wonderfully-animated characters running, leaping and flying about in an ever-increasing variety of richly-painted landscapes that stays with us. And shadows, cast by Clark Kent as he finds a secluded place to change into Superman, the villains as they loom with menace or Lois Lane as she skulks about seeking a scoop, are ever-present, adding that extra oomph to the adventure. Lois is about as spunky as they come here, consistently choosing the most dangerous path, and she even has a disdain for Clark Kent, who ends many an episode with a wink to the audience about his secret identity subterfuge. The series hit theaters shortly before the U.S. involvement in World War II, and as it progresses it falls, as one would expect it would, into being a propaganda outlet (Superman crushing America’s enemies as a cathartic release). As such, several of the stories feature some rather unsavory stereotypes of the Japanese (the first non-Fleischer short [more on that later] has the unfortunate title of Japateurs). This, one guesses, is the reason the DVD box contains the strange disclaimer that the films are “intended for the adult collector and not intended for children.”

There are some disappointing things about this 2-disc boxed set. One is the absence of a printed booklet (it is based on a comic after all) that might detail a little more of how the cartoons came into being. This lack is punctuated by the fact that, weirdly, though the DVD is entitled Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942, it also contains a bunch of shorts from 1943, none of which have the Fleischer name on them. It took Wikipedia to tell me that infighting between the Fleischer brothers, among other things, led to Paramount continuing on with the series without them. Yet this rather important fact is never touched upon even in the bonus documentary, so the inclusion of the 1943 titles seems misleading indeed (especially since in the later ones the character design changed slightly and the voices—uncredited throughout the series—are also different). These not-quite minor quibbles are sort of vexing, and can make one feel as if they are being directed away from something significant through sleight of hand.

For the most part, though, this set is a must for anybody who considers themselves an animation buff. The auteur clarity brought to the table by the Fleischers shines through, even in the films that they had nothing to do with–demonstrating how loyal to the vision the torch carriers wanted to be. There is plenty to relish in Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942 and fans of the genre will want to snap it up.

SPECIAL FEATURES: First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series. An engaging documentary featuring interviews with lots of modern animation folk who discuss their affection for the Fleischer series. Plus a brief but informative look at Max Fleischer’s rise to prominence.

Also The Man, The Myth, Superman, another short doc which somehow, despite not very thorough research and some spurious examples, makes a darn convincing case for how Superman is rooted in the archetypes of Greek mythology by interviewing scholars and authors of books about the impact of comic culture.

Finally, a Sneak Peek at DC’s upcoming animated Green Lantern feature is a bland puff piece.

James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book will be released in April.

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