Every Saturday at Midnight, beatniks Zelda, Bird, and Theodore show the movies that must be shown! It’s a journey into the good, the bad and the foreign on “Off Beat Cinema!” – right after “Svengoolie” at 10p.m. for a double feature of fun!
This nationally syndicated late night movie show is produced right here at WBBZ-TV in Buffalo, featuring hometown actors Constance Caldwell, Anthony Billoni, and Jeffrey Roberts.
This week, Off Beat Cinema takes a trip to Toronto for the Fan Fest Comicon. Our own Theodore is there checking out the sights, while we present some amazing “Superman” cartoons from the 1940’s, created by the great Max Fleisher.
Only the first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios; nonetheless, all 17 episodes are collectively known as “the Fleischer Superman cartoons”. In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts. These cartoons are seen as some of the finest quality (and certainly, the most lavishly budgeted) animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In 1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were running their own animation studio, and had recently finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver’s Travels; they were also well into production on their second, Mister Bug Goes to Town. Not wanting to risk becoming overworked (which could compromise the quality of each project), the Fleischers were strongly (but quietly) opposed to the idea of committing themselves to another major project, when approached by their studio’s distributor and majority owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures. Paramount was interested in financially exploiting the phenomenal popularity of the then-new Superman comic books, by producing a series of theatrical cartoons based upon the character. The Fleischers, looking for a way to reject the project without appearing uncooperative, agreed to do the series—but only at a (intentionally inflated) per-episode-budget number so exorbitantly high that Paramount would have to reject them, instead. They told Paramount that producing such a conceptually and technically complex series of cartoons would cost about $100,000 (in 1940s dollars) per short; this was about four times the typical budget of a six-minute episode of the Fleischers’ popular Popeye the Sailor cartoons of that period. To the Fleischers’ shock, instead of withdrawing its request, Paramount entered into negotiations with them, and got the per-episode budget lowered to $50,000. Now the Fleischers were committed to a project they never wanted to do—with more financial and marketing support than they had ever received for the projects they had done.
The first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, a.k.a. The Mad Scientist, was released on September 26, 1941, and was nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to Lend a Paw, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.
The voice of Superman for the series was initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead character’s voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers’ long-time musical collaborator.
Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to lend realism to the character’s bodily movements. Many of Superman’s actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (such as flying, lifting very large objects, etc.). In these cases, the Fleischers’ lead animators—many of whom lacked training in figure drawing—animated “roughly” and depended upon their assistants (many of whom were inexperienced animators, but trained figure-drawers) to keep Superman “on model” during his action sequences.
The Fleischer cartoons were also responsible for giving Superman perhaps his most singular superpower: flight. When the Fleischers started work on the series, in the comic books, Superman could only leap from place to place (hence the classic phrase, “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”). After seeing the leaping fully animated, however, the Fleischers deemed it “silly looking”, and asked Action Comics’ (which would later become DC Comics) permission to have him fly instead; the publisher agreed, and wrote the flight ability into the comics from then on.