Ahh, the innocence of youth! I was a child in the naive era of the 50's, a time when Truth, Justice and the American Way could be cited with nary a trace of irony. A time when we truly believed the U.S.A. was the greatest nation on the planet, and that we would prevail over Communism and all other evil forces because we were the champions of all that is good in the world.
It was against this perfect backdrop that The Adventures of Superman was introduced in 1952. I wasn't born until 1954, so I must have been viewing the later re-runs in the early 60's. But I remember the first time I saw the intro- "Look, up in the sky! Its a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Superman!" I was immediately hooked for life.
The Adventures of Superman, based on the immensely popular D.C. Comic introduced in the 1930's, told the story of Kal-el, sent to Earth as an infant from the dying planet Krypton by his scientist father, Jor-el. Under our planet's yellow sun (as opposed to Krypton's red sun) he discovers that he has assorted super powers, such as flight, super strength, invulnerability, x-ray vision (the ability to see through everything but lead), heat vision and super speed. His only weakness seems to be a vulnerabilty to pieces of his now-exploded planet that fall to Earth as meteorites dubbed Kryptonite.
The child and his space ship are discovered by kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent, residents of Smallville, who adopt the baby and name him Clark Kent. They impart much homespun wisdom to young Clark during his formative years and instill in him two tenets that would guide his life:
1. That his powers must be used only for good.
2. That he must keep his true identity a secret to protect his loved ones from possible retribution at the hands of his enemies. Clark's ensuing exploits as Superboy are documented in several comic and TV series. Clark grows up and moves to the big city, Metropolis, where he lands a job as a (mild mannered) reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper. It is there that most of the TV series takes place as Clark, now dubbed Superman, encounters various situations where his powers are called upon to save the day. With cohorts Jimmy Olson- cub reporter, Lois Lane- a tenacious newshound whose investigatory instincts often land her in trouble, and Perry White- irascible editor of the Planet, often given to exclaiming "Great Caesar's ghost!" and "Don't call me chief!", Clark/Superman fought common thugs and evil genuises alike, and sometimes obliquely addressed social concerns of the day.
The casting was inspired. George Reeves, though chunky by today's standards, embodied the perfect athletic specimen of that era, and brought a lighthearted touch to the characters of Clark and Superman, But he was also a serious actor, who could inject a dose of gravitas when it was called for. Jack Larson's portrayal of Jimmy Olsen reflected his awareness that he was a surrogate for every adoring kid out there in TV land. His line readings never betrayed a trace of cynicism or resentment. For all we knew, he was as big a fan as we were.
John Hamilton's Perry White struck just the right tone of agreeable gruffness.
And finally, in the role of Lois Lane, Noel Neill wrote the book on Superman's gal pal. Though theirs was the most chaste of relationships on the TV series, the affection between the characters of Clark/Superman and Lois was palpable on the screen. And Neill's spitfire portrayal of Lois as a strong-willed, determined, independent woman has informed every other actress's interpretation since.
The cast had an easy rapport with each other that made the Daily Planet scenes a lot of fun. These folks seemed to genuinely like each other.
The production values were often laughable; ditto, the special effects. Superman would take "flight" by getting a running start, bounding onto a hidden springboard and soaring out of frame to land on a pad. Primitive optical tricks were used to display his other superpowers, and liberal use was made of obvious stock footage.
But all of these nuances were lost on an impressionable 8-9 year old. Hey, I still believed in Santa Claus- Superman wasn't much of a stretch. I even bugged my parents until they got me my very own Superman suit. I had eagerly torn the box open, donned my cape and tights and stood poised on the porch roof when my little brother ran to the front of the house with the torn box, exclaiming "Don't jump! It says here on the box that only Superman can fly!" And he was right. I had really thought the suit would make me fly. As Jack Bauer would say- "Damn it!"
With the recent theatrical and DVD release of the movie Hollywoodland, my interest in this classic series was re-ignited, and I am going to purchase some of the old episodes on DVD. If you have read this far, take my advice- watch The Adventures of Superman. You may not walk away believing a man can fly, but you will have spent a wonderful, nostalgic few hours, visiting a kinder, gentler time when it was a lot easier to believe in so many things.