Max Fleischer’s Superman (1941-1942)

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Able to leap tall buildings….

When I first picked up this new two-dvd release from Warners it was with some hesitation. Hadn’t the Fleisher Superman shorts been released in upteen different versions over the years? What could possibly be new about this release- outside of being from Warners itself? Be reminded that these were originally made by Paramount but WB now owns the rights.

The set is a collection of the seventeen Superman shorts made by Paramount from 1941-1942. I say Paramount as opposed to Fleischer because only the first half were actually made by Max Fleischer (father of director Richard Fleischer). The remainder were made by Famous Studios, a subsidiary of Paramount. Not a whole lot changes with the transition in production, but we will get to that later.

Fleischer had previously cut his teeth by creating Betty Boop and animating Popeye and saw no real need to accept Paramount’s original offer to create animated versions of the then three year old Superman – previously only known through comics or a radio program.

In an attempt to deter Paramount, Fleischer named what he felt was an exhorbinant sum as his fee to do the project. To his surprise, Paramount accepted. The end product is quite impressive. These are cartoons (one hesitates to call them such) geared, as most animation was at the time, at adult viewers rather than children as such fare is today.

Even the packaging on the current release states “intended for the adult collector and is not suitable for children.” Whereas that may be an overstatement and purely a result of today’s heightened political correctiness, these shorts are realistic and really should be viewed as short films.

Although perhaps not as crisp and definitive as Disney’s product – the gold standard then as today, these are reflective of the highest qualities of animation outside of that prestigious studio.

superman-mechanical-monsterOne can see the planning which went into the production of these pieces, both in the camera angles used, the dark hues, panoramic backdrops, and attention to detail (especially note the details of most of the equipment depicted). This doesn’t mention the musical score, which plays a supreme role here as there is remarkably little dialogue. Outside of a short piece to set the stage and the canned wrapup at the end these shorts rely completely on action and music to convey their message.

The first half (the Fleisher half) is the better portion, the those made by Famous Films are extremely well done as well. The most notable changes (apart from the titles) are a bit less fluid animation and an increasing reliance on the war effort for subject matter. There is also the inclusion in two of the latter shorts of a staffer at the Daily Planet which detracts from the overall feel of the collection. His is the one character which isn’t special in any way and is a pure throwaway.

superman09aAs for the quality of the release, it most likely will not get any better. Images are bright and crisp – perhaps even more so than during their original theatrical releases. They are not perfect however and do show their so do not expect perfection. This release is full of pops, scratches, and a few spots: still better than all the previous releases. The sound is nothing special and although clear hasn’t evidently been touched during the production of the set.

fleischer-title1Perfectionists may have some issues however. Although I would never know it, evidently Warners has for some reason mismatched the intros on several of these shorts, meaning that the intro from one episode may appear on an entirely different (or several different) episode(s). Only the prologues are impacted but it’s something to be aware of. This is an odd state of affairs since most of the public domain release have the correct prologues intact.

The viewer is also treated to two short featurettes, neither of which is bad but neither of which is truly great either. One interesting tidbit gleaned here is that the Superman shorts were so popular (and such an investment for Paramount) that they actually were promoted both in print (movie posters) and on screen (trailers).

Still, barring a complete restoration (which one would think is unlikely) this is as fine a release of this material as we are likely to ever see.

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