USA / 1941
Following Disney’s stratospheric success with their first feature film Snow White, the Fleischer brothers response Gulliver’s Travels had met with contrasting fortunes. Visually lush but emotionally stagnant and excitement free it was bogged down by the blandness of its rotoscoped animation, unlike the rotoscoping in Snow White which was expertly blended into beautiful stylised movements (modern day motion capture producers take note).
With the financial disappointment from this on their hands and the demise of their popular series of cinema shorts Betty Boop, Fleischer Brothers were looking for new material and sources of income. When their financiers Paramount suggested an animated version of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s popular Superman comics, Dave Fleischer was reluctant, saying it would be too expensive. Paramount were willing to pay, however, and the resulting series was one of the Fleischers’ finest hours.
With larger budgets the animators were able to spend time designing, animating, and creating rich special effects for the series. Unlike in previous Fleischer productions, they were able to pencil test the animation, and after they were animated, the figures were often hand rendered with a three-dimensional look. The stylization of the camera angles and the design also gave the series a film noir feel.
As in the comic, plucky journalist Lois Lane pursues her story into dangerous situations and uncovers evil plots with photographer Clark Kent trailing behind. But when trouble looms, Superman appears to save the day. The Fleischers appear to have learned the lesson from Gulliver’s Travels and here they did not avoid the scary stuff—giant robots, mad scientists, escaped gorillas, and mummies on the loose are all seen off by the caped crusader in splendid fashion.
The Fleischer brothers made eight of the Superman cartoons before they lost control over their studio following Paramount’s takeover in 1941. Paramount renamed the company Famous Studios and made nine more Superman episodes. The Famous Studios episodes differed from the first eight in that they were more concerned with gung-ho patriotic stories, no doubt relating to America’s war effort, rather than the classic, giant-robot-type science fiction of the Fleischer’s episodes.
As is often the case with films from this era, Superman now can seem rather slow-paced and the stories pretty corny to modern audiences who have been bombarded with sophisticated twists on the superhero idea, but don’t forget the Superman comics themselves had only been around three years since first publication in 1938 so this was all new exciting stuff at the time, and Superman’s power of flight was invented for this animated series, in the original comics he could only leap “over the tallest building”.
The Fleischer’s Superman series is still regarded as one of the best animated superhero adaptations. Its strong 1940s noir style was a big influence on such creations as Bruce Timm’s acclaimed 1990s TV superhero revivals Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series (both produced by DC Comics and Warner Bros.), as well as the award-winning graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
As with Tom and Jerry and, to a lesser extent, Warner Brothers/MGM shorts, even though the standard is excellent it’s hard to pick the ‘best’ one, as they follow a similar formula. I have chosen the second in the series ‘The Mechanical Monsters’ as the robots are super cool, the villain is super dastardly and it doesn’t have the rather cheesy origins sequence of the first episode.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!