This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s (or character’s) career.
As we get excited about Man of Steel this week, it’s once again worth considering Hollywood’s incessant need to re-tell superhero origin stories every time they begin or reboot a franchise. The new Superman movie does indeed go back to the beginning and tell of Kal-El’s birth on Krypton and travel to Earth, where he grew up with the Kent family. Sure, this one is not as quick a rehash as the Spider-Man or even Batman properties have done. The last time we saw Superman’s start on the big screen was 35 years ago (never mind that there have been TV tellings since). Before that we’d already seen the origin story done perfectly well in the 1948 serial version (his first live-action film appearance). Interestingly enough, though, the character’s earlier debut on the silver screen barely bothered with his origins at all.
This short start is an animated film titled Superman (some refer to it as “The Mad Scientist”), which arrived only three years after the superhero made his first appearance in any media, in the pages of “Action Comics” #1 (take that, adaptations in development hell for decades). And after a very, very brief introduction telling of Superman’s backstory, this ten-minute work gets right into an original, isolated adventure in which the character must destroy a mad scientist’s death ray and also save Lois Lane from the evildoer’s lair. It’s a simple story and actually hardly distinct narratively from one of the Popeye the Sailor shorts of the era. The main difference is that Superman doesn’t need spinach to get his powers. The similarity is no surprise given that Superman was made by the same team at Fleischer Studios.
What does separate this and the rest of the Superman shorts is the quality of animation and the beauty of the artwork (I love the colored-pencil look of the fire animation in this film). The Fleischer brothers were given a lot more money to work with than usual, an ironic benefit of sorts because they’d asked for too big a budget in order to not get the job, thinking it too big a task. As a result of their efforts (they didn’t want it but they did put their all into it), the studio received its fourth Oscar nomination in the Animated Short category. It went up against an abnormally large group of nominees, including some real classics by the usual contenders — Walter Lantz, Leon Schlesinger, Fred Quimby, and Walt Disney, who won the Academy Award with a Pluto cartoon.
The Fleischers made another eight Superman shorts over the course of a year (primarily sci-fi based, which may be the best prep for Man of Steel) and then Famous Studios took over the property and focused the Man of Steel’s concerns on Hitler and the Japanese (the U.S. had entered WWII by now). They’re all in the public domain and worth watching, as are the still-exciting live-action serial shorts from later in the decade (which also featured animation for Superman’s flight, a technique I really like but which many find the weakness of those films). While most of us are planning on revisiting the Christopher Reeve Superman movies this week in anticipation of Man of Steel, these much earlier works are not to be overlooked. Begin with Superman, originally released on September 26, 1941, right here: