Bryan Singer’s film ‘Superman Returns’ has come and gone. The marketing sensation of Superman has returned to its fortress of solitude. When Jake Rossen’s book, “Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon” appeared in book stores this February, I initially thought, “too late Jake”. Superman has been off our collective radar for some time. Seeing that self proclaimed uber fan and comics scribe Mark Millar wrote the forward I flipped through it and read an unabashed praise for the book. Rolling my eyes at clever marketing in its appeal to fan boys I then read Rossen’s forward. I noticed that his last sentence said this book was to give Superman a voice. Interesting, but what could a fan boy learn what he didn’t know already ready? Plenty. What I was about to discover would be both appealing for fan boys and film historians alike. Rossen’s book is a look at all the torrid scandals, production deals gone bad and curses that followed the men of steel.
Rossen starts at the beginning with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s character being sold into the medium of radio. Receiving little compensation (practically none, as they would for the rest of their lives) their character jumped from the pages of Action Comics to the radio and became an instant hit. Superman’s early days of radio are spotlighted and we get a look back at a forgotten time. The details are fully divulged on Bud Collyer’s admiration for the character. Though like those that followed, Superman’s shadow would cover Collyer the rest of his days. One story on how Superman’s radio exploits actually hurt the Klu Klux Klan proved that his power did stretch beyond the airwaves.
Max Fleisher’s exploits reveal that Superman was his bid to get a hold on the animation business that Disney was gobbling up. Though initially Fleisher was uninterested in the realistic portrayal of animated characters, he quoted Paramount a budget of 100,000 an episode to deter his involvement. Paramount accepted and Superman was born into the world of animation. Max Fleisher and his fledging empire are examined but his time with the man of steel would be brief.
In the recent film ‘Hollywoodland’ starring Ben Affleck as George Reeves was an, at times, fictionalized account of the effect ‘The Adventures of Superman’ TV show had on George Reeves. Rossen interviews cast members and discovers that Reeves wasn’t the only one being type-cast for life. Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen, failed to escape the shadow of his onscreen persona. However, much like Bela Lugosi’s funeral, George Reeves would be covered in his doppelganger’s attire.
There is a full breadth dedicated to the Superman musical, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman. This dark time in the man of steel history is formally known as “Purgatory” according to Rossen’s chapter heading. Fitting for a time when comics were losing their appeal and kitsch was ruling the airwaves in the form of ‘Batman’ starring Adam West.
The obvious good times for this production were halted as if everyone in the world who loved this idea saw it once and never again. Legitimate theater goers saw it and tore it apart. The end came all too quick for the man of steel on Broadway.
The Salkinds and their legacy with the man of steel take up the majority of the book. Fan boys’ hatred for the Salkinds and their love for Richard Donner, director of ‘Superman: the Movie’ is justified. Rossen is ever so quick to remind us though that without the Slakinds’ insight into a highly profitable character we would never have had ‘Superman: the Movie’. Warner Brothers had no interest in adapting any of their comic book heroes for the big screen. It was the Salkinds’ foresight and lucky timing that had ‘Superman: the Movie’ on the fast track when ‘Star Wars’ and the birth of the summer blockbusters became all the rage. What was particularly interesting was their attempts at profiting on placing Richard Pryor in the franchise, trying something different with 'Supergirl' and how they eventually gave up their 25 year contract on their commodity.
Rossen dedicates full chapters to all of the Salkinds’ deals and projects involving Superman. Whether it be spins offs or prequels such as the ‘Superboy’ TV show, the Salkinds did have one thing that was a perfect tribute to the character that Superman embodied. The Salkinds had a morality clause that dictated if anyone portraying Superman did lewd actions or anything unbecoming of the man of steel they were immediately in breach of contract. As oblivious and as unconnected to the character as the Salkinds were they at least knew how to protect what Superman stood for.
The nineties were crazy time when Jon Peters (uber producer) and Kevin Smith (‘Clerks’ director and fan boy) would butt heads about their new Superman script. Much of these dealings and meetings have been well documented and discussed by a disgruntled Kevin Smith. Any fans of the genre or of Smith have either read about ‘Superman Lives’ (Peters/ Smith title) or heard Smith discuss it in his lecture tours. Refreshing was Rossen’s discovery about all that went on behind “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman", starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain. This was one of the first TV shows to be shaped by a fledgling internet. The power of fan mail would be forever erased as the internet critic and fan site would appear telling the studios what’s what. This would later go to help the inevitable downfall of Tim Burton’s and Nicholas Cage’s take on ‘Superman Lives’. This look at the internet and its infancy was a great testament to its eventual power of persuasion over Hollywood.
Trust me, I didn’t reveal everything. There is so much to discover that Rossen’s book should be required reading for all fans of Superman in any medium. Over the course of its three hundred plus pages I gained a greater appreciation for Superman and all those that brought something to his on screen persona. “Superman vs. Hollywood” is the perfect companion for Warner Brothers’ Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD box set. It is film lover’s history book that delivers all that we’ll ever need to know about the man of steel and his battle against Hollywood.