DVD Review

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A collection of the original Max and Dave Fleischer Superman cartoons.

By Jason Bovberg     September 19, 2000

Imagine you're among the audience that's about to watch the 1942 premiere of Casablanca. You've got a bag of peanuts, a bottle of Coca-Cola and a carton of cigarettes. People around you are talking, laughing and smoking, ready for a great time at the picture show. The lights go down, you watch a couple newsreels and some World War II propaganda. Wait! That's a Superman cartoon!

One of the major revelations of watching this new DVD collection of classic Superman shorts is that the later episodes were clearly intended as rah-rah war efforts to electrify the popular American spirit against the Axis villains. These episodes--particularly the laughable 'Japoteurs,' in which Clark Kent placates an irritable Asian caricature with the words 'All right, little man,' and the surprising 'Eleventh Hour,' in which Superman patriotically lays waste to Yokohama--are best viewed from a historical perspective. Fighting for truth, justice and the American way, Superman was apparently an ideal pop icon to drop into war propaganda.

On the other hand, another revelation is that these short films are exquisite showcases of hand-drawn animation and artistry. The labors of love of Max and Dave Fleischer, these 17 Superman shorts saw theatrical release between 1941 and 1943, only a few years following Superman's first appearance in Action Comics. Each film, though expensive, was a masterpiece of stylized animation--fluid movement, graceful line work, gorgeous backgrounds, resonant colors and rich depth. Although Paramount ended the Fleischer's direct involvement after episode nine, the quality of the animation--if not the increasingly propagandistic stories--remained extraordinary.

But story was never the series' high point. Each mini-plot conforms to a strict eight-minute formula, in which a menace is introduced, Lois throws herself into trouble, Superman rescues her and saves Metropolis, and Lois scoops the big story. Unfortunately, the stories are also typically brainless and unintentionally hilarious. The Fleischers clearly devoted their efforts to the imaginative visuals.

The best episodes are the early ones, which feature mad scientists and weird, futuristic gizmos that threaten to destroy Metropolis. The pilot episode has Superman smacking an evil death ray like a punching bag and saving a rubbery skyscraper from doom--complete with heroic, brass-heavy theme music. 'Mechanical Monsters,' arguably the most accomplished and breathtaking of the cartoons, features a remarkable fistfight between Superman and two dozen massive robots hellbent on destruction. 'Billion Dollar Limited' finds Lois rattling a machine gun at masked fiends attempting a supersonic train robbery.

'The Magnetic Telescope' is hopelessly silly, but I got a tremendous kick out of watching Superman tame a comet. Considering this strength, it's a wonder the big gorilla in 'Terror on the Midway' gives him any trouble. Of the later efforts, I enjoyed 'Jungle Drums' for its campy depiction of Germans as overlords to drum-beating savages, and for its final shot of Hitler hanging his miserable head. I also liked 'Secret Agent,' the final episode, which suggested a more violent, film-noirish future to the series, though that never came to pass.

Yet another revelation is that Lois Lane is a stupid, meddling witch! Within the strict confines of its template, each Superman cartoon presents the feisty Daily Planet reporter as a career woman who holds thinly veiled contempt for her colleague Clark Kent, who seems to have an unfathomable crush on her. She steps all over poor Clark to get her story, then proceeds to crash headlong into harm's way, necessitating an elaborate rescue. In the vast majority of the cartoons, Lois finds herself in self-wrought peril, and I often ached to watch her deservedly die.

My complaints about Lois are all in good fun. Attitudes in the 1940s, it goes without saying, were very different from attitudes here in the Naughties. And I noticed at least one instance of botched editing in an attempt to make the dialogue more politically correct. In the pilot episode, after Lois scores a perilous assignment, Kent leans over to Mr. White and says confidentially, 'Doesn't that sound like a dangerous job?' The point where an editor chopped out the phrase 'for a woman' is painfully apparent.

The DVD offers brand-new transfers of these nearly-60-year-old cartoons, and they've never looked better. I appreciate the image quality here as much as I'd appreciate the restoration of a work of art. The source prints show inevitable wear (they're senior citizens, remember), but the occasional grain and tear are somehow charming, in the same way as scratches and pops on an old LP. The disc's audio presentation had me frowning, however, particularly during the earlier episodes. The bass is heavy and somewhat distorted, and the treble seems tinny. And your surround setup won't get any action with this soundtrack--it's a completely non-dynamic mono track.

I was also disappointed by the disc's dearth of supplemental material. From the main menu, you can choose only to view the entire program or select an installment. I don't think a little biographical information about the Fleischers is too much to ask. An audio commentary by an animation expert, or even a World War II historian, would have rounded out this package nicely. Although Image has cleaned up the quality of the prints themselves, they've dropped the ball when it comes to extras.

Despite my misgivings, I can't see any way to avoid giving this DVD my highest recommendation. The influence of these short Superman cartoons is evident through 60 years of superhero comics and filmed animation. Warner's recent Batman and Superman cartoons are obvious homages to the Fleischer style, as are films such as Iron Giant. I do recommend you watch only one cartoon at a time, just as they were intended. So go microwave some popcorn, enjoy 'Mechanical Monsters,' then pop in your copy of the Casablanca DVD. It'll be just like you're there.


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