Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 9, 2013
Some of the best, most inventive superhero short subjects ever produced were the Superman shorts in the early forties. The first nine were produced by Max and Dave Fleischer of Fleischer Studios and the final eight were produced by Famous Studios after the Fleischers hit the road. The difference in style between the two halves is minimal while the difference in content is stark. The Fleischer shorts had adventure/science fiction themes while the Famous Studio shorts were all about good old fashioned pro-America propaganda. After all, most of the Fleischer cartoons were produced before Pearl Harbor while the Famous Studio shorts came after.
While the Fleischer shorts are pure adventure entertainment, there is something distinctly insane about the Famous Studio shorts that makes them more intriguing from a historical perspective. The imagery and language can be offensive, such as Japoteurs, and/or absolutely cringe-inducing, such as the jaw-dropping Jungle Drums. In Jungle Drums, an African tribe worships a Nazi white-knight and do his bidding but never speak and display no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. The animation is quite striking throughout but everything else is so appalling it negates every positive emotion, even robbing the modern audience the pleasure of seeing a defeated Adolph Hitler make an angry cameo at the end. But that doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely fascinating on every level.
The Famous Studio shorts (as well as the Fleischer Studio shorts) are in the public domain, languishing and falling into washed-out disrepair. It’s a shame, really, because they deserve the full restorative treatment. They are, to my mind, some of the most amazing propaganda instruments ever created: A comic book character, appealing to youngsters, is able to properly indoctrinate them into the correct belief systems so they may be a good and upstanding [insert country of choice here] citizen. In this case, the United States, but countries around the world have used stories that appeal to children as propaganda tools to indoctrinate other children for as long as the idea has existed (including martyred innocents). Famous Studios fought against the enemy with a still young yet already iconic superhero character, insuring excitement and adventure along with the message.
But they’re also so cock-eyed and half-baked with the concept of a superman from another planet that an entirely different level of entertainment exists, one in which the brazen inconsistency of Superman’s powers and the almost complete absence of any logical abilities from his Kryptonian mind, add to an inebriating brew of lunacy that can’t help but intoxicate the viewer. The best episode to illustrate this is 1942′s Deconstruction, Inc. Let’s look at it, choosing particular frames to comment on the story. Oh, and spoilers, of course. The whole story, in fact.
First we get the title card and, as with all of the shorts from Fleischer to Famous, it’s a great one. The title cards in this series are all very inventive from a propaganda point of view. No character in this episode is Japanese but the title card implies the saboteurs we will follow are working for the Japanese.
Now we see a swamp outside the Metropolis Munitions Works. In a nice touch, the camera glides past the hand before “noticing” it and double-takes back. As the hand sinks away we see a car drive off at the edge of the swamp. Clearly, this was murder.
Outside The Daily Planet, Clark Kent and Lois Lane stroll down the sidewalk and hear the news report blaring from the Daily Planet’s radio public address system which announces the guard has been killed and saboteurs are suspected. How they came upon this suspicion is unknown but immediately…
… both Clark and Lois decide this is a story. She first, leaving Clark behind. When Clark says this is probably a good story to cover, Lois is already gone.
It’s off to the Munition Works where we find Lois…
… applying for a job. She meets the new security guard on the way in, a kindly old gent which, in the real world, would probably be about the right speed for a security guard.
Lois gets a job painting numbers on the sides of torpedoes which allows her to be around when…
… the foreman shows up and tells a couple of guys that Mr. Jones wants to see them at 12:00.
Mr. Jones, looking pretty smart with that cigarette holder, congratulates the boys on killing the first security guard. He says they did a great job but since the radio already reported that saboteurs are suspected, which means the plant will be under increased scrutiny, I’d say they screwed up pretty badly but, no matter, he thinks they’re the bee’s knees. Then they discuss the plan to blow up the plant. Turns out, the switch for the lights is wired to explosives and the whole place will go when the new security guard switches on the lights for the night.
Lois is outside listening and is so incompetent, rather than duck below the window she stands right in front of it so her shadow can be easily observed.
She is quickly revealed, captured and tied up. This happens to her so many times in this short series it can be fairly said that she is, quite simply, the worst eavesdropper in human history. A game of hide and seek with her could be measured in milliseconds. The seeker would count to ten, turn around, see Lois standing directly in front of him and say, “I see you. You’re right there. You didn’t even hide.”
For her stunning ineptitude, Lois is shoved into a torpedo which is then filled with explosives, even though it is supposed to be a dummy to be used in a test without explosives. But they want to kill Lois and, for reasons unclear, they believe that slamming her into a ship at high speeds, underwater, while roped and gagged, won’t do the trick. Nope, better blow the thing up just to be sure.
That’s when Gramps shows up.
He sees the whole thing but before he can do anything, a henchman drops tons of scrap metal on top of him.
Bye, bye, Gramps, you were as useless as you were uninteresting.
And away we go to the torpedo test range to kill Lois.
That’s the ship they’re going to slam her into. Under water. At high speeds. But, again, let’s blow her up, too. So I guess she’s doomed.
But wait! The security guard wasn’t a doddering old fool! It was Superman! Now, this is important: Remember, several tons of scrap metal couldn’t hurt him because he’s Superman. That’s tons. Okay, let’s just remember that for later. Also, it’s pretty impressive how he managed to ditch the security guard getup and get into his Superman garb under all that metal.
So the torpedo gets fired and Superman takes off flying to stop it.
He shoots under the water like a bullet (a speeding bullet)…
… and emerges with the massive torpedo on his back which he safely flies away…
… landing on a dock and rescuing Lois from inside the shaft.
With Superman around, they decide to just blow the damn plant up now but Lois alerts Superman to the plan and…
… wham, take that jerk!
And now Superman gets into a protracted fight with the three henchmen.
They swing big tools at him and he ducks and bobs and weaves. This Superman floats like a butterfly but, apparently, his punches don’t exactly sting like a bee. You see, the henchmen keep coming back. Remember, it’s a protracted fight. Between three mortals and a guy who can punch through iron. A guy who isn’t hurt by several tons of scrap metal falling on him. Remember that? That guy. He’s having a hard time with these three plant workers.
Mr. Jones, on the other hand, is thinking, “Screw this noise,” and makes his way towards an explosives truck conveniently located at the top of a hill next to the plant.
And in he jumps, ready to the drive the truck into the plant.
But as he’s driving down the hill…
… Lois sees what he’s up to.
Meanwhile, the guy who can fly into the sun, absorb the force of a mountain falling on him and safely belly flop into a pool of nitro-glycerin with no ill after-effects, is getting clocked repeatedly by Mr. Overalls.
At last, Superman manages to dispose of the troublesome trio as the explosives truck hurtles headlong down the hill towards the plant.
That’s it hurtling right there. Headlong, no less. Also, Mr. Jones has already jumped out so, clearly, he was confident that the truck’s aim was true.
Superman has torn out the light switch so no one can flip it only to have Lois yell to him about the truck because despite all his super abilities, he missed the big truck barreling down the hill right behind him.
Okay, now we’re going to see some real Superman action! Look at him, he’s ready to fly.
And sure enough, that’s just what he does, right to the truck. And since we saw how he manhandled that torpedo, we know exactly what he’s going to do: He’s going to pick that truck up and put it down safely where it not only won’t hit the building but won’t blow up, period.
Except that… wait, what? He gets in the truck and starts driving it. So, I guess the dockworker had a stronger punch than anyone suspected because old Supe has clearly forgotten he can do things like pick up trucks and deposit them down safely somewhere else.
So, rather than trust the ability to get the truck to a safe place using his super powers, he takes the extraordinary risk of relying on the truck’s suspension system to handle the job and miss the building with a high-speed, almost right-angle turn at the last second. I’m guessing his grades in that Logic class at Smallville High were pretty bad.
But it works and the truck misses but it’s going so fast…
… it goes off a cliff…
… and blows up. The plant’s safe but anyone or anything under the cliff is a little worse for the wear right about now.
But not Superman because he can fly and he’s indestructible, except against Mr. Overalls, of course. That guy’s one tough cookie.
Which brings us to the end and our villains have been arrested and taken away. That’s when Lois walks up to Gramps and reveals…
… that she knew it was Clark Kent all along.
And there he is, totally exposed.
So, to review – full makeup, wig and fake whiskers don’t fool Lois for a second but this…
… to this…
… is beyond her comprehension.
Of course, that’s probably the joke, or is it?
And there you have it. The Superman cartoons of the early forties are still some of the most entertaining animated shorts ever produced. The Fleischer Studio episodes are wonderful little sci-fi and fantasy adventures that come highly recommended. But the Famous Studio shorts are amazing documents of American propaganda during wartime and should be watched with an eye towards history and an eyebrow arched towards the sky. They’re available pretty much everywhere, from the Internet Archives to YouTube to Netflix Instant to cheap DVD compilations. Hopefully, one day, they’ll get the full restoration treatment and their charms as well as their offenses, good intentions as well as awful prejudices, can be viewed and studied for years to come. Documents of how propaganda works in wartime are not to be taken lightly and should be preserved for history even if takes a superhuman effort.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns