The 1940s Superman radio serial, and why Radio Batman is terrible

Discussion in 'Science Fiction & Fantasy' started by Christopher, Aug 7, 2014.

  1. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    This thread is spinning off of a discussion that began in the Flash TV series thread but took on a life of its own. It's inspired by my ongoing project to listen all the way through the surviving Adventures of Superman radio episodes available on the Internet Archive (beginning here, with further pages available on this index). Unfortunately I'm already up to the penultimate page and should be done soon, but I wanted to spin off this thread before it was over. Below, I've quoted the relevant portions of the posts from the original thread:


    (I hope this first post isn't too long.)
     
  2. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Anyway, the reason I wanted to spin this off now is because I just heard something interesting in a May 1948 episode that I wanted to comment on. Throughout the series, they've been having Superman change out of his Clark Kent clothes, fly to somewhere across town or across the country or across the ocean in his blue costume and red cape, and then change back to his Clark Kent clothes when he arrived. I kept wondering how that was possible and wondered if maybe he had some kind of a fanny pack hidden under his cape, but never expected them to address it. But in an early episode of "The Mystery of the Sleeping Beauty," narrator Jackson Beck states that Superman changes back into the business suit and horn-rimmed glasses that were hidden under "his billowing cape." Which is really neat, because it provides an actual functional purpose for the cape -- i.e. hiding the bundle of clothes he has on his back. Although later in that same storyline, he picks up an elderly expert he needs to consult with and wraps the guy in his cape in order to take him flying, so I had to wonder why the guy didn't notice the bundle of clothes under the cape and wonder about them. I particularly wonder what happens when he does that with Lois, who's been suspicious before that he's really Clark.
     
  3. davejames

    davejames Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Yeah even for a character as fantastical as Superman, I've always had a hard time buying the idea that he could somehow compress his normal clothes (and shoes apparently!) into some tiny little packet that he could hide in his cape.

    Because no matter how strong you are, there's probably only so much you can fold and compress a fabric before you just end up destroying it.

    I would almost rather they don't try to explain it than use that explanation.
     
  4. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    ^But you see, they didn't say he hid the clothes within his cape -- rather, that they were bundled up underneath his cape, like in the fanny-pack example I suggested. That's why I directly quoted the narration that specifically referenced "his billowing cape" -- to show that the intent was that the flowing, billowing cape concealed the bulge of his clothing bundle on his back or waist or wherever it was. No compression involved, just loose fabric providing concealment. Which is really very clever, and provides a valid reason for having a cape at all.
     
  5. davejames

    davejames Vice Admiral Admiral

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    True. I was just referring to the explanation we've usually been given for how he hides his clothes.

    This alternate one does sound a lot more plausible.
     
  6. urbandefault

    urbandefault Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Geesh.

    This a complicated damn place to just talk about stuff. I wonder what would happen if I brought up the "Burford" episode of ...

    Never mind. ;)
     
  7. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Welcome to our new thread! Make yourself at home.

    Anyway, to respond to your point, I kind of wondered if maybe that script had been written for another show and then hastily rewritten to be about Batman. It doesn't seem likely, though, because that storyline fit very much into the general pattern of the show's postwar tales, with the villains being bigots and fearmongers who don't want Americans to help starving children in Europe because they're foreigners. As messy as the writing got, I'm really impressed with their devotion to the cause of racial and religious tolerance and the effort to create world peace.

    Although in the 1947-8 series, they apparently lost Kellogg's as their sponsor and the constant cereal ads were replaced by a series of sermonettes that were usually about tolerance and inclusion, or sometimes about safety or charity drives. The sentiments are nice enough, but they get so preachy that sometimes I miss the Kellogg's Pep commercials.

    As for the quality of the writing, though, keep in mind that these stories were aired five days a week year-round, so they had to write new material in an awful hurry and didn't have time to refine it a lot. There's quite a sense of making it up as they went in a lot of it. Indeed, sometimes they even redid old stories, which can be handy, since there are two or three storylines where the original versions are mostly lost but the remade versions from a few years later are still intact.
     
  8. JoeZhang

    JoeZhang Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Something I'm not clear about - this show is called Adventures of Superman right? How do Batman and Robin figure in it? Are they always in it? They just show up one day? Do they all live in Metropolis or is some set in Gotham (or maybe actual New York?).
     
  9. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Batman and Robin were recurring guests in the series from sometime in the early '40s. I think they were introduced as a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series, but that never took off, so they just kept showing up as recurring characters, part of the series' large ensemble. They played a similar role to characters like Clark's private detective friend Candy Myers or Lois's friend Horatio F. (for French) Horn, a rural Daily Planet correspondent and amateur detective (who I'd swear is played by Daws Butler from at least his second storyline, though there's no documentation to confirm it). That is, they show up for the occasional storyline and drive the story or assist in it, and then they're absent for the next few storylines, until the next time they show up.

    It's often said that the reason the show often featured Batman and Robin was so that Bud Collyer could have a vacation -- e.g. Superman would be incapacitated by Kryptonite for a week or two and the story would follow Batman and Robin while he was gone. But I'm finding that isn't really the case, or if it is, it's only for a day or two at a time. Usually B&R are in the story alongside Superman rather than taking his place, although there may be a couple of episodes within a 2- to 4-week storyline that focus on them going on a mission while Superman's away or incapacitated.

    I don't know how Batman and Robin made their debut in the show, since that storyline is missing. Their earliest surviving appearance is in one extant episode of an otherwise lost storyline, where Clark discovers Dick Grayson nearly drowned in the water and finds that he has Robin's costume on underneath his clothes, and then is told by Robin that Batman is missing and needs his help. But the first surviving episode with Batman actually in it doesn't come along until some time later. That's the one mentioned above where Batman and Robin get trapped in a pool of water beneath a trapdoor in a hall of mirrors, and their only plan for escaping is to yell for help.

    And Bruce/Batman and Dick/Robin, along with Alfred, live in a house in an upscale neighborhood of Metropolis -- not a stately manor, just a house, though with a garage for the Batmobile and, IIRC, a hangar for the Batplane and a dock for the Batboat, so I guess it's next to the water. As I said, it's treated interchangeably by other characters as Bruce's house and Batman's house as the story requires, yet somehow only Clark knows that Bruce and Batman are the same person. Instead of Commissioner Gordon, the Dynamic Duo's police liaison is Inspector Henderson. (Who, like Perry and Jimmy, was created for the radio series.)
     
  10. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Vice Admiral Admiral

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    It's just a house...with an airplane hangar.

    Maybe we should call it the Bat-Shack!

    Bat-Sha-a-ack,
    That's where it's at...!
     
  11. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    One interesting thing about listening to the radio show is discovering that a number of things that I thought were of recent origin were actually around in the 1940s, e.g.:

    1) Ending a sentence with "Not!" as a way of being sarcastic, e.g. "What a great guy he is... not." (Okay, not exactly the same, but almost.)
    2) Using "literally" to mean "figuratively," as in "Editor White's eyes are literally popping out of his head in shock."
    3) Opening an episode with a flashforward. The story I'm listening to now is opening each episode with a brief teaser of the action toward the end of the episode, then jumping back after the first break. (Although, of course, The Outer Limits did this every week in the '60s.)

    Conversely, there are plenty of neat bits of '40s slang that are completely forgotten today. For instance, around '46 or so, "bad actor" was used to mean, not someone bad at acting, but someone who commits bad acts, an immoral and dangerous person, such as a gangster. E.g. "Jimmy, stay away from that man, he's a bad actor." And there's a really weird one, "from hunger," which means bad or deplorable. Apparently it originally meant something like a low-quality musical performance done strictly to earn food money, but the characters in the show use it in the context of something like "You'll be strictly from hunger in the chief's eyes if you come back without that story," or that sort of thing.

    A different sort of surprising thing: In November 1947, there was a storyline where Perry White organized a reform party to stand against the corrupt political machine of Metropolis (which was a really corrupt city in the radio series), was convinced to stand for mayor, and won! He actually continued as mayor from then on, with Clark effectively running the Daily Planet in his absence. Although apparently he continued to be nominally both the paper's editor and the mayor, often recruiting Clark to serve him as both a reporter and a mayoral aide, which strikes me as an enormous conflict of interest.
     
  12. Silvercrest

    Silvercrest Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    It's a surprise that "Not!" dates back so far. I'm less surprised by "literally". It's just misuse of English and I guess I expect that from any period.
     
  13. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Speaking of things dating back farther than expected, I'm pleasantly surprised by how emphatic the radio show was about the equality of races and religions as early as 1946. Looking back, it seems like the civil rights movement didn't really kick in until the '60s, but here, sometime in '48, they had a story about bigots targeting a couple of black teenagers on a track team, and both of the black characters were portrayed as entirely normal people without any stereotyped accents or anything. Although there were some awful stereotyped black porters in pre-war episodes; I think the revelations of what Hitler did were really a wake-up call for a lot of Americans about the evils of racism, and the writers of the Superman radio show really took that lesson to heart.

    In that storyline, and in an earlier storyline in which the target of racism was a Chinese-American youth, the show did something clever to take advantage of the radio format: For the first couple of episodes, the characters' race wasn't mentioned and they were just treated as ordinary kids the same as everyone else, so that the audience had already gotten a chance to identify with them and like them as good kids being harrassed for no good reason, and only then did it come out that they were nonwhite.

    Although, as I mentioned before, all the constant sermonizing about tolerance that took the place of commercials around late '48 gets a bit tiresome after a while, even though I agree with the message. I'm concerned that it might've oversold the message until kids were tired of hearing it or resented being told what to think. It worked better when they just incorporated the message into the stories, even though it was still pretty heavyhanded there.
     
  14. AgentCoop

    AgentCoop Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    From what I'm reading, I'm guessing there's no Lex Luthor in the series?
     
  15. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Nope. In fact, I commented on this just yesterday in another thread:


    Anyway, more radio Batman shenanigans: Superman has discovered that a hoard of radioactive diamonds, which for some reason cause a circular orange burn-like mark to appear on the foreheads of exposed victims, were brought to the US from Shanghai. He needs to stay in Metropolis to hunt for one of the smugglers, so he flies Batman and Robin to Shanghai to use their underworld connections to track down the source of the diamonds. They meet the main smuggler, presenting themselves as criminal associates of one of the smugglers -- but use their real names. Somehow it never occurs to them that the bad guy could wire his people in Metropolis and have them investigate the names Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson and discover they're frequent allies of the police. So they're captured and marked for death.

    They manage to fight their way out and, changing into Batman and Robin, climb onto the pontoons of the villain's seaplane just as it's taking off. They ditch into the sea just before it lands on the island the diamonds are from (for some reason this seaplane doesn't land in the sea), then swim ashore, but are weakened by the radiation (which affects humans much like kryptonite affects Superman, by weakening them or knocking them out). When captured, they spin a story about their plane crashing at sea, counting on the fact that they won't be recognizable as Bruce and Dick in their costumes. Great plan, right? Except that one of the bad guys was sent up by Batman and Robin before, so of course he knows who they are. Somehow that possibility never occurred to the Dynamic Duo.

    Oh, and remember those orange circles on the forehead? When they're exposed to radiation, Batman and Robin both see those circles on each other's foreheads. Even though, as previous storylines have established, they both wear hoods and masks.

    Meanwhile, Superman's strategy for finding the smuggler in Metropolis is one he's used at least once before: Using his x-ray vision to systematically search every single dwelling in Metropolis. Good grief, how many bathing women and couples having sex did he see? And when he finds a promising suspect, he barges into his dwelling and opens the leaded box he's carrying to confirm it has the diamonds, without bothering to get a search warrant. Apparently Inspector Henderson and the Metropolis PD have no problem with his methods.
     
  16. AgentCoop

    AgentCoop Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    It seems so bizarre, because nowadays we think of Batman as sort of the God Of Strategy, always three steps ahead of everyone else, including the other members of the Justice League. And Superman has to fly them to Shanghai? What happened to the Bat Plane?
     
  17. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Actually Batman was going to use the Batplane, but time was of the essence, so Superman insisted on taking them there faster. It was Superman's show, after all, so they wanted excuses to portray him using his powers.

    Although, yes, the fact that Batman was a guest on Superman's show meant that he tended to be rather lacking. Like I said, Clark was usually the one who came up with the plans and solved the mysteries, and Batman and Robin always got themselves caught and doomed to death until Superman saved them at the last moment, since that's what supporting characters in The Adventures of Superman did.


    Something interesting's happened in the storyline I'm up to now, "The Voice of Doom." Radio Superman, like his TV counterpart later, rarely encountered superpowered foes, instead usually going up against racketeers and spies and hate groups and the like. The one big physical threat he faced was the kryptonite-powered Atom Man in 1946. But the radio writers found out how to give Superman another weakness, and it's quite clever. An escaped murderer named Butcher Stark gets struck by lightning after breaking into a sonic laboratory and is imbued with a lethally loud voice -- and since Superman has super-hearing, he's more vulnerable to it than anyone else! I think that's been done occasionally in other media, but it's nice to come across a story that gives Superman a vulnerability other than kryptonite and magic. (Although radio Superman will pass out from lack of oxygen -- yet he's somehow able to breathe and talk perfectly well in outer space. And he was once weakened by a prototype atomic ray the US military was testing when he accidentally flew into its path.) Also it's such a classic comic-book villain origin of a sort that's unusual in the radio show.
     
  18. AgentCoop

    AgentCoop Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Funny you bring up the oxygen thing, because I've always wondered why no one ever exploited that as a weakness. Granted, "my" Superman is a bit different. I'm mostly familiar with the Byrne era and after. During Byrne's run there was a storyline where Supes exiled himself to space, and as he went to other planets I'm pretty sure he held his breath. Superman can hold his breath a REALLY long time, but I'm pretty sure he could eventually suffocate.
     
  19. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Oh, for... I just heard an episode where all Bruce Wayne had to do was provide an alibi for Clark with Perry White while Clark was off being Superman, and Bruce even fumbled that assignment. You'd think someone who's been a successful masked crimefighter for years would have some practice with alibis!
     
  20. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Vice Admiral Admiral

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    It sounds like Lex Luthor might be an unsee...er, unheard presence on the show...paying Batman behind the scenes to be Superman's ally.
     

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