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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    Idle thought on radio Superman:

    I never thought I'd hear a children's show whose hero so routinely said "Off with these clothes!" before going into action.
     
  2. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Clean Old Mod Moderator

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  3. Turtletrekker

    Turtletrekker Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Can you imagine if it were Batman saying it to Robin?:eek:;):lol:
     
  4. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    You're not far off. Sometimes you do hear "All right, Dick, let's strip down to our costumes."


    Joking aside, though, I really am impressed with Bud Collyer's acting. Allowing for the broad, fast-paced style of live radio performance, I think he showed a lot of skill and nuance as an actor, and did a great job differentiating Clark and Superman by voice, something nobody else has ever really managed to do quite as well. The one actor I can think of at the moment who's differentiated his Clark and Superman voices to a similar degree was Beau Weaver in the 1988 Ruby-Spears animated series, but his Clark voice sounded like a deep-voiced man affecting a higher pitch, while Collyer's sounded far more natural (even though I gather his regular voice was closer to Superman's pitch).
     
  5. AgentCoop

    AgentCoop Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Didn't Collyer also voice Clark/Superman in the Fleischer cartoons?
     
  6. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Yes, along with fellow radio cast members Joan Alexander (Lois) and Jackson Beck (narrator/various), with Beck playing many guest characters including Perry White (played on radio by Julian Noa) and Inspector Henderson (played on radio by Matt Crowley and others). Not only that, but Collyer, Alexander, and Beck again reprised their roles for the 1966-8 Filmation animated series (in which Beck played the narrator, Perry, and Lex Luthor, and probably most of the other male guest characters). So Collyer and Alexander were the near-exclusive voice-only portrayers of Superman and Lois for three decades, from 1940 to 1969. (Although Lois was briefly played by Rollie Bester and Helen Choate in early 1940 before Alexander was cast, and Superman was played by Michael Fitzmaurice in the final 9 months of the radio series.)

    On radio, Jackson Beck also played Alfred the butler as well as radio-exclusive characters Sgt. Healy of the police and Daily Planet copyboy Beany Martin, as well as countless guest characters. He was also the voice of Bluto in Popeye cartoons from 1944 to 1961, and was the G.I. Joe cartoon's narrator in the '80s.
     
  7. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Now I'm up to the last complete surviving serial of the series -- after that there's an incomplete one and a single surviving episode of another, and then a smattering of half-hour episodes from the last couple of years of the series -- and it features Lois's sister, who in this version is a dancer named Diana, rather than a flight attendant named Lucy (although, coincidentally, there's a maid named Lucy in one chapter of the story). And I'm positive that Diana is played by June Foray! Unfortunately there seem to be no surviving cast lists from this late in the series, since I can't confirm that it was Foray (nor can I confirm my belief that Daws Butler was a member of the ensemble in the later years). But she does have a pretty unmistakeable voice.

    What's interesting is that Diana is the more intrepid and daring of the two sisters when they end up in a hostage situation together. We're used to thinking of Lois as the bold, adventurous one, but radio Lois was fairly timid and easily frightened -- probably a pretty typical leading lady for a '40s radio serial.
     
  8. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I'm up to the last batch of surviving episodes, when the series switched from the Mutual network to ABC and moved to a half-hour format in 1949-51. Actually there were a few different phases of that, first a thrice-a-week version of which there are only a couple of surviving episodes, and then a Saturday morning version that mostly survives intact. But in both, they gave up the serial format and made each episode a complete story in itself. In some ways that's refreshing, since the stories aren't as padded and there's not as much repetition. (Generally in the 15-minute serial phase, they'd end each episode with a cliffhanger, then repeat the same scene as the teaser of the next episode, then repeat it again a couple of minutes later after the commercial -- but with somewhat different dialogue each time!) But it also makes the stories rather more brief and superficial, without as much room for character interplay. And sometimes the superheroics suffer badly too. There was one episode where Superman only showed up for like 20 seconds and said "Hello, here's Jimmy, whom I just pulled out of a dangerous situation across town. Now if you'll all go to the office, Clark Kent will meet you there and explain everything." And there's one where Superman doesn't appear at all -- the bad guy throws a woman out a window, then goes about his evil business, then is stunned when Clark shows up with the woman in tow, and later Clark explains to Inspector Henderson that Superman caught her "offscreen." (Off mike?) It's like they knew the show would be moving to television soon and were practicing how to write Superman stories on a tiny effects budget. Although I doubt there was ever a George Reeves episode where Reeves never donned the costume at all.

    Also notable is that in the Saturday morning series, they finally give credits at the end for Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander, Jackson Beck, and the composer/organist, who I think was called John Garth (I can't quite make out the name). But no credit for Sammy Timberg, who composed the Superman cartoon theme which the radio series adopted from 1946 onward. Or for the stock bit of orchestral music that the Saturday series began using as its main title theme.
     
  9. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I've now reached the end of the surviving Superman episodes. I'm afraid the half-hour version of the series was kind of disappointing. As I mentioned, there's generally rather little of Superman in them, and the emphasis is more on mysteries and crime stories than action -- which is true of most of the series, but before, the stories were long enough to have room for a fair amount of action and heroics rather than just one or two brief bits. Also, several of the stories are truncated remakes of stories I've already heard. The half-hour series also trimmed down the supporting cast somewhat; Batman evidently ceased to be part of the show, and at least in the surviving season, Jimmy Olsen seems to be missing; there are a couple of stories in which the role I'd expect to go to Jimmy instead goes to Jackson Beck's squeaky-voiced character Beany Martin, Jimmy's replacement as the Daily Planet's head copyboy.

    One interesting example of a remade story is the finale of the penultimate season, "Dead Men Tell No Tales." It's adapted from the 1948 serial "The Mystery of the Stolen Costume," in which a burglar in Clark's apartment discovered his spare Superman costume and Clark turned to Batman to help him retrieve it and preserve his secret. In that version, the burglar, intending to sell the secret to a gangster, was shot by the police and could only tell the gangster the location of the apartment building before he died, and the rest of the story was about the gangster using various strategies to determine which of the building's tenants was Superman and Clark and Batman using various ploys to counter them. In the half-hour version, Batman is replaced by Clark's detective friend Candy Myers, who doesn't know he's Superman, making their cooperation rather more awkward. The gangster gets the full address and he and his moll know Clark is Superman, and to protect his secret, Superman flies them to a remote mountain where he intends to hole them up until he can find a solution, whereupon they promptly try to escape and fall off a cliff. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was remade again as "The Stolen Costume" in the first season of the George Reeves TV series.

    In fact, looking over an episode guide for the TV series, I see that several of its episodes were remakes of radio stories. I hadn't realized that. That's another reason to check out the show, either on DVD or when MeTV starts airing it next month (I gather).

    Anyway, there's just one surviving episode of the final 1950-51 season, and it doesn't have a single familiar voice in it. In that season, Michael Fitzmaurice replaced Bud Collyer as Clark/Superman, Jack Grimes replaced Jackie Kelk as Jimmy Olsen, and Ross Martin replaced Jackson Beck as the narrator. Lois and Perry aren't in the surviving episode. I was interested to hear how Fitzmaurice did as Superman -- I've been aware of him as a footnote for decades, and wanted to find out once and for all -- and he really didn't amount to much. He had a generic, announcery voice, very different from Collyer's -- with the sort of mellow quality that Bing Crosby's voice had, but blander, and he sounded more like an announcer reciting lines than Collyer ever did (even though Collyer was also an announcer). And he didn't distinguish his Clark and Superman voices much at all. He's a footnote who deserves to be a footnote, and I don't regret that I won't be hearing any more of his episodes (particularly since so many episodes of this series were live reruns/remakes of earlier episodes; they even did "The Stolen Costume" again, according to the episode list on Wikipedia!). As for Grimes, he was decent, but sounded less like a teenager than Kelk, more like a grown man vaguely trying to sound youthful.

    So that's the end of that, I guess. Now I'm not sure what I'll do now that I've gotten into the habit of listening to old radio episodes while I eat or wash dishes. Although there are a lot of other old radio shows out there on the Internet. Maybe I'll try The Green Hornet next, or Dimension X.
     
  10. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Clean Old Mod Moderator

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  11. urbandefault

    urbandefault Commodore Commodore

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    Are there clips online somewhere? I'd like to hear them. :)
     
  12. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    The show is apparently in the public domain, so episodes are available several places. Here's the index of all the pages of episodes on the Internet Archive:

    https://archive.org/search.php?query=subject:"The+Adventures+of+Superman"

    There's also this site, which has the same episodes all on a single page, but it seems to keep disappearing and reappearing under a different address:

    http://bygone.ws/episodes.php?code=super


    The particular story I was referring to with Lois's sister Diana was "The Mystery of the Letter," on this page:

    https://archive.org/details/Superman_page15
     
  13. urbandefault

    urbandefault Commodore Commodore

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    Thanks. :)

    I've been fascinated with voice actors since the early 70s, especially the "busy" ones from the 40s-60s. In the early 90s I saw a special on PBS (I think) about Daws Butler that was done shortly before he died. There were several interview clips. At the time I had no idea that it was his voice I'd heard in so many different productions. Paul Frees is another one that fascinates me.

    EDIT: Everthing is on YouTube these days. link
     
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2014
  14. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    As I mentioned, I think that Butler did several characters in the later years of the show, mainly the recurring role of Horatio F. Horn. But I'm not sure, since it's been a long time since I've seen any shows Butler was in. I tracked down some YouTube clips of some of his characters, and there were a couple that came close to the voices I'm thinking of on the radio show (the higher-pitched ones like Elroy Jetson), but no exact matches.
     
  15. RandyS

    RandyS Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Have you heard X Minus One? All 150 episodes are available on the Internet Archive, at least they were five years ago when I downloaded them and burned them to CD-R. It's a sequel/followup (and in some cases, rebroadcast) of Dimension X, and quite a good series. I've always thought of it as The Twilight Zone for radio.

    And, if you're interested, there's always NPR's 29 episodes of Star Wars (The OT) and the 26 episodes of The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
     
  16. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I was actually aware of X Minus One before I knew of Dimension X (as anything other than where Krang came from to menace the Ninja Turtles), but I figure if I'm going to listen to them, I should start with the earlier show.

    I heard the Star Wars/Empire adaptations when they first aired on NPR, but haven't been motivated to revisit them (and hadn't known they were available). I suppose it might be interesting to hear them again sometime, but I'm no more than casually interested in SW. And I'm already pretty familiar with Hitchhiker's.

    I would love to listen to more Doctor Who audios, but I could never afford to collect the whole series. I know some of them are occasionally made available online on BBC 4's website, but I never seem to get the notification in time to listen.
     
  17. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Well, that's interesting. I just watched the first two episodes of the George Reeves Adventures of Superman on MeTV, and they were both adapted from radio stories. In fact, the premiere episode's Krypton sequence was nearly a verbatim adaptation of the radio script. Which means that the Smallville portion is probably a verbatim adaptation of the missing episode that depicts Clark's childhood. (Except that he wasn't from Smallville on radio, but from a town in Iowa whose name escapes me. Smallville was invented by the Superboy comic that predated the TV series by about a year.) So now I don't need to feel I missed something important.

    The second episode, "The Haunted Lighthouse," is a looser adaptation of one of the early serials. I remember enough to recognize aspects of the story, but also enough to know that some parts are different. For instance, the TV episode features a housemaid who's deaf and mute, which I doubt would've worked well on radio.
     
  18. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Clean Old Mod Moderator

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    I was wondering about that Krypton sequence...with you having talked about how some TV stories were adapted from radio stories, and the way that the narrator described plainly visible features of the Kryptonian council chamber.

    "The Haunted Lighthouse" is noteworthy as having been John Byrne's first-ever exposure to Superman. It strikes me as an odd second episode, with so much set-up out of the usual setting and away from Clark.

    There's another case that got me wondering about how much early TV shows took from their radio predecessor. Not being familiar with the radio version, I've recently had occasion to catch some Hopalong Cassidy TV reruns on Sunday mornings. The theme song lyrics mainly describing a simple action--"Here he comes! Here he comes!"...the use of first-person narration as a shortcut to move the story along...both things that strike me as possibly having been lifted wholecloth from the radio version.
     
  19. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Well, the only description of the chamber I recall was that it was high above the great capital city, which was useful in the show in that it gave a sense of how the interior set related to its unseen environment. The only redundant description the narration gave was of "white-bearded Ro-Zan" coming to the podium.


    Yeah, I remember reading about that in Byrne's introduction to the Man of Steel TPB (I think it was).


    Maybe they really wanted to establish Jimmy Olsen. He was created on radio in the first place as an audience identification figure for young listeners, and he was often front and center of the stories, probably more so than Lois. So maybe they were trying for the same thing here.


    By the way, I also watched the Fleischer Superman shorts a few days ago, and they derive some things from the radio show too. In their first cartoon, the description of the destruction of Krypton is only a few sentences, but the initial line about a green jewel in the heavens or whatever is right out of the radio script. And the introductory audio, the "Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" is not only the same script as the radio series was using at the time, but literally the exact same audio clip. They just took it right from the radio soundtrack and used it for the cartoons. Also, not only did they have Bud Collyer as Superman (only for about the first half-dozen or so cartoons, and uncredited actors thereafter) and Joan Alexander as Lois, but Julian Noa reprised his role of Perry White too (except in one or two later shorts).

    Although it was kind of weird going from the radio show, where Superman was constantly narrating his actions, to the cartoons where he was completely silent in the action scenes. I can understand them not needing the constant chatter when you could see what was happening, but you'd expect at least some dialogue or exertion grunts or something.

    So now I've heard the radio show, watched the original cartoons, and started to watch the TV show. I guess I should revisit the Kirk Alyn serials at some point. I wish I'd thought to do that before today.
     
  20. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Clean Old Mod Moderator

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    The bit of description I was thinking about was when the narrator described the chamber's marble columns and torches...both of which were right there in front of us onscreen.