Another superhero movie is upon us. This one is Suicide Squad, and I’ll be seeing it with a couple friends in Eau Claire this Friday night. The film showcases notable villains from the DC Comics universe, brought together by a shadowy government agency to take on a tough mission because of their unique talents and of course, because they’re expendable.
In seeing the previews for the film, I couldn’t help but think that this is one more example of how comic-book characters have changed, on the page and on the screen, since the days when I started reading comics as a kid.
The other night, while doing some mindless internet surfing, I came across a YouTube video that was a short film documenting the Superman movie serials of the late 1940s. There were two of them: Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs Superman (1950). Serials were popular in the movies from the early ’30s into the mid ’50s, when TV started to drain theaters of their audiences. Each episode typically lasted 15-20 minutes, and a theater booking a serial would show an episode prior to its main feature, usually on Saturday afternoons.
The special effects used in movies back then were primitive by today’s standards, to say the least, especially in the serials, which had relatively small budgets and second-tier talent. But that didn’t matter to legions of kids who flocked to their neighborhood theaters to see their hero in live action for the first time. This short documentary tells the story of that first Superman serial and the man who played the Man of Steel: Kirk Alyn — the First Superman.
As the documentary points out, the producers of the first serial didn’t even list Alyn in the credits on screen, although he did get mentioned on the movie’s posters, as shown above. Born in New Jersey in 1910 as John Feggo, Jr., he appeared on Broadway and the vaudeville circuit before going to Hollywood. His film career was interrupted by his service in the Navy during World War II, and three years after the war ended came his big break. At his screen test, a DC Comics exec told him he looked just like Clark Kent, Superman’s civilian alter ego. Alyn’s experience as a dancer helped him handle the physical requirements of the role. He reprised it in the 1950 serial and reportedly turned down the TV role that went to George Reeves, who was four years younger. The Adventures of Superman aired from 1952-58, a total of 104 episodes, and lasted for years beyond its cancellation thanks to syndication.
Both Alyn and Reeves suffered from typecasting thanks to their portrayals of Superman. Alyn’s career never amounted to much after his second and final serial as the Man of Steel, and he died in 1999. Reeves’s career was only slightly more notable than Alyn’s; prior to putting on the cape, he had bit parts in two Oscar-winning films, Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity. Like Alyn, he served in the military during the war, but his Army service was entirely stateside and consisted largely of making training films, including gems like Sex Hygiene, about a soldier catching syphillis from a prostitute. Ironically enough, Reeves appeared in the film along with a fellow actor/soldier, Robert Lowery, who later played Batman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin.
But unlike Alyn, who lived to the age of 89, Reeves’s ending was more tragic, and still controversial; he was found dead in his Los Angeles-area home in the wee hours of June 16, 1959, of a gunshot wound to the head. The police investigation concluded it was suicide, but there was talk that he had been shot, perhaps accidentally, by his drunken fiancée, Leonore Lemmon, or even that he had been murdered by a hit man sent by Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix. Reeves and Toni, who was several years older, had been having a long-running affair that Reeves broke off after he met Lemmon. The story of Reeves’s career and tragic death was told in the 2006 movie Hollywoodland, with Reeves played by Ben Affleck and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix.
Another kind of serial from TV’s Golden Age.
Early TV had its serials, too, and for some reason the other day I thought of this one, from The Mickey Mouse Club. It was The Adventures of Spin and Marty, which aired 78 episodes over three seasons, 1955-57. Each episode was only about 11 minutes long. The series opens with the arrival of Marty Markham at the Triple R Ranch, a place where boys from the city and the country can spend a summer playing cowboy. Marty is an orphan; his rich parents have died, leaving him in the care of a grandmother, and he shows up in a chauffeur-driven limousine. This doesn’t exactly make him the most popular boy on the ranch, as one might guess, and he immediately runs afoul of Spin Evans, an athletic and likable lad whose family, it is implied, is lower middle-class at best. But Marty quickly catches on and he and Spin become fast friends.
David Stollery played Marty. Born in Los Angeles, Stollery was 14 when he was cast as Marty and had already appeared on Broadway, in the movies and in episodes of classic TV series like I Love Lucy and Dragnet. The role of Spin went to Tim Considine, also 14 at the time the series began. Considine was a familiar face to viewers of Disney shows back then; he appeared as one of the Hardy Boys in another Disney serial and in the Disney series Swamp Fox and the movie The Shaggy Dog. He was the oldest son on My Three Sons for the show’s first five seasons, then was written out after his character got married.
Viewing Spin and Marty episodes today takes some patience. They’re in black and white, and while the production values are surprisingly good—it was filmed largely on location at a ranch in southern California—the themes are simplistic by today’s standards. There is no profanity, of course, no smoking or drinking or drug use, no sneaking off to the nearby girls ranch to spy on the gals in the shower. One would think that if the show was done today, all of those things would have to be included. There would also have to be diversity, with boys of different races and religious beliefs and nowadays there would likely be gay and transgender boys as well. With all the stuff that’s considered mandatory to include in a show these days, the basic message might get lost. Spin and Marty showed that boys of different backgrounds could indeed get to know each other and become friends. Everybody was equal on the Triple R. Nobody had better bunks than anyone else, nobody had easier chores. The boys had to learn how to get along, to put aside what prejudices they might’ve had upon arrival and understand kids of different backgrounds. And they managed to do that and have fun, too.
I remember watching the show as a youngster down in small-town southern Wisconsin and thinking, That’s for me. That’s what I want to do. I was a big fan of Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger and man, all that horseback riding sure looked like fun. But it would be many years before I’d get the chance to stay at a real ranch, when Sue and I went to Alberta in 2001 and stayed a week at Homeplace Ranch in the Canadian Rockies. We had a wonderful time, and whenever I get a chance nowadays I saddle up. Most recently that was in Tibet, and we had a great time riding through the foothills of the Himalayas. Another great riding trip was the one I took with my little brother Brian in 2011, when we met in Billings, Montana, and traveled throughout the upper Great Plains, riding horses in the Black Hills of South Dakota and then in the Badlands of North Dakota.
Ronald Reagan once said something about how the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. He was certainly right about that. (And I think it works for women, too.) It was something Spin and Marty learned as boys, and it was something all of us boys from those days would hopefully get to learn, too. When you’re on horseback, going through the mountains or across the prairies, things seem different. Calmer, more peaceful. It’s a good feeling.