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Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!note alternately, "Able to soar higher than any plane!"
This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton!
The man of steel! (gong ring) SUPERMAN!"
— The iconic opening of the shorts.
From the studio that brought you such classics as Betty Boop and Popeye The Sailor, Fleischer Studios played a major role in cementing the Man of Steel as a pop culture icon by means of these lavishly animated, massive budget short subjects which served to bring Superman to the big screen, from The Golden Age of Animation. These cartoons were a big deal back in the '40s — the first short, "The Mad Scientist", nearly won the 1942 Academy Award (losing to a DisneyPluto short, "Lend A Paw") and has placed No. 33 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons list. These cartoons were among the first cartoons that were made for genuine action and drama, rather than crude comedy, which was part of what contributed to their success. Paramount in fact had such confidence in the shorts being a hit, they even had had trailers made for them — yes, that's right, trailers for short cartoons. Try to wrap your head around that.The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, had to make similar mental gymnastics themselves at the beginning when they were approached by Paramount to make this series. Already stretched from their ill-fatedfeature film projects and the terrible falling out between them, they were in no mood to take on this project, which presented considerable demands for a more realistic style. So, they tried to scare off the studio execs by saying they would need around $100,000 per short, an astronomical figure considering the typical Walt Disney Pictures short, the biggest averaged budgeted company in animation was around $25,000. To their shock, Paramount compromised at $50,000 per short and the Fleischers just could not turn down money like that, making the Superman cartoons the biggest budgeted (adjust for inflation) animation short series in Hollywood history. And boy, does it show in the art.On top of that, this was the series that turned Superman into a Flying Brick. To elaborate, at the time Superman's aerial abilities were limited to literally "Leaping Tall Buildings In a Single Bound," and the Fleischers intended to adhere to this, but they couldn't animate it without it looking stupid and awkward note The only short where they tried to do this was in "The Arctic Giant", and it's about as ridiculous looking as you'd expect.. They copped out and just gave him flight, and hence an archetype was born.On a side note, only the first nine shorts were made by Fleischer Studios, with the other eight being handled by Famous Studios, their successor. Alas, the basic American economics of the Short Film format in The Golden Age of Hollywood, where such films earned a set fee for screenings regardless of audience interest, couldn't sustain the series and it ended as simply too expensive.On another note, in the late forties, Columbia Pictures made an unrelated live action series of Superman serials, which featured Supes turning into an animated version of himself whenever he flew, reportedly due to budget constraints.These cartoons were also a huge influence on the DC Animated Universe as a whole, as well as filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki.To date, all 17 of the cartoons have fallen into the Public Domain and are all free to view on Youtube. For your convenience, links have been provided below in the filmography.
Bowdlerise: Several home video copies of the first short (even Warner's "Authorized Edition" and Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition DVDs) cut short the scene where Clark asks Perry White, "Don't you think that's a dangerous mission for a woman?"
Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Averted with the villain of "The Electric Earthquake," who dresses in a suit and tie and later a mad scientist's lab coat. His Native American ancestry is only used as an explanation of why he's blowing up the city.
The Cameo: Hitler himself makes a brief one at the end of "Jungle Drums," angrily switching his radio away from the newsflash of the destruction of his U-boats to a song ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" (!)) as he hangs his head in frustration.
Catch Phrase: "This is a job for Superman!" and other variations of it.
"Thanks to Superman."
Clark Kenting: This version seemed to favor the idea that Clark was the "real" personality and Superman was a "mask" over forty years before The Man of Steel reboot nailed it in place. One way of maintaining this "mask" involved Clark Kent speaking in a higher-pitched voice than Superman. (The voice actor, Bud Collyer, also starred in The Adventures of Superman, where this voice change became the only way for listeners to tell Clark and Supes apart.)
In "The Magnetic Telescope", he even used Lois' confusion to steal a kiss as Clark.
Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Apparently, Warner could only secure one clip featuring the Paramount logo. They ended up tacking this one clip onto the end of nearly every short on their DVD, creating an abrupt change in music.
Collapsing Lair: The Mad Scientist's lair, after Superman overloads the cannon.
Counterpart Comparison: While none of Superman's usual Rogues Gallery shows up in any of the shorts, the Mad Scientist from the first episode greatly resembles the original Ultra Humanite only with no paralysis. Likewise, the scientist in "The Magnetic Telescope" bears more than a passing resemblance to Lex Luthor, though looks more like Doctor Sivana.
Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Most of the villains have non-monetary goals, or doesn't use all that impressive technology, but the inventor villain in The Mechanical Monsters invented and built remote-controlled giant mechanical machines... and used them to rob banks, jewelery stores, etc.
Damsel in Distress: If Lois isn't being Bound and Gagged at the hands of the villians, she's being put in a Death Trap, menaced by a rampaging monster, or at the mercy of some natural disaster, all so Supes can swoop in and save her.
Damsel out of Distress: In Billion Dollar Limited, at the first sight of robbery, she unhesitatingly picks up one of the fallen guards' tommy-guns and fires back. She then makes her way to the engine and repeatedly sounds the whistle, which quickly alerts everyone (Including Supes) that the train is in trouble. She only has to be bailed out when the robbers lob a bomb at her.
Defiant Captive: Despite her frequent distress, she always manages to seem self-possessed and/or defiant until the last moment, when it really looks (to her) like this time she's not going to make it. (Superman has a tendency to arrive Just in Time.)
Deadpan Snarker: Maybe the earliest instance of Clark usually having a smart answer for each of Lois' jabs.
Deus ex Machina: Superman himself. In nearly all of the shorts save "Eleventh Hour", he doesn't pop up until more than halfway through the cartoons, acting on the established threats.
Digital Destruction: Warner's DVD compilation has superb restorations of the cartoons, with no DVNR damage or digital interlacing; however, it does include some jarring auditory changes, such as missing sound effects from the opening credits of "Electric Earthquake" and "The Magnetic Telescope", and a jump in the prologue of the first short.
Dressing as the Enemy: Done by Lois in "Jungle Drums" where she steals the robe of a dead Nazi Agent in order to use the Nazi-bases radio to warn the Allies of a planned submarine attack. This fails when the Nazi commander spots Lois's high heels under the hem of her robe.
The Greatest Story Never Told: After Lois submits her article about the events of "The Underground World", Perry White tells her and Clark that their readers would find it too unbelievable, and burns it.
Harmless Freezing: In "The Arctic Giant" a Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen for millions of years is accidentally thawed out and goes on a rampage.
Heroic Mime: Not as Clark Kent, but Superman doesn't seem to talk when he's on the job.
Immune to Bullets: Aside from Superman, The Mechanical Monsters has the introduction newspaper imply that significant measures to stop the mechanical monsters, but it only amounts to a large number of guards using a automatic rifles. The bullets simply bounce off the armor, and the robot simply walks into the building as if there's no opposition. These robots are still destructible (as demonstrated by Superman fighting them).
Invincible Hero: Admittedly, the characterization is pretty shallow and the conflicts are very one-sided. Still, the villains are shown to be ruthless and unstoppable before Superman jumps in, and there is a real sense of wonder about his fantastic abilities. So, the final analysis? Heroic, yes. Invincible, yes. Boring, hell, no.
Mickey Mousing: A Fleischer staple of course. For example, a laser shoots Supes along to the background music in one of the shorts.
My Suit Is Also Super: Superman's cape can redirect the flow of molten lead without even getting singed. Justified in that it actually DID have this ability in the Golden Age of Comics, an early comic shows that the fabric in Supermans spaceship was used to make his costume, and was almost as indestructible as him.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: In "The Magnetic Telescope," the police destroy the generator powering the eponymous telescope, just as it's pulling in a massive comet through the atmosphere.
Ret Canon: Superman's ability to fly came from these cartoons.
Rotoscoping: Used to make the bulk of the animation. Interestingly, according to the book "Hollywood Cartoons", some of the animation wasn't rotoscoped and was drawn freehand by the animators themselves!
Rule of Cool: Superman easily repels a deadly laser beam in the first short, then proceeds to punch said laser beam. Repeatedly.
Shout-Out: The Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas with the Joker" makes a subtle one to the first short of this series by recreating the superlaser bombardment of Metropolis, right down to a bridge being blown apart, except in that case it's the Joker using a giant cannon on Gotham.
Superman: Doomsday makes two — in The Fortress of Solitude, the flying car from "The Bulleteers" and one of the robots from "The Mechanical Monsters" make "blink and you'll miss 'em" cameos (although one must beg the question where he got them, since the bullet car was completely incinerated in its short, and Superman destroyed all of the robots from Mechanical Monsters-or better yet, why he even has them laying around out in the open in his fortress in the first place).
The Popeye cartoons which Famous was making at the time made some shout outs to this series, with one of them, "She-Sick Sailors", having Bluto dress up as Superman to try and woo Olive. Incidentally, the theme when Clark changes to Superman is suspiciously similar to the "Spinach power up" jingle in the Popeye cartoons.
Silence Is Golden: These shorts used dialogue very sparingly. Superman's stunts in particular often have no accompaniment other than music.
Title Sequence Replacement: Sometimes, shorts come to home video with their openings replaced with the prologue from the first. Also, sometimes "The Mechanical Monsters" lacks the part of the opening where Superman shows off his X-Ray Vision (later used to find out which robot contained Lois).
Too Dumb to Live: Lois, most of the time. In the first short, Lois insist that she'd cover the story on the mad scientist alone without Clark and despite Perry's saying "no".
Lois: Thanks, Chief. (walks off) Clark: But, Lois... Chief, don't you think this is a dangerous assignment?
Hayao Miyazaki would use a robot very similar to the robots from "The Mechanical Monsters" in the second Lupin the Third TV series, as well as in Castle in the Sky.
Values Dissonance: A surprising lack of this for a WW2-era propaganda cartoon, the native american villain from Electric Earthquake is even played without stereotype, but the African tribe from Jungle Drums... has about the level of racial stereotype you can imagine from this kind of media.
Well-Intentioned Extremist: The villain in "The Electric Earthquake" is a Native American with obviously legitimate land claim grievances given his people's terrible history interacting with Europeans, but the fact that he stoops to making terrorist threats and has the destructive means and will to carry them out is obviously beyond the pale.
The villain's first public appearance is in the Daily Planet, where he tries the legal and moral route of getting his story published in the paper. It is only after it is rejected that he decides to use his deadly machine. Heck, Clark clearly thinks he has a good point.
On the other hand, the piece of land he wants people to vacate is the island of Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places on Earth