Monday, November 26, 2012

I’m pretty excited about something that has been recently posted on-line: a beautiful print of the Fleischer Superman cartoon “Terror on the Midway.” Warner Brothers Online has posted beautifully restored prints of the Superman shorts.

This short, part of the legendary series of adaptations produced in the early 1940s by the Fleischer Brothers, has long been available on various public domain labels. The rights to these cartoons reverted back to DC Comics and, believe it or not, the person in charge of renewing copyrights at DC at the time at the time of the cartoon’s expiration neglected to do so.

The results of this action have been both good and bad: the good aspect has been the cartoons have been readily available, but the bad is that all too often the quality has been sub-standard.

Gone were the days when it was truly difficult to see these cartoons. Although I saw them on TV as a child, the first time I saw a number of them to study was in DC Comic’s office, watching the company’s own 16mm prints.

Even when various VHS and DVD collection boasted of superior prints, there was never a good print of “Terror on the Midway.”

The Superman series was the first comic book adaptation to film. Although comic strips had been the subject of both short subjects and feature films, the Fleischer Superman shorts broke ground.

They also broke ground at the studio with a radical departure from the kind of animation for which the Fleischers were well known and tried to change the perception of what kind of stories were suitable for animation. Although very popular with audiences, imagine if other adventure strips had been transformed into animation maintaining their signature look – “Flash Gordon” or “Captain Easy” or Terry and the Pirates.”

These are cartoons that are staged as a live action film would be staged. They effectively used pans of static drawings in order to put the animation budget into the action scenes. Fleischer head Animator Myron Waldman told me that animating the Superman shorts wasn’t easy. He said that additional drawings were added to give the characters a greater sense of weight.

The Fleischers were smart enough to use the vocal cast of the popular Superman radio show – starring Bud Collyer – that provided an additional thrill to Superman fans.

Let me quickly add that Superman wasn’t a project the Fleischers wanted. It resulted from a deal made between Paramount Pictures DC Comics after an effort to secure a serial version of Superman at Republic Pictures failed. The Fleischers knew to do the shorts in the manner that they should they would be more expensive than most cartoons – making it more difficult to recoup their production expenses and deliver a profit. Paramount basically forced the studio to undertake the assignment.

Republic, by the way, then turned to Captain Marvel and produced the live action film based on a comic book superhero.

The look of “Terror on the Midway” was unique to the series. On paper, it seems sort of mundane. Lois is saddled with the boring assignment of reviewing the circus. By accident, a monkey releases a huge gorilla from its cage, which sets off some terrifying circumstances.

Here, watch it.

I loved the use of shadow, the almost film noir feel, that is used to add drama and horror to this story. This cartoon is “lit” in a way audiences hadn’t seen before. I also admire the use of sound in this film from the ambient noise of the circus in the beginning to how the cartoon falls silent when the gorilla makes his appearance in the big top.

This is the Superman, by the way, who couldn’t fly, but took tremendous leaps. While he was bulletproof, he could be stunned by electricity. The fact that he was more vulnerable than the god-like character we know today. While there are no mad scientists or monsters, the gorilla is presented in such a way to maximize its brute strength and the problem he poses for Superman. In several scenes the viewer doesn’t see the gorilla in his entirety – just his torso, which emphasizes his unnatural size.

During the fight between Superman and Gigantic, there are two close-ups of the combatants that are presented in a way I hadn’t seen before in the series.

I appreciate whoever in the vast corporate hierarchy of Warner Brothers who decided to out these cartoons online.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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