Saturday, July 16, 2016

MOVIE COMICS - 1940s Comic Book Adaptations

While there had been numerous adaptations of comic strips in the 1930s, the comic book boom of the late 1930s soon had film studios seeking to bring superheroes to the screen. Paramount was the first to thrill audiences with the animated adventures of Superman, but the Man of Steel almost arrived in theaters in the flesh in 1940. Republic Pictures was in negotiations with Harry Donenfeld's Superman Inc. to make a cliffhanger serial, even going so far as to write a draft of the screenplay. When Republic tried to counter Donenfeld's terms, he took the film rights to Max Fleisher Studios instead. Republic, not wanting their screenplay to go to waste, changed the character names and produced The Mysterious Doctor Satan, with the heroic Copperhead fighting against the title villain (alongside a woman named Lois!).


 Seeing that Republic Pictures lost out on Superman, Fawcett Comics quickly approached the studio about making a serial with their leading character, Captain Marvel. Given how Captain Marvel was so similar to Superman (with his super-strength, ability to fly etc.), Republic jumped at the offer (Donenfeld noticed the similarities, and a lawsuit eventually ended with Fawcett no longer publishing Captain Marvel comics - and soon after, *any* comics at all - in the early 1950s). Adventures of Captain Marvel arrived in theatres in 1941, and remains one of the best cliffhangers of the Classical Hollywood era. The hero was played by Tom Tyler (with Frank Coghlan Jr as Billy Batson), with flying scenes using a paper mache dummy propelled along a wire high above the ground. While the effect sounds ridiculous by modern standards, critics and audiences were thrilled by it. If 1978's Superman film promised viewers that they would believe a man can fly, then audiences in 1941 were just happy that a film tried to make a man fly in any way they could, believable or not.


In 1943, Columbia offered viewers a Batman serial which has been much maligned in recent years, despite offering audiences a perfectly serviceable version of the caped crusader. It was marked by a racist portrayal of its Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, given that it was produced during World-War II, but the film presents viewers with a relatively faithful version of its main hero. Bob Kane would go on to mock actor Lewis Wilson's weight, yet reviews of the time referred to him as handsome and appealing. The costume resembles that worn by Adam West two decades later, and the film is the first time that the Bat Cave is named in any form... soon appearing in comics as a result.


 There were a few lesser-known characters like The Vigilante and Congo Bill who got their own serials later in the decade, and a Batman sequel followed in 1948 with Batman and Robin. In 1948, Superman finally received a live-action serial from Columbia. While it starred Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent/Superman, Alyn was not allowed to be formally recognized as playing the Man of Steel. Producer Sam Katzman insisted that children believe that it really was Superman in the film, not an actor playing him, so the credits list only "Superman" as starring in the film. While Katzman tested out some flying shots with Alyn in a harness, Superman was ultimately made to fly in the film by way of animation. Whenever he needed to take flight, Alyn was replaced by his animated doppelganger. The same was true with stunts requiring great physical strength, with an animated Superman smashing through a rock wall to rescue Lois Lane.


 Special effects, of course, were not as advanced as they would become in later decades, and since serials were produced on smaller budgets at part of general B-filmmaking patterns at Poverty Row stalwarts like Republic and the smaller major studios like Columbia and Universal, we can't expect to find highly realistic looking effects work in these films. But audiences were delighted nonetheless by these comic book adaptations, no matter that were sometimes less than faithful to their source material, or that their effects were limited by their budget.

Blair Davis, PhD

Author & Editor

Blair Davis is an Associate Professor of Media and Cinema Studies in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.


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