SUPERMAN: The Fleischer Cartoons

(A note on run times: The run times from each cartoon are taken from one of the many public domain DVD releases currently on the market. It is possible that they may be off by a second or two due to clipping of the opening and closing credits or slight loss of footage through truncation of the end title card.)

1. Superman (aka The Mad Scientist)

Release Date: September 26, 1941
Story By Isidore Sperber, Seymour Kneitel
Animation by Steve Muffati, George Germanetti
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 10:13

Synopsis: The cartoon opens with a brief recap of Superman’s origin. Hailing from Krypton, “a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens,” Superman was rocketed to the Earth as an infant by his father to escape the planet’s destruction. The infant grows up in an orphanage and upon adulthood secures a job as a reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper under the name Clark Kent, to “best be in a position to use his amazing powers in the never ending battle for truth and justice.” A mad scientist has threatened to strike at the city at midnight, using his “electrothanasia” ray. Acting on a hunch, Lois Lane takes a plane to search for the scientist’s lair, finding it in on a rocky mountaintop overlooking the city. The scientist captures her and promises to giver her “the greatest story of destruction the world has ever known.” With that, he fires his electrothanasia ray at the city, disintegrating a portion of a bridge and sending cars hurtling to the river below. Hearing the news in the Daily Planet office, Clark changes to Superman and takes to the skies to look for the scientist’s hideout. Meanwhile, the scientist decides to strike again, firing his ray at the base of the Daily Planet building, causing it to sway at start to topple over. Superman quickly rights the building and then literally punches the deadly beam back to it’s source. Tying a knot in the electrothanasia ray cannon’s barrel, Superman then proceeds to destroy the scientist’s lab, rescue Lois and capture the scientist. The scientist is jailed and Lois gets the scoop for the paper.

Notes:

  • Paramount went to the unusual length of having short coming attraction trailers for the premier cartoon of the series attached to the front of many of their theatrical releases.
  • This cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award in the Short Subject, Cartoons category. It lost to Disney’s Lend A Paw.
  • The sound of Krypton exploding is actually the sound of an apple being wrenched apart greatly amplified.
  • Superman’s origin as presented here has him growing up in an orphanage, with no mention of his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents’ first appeared in Superman #1 (Summer 1939).
  • The Daily Planet building looks different here than in subsequent cartoons, topped with a spire rather than the more familiar ringed planet.
  • Jack Mercer provided the voice of the Mad Scientist. Mercer voiced Popeye from 1935 through 1957, as well as occasional supplying other voices for various Fleischer productions. He started at the studio as an in-betweener but was tapped as original Popeye voice actor William Costello’s replacement based on his ability to imitate Costello’s work.
  • Lois endangers the whole city by not informing the police of the location of the scientist’s hideout in favor pursuing her story.
  • The scientist’s pet vulture is the series’ only example of an anthropomorphic animal. Although such animal characters were fairly common in cartoons and even the Fleischer’s own feature length Gulliver’s Travels combined a rotoscoped Gulliver with more cartoonish characters, it is likely the decision not to use them in any subsequent Superman shorts was made to give the cartoons a greater verisimilitude.
  • The scientist calls his weapon an “Electrothanasia” ray. Using the Greek word for death, “thanatos,” the weapon’s name translates rather appropriately to “electric death”.

2. Mechanical Monster

Release Date: November 21, 1941
Story by Isidore Sperber, Seymour Kneitel
Animation by Steve Muffati, George Germanetti
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 10:07

Superman’s x-ray vision reveals that there’s not much room for the mechanical works of the Mechanical Monsters.

Synopsis: The National Bank is robbed and a strange flying shape is seen leaving the crime. Later, in a scientist’s hidden lair, the shape reveals itself to be a giant flying robot, which deposits a large amount of jewels from a hatch in its back to a trunk. Its controller, an impeccably dressed, pencil-mustached scientist, has built himself an army of robots to rob banks. “Mysterious Mechanical Monster Loots Bank!” screams the Daily Planet‘s headlines while another headline states that extra precautions are being taken to protect the $50 million “House Of Jewels” rare gem exhibit opening in the city. While Clark and Lois are covering the opening of the exhibit, one of the scientist’s giant robots appears. The police open fire with Tommy guns but are ineffectual. While Clark is phoning the story into the paper, Lois stows away in the robot’s cargo hatch. Clark changes into Superman and takes flight, following the robot. He tries to open the robot up to rescue Lois, but is thrown to the valley below. At the scientist’s lair, Lois is captured and is threatened with torture by the scientist. Superman arrives at the scientist’s lair, and battling his way through the army of robots, saves Lois and captures the scientist. Lois gets another scoop for the Planet.

Was the above animation recycled for the shot below?

Notes:

  • Title Card: A weird oscillating electronic sound can be heard when the title card comes up.
  • This is the only cartoon to mention and use Superman’s x-ray vision.
  • If the scientist has created at least 27 (the highest number seen when the robots attack Superman) robots, why does he only send them out one at a time to steal?
  • This is the first cartoon to show Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth.
  • When the robot attacks the bank we see the number 13 on its front, but in a subsequent rear shot of the robot striding past the police we see the number 5 on its back. This inconsistency appears to be caused by recycling a portion of the animation of robot number 5’s return from the previous scene.
  • The robots are just one of many mechanical designs throughout the series that work more for their visual impact than for any practicality. The back hatch that opens to allow the robots to unload their stolen booty seems to be bigger than the robot’s body. Also, as Superman’s x-ray vision reveals, the entire body of the robot appears to be given over to space for stolen loot. Where is there room for the robots’ mechanical works?
  • When Lois is discovered by the unnamed scientist in his lair, he questions her as to what happened to the jewels in the robot. When Lois refuses, he threatens her with torture. We next see Lois suspended on a platform above a large iron smelter, the scientists telling her, “Maybe this will change your mind,” as he slowly lowers her towards the pool of molten metal. Even if Lois were to change her mind, the scientist would never find out, as he has gagged her.
  • The Daily Planet masthead logo is different from the one seen in the previous cartoon.
  • Bud Collyer also supplied the voice for the scientist.

3. Billion Dollar Limited

Release Date: January 9, 1942
Story by Isidore Sperber, Seymour Kneitel
Animation by Frank Endres, Myron Waldman
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 8:24

Synopsis: A billion dollars in gold is set to be transported to the United States Mint via a special train. Lois goes along to cover the story. When the train leaves the depot, no one notices a high-speed car following the train. Pulling alongside the train, several hooded crooks jump onto the train and uncouple the car containing most of the guards. They make their way to the locomotive engine where they scuffle with the engineers, who plummet off the train and down into a ravine. Alerted by the sound of gunfire, Lois makes her way to the engine and tries to stop the train. The crooks in the car open fire on her and, scooping up a Tommy gun dropped by one of the crooks, Lois returns fire! The news that the train is traveling out of control flashes across the Daily Planet‘s news teletype. Reading the news flash, Clark changes to Superman. Following the train’s tracks, Superman sees that the crooks have shunted the train onto a spur to collide with a boxcar full of explosives. Superman manages to stretch the tracks back onto the main line, diverting the train. The crooks then destroy a bridge but Superman rescues the train from plummeting into the chasm. The crooks finally manage to blow up the engine and coal car. Superman rescues Lois and then hauls the train to the mint.

Notes:

  • Title Card: A train headlight appears behind the title and rushes towards the viewer.
  • Superman may be super strong, but Clark Kent isn’t super smart in some of the cartoons. Here, Clark’s suspicions are not raised when he is almost run over at the train station by the crooks’ speeding car.
  • Lois’s actions generally consist of her inevitably being caught trying to sneak into a villain’s lair or somehow putting herself in danger, necessitating a rescue from Superman. Grabbing a Tommy gun and firing at the crooks’ car is the strongest instance of her acting proactively against a villain in the whole series.
  • The crooks’ plan is a little fuzzy. It is never shown how they planned to escape with the gold from the train. Did they have a location somewhere along the line where trucks were waiting to transport the gold to a hideout? It seems that they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble they did for the relatively small amount of gold they would be able to transport in their car.

4. The Arctic Giant

Release Date: 1942
Story by Tedd Pierce, Bill Turner
Animation by Willard Bowsky, Reuben Grossman
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 8:29

Synopsis: Deep in Siberia, a team of scientists discovers an intact dinosaur, frozen in a block of ice. After being taken to the Museum of Natural Science, the tyrannosaurus is placed on display in a specially refrigerated room. When a scientist tips the Planet that the dinosaur could still be alive in the ice, Lois and Clark are sent to the museum. While Lois is given a tour of the refrigeration unit, a carelessly placed oil can falls into a generator dynamo, shutting down the freezer. While the engineers try vainly to repair the refrigeration unit, the ice melts, freeing the dinosaur. The dinosaur begins to rampage and demolishes half of the museum, incidentally trapping Lois under the wreckage. When the news reaches the Daily Planet, Clark changes to Superman and flies to the museum. After freeing Lois from the rubble, Superman tells her to go back to the safety of the Daily Planet, though she ignores his advice. Meanwhile, the monster crashes through the city and into the countryside, smashing a dam and a bridge. Superman follows, fixing the damage left behind the creature. The tyrannosaurus finally arrives at a baseball stadium and almost eats Lois who is trying to get a picture of the creature. Superman arrives in time to save Lois and subdue the monster. A newspaper headline informs us that the dinosaur has been caged and is on display at the city zoo.

Notes:

  • Title Card: The music lowers slightly to reveal the howl of arctic winds.
  • The Daily Planet building looks different from the one scene in The Mad Scientist. This new building has more of a deco design, has the newspapers name in big letters midway up its side and is topped with the familiar ringed planet.
  • Superman doesn’t seem to be too concerned with concealing his identity of Clark Kent. After changing in a Daily Planet storeroom he flies right out of the building’s front door, observed by several passers-by.
  • After the dinosaur proved impervious to bullets, it’s not clear what the firefighters on the fireboat thought they were going to accomplish by turning their hoses on the monster.
  • Lois is a bit sassier in this cartoon. Following her rescue from the dinosaur’s jaws, Superman lightly admonishes her for not going back to the Planet offices like he told her to. She retorts with a playful “Yes, m’lord.”

5. The Bulletteers

Release Date: 1942
Story by Carl Meyer, Bill Turner
Animation by Orestes Calpini, Graham Place
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 7:53

Synopsis: Out of the black of night a strange missile crashes through the city’s Police Station, destroying it. The missile continues its flight towards one of the mountainous areas outside of the city, where it lands in a secret hideout and reveals itself to be a piloted craft. Retractable wings and extending wheels turn the missile into a car. The crooks behind the bullet craft issue an ultimatum to the city: If the contents of the city treasury are not turned over to them, they will begin a campaign of destruction, targeting power plants, fire houses and other city buildings. The mayor refuses to capitulate and the city prepares for the Bulleteers’ attack. That evening, the Bulleteers strike, fulfilling their promise of destroying the city’s power plant. Superman arrives and gets the upper hand in an aerial battle with the bulletcar, until the Bulleteers manage to trap Superman under the rubble of the city Treasury building. While the Bulleteers are looting the treasury, Lois sneaks into their vehicle and tries to damage the controls but is caught. Superman revives just as the Bulleteers depart. Giving pursuit, Superman manages to catch up to the Bulleteers craft, ripping open the top to capture the Bulleteers and freeing Lois.

Reused drawbridge from Billion Dollar Express (above) and The Bulleteers (below).

Notes:

  • Title Card: Underneath the music you can hear the zoom of the Bulleteers’ car.
  • There appears to be a couple of instances of reused animation in this cartoon. The shot of the drawbridge immediately after the Bulleteers destroy the power plant is the same one from Billion Dollar Limited, only cars have been animated approaching it instead of a train. There are two shots that are recycled in The Bulleteers. There first is the shot of Clark changing to Superman in the telephone both. The second is of three police officers firing at the Bulleteers car. This second shot is flipped, so where the police officers’ movements in Mechanical Monsters is right to left, they move from left to right in Bulleteers.
  • Bud Collyer also supplied the voice of the head Bulleteer.

6. The Magnetic Telescope

Release Date: April 24, 1942
Story by Dan Gordon, Carl Meyer
Animation by Thomas Moore, Myron Waldman
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 7:25

Synopsis: A professor has developed a new way of studying comets. Using a giant electromagnet, he pulls them close to Earth for observation and then repels them back into space when he’s done. However, after an accident causes a meteor to crash down into the city, the mayor orders the professor to stop his research. When the police confront the professor he says that he’s aware of the danger but intends to continue his experiments. When the police try to stop him, the professor drops down a barrier, locking them out of his observatory. As he proceeds to draw a new comet towards Earth to study, the police head towards the observatory’s basement and disable the electromagnet’s power generator. Unfortunately, the comet is now too close to Earth and it continues towards Earth, smashing through a meteor. As meteor fragments rain down on the city, destroying bridges and trains, Superman tries to stop the comet. He finally returns to the professor’s observatory, fixes the generator and, with Lois’s help, energizes the giant magnet to repel the comet back into deep space.

Notes:

  • Title Card: The word “Magnetic” crackles with energy.
  • Another dumb moment for Clark/Superman- When the meteor fragments first start raining down on the city, Clark hops into a cab to go to the professor’s observatory. It’s not until a meteor smashes into road in front of the cab does he change into Superman and fly the rest of the way.
  • Clark does not say “This is a job for Superman!” before getting into his tights and cape.
  • Bud Collyer provided the voice of the professor.
  • It’s a good thing that the controls are as simplistically labeled as they are (“Forward”/”Reverse”), otherwise Lois might not have been able to operate them to repel the comet.

7. Electric Earthquake

Release Date:
Story by Isidore Sperber, Seymour Kneitel
Animation by A. Arnold Gillespie, Steve Muffati
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 8:34

Synopsis: An opening shot of Manhattan moves down towards the waterfront docks. Moving underwater we see many thick electrical cables seemingly plugged into the bottom of the bay and all snaking back to an underwater chamber. From that chamber rises a small elevator, which deposits its rider, a well dressed Native American scientist, in an abandoned warehouse. The scientist goes to the Daily Planet where he tells Clark, Lois and the editor that he still considers Manhattan to belong to the Indians and demands that it be returned. The three find his demands absurd, but the scientist leaves with a warning that “modern science will make you think differently!” Lois follows the scientist, but is caught. He takes her down to his underwater laboratory, where he tells her that he can destroy the waterfront through electrically stimulated earthquakes. The scientist demonstrates his machinery, setting off earthquakes and explosions, first along the waterfront and then the city. As the Daily Planet building shakes, Clark changes to Superman and flies towards the waterfront. Diving into the East River he finds the electric cables and traces them back to the undersea laboratory. Punching a hole into the lab, Superman captures the escaping scientist and rescues Lois from drowning.

Notes:

  • Title card: The title shakes and partially crumbles.
  • Some people have decried this cartoon as being an unflattering stereotype of Native Americans. Quite the contrary, though, as the Native American scientist is presented as well-spoken (no pigeon English) and is obviously well-educated, having to have built the laboratory and earthquake machine.
  • Jackson Beck voiced the Native American scientist.

8. Volcano

Release Date: July 10, 1942
Story by Carl Meyer, Bill Turner
Animation by Willard Bowsky, Otter Feuer
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 7:45

Synopsis: After three centuries of dormancy, the island volcano Mount Monokoa is showing signs of activity. Clark and Lois are assigned to accompany a group of geologists to the island. Once there, Lois is able to go up onto the volcano rim with the geologists via a cable car, while Clark has to go back to the town at the volcano’s base to get a press pass (In reality, Lois had stolen Clark’s pass in order to get an exclusive.). Up on the volcano, Lois is told that the geologists plan to blast the higher lip of the volcano to divert the lava away from the town below. However, before the geologists can detonate the dynamite, the volcano erupts, severing the cable to ignite the explosives. The geologists escape, but Lois is trapped by the slowly advancing lava. In the town below Clark sees the eruption and quickly changes to Superman. After temporarily halting the lava flow towards the town, Superman rescues Lois from the cable car moments before it crashes to the ground. Acting as a conduit of the served ignition cable, Superman triggers the dynamite to demolish the crater’s opposite lip, allowing the lava to flow away from the village.

Notes:

  • Title Card: The title drips down like lava.
  • The dissolve between the steamship’s smoke stack and the smoking volcano is perhaps the best scene transition in the series.
  • Did Clark know that Lois had swiped his press pass at the time and went through with the charade to protect his secret identity or is this another case of Clark not noticing something he should have?
  • Superman saves the day by again serving as a conduit for electricity. (See Magnetic Telescope)

9. Terror On The Midway

Release Date: August 30, 1942
Story by Dan Gordon, Jay Morton
Animation by Orestes Calpini, James Davis
Musical Arrangement: Sammy Timburg, Winston Sharples (uncredited)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Running Time: 7:59

Synopsis: Much to her disgust, Lois has been assigned to cover the opening night of a circus. A small monkey running loose inadvertently unlocks the cage of Gigantic, the world’s largest gorilla, causing panic. In the growing chaos, several other animals are set loose. Circus workers and the police are unable to Gigantic. Clark arrives at the circus and, assaying the situation, quickly changes to Superman. After re-caging an attacking panther and stopping some stampeding elephants, Superman goes to rescue Lois from the menacing Gigantic. As the Superman and the gorilla fight, a fire is accidentally started. Superman manages to cage Gigantic and put out the fire while Lois gets a scoop.

Notes:

  • This is the last Superman cartoon to be produced before Fleischer Studios is absorbed by Paramount Studios and renamed Famous Studios. It is the last of the series that will be directed by Dave Fleischer.
  • Title Card: The roar of animals can be heard under the music.
  • This is the only cartoon from the Fleischer Studio series that placed director Dave Fleischer’s credit on the same card as the rest of the crew.
  • Jack Mercer supplies the voice of the sideshow barker.
  • Lois takes repeated flash photos with a camera that needs its flashbulb changed after each use.
  • For such a dangerous animal, Gigantic is locked in a cage that can be opened easily via a pull chain. Even given the fact that it is possible that the cages were designed to let the animals loose quickly in the event of a fire, this design seems prone to accidental openings as shown here.
  • Clark once again rushes to the scene in a taxi.
  • The size of Gigantic seems to fluctuate through the cartoon. He seems smaller during the segment where he fights with Superman versus the opening of the cartoon where we see him caged and when he first enters the circus tent after being freed.

Continue on to the Famous Studios cartoons.

Back to the History of the Fleischer Superman Cartoons.

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About Rich Drees 6262 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture.

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