Saturday, November 25, 2006

Atom Man vs. Superman

Turner Classic Movies is replaying the 1950 serial "Atom Man vs. Superman" this month, and with all the time off for Thanksgiving, I've been able to catch a few installments. What jumps out at me even more than the story and the acting is how much the world has changed since 1950.

The differences begin with the format itself. Serials like this were released in chapters (fifteen of them in this case) and shown before the main attraction at movie theaters. Very few people had television sets, and of course there was no such thing as a personal computer or Playstation, so movies were the only way to see live-action stories.

Think about that for a minute. To get the latest chapter, you couldn't sit at home on your couch, waiting to watch it on television. You couldn't TiVo it, and watch it at your leisure, or check YouTube for the installment you missed. You had to save your money, and make sure you made it to the theater on time or you were out of luck. And you were forced to wait a whole week between chapters, wondering if Jimmy Olson really did get blown up on the artillery range or not. I think it's hard for kids today (me included) to understand the agony of delayed gratification like that, but there simply wasn't any other way at the time.

The basic story is standard comic book fare, full of gruff-talking gangsters, improbable escapes, and very thin plotting. But there's a wide-eyed innocence and relentless energy that makes it fun to watch on its own merits. I can see where "Raiders of the Lost Ark" got the inspiration for its pace and style.

One of the most interesting parts of the serial from a filmmaking standpoint is the use of animation to show some of Superman's more amazing abilities. You'd see Superman crouching down, then leaping up as if launching himself for flight, and immediately the camera cuts to a wider shot showing an animated character flying off into the sunset. It's an interesting, and effective, technique, and not something I knew they'd done as far back as the 50's.

Beyond the movie-going experience itself, I had to laugh at a few bits of unintended humor. Apparently, in 1950 it took only about 20 seconds to drive from downtown Metropolis to deserted hills and scrubland. And clearly, radiation and atomic energy were poorly understood at best. In one classic scene, gangsters show up at the post office, where Superman's X-Ray vision has transformed a box of "special element" nails into -- get this -- polonium. Polonium! The crooks casually pop the lid open on the container filled with one of the deadliest substances in the universe, chuckle at their cleverness, and zip back to their lair. Never mind that they'd be dead men walking, not unlike the Russian ex-spy who recently shuffled off this mortal coil due to radiation poisoning from polonium.

Later, Lois Lane agrees to cart around a load of radium in her purse to keep it safe from Atom Man. That's one way to give your skin that special glow, I suppose, but she'd have been better off sticking with makeup.

If you get the chance to catch any of the chapters being broadcast on TCM, I think you'll get a kick out of it. You're basically getting both a fun super-hero story AND a trip in a time machine, so you can hardly go wrong!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember in college seeing commercials from the 1950's. They were touting cholesterol as the latest and greatest in hair care products from men. Isn't that disgusting!!! I have to say, I get such a kick out of these older movies, but I'd never heard of this one. I think the lady who plays Lois Lane did the same on the TV series for a while. I know they had a couple of Lois Lane's, and I think this is one of them. One day when watching "An Affair To Remember," I kept thinking if they had cell phones in the 1940s and 1950s, our love story movies would've been crap. Thank God for letters that cross in the mail! And Cary Grant! -- Denise