Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941–1943

by Charlie Largent Jun 13, 2023

Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941–1943
Warner Bros. Discovery
1941-1943 / 1.37:1
Starring Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Written by Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber
Directed by Dave Fleischer, Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber

More than a few comic book enthusiasts got their first glimpse of Max Fleischer’s Superman thanks to the Fantastic Animation Festival, a compilation of animated shorts released to theaters in 1977. The films ranged from Ian Eames’s Pink Floyd-scored French Windows to Marv Newland’s short and sweet Bambi Meets Godzilla. But Fleischer’s effort stood apart from the crowd, or more appropriately, leaped above it—the episode was called The Mechanical Monsters and its mix of rampaging cyborgs and sky-high derring-do left both Pink Floyd and Bambi in the dust.

Produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave, the Superman films were, like The Road Warrior, cinema distilled to its essence: action. Each cartoon was a self-contained powerhouse—around eight minutes long, little dialog, and nonstop movement—perpetual motion machines.

Kal-El, Aka Clark Kent, Aka Superman, had made his debut just three years earlier in 1938—in 1940 his persona was still evolving and this was a chance for Fleischer’s crew to put their mark on the character while testing their craft against other artists; filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Orson Welles whose dynamic compositions revolutionized moviemaking. And then there were the turn of the century painters whose style could have been named for the Man of Steel—Dynamism. Their canvases resembled concept art for the Fleischer approach, Dutch angles, forced perspective and streaks of bright colors that suggested what Superman’s cape might look like at supersonic speed.

Superman was voiced by Bud Collyer and Lois Lane was played by Joan Alexander. Their characters were occasionally roto-scoped to give them more natural movement but their body language always fit within the concept—Superman moved sometimes like a boxer, at other moments a track star, and when leaping tall buildings at a single bound, he gave Nijinsky a run for his money. Animators naturally took a more glam approach to Lois who was smooth as silk in her deportment while her dress fluttered in the manner of a 40’s pin up girl.

Each cartoon had a title that was as stripped down as its plot—The Mechanical Monsters, an army of motorized safecrackers, Bulleteers, hotshots in bullet-shaped rocket cars, Terror on the Midway and The Arctic Giant, the Fleischers’ answer to King Kong, Electric Earthquake, a one act treatise on the terrible power of science and nature, and Volcano, perhaps the series’ raison d être—the mountain’s theater-shaking eruption is the purest expression of the Fleischer Studio’s mission statement: shock and awe.

After years of a contentious personal relationship and mounting problems with Paramount, the Fleischer brothers went their separate ways—but not before Paramount lowered the boom on the Fleischer Studio itself in 1942. A faux Fleischer production unit called Famous Studios rose in its place, utilizing much of the same talent, with Superman writer Seymour Kneitel now in charge.

Under Kneitel the stories began to reflect newspaper headlines, focusing on the war effort and the various villains associated with the era; spies, traitors and demagogues. Outré villains like the hawk men of The Underground World might make a token appearance but Kneitel’s work leaned to a great extent on real-world conflict.

Directed by Kneitel and written by Bill Turner and Carl Meyer, Japoteurs modeled itself after the most jingoistic of Hollywood’s war films with a story focused on Hirohito’s plan to hijack a powerful new bombing plane. Other military-minded episodes followed including Eleventh Hour, an unusually adult thriller with Kent and Lois trapped in Japan as prisoners of war. The wartime toons were no less compelling than Superman’s battles with robots and mad scientists—but those fantasies had become trivialized by a bleak reality impossible to ignore.

Warner Archives has released all the Fleischer Superman cartoons on a new Blu ray compilation but some folks aren’t in the mood to celebrate—complaints abound on the internet about the films being digitally scrubbed of their grain (a similar fate befell the Blu ray of Citizen Kane). The films at least retain their eye-popping colors, and the thrills, at least on a primal level, are undiminished. As the folks say, caveat emptor.

WA has added  a few short documentaries to the package; Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow, First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series , and The Man, the Myth, Superman. Each segment features contemporaneous animators, designers and other craftsmen expounding on Fleischer. Most prominent is Bruce Timm whose 1992 Batman: The Animated Series could be viewed as an homage to the Fleischers.

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