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From the studio that brought you such classics as Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, Fleischer Studios played a major role in cementing the Man of Steel as a pop culture icon by means of these lavishly animated, massive budget short subjects which served to bring Superman to the big screen, from The Golden Age of Animation. These cartoons were a HUGE deal back in the '40s — the first short, "The Mad Scientist", nearly won the 1942 Academy Award (losing to a Disney Pluto short, "Lend A Paw") and has placed No. 33 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons list. These cartoons were among the first cartoons that were made for genuine action and drama, rather than crude comedy, which was part of what contributed to their success, and they became so popular, they even had trailers made for them — that's right, trailers for short cartoons. Try to wrap your head around that.
The Fleischer Brothers had to make similar mental gymnastics themselves at the beginning when they were approached by Paramount to make this series. Already stretched from their ill-fated feature film projects, they were in no mood to take on this project, which presented considerable demands for a more realistic style. So, they tried to scare off the studio execs by saying they would need around $100,000 per short, an astronomical figure considering the typical Walt Disney Pictures short, the biggest averaged budgeted company in animation was around $25,000. To their shock, Paramount compromised at $50,000 per short and the Fleischers just could not turn down money like that, making the Superman cartoons the biggest budgeted (adjust for inflation) animation short series in Hollywood history. And boy, does it show in the art.
On top of that, this was the series that turned Superman into a Flying Brick. To elaborate, the Fleischers intended to just have him jump like in the comics of the time, but they couldn't animate it without it looking stupid and awkward, so they just copped out and gave him flight.
On a side note, only the first nine shorts were made by Fleischer Studios, with the other eight being handled by Famous Studios, their successor. On another note, in the late forties, Columbia Pictures made an unrelated live action series of Superman serials, which featured Supes turning into an animated version of himself whenever he flew, reportedly due to budget constraints.
To date, all 17 of the cartoons have fallen into the Public Domain and are all free to view on Youtube. For your convenience, links have been provided below in the filmography.
Fleischer/Famous Superman Filmography
- Superman, AKA The Mad Scientist: September 26, 1941
- The Mechanical Monsters: November 28, 1941
- Billion Dollar Limited: January 9, 1942
- The Arctic Giant: Feb 27, 1942
- The Bulleteers: March 27, 1942
- The Magnetic Telescope: April 24, 1942
- Electric Earthquake: May 15, 1942
- Volcano: July 10, 1942
- Terror on the Midway: August 28, 1942
- Japotuers: September 18, 1942
- Showdown: October 16, 1942
- Eleventh Hour: November 20, 1942
- Destruction Inc.: December 25, 1942
- The Mummy Strikes: February 19, 1943
- Jungle Drums: March 26, 1943
- The Underground World: June 18, 1943
- Secret Agent: July 30, 1943
Tropes Employed In This Series Include:
- Affectionate Parody: The Bugs Bunny short "Super-Rabbit" by Chuck Jones, as well as the Private Snafu short "Snafuperman."
- Animation Bump: The whole series held no punches when it came to flaunting its huge budget, and the action scenes really pushed the Fleischer animators to their limits.
- Art Evolution: Compare Lois' design in the first short to her in the second.
- Attack of the 50 Foot Whatever: "The Arctic Giant."
- Beneath the Earth: "The Underground World."
- BFG: The superlaser cannon used in "The Mad Scientist".
- Big Electric Switch: "The Arctic Giant". After the generator malfunctions, two knife switches are pulled out to turn it off.
- Bowdlerise: Several home video copies of the first short (even Warner's "Authorized Edition" and Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition DVDs) cut short the scene where Clark asks Perry White, "Don't you think that's a dangerous mission for a woman?"
- The Cameo: Hitler himself makes a brief one at the end of "Jungle Drums," angrily switching his radio away from the newsflash of the destruction of his U-boats to a song ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" (!)) as he hangs his head in frustration.
- Catch Phrase: "This is a job for Superman!" and other variations of it.
- Clark Kenting: This version seemed to favor the idea that Clark was the "real" personality and Superman was a "mask" over forty years before The Man of Steel reboot nailed it in place. One way of maintaining this "mask" involved Clark Kent speaking in a higher-pitched voice than Superman. (The voice actor, Bud Collyer, also starred in The Adventures of Superman, where this voice change became the only way for listeners to tell Clark and Supes apart.)
- In "The Magnetic Telescope" He even used Lois' confusion to steal a kiss as Clark.
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Apparently, Warner could only secure one clip featuring the Paramount logo. They ended up tacking this one clip onto the end of nearly every short on their DVD, creating an abrupt change in music.
- Collapsing Lair: The Mad Scientist's lair, after Superman overloads the cannon.
- Cool Car: The Flying car from "The Bulleteers."
- Damsel in Distress: If Lois isn't being Bound and Gagged at the hands of the villians, she's being put in a Death Trap, menaced by a rampaging monster, or at the mercy of some natural disaster, all so Supes can swoop in and save her.
- Deadpan Snarker: Clark usually has a smart answer for each of Lois' jabs.
- Dead Unicorn Trope: The "cliche" of Clark turning into Superman in a phone booth is based almost entirely on TWO of these cartoons: "The Mechanical Monsters" and "Bulleteers". In the first cartoon, Clark is with Lois when he ducks into a phone booth to...call in the story to the Daily Planet. While he's on the phone, Lois sneaks away to investigate the story further. Clark finishes the call, steps out, sees Lois is missing, and only then goes back in the booth to change into Superman. In "Bulleteers", Clark changes in the phone booth for no apparent reason, helping to solidify in the public's mind that this is how he "always" changes into Supes. The earliest known comic where he does this was in a newspaper strip that came out later the same year as "Bulleteers". In that strip, Clark even thinks to himself that this is a fairly uncomfortable place to change clothes in and that he's doing it here only because he's in a hurry.
- Digital Destruction: Warner's DVD compilation includes some auditory changes, such as missing sound effects from the opening credits of "Electric Earthquake" and "The Magnetic Telescope", and a jump in the prologue of the first short.
- Earthquakes Cause Fissures: From the short "Electric Earthquake."
- Earthshattering Kaboom: The way Krypton gets destroyed in this series.
- Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: "The Arctic Giant."
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: The giant ape from "Terror on the Midway."
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The mad scientist from the first short is known by everyone in Metropolis as... the mad scientist. He doesn't seem to have a name.
- Evolving Credits: The opening speech quoted above underwent a revision after Superman developed flying powers.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane! This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton...
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Pretty much all of the names of each short.
- Eyes Always Shut: Clark seems to have his eyes closed much of the time.
- For Science!: The motivation behind the scientist from "The Magnetic Telescope," who was willing to risk human lives for his experiments.
- Going for the Big Scoop: Lois, always.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: After Lois submits her article about the events of "The Underground World", Perry White tells her and Clark that their readers would find it too unbelievable, and burns it.
- Harmless Freezing: In "The Arctic Giant" a Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen for millions of years is accidentally thawed out and goes on a rampage.
- Heroic Mime: Not as Clark Kent, but Superman doesn't seem to talk when he's on the job.
- Until "The Arctic Giant", that is.
- Hot Scoop: Lois.
- Invincible Hero: Admittedly, the characterization is pretty shallow and the conflicts are very one-sided. Still, the villains are shown to be ruthless and unstoppable before Superman jumps in, and there is a real sense of wonder about his fantastic abilities. So, the final analysis? Heroic, yes. Invincible, yes. Boring, hell, no.
- Kaiju: What the "dinosaur" from The Arctic Giant would actually be today. It even looks a lot like Godzilla, making this Older Than They Think.
- Killer Robot: The eponymous machines from "The Mechanical Monsters."
- Lava Pit: Or rather, molten lead pit.
- Mickey Mousing: A Fleischer staple of course. For example, a laser shoots Supes along to the background music in one of the shorts.
- My Suit Is Also Super: Superman's cape can redirect the flow of molten lead without even getting singed.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: In "The Magnetic Telescope," the police destroy the generator powering the eponymous telescope, just as it's pulling in a massive comet through the atmosphere.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lois bears more than a passing resemblance to Rosalind Russell's "Hildy Johnson" in His Girl Friday (1940).
- Oh Crap: When the boss from "Showdown" discovers that the Superman he's talking too isn't his mook in disguise, but the real one.
- Politically-Incorrect Villain: The Nazi commander in "Jungle Drums" makes it clear that he despises the natives who are his allies.
- Public Domain Animation: All 17 of the cartoons.
- Rotoscoping: Used to make the bulk of the animation. Interestingly, according to the book "Hollywood Cartoons", some of the animation wasn't rotoscoped and was drawn freehand by the animators themselves!
- Rule of Cool: Superman easily repels a deadly laser beam in the first short, then proceeds to punch said laser beam. Repeatedly.
- Scenery Porn: A lot of the art deco backgrounds.
- Shooting Superman: In "Billion Dollar Limited."
- Shout-Out: The Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas with the Joker" makes a subtle one to the first short of this series by recreating the superlaser bombardment of Metropolis, right down to a bridge being blown apart, except in that case it's the Joker using a giant cannon on Gotham.
- Superman: Doomsday makes two — in The Fortress of Solitude, the flying car from "The Bulleteers" and one of the robots from "The Mechanical Monsters" make "blink and you'll miss 'em" cameos (although one must beg the question where he got them, since the bullet car was completely incinerated in its short, and Superman destroyed all of the robots from Mechanical Monsters-or better yet, why he even has them laying around out in the open in his fortress in the first place).
- The Popeye cartoons which Famous was making at the time made some shout outs to this series, with one of them, "She-Sick Sailors", having Bluto dress up as Superman to try and woo Olive. Incidentally, the theme when Clark changes to Superman is suspiciously similar to the "Spinach power up" jingle in the Popeye cartoons.
- There's another shout-out to the Fleischer Superman cartoons in Batman: The Animated Series: The robots in the episode "Deep Freeze" are basically a cross between the robots from The Mechanical Monsters and the robots from Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
- Whether or not its intentional, the scientist in "The Magnetic Telescope" resembles Captain Marvel's nemesis Dr. Sivana.
- Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow producers openly admit the giant robots were based on the Mechanical Monsters.
- Silence Is Golden: These shorts used dialogue very sparingly. Superman's stunts in particular often have no accompaniment other than music.
- Title Sequence Replacement: Sometimes, shorts come to home video with their openings replaced with the prologue from the first. Also, sometimes "The Mechanical Monsters" lacks the part of the opening where Superman shows off his X-Ray Vision (later used to find out which robot contained Lois).
- Trainstopping: As Superman usually does.
- Transforming Mecha: The mechanical monsters from the eponymous cartoon.
- Wartime Cartoon: The later Famous Studios shorts went in this direction, resulting in some very unpleasant Values Dissonance.
- Wave Motion Gun: The huge laser in the first short.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: The villain in "The Electric Earthquake" is a Native American with obviously legitimate land claim grievances given his people's terrible history interacting with Europeans, but the fact that he stoops to making terrorist threats and has the destructive means and will to carry them out is obviously beyond the pale.
- The villain's first public appearance is in the Daily Planet, where he tries the legal and moral route of getting his story published in the paper. It is only after it is rejected that he decides to use his deadly machine. Heck, Clark clearly thinks he has a good point.
- Winged Humanoid: The bird-men in "The Underground World."
- alternately, "Able to soar higher than any plane!"