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Category:    Home > Reviews > Animation > Children > Action > Superhero > Superman – The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection (VCI)

Superman – The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection (VCI)


Picture: C     Sound: C     Extras: C+     Animated shorts: B+



NOTE:  Since this first posted, we did not know Warner was going to issue the shorts or how.  They have since put the first nine episodes on their 4-DVD set for the 1978 Superman and the last eight WWII propaganda works for the older theatrical Superman II cut in its 2-DVD Richard Lester edition.  Though the new copies have better color, more detail and slightly better sound, there is still some work that needs to be done on them and Warner did not do HD transfers (yet, anyhow), plus they have more picture area in all four corners versus this set.  However, some color here is still good, other parts look a bit blown out and an early sketch still that is sepia-toned in the VCI copies is black & white in the Warner copies.  We believe the sepia is correct because it has been in all previous copies of the shorts as we remember them and Warner only offers one featurette on The Fleischer Studios, yet none of the extras this VCI set has.



There is this annoying thing about a curse being on Superman and it is not from any of the stories, but from the idea that all the actors who ever played him had something bizarre happen to them afterwards.  Of course, no one can remember all the actors who played him, so that alone negates the myth.  However, if you want to hear the strangest story of all, you should hear the one about the first animated Superman shorts now being reissued in VCI’s Superman – The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection.


The Fleischer Studios originally produced it, going through Paramount Pictures, the second biggest studio of the Classical Hollywood period.  The studio was also responsible for Betty Boop, Popeye and other amazing animated classics that were so groundbreaking and innovative that Walt Disney himself rightly saw them as his top competitor.  In 1940 they produced and in 1941 started releasing their most ambitious series yet, based on the then-new comic book hero Superman, introduced in 1938.  They changed the chest “S” slightly and poured hefty sums of money into the pilot and subsequent 16 shorts as their new A-series of product all the way to using dye-transfer three-strip Technicolor when it was also new and expensive.


In the middle of production, the Fleischer Brothers Max & Dave had a falling out at their Florida studios and paramount took advantage of the situation, buying them out and renaming the facility Famous Studios.  In reality, that means only the first 9 of the 17 shorts were made by The Fleischers, though the rest closely followed their work and are considered part of the cannon.  The biggest change in their absence is that Superman was suddenly fighting the original Axis powers.  The titles are as follows:


1)     The Man Scientist

2)     The Mechanical Monsters

3)     Billion Dollar Limited

4)     The Arctic Giant

5)     The Bulleteers

6)     The Magnetic Telescope

7)     Electric Earthquake

8)     Volcano

9)     Terror On The Midway

10)  The Japoteurs

11)  Showdown

12)  Eleventh Hour

13)  Destruction, Inc.

14)  The Mummy Strikes

15)  Jungle Drums

16)  The Underground World

17)  Secret Agent



By the circus-set Terror On The Midway, with its escaped gorilla foreshadowing the crazy gorilla mania at DC Comics where a gorilla would appear on every comic book cover no matter how absent the creatures were in most of the stories, the imagination, grandness and innovation that marked the earlier entries had faded.


The eight WWII propaganda shorts that followed had Technicolor and those who took over kept the quality on the high side, but the scope of the stories where whittled down to a B-movie thriller status at best that never measured up to the earlier entries.  They seem more like time capsules than classics.  Also, some of the subtle Noirish touches that made the early installments great were lost in the newer hands they were left too.  Also, as is the case when a good series goes into decline, a more childish sense of humor took hold that would have never been tolerated in the beginning.  It is no wonder producing anti-Axis propaganda (and strange senses of conformity in the process) helped bring down Classical Hollywood, though The Mummy Strikes is a breather of sorts.


The first set of shorts is incredible!  The Man Scientist sets up the very tall, rich and high settings all over the place, ranging in design from Art Deco to nature to the coldness of technology.  An interesting side aspect is that the form was always rubbery in solid objects, but that made the animation more intriguing and was part of a style that seemed to enhance the possibilities of the narrative, villains and hero.


The Mechanical Monsters is a classic with giant robots that are truly menacing and a threat to even Superman.  Billion Dollar Limited shows how Superman is more powerful than a locomotive, while The Bulleteers is a short that definitely predates the James Bond films in particular.  The Arctic Giant gives us a dinosaur on the loose, while The Magnetic Telescope and Electric Earthquake make for great Science Fiction action as much as superhero thrills.  Outside of the Disney school of animation, this series is an early maturing of American Animation, not counting the earliest animated shorts and how they were made for adults with their sexual innuendo.  It would be decades before animation worldwide caught up with these gems and they hold up amazingly well 65+ years later and going.  Not even a classic like Akira (reviewed elsewhere on this site) can escape their shadow and even computer animation has a long way to go to catch up as well.  That like Akira this was all done by hand is more stunning than ever.


The 1.33 X 1 image is said to come from good 35mm prints and on the basis of color, not definition, we believe it.  When Image Entertainment put out their double 12” LaserDisc set The Superman Cartoons Of Max & Dave Fleischer, they were also from 35mm prints and for their time over ten years ago, looked pretty good.  The color was not as vibrant as it is here, which is more typical of real Glorious Technicolor, but it was good enough for that format and at $50 for the set sold well.


Those were the same transfers the company recycled for the single DVD set and when they let that set go out of print, they got together with Bosko Video and issued a second DVD of the same material in 2000.  It also had their limited Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono versus the PCM mono from the old set, so the compromises continued.  Unfortunately, definition is the compromise for this VCI set, something we experienced on the older Somewhere In Dreamland Fleischer set to the point that a second edition was recently issued that upgraded those shorts; both are reviewed elsewhere on this site.


The quality here is closer to the later Dreamland set, with good color often, though why such obviously good prints have definition trouble in the transfer is a mystery.  Still, the color at its best is so amazing that I was able to finally recall the glory of the 35mm prints like the one I saw in the 1970s and at this price, it is worth it.  The vibrancy and detail of the color are what the original Technicolor process could deliver at its best and even the Bosko DVD would be hard-pressed to match or surpass these copies.


The color on the WWII-era prints is not as good as the early shorts and only The Japoteurs shows equally good color.  At the same time, Terror On The Midway is the only one of The Fleischer’s productions that has color issues, though being the last one and the poorest, that makes some sense.  The latter shorts still have better color than many animated programs form the late 1970s to date, but they just cannot compete with the earliest masterful uses of color.  Ironically, almost the entire Fleischer catalog has been reacquired by Paramount via Republic Pictures, which they own and got the catalog back.  It was separated from their feature films to 1948 that Universal owns to this day, sold for quick bucks as TV approached.  This Superman series got separated for several reasons and that is why it is here and has been issued in various releases inferior to this set.


The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is not bad for its age, with the soundtrack’s optical mono origins.  Credit should be given to Sammy Timberg for a great theme song and great music that has been more than a little influential on all the action animation that followed.  Some background noise can be heard, but that is better than compression.


Extras include the black and white Snafuperman cartoon from the Private Snafu series Warner Bros. produced to spoof the Fleischer series, which appeared inexplicably in a blue chromed version on then Image LaserDisc and DVD versions, a trailer for the interesting Columbia Superman serial with Kirk Alyn that Warner has issued as a set with its sequel serial on DVD, a preview of the many animated offerings from VCI and four bio text pieces on the two main voice actors, Max Fleischer & the Man of Steel himself, text on the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Behind The Cape facts and synopsis of each cartoon and a good, recent telephone interview with Lois Lane voice Joan Alexander.  Inside the DVD case, there is also nicely illustrated pullout with a couple of informative essays and content listing.  Be sure to pick this one up!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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