Superman – The Ultimate
Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection
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:
The Man Scientist
The Mechanical Monsters
Billion Dollar Limited
The Arctic Giant
The Magnetic Telescope
Terror On The Midway
10) The Japoteurs
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