So, among all the bonus materials in my Superman Blu-Ray set are all the Superman cartoons from the 1940s. I've been watching them in between Superman films, and now that I'm done, I thought I'd say a few words.
These cartoons were so groundbreaking when they were produced in the 1940s. Think about all the cartoons from that era you've seen. Bugs Bunny. Mickey Mouse. Woody Woodpecker. They're all comedies. Doing action adventure in that medium was unheard of. They literally wrote the book on how to do superheroes in animation.
As the legend goes, when Superman debuted in 1938 and quickly became the hottest comic strip in the funny pages, Paramount snatched up the movie rights and sought to turn them into a series of animated cartoons. Hey, it worked for them when they did it with Popeye. Paramount approached their under-contract animation studio, Fleischer Studios, to produce them. Max and Dave Fleischer, attempting to produce their own full-length features to compete with Disney, really didn't want to take on another project, so they gave Paramount a ridiculously high estimate in the hopes of scaring them off. To the Fleischers' surprise, Paramount came back with, "You got it!" Thus, they wound up being some of the most expensive, lavishly produced, and highest quality animated shorts of the era.
And these cartoons are so good! Talk about your compressed storytelling...each one is just 10 minutes of pure superhero action. Take the most famous one, The Mechanical Monsters, where Superman takes down an army of giant robots. It's full of thrills and chills. And then there's The Arctic Giant, where Superman has to fight a giant dinosaur released from the Arctic ice. It's just a pitch-perfect Superman adventure.
And these cartoons made their own mark on the Superman mythology. The Mechanical Monsters is the first recorded instance of Clark Kent changing to Superman in a phone booth. The classic description of Superman, "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" was written as the opening narration to these cartoons. Hell, these cartoons were what gave Superman the power of flight. Before these cartoons, Superman just traveled everywhere with super-powerful jumps. When the Fleischers determined that looked lame in animation, they said, "Dude, let's just have him fly." And the rest is history.
Since these were made in the early-1940s, as World War II raged on, some cartoons do take on propagandist tones, as Superman does battle with Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs. One, The Eleventh Hour, even deals with Superman's exploits behind enemy lanes as he sabotages Japanese naval yards.
And because this was the 1940s, some of these are a little bit...racist. One that stuck me as unusual was Electric Earthquake. A Native American mad scientist threatens to level Manhattan with his earthquake machine unless the island is returned to his people. Why did this strike me as odd? I think this is the first time I've ever seen a Native American scientist in anything. Sadly, he was of the mad variety, but still. We need more Native American scientists in pop culture.
Since Superman was still new to the world, it's interesting to see how weak Superman is. When he smashes in a steel door, it takes two or three tries and he's really got to put his shoulder into it. The cartoon The Electric Telescope concerns using a magnet to draw a comet closer to Earth to study. But when the comet is put on a collision course for Earth, Superman actually isn't strong enough to punch it back into orbit, resulting in him going with plan B: frantically fix the electric telescope and use it instead.
These are still exciting and thrilling cartoons. They've since fallen into the public domain, so you can watch them all on YouTube for free!