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A good argument could be made that Warner Home Video's long-awaited release of a stand-alone DVD edition of the Max Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons is no big deal. After all, all 17 of these cinematic gems were already included in the massive Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD set released in 2006. Why, then, should we care about the introduction of this new stand-alone DVD edition, titled Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942?
Well, from this reviewer's perspective, there are some very good reasons to care. Chief among these reasons is that the release of this new two-DVD set marks the first time that high-quality versions of all 17 Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons have become available in a self-contained edition. As a result, these remarkable films are now far more accessible to animation buffs, movie historians, and Superman/superhero fans. To everyone who appreciates these remarkable movie shorts, about which so much has been written over the years, this is reason enough to care.
Although most die-hard Superman aficionados probably didn't mind the cost of the 14-disc Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD set (which, incidentally, is worth every penny), its price tag - coupled with the need to search out the nine Fleischer Superman cartoons that are sandwiched into Disc number 4 and the eight Famous Studios Superman cartoons squeezed into Disc number 7 - tended to make the films inaccessible to the rest of humanity. You had to be a dedicated Superman fan to even know they were included in that collection. Otherwise, your only alternative for obtaining a full set of the entire Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman set was to purchase one of the many substandard DVD (and before that, VHS) editions of these cartoons that have been selling in bargain bins for the past 30 years.
To say that those videos were of poor quality is an understatement. How and why DC Comics, which for decades has so zealously guarded the Superman trademark, allowed the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman masterpieces to become an orphaned, public-domain oddity is an intellectual property-law mystery someone should really take the time to investigate. (There must be a doozy of a disputed trademark story there.) I have counted at least 50 different re-issues of these cartoons over the years, and that's probably a (very) conservative estimate. The Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons are easily the most re-released (and pictorially abused) body of content in the history of home video. Many were issued as black & white VHS collections so many generations removed from the brilliance of their original Technicolor masters that you may not have been quite sure what you were even looking at. The density of these prints was so dark in some places you'd think you're watching the Superman radio series. Even Bosko Video's The Complete Superman Collection Diamond Anniversary Edition - which was, in my opinion, the best available version of these animations up till now - went totally black in some places. Another edition, issued by an outfit called WinStar Entertainment, featured superfluous, badly dubbed sound effects that succeeded in ruining the audio, which had been the one part of these cartoons that wasn't a mess.
The TV history of these cartoons was also murky, both in terms of image quality and - perhaps - copyright status. I, for one, first became aware of their existence circa 1960, when a Saturday-evening children's show on WOR-TV9 in New York (Claude Kirschner's Super Circus) began broadcasting them. Production values for live children's TV were the bare minimum in those days, and TV technology was black & white and still relatively primitive at that time, as compared to today. (Cable TV's clear video signals wouldn't become common until the late 1970s). I remember the image quality of the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons that Mr. Kirschner presented on his show looking like they had been transmitted from the bottom of the sea. Although theatrical cartoons from Warner Bros. and the Fleischer Studios (most notably the Popeye series) were a staple of early children's television in New York, the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons received only occasional airings on Claude Kirschner's Super Circus, and then dropped out of sight for many years. This seems like an odd fact, given that the live-action Adventures of Superman television series broadcast Monday to Friday on New York's WPIX-TV11 during the same era pulled higher audience ratings numbers than all three nightly network newscasts. One would think that a character with such an eager audience would have made the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons a broadcast goldmine. (Were these cartoons a rarity in other U.S. television markets throughout the 1960s? Please let us know.) The Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons didn't resurface on TV again until about 1988, when American Movie Classics began showing better-quality versions around the time of Superman's 50th birthday.
Fast-forward to the present, and Warner Home Video's bold move of finally releasing a stand-alone edition of Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942. The quality of the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons in this new release is the same as Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition. In other words, the colors and clarity are bright and visual details are revealed as never before. The back cover of the new release states that these cartoons are "The Original and the Best, Remastered from Superior Original Vault Elements!" Watching these films, it's clear that this is true. I watched both the Bosko and Warner versions of "Terror on the Midway"; the Warner version is much brighter and more colorful. One particular shot, in which Clark Kent gets into a taxicab, is almost totally black in the Bosko version. The new Warner edition reveals the full visual details of this shot, which - like most of these cartoons - is done in the rich color "film noir" look (true despite the seeming contradiction of that term) achieved by the superb artistry of the original animators. The digital video compression job that Warner did is better as well; you don't see the "mosaic tile" effect in certain places, including the concluding shot in which Clark Kent triggers a flashbulb on Lois Lane's camera.
(I have to confess that "Terror on the Midway" is the only title that I closely compared to other versions. I was eager to complete this review now that the release date of Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942 has finally arrived. We welcome your comments regarding the other titles in this edition.)
Even though these 17 historic animations do look better now than they ever have in any stand-alone edition (with color that's at times psychedelic, recognizable detail even in dark areas, and no superimposed release dates), they are not perfect. Although the deep vertical scratches visible in previous editions are gone, there are occasional areas where flecks of the original emulsion seem to have worn off, which is fairly typical of many color archival films. In addition to revealing the age of the source material, the high-quality digital film transfers from which these cartoons were mastered for DVD also reveal what appears to be visual artifacts introduced during the original photography of the Fleischer/Famous Studios animation cells. These artifacts include three blurry shots (a creative decision by the original animators or careless focusing?) in "Terror on the Midway" and what was apparently dust (it's stationary and doesn't move from frame to frame) on the platen of the animation table used to photograph "Showdown." At least one film, "Jungle Drums," includes a TV cue mark, so it may be that this edition of the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman films had to be pieced together from the best available elements (including prints originally struck for broadcast).
If you were hoping for a digitally restored version of the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons - one benefiting from expensive hours of frame-by-frame image reconstruction on a high-definition Quantel Paintbox or Autodesk system - Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942 is not it. But if you can tolerate the natural aging in any great work of art, then this DVD is for you. Log-on to Amazon.com and buy it. Now. Don't wait. If you care at all about Superman's moving-image history, or about the history of American motion-picture animation, this belongs in your home video library. The two-DVD set also includes two documentaries. One, titled First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series, was also included in the Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD set.
The second documentary on this DVD is all-new, and titled The Man, The Myth, Superman. One of its most interesting features are two very quick shots excerpted from the long-lost and recently discovered Jerry Siegel home movies that a film collector miraculously found on eBay. Although not identified by the documentary's voice-over, Siegel himself filmed the shots in color at the Superman Day held at the New York World's Fair on July 4, 1940. A quick glimpse is included of actor Ray Middleton making what is probably the first in-costume appearance of anyone portraying Superman (and being photographed doing so by a movie camera). It's unfortunate that his very historical footage was discovered after director Kevin Burns completed his superb 2006 documentary, titled Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman, because that's where this footage really belongs. The fact that Siegel's home movie is now in the possession of Warner Bros. is, hopefully, a positive sign that the company is finally exercising better stewardship over its historic Superman media assets. Let's hope that all 17 of the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons are safely tucked away in Warner's film vaults. Who knows? Perhaps someday they'll even get a full and expensive frame-by-frame digital restoration treatment. Or maybe Warner will dig up the fabled George Reeves public service short titled "Only Superman Can," which legend has it was shot after a few too many 1950s tykes wearing towels around their necks plummeted out of windows. Making such content available on Blu-Ray would spur quite a few sales of the DVD players in that new format.
Until that happens, however, get yourself a copy of Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942, find some quiet time to enjoy it, and remember as you're watching that these films were made by hand, without computers, long before television made sci-fi commonplace. It was a time when Hilter threatened war, when Gurenica showed just how vulnerable the common man had become against advanced military technology, and the Great Depression had not yet ended. From the Fleischer Studios' brilliant animation, to Sammy Timberg's pounding "Superman March" and full orchestrations, to Bud Collyer's rousing "This looks like a job for Superman!" these cartoons may just take on a relevancy you weren't expecting and inspire you in surprising and very positive ways.