Monday, May 18, 2015

Of Supermen, in Documentary and Fantasy

 Boy!  The world's just going completely to hell, isn't it?  Well, apparently, the only extras on the Volume 2 DVD collection of Popeye shorts that count as films in their own right are a documentary about the Fleischer studios, and one of the Fleischer Superman shorts.  Why, I remember seeing it on jumpy VHS tape about thirty years ago!  Dayamn, I'm old...
So, let's do the documentary short first.  It's one of those shorts that might be seen on the Turner Classic Movies channel in between the movies.  And I believe I've seen a Paramount Pictures Popular Science short previously on that channel, just not about the Fleischer studios.  Of course,
back then, Walt Disney himself obtained a celluloid copy of this, and plotted his revenge against his toughest competition.  As a fan of animation, it is of course my duty as a critic to kiss Disney's ass forever, especially now that they own the Star Wars franchise.  Anyone want to enforce the Sherman Anti-Tryst Act?  Anyone at all?  Which reminds me.  I finally remembered the name of a Mickey Mouse short: Mickey's Trailer.  I admit, it was a childhood favourite of mine, but now that I'm a little older, I couldn't help but think to myself as I rewatched it... SHUT THE CAR OFF!  I know, I know, seeking logic in a child's cartoon.  A fool's errand indeed.
Anyway, when you're in management, you have to seek bold new adventures to steer the course of your proverbial ship, and so it was that Max Fleischer, the man behind Popeye, turned his sights to an actual comic book superhero, but this time he won't get to tinker with the storyline as he did with Popeye.  So until we get Jeff Albertson's opinion on how faithful Max Fleischer was to the Superman storyline, I'm just still going to assume that Richard Donner and John Williams owe some degree of gratitude to the Fleischer version of Superman, because The Mechanical Monsters in its own way is as rousing a bit of entertainment as the color Popeye two-reelers.
The DVD version of The Mechanical Monsters is slightly longer and includes a bit about the planet Krypton, minus Marlon Brando.  The audio is also slightly different on the DVD as compared to, say, these versions on YouTube.  Of course, back then, he only fought for truth and justice.  I'm assuming that "the American way" part came around the time of the '50s TV shows... you know, as part of the House Un-American Activities Committee's battle against Communism.  People often forget!  The way to solve any problem is to get the full force of the United States government all over it like a cheap suit... or is that make any problem worse?  One of the two, or a little of both.
And so, we get a problem that only a stronger-than-average man can solve: a Dr. No wannabe has built himself an army of mechanical flying kleptomaniacs.  And despite the fact that robotics was still in its infancy in the 1940s... can we agree on that?... this unnamed villain has become quite effective at robbing banks with his robot army.  Extra kudos to the filmmaking team for the new array of sound effects involved: destruction of very large panes of glass.  Whether they had to record that themselves, or whether it was already in the Paramount libraries at the time, excellent work either way.  And of course, I fondly recall that little bit of music from my childhood as a young film geek in training.  Great orchestration, worthy of John Williams, even if it's light on French horns.
And so, with the introductions out of the way, time for the main event: a place called the "House of Jewels" is planning a big, Trump-style exhibit.  And even though the paper swears that "Extreme Precautions have been taken to Guard against Mysterious Mechanical Monster," quite the opposite seems to be the case.  The storytelling is about as taut as can be: Superman disguised as Clark Kent sees that Lois has shown up at the event.  Superman tries to scold Lois as best he can, but to no avail.  AND THEN... the mechanical monster strikes!  The bad guy sends lucky number 13 for this job... or is it number 5?  Depends on your point of view, I suppose.
Ever the intrepid reporter, Lois hitches a ride inside the robotic bank robber... oh, it's Adam and Eve all over again, I tells ya, but I'll leave that for smarter, more religious minds than mine to sort out.  With Lois out of the way, Kent goes into the phone booth and changes into his Superman costume... or his work clothes, either way.  Now, maybe it's just me, but is Superman a bit of a procrastinator?  SPOILER ALERT - If he's the man of steel... I mean, the Man of Steel, how can he let that flying  robot knock him down into those power lines?  I guess it's all for the sake of showmanship, folks.  And besides!  If he destroys the flying robotic thief before it gets back home, how is he supposed to catch the bad guy?  Superman's no detective!  Gotta follow it all the way back to the lair.
And so, after Superman breaks free from the interstate electrical lines... clearly he's not a fan of the New Deal.  If he's so super, why didn't he repair the damage?  Best to leave it to the human Teamsters, I suppose.  Anyway, next scene: now, in any other context, normally, seeing a lady's things scattered on the floor, we'd probably be headed to the bedroom for some post-coital chit chat.  Not this time, however.  It's a kid's cartoon, for God's sake!!!  This isn't Cool World!  And so, unlike the James Bond series, we get a gander around this supervillain's lair, and we see metal smelting equipment, we see an assembly room where robots are put together, and then we get to the giant... you know, a big cauldron for holding molten metal.  God, I feel illiterate.  Anyway, that much makes sense, but we'll leave aside a discussion of the actual labor that would have to be involved in making flying robotic thieves that function so very effectively.  That's just the Fleischer storytelling power for ya: they will make you believe.
Which makes me believe that the Fleischers influenced the telling of Superman stories more than they know.  For just as they condensed the Thimble Theatre down to Popeye and Bluto being enemies, they also perhaps influenced future incarnations of the Superman story.  Take Richard Donner's 1978 version, for example.  SPOILER ALERT.  I mean, if Superman's fast enough to change the earth's spin, why was he having such trouble catching up to one nuclear warhead, let alone two?  Take also the 2006 Superman Returns where Superman has to save that big-ass airplane from crashing... I can't even remember now.  Was it the Space Shuttle plane?  I hate to be a critic, but something told me he could've saved that plane a little faster or a little more efficiently.  And why didn't the plane break up into smaller pieces, or even the Krypton island that Lex Luthor made?  Any time I try to make a Brio train too long it never holds together.  Stupid magnets!!!!
But back to the Fleischer short.  Another example of procrastination for the sake of showmanship: the bad guy dumps all the molten metal onto Superman and Lois, but Superman protects Lois with his cape.  She might've gotten her legs a little bit singed, however.  But that's the risk you gotta take sometimes.  I mean, all hail Superman's fireproof cape!  Man of Steel, Cape of Goretex. 
And so, the bad guy's last move is to either make a break for it, or kill himself by jumping over the railing, but Superman grabs him and brings him to justice, Lois gets the front page, and Superman hides his identity anew.  Now maybe I'm just an old softie, or maybe the Fleischers produced another animation masterpiece.  Okay, the colors are a little weird, but for me it's still rousing entertainment.  And I've got it on DVD!  Nyaah nyaah.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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