A Year in Shorts Day 242: "Superman"
I don’t need to tell you that 2020 was a crazy year, in ways both big and small. One example of the latter category is the fact that there weren't any new releases from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, in just over a week from now superhero movies are going to come back in a big way, and with that, endless think pieces about how we’re all contributing to the death of cinema by watching them. It’s gonna be a fun six months folks! But of course, superhero movies are nothing new. Although, admittedly, they took different forms back in the day, with serials being the best way to see the adventures of characters like Batman and Superman, both in animation and live action. But only one of those films ever got nominated for an Oscar- the 1941 Fleischer cartoon, simply titled Superman.
Also titled The Mad Scientist, Superman was the first in a series of shorts produced for Paramount by Fleischer Studios, who (thanks to their experience on the Popeye series) were no strangers when it came to bringing comic characters to life. Apparently director Dave Fleischer didn't actually want to make a Superman series, and demanded a then-exorbitant budget of one hundred thousand dollars per short. Much to his surprise, Paramount compromised down to a budget of fifty thousand for the first, thirty thousand for the rest, and I suppose he felt he had to oblige. Utilizing several of the actors from the extremely popular series, Superman follows the titular character as he tries to stop the evil plans of an unnamed Mad Scientist (who I guess is also technically the titular character?), who aims to use his "Electrothanasia Ray" on the world for generic mad scientist purposes. ("Electrothanasia Ray" would be a pretty sweet name for a DJ, wouldn't it?) Well anyway, for some complicated reasons I don't understand (and God damn you for suggesting I try to learn something), all the Fleischer Superman shorts are in the public domain now, so let's watch it together.
From a story standpoint, there's not a whole to complain about with Superman. It's remarkably efficient, quickly going over Superman's origin before throwing us right into the middle of the action. Packed to the brim with kidnapping, laser beams, quick costume changes and an evil vulture sidekick, there isn't much more you could want out of a Superman story. Well, ok, there's a little more you could want I guess. It takes Superman quite some time to spring into action and start saving some people, which feels a little un-Superman like. Still, once he gets going, it's pretty exciting; the scene of Superman stopping a building from collapsing is a particular highlight, especially when compared to the more general destruction seen in films like Man of Steel. It might not be the deepest of superhero stories, sure, but I think it more less perfectly captures the essence of what they were like at the time. Colorful, straightforward and packed with fun action. Throw in some fun vocal performances (incidentally, the Mad Scientist was voiced by Jack Mecer, who was best known for voicing Popeye the Sailor for much of his run; it's kind of obvious in some parts) and Sammy Timberg's stirring score, and you've got the ingredients for a good time.
But the real star of the show here is the animation. While it might not quite be the artistic achievement that Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, it is nevertheless a stunning technical one! Max Fleischer was famous for inventing the rotoscope animation technique, in which live action reference footage is traced over to produce a more realistic effect. Personally I'm not really a fan of rotoscoping (even if its reputation as being a lazy time saving device is pretty undeserved), but I suppose it works well enough here. It helps that the animators don't go overboard with it, mostly using it for movement rather than trying to give everyone horrifyingly realistic faces or stuff like that. Admittedly I don't much care for the facial animation much here either, but that's more of a personal preference. They're expressive enough (especially with the Mad Scientist), but there's just something about their design which I find a little off putting. Except for the vulture of course. That guy looks cool and deserves to be introduced into the mainstream DC Universe. Make it happen!!!
Still, while I might have my misgivings with the character animation, I can certainly appreciate the skill behind it. And the rest of the animation is pretty spectacular. Apparently Bruce Timm took inspiration from this short when designing the aesthetic for Batman: The Animated Series, and it certainly shows. The noir influenced design might be a little strange for a Superman short, but damn if it doesn't look good. The use of realistic shadows (as well as other special effects animation) is what really set this short apart from a lot of the animated shorts being released in that era. And once again I have to credit to the short's action scenes, which take full advantage of animation's flexibility while still (mostly) sticking to the more realistic aesthetic. I genuinely don't think it'd be too far to say that these are probably some of the best superhero movie action scenes of the 20th century, at least until Mask of the Phantasm came along. (This might be a highly controversial opinion, but I don't think there was a live action superhero movie with halfway decent action until Blade, and they didn't start getting really good until Sam Raimi made Spider-Man 2.) This is genuinely some pretty revolutionary stuff. Is it any wonder this film scored an Oscar nomination? And honestly, Superman is a considerable cut above from most of its fellow nominees that year.
We've only covered a couple of nominees for Best Animated Short at the 14th Academy Awards, and Superman is certainly better than either of them. (As much as I love me some Tom and Jerry, The Night Before Christmas isn't their best film.) And it's certainly better than most of the other nominees, almost all of which we'll be covering in the remainder of our Year in Shorts. (The only one I haven't seen, Rhythm in the Ranks, is a fairly obscure George Pal Puppetoon which I can't seem to find anywhere. If anyone has a link to it, let me know!) Really, the only other nominated short from that year I'd rank above Superman would be Truant Officer Donald, a pretty hilarious Donald Duck short in which (among other things), Donald mistakenly believes he's murdered his nephews. That's just comedy gold.
(via TV Tropes)
Still, I think the Academy should have given the Oscar to Superman that year. While the award is for Best Animated Short, not Most Technically impressive or whatever, how often does the Oscar really go to the best film? Sometimes it's better to give the award to whichever film pushes the medium forward, and that's especially true in the shorts categories. In spite of all their contributions to animation, Max and Dave Fleischer never won an Oscar, and this would have been a great time to award them. (Fleischer Studios was nominated for Best Animated Short a total of four times; Educated Fish and Imagination, the last two of their shorts we'll be covering this year, are pretty much terrible.) And once you take into account the short that actually won that year, it becomes clear just how horribly Superman got robbed.
Then again, if anyone on Earth could care less about whether or not they won an Oscar (aside from George C. Scott, that is), it would be Superman, wouldn't it? I'm certain its chances weren't helped by the fact that this was years before Twitter mobs could take to their phones, demanding The Academy pay proper respect to a superhero movie. Oh, simpler times. Besides, a Superman film would eventually win an Oscar over thirty years later, when Richard Donner's Superman got a Special Achievement award for its visual effects. And while that film certainly made you believe a man can fly, I think Max and Dave Fleischer, along with all the rest of the cast and crew, certainly helped show them how it's done.
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