The Fleischer Superman Cartoons are a
series of animated short films released in Technicolor by Paramount
Pictures and based upon the comic book character Superman, and making
it his first animated appearance.
total of seventeen shorts were produced. They were originally
produced by Fleischer Studios, releasing the pilot and eight cartoons
in 1941 and 1942 before being taken over in May by Famous Studios, a
successor company, who produced eight more in 1942 and 1943. Superman
was the final animated series by Fleischer Studios, before Famous
Studios officially took over production.
Although all entries are in the public
domain, ancillary rights such as merchandising contract rights, as
well as the original 35mm master elements, are owned today by Warner
Bros. Entertainment. Warner has owned Superman publisher DC Comics
Only the first nine cartoons were produced
by Fleischer Studios; nonetheless, all 17 episodes are collectively
known as "the Fleischer Superman cartoons". In 1942,
Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios,
which produced the final eight shorts.
These cartoons are seen as some of the
finest quality (and certainly, the most lavishly budgeted) animated
cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In
1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest
Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave
Fleischer were running their own animation studio, and had recently
finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver's Travels; they
were also well into production on their second, Mister Bug Goes to
Town. Not wanting to risk becoming overworked (which could compromise
the quality of each project), the Fleischers were strongly (but
quietly) opposed to the idea of committing themselves to another
major project, when approached by their studio's distributor and
majority owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures. Paramount was
interested in financially exploiting the phenomenal popularity of the
then-new Superman comic books, by producing a series of theatrical
cartoons based upon the character.
The Fleischers, looking for a way to
reject the project without appearing uncooperative, agreed to do the
series, but only at a (intentionally inflated) per-episode-budget
number so exorbitantly high that Paramount would have to reject them.
They told Paramount that producing such a conceptually and
technically complex series of cartoons would cost about $100,000 (in
1940s dollars) per short; this was about four times the typical
budget of a six-minute episode of the Fleischers' popular Popeye the
Sailor cartoons of that period. To the Fleischers' shock, instead of
withdrawing its request, Paramount entered into negotiations with
them, and got the per-episode budget lowered to $50,000. Now the
Fleischers were committed to a project they never wanted to do, but
with more financial and marketing support than they had ever received
for any of the projects they had done.
first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, a.k.a. The Mad
Scientist, was released on September 26th, 1941, and was nominated
for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost
to Lend a Paw, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.
The voice of Superman for the series was
initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead
character's voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander
was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio
alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy
Timberg, the Fleischers' long-time musical collaborator.
Rotoscoping, the process of tracing
animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to
lend realism to the character's bodily movements. Many of Superman's
actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (such as flying, lifting
very large objects, etc.). In these cases, the Fleischers' lead
animators, many of whom lacked training in figure drawing, animated
"roughly" and depended upon their assistants (many of whom
were inexperienced animators, but trained figure-drawers) to keep
Superman "on model" during his action sequences.
The Fleischer cartoons were also
responsible for giving Superman perhaps his most singular superpower:
flight. When the Fleischers started work on the series, in the comic
books, Superman could only leap from place to place (hence the
classic phrase, "able to leap tall buildings in a single
bound"). After seeing the leaping fully animated, however, the
Fleischers deemed it "silly looking", and asked Action
Comics' (which would later become DC Comics) permission to have him
fly instead; the publisher agreed, and wrote the flight ability into
the comics from then on.
Fleischers produced nine classic cartoons in the Superman series
before Paramount took over the Fleischer Studios facility in Miami
and ousted Max and Dave Fleischer. By the end of 1941, the brothers
were no longer able to cooperate with each other, and the studio's co-owner
Dave Fleischer had left Florida for California, where he would
eventually become the new head of Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems
studio. After the Fleischers were removed from the company, Paramount
renamed the organization Famous Studios, placing Seymour Kneitel,
Isadore Sparber, Sam Buchwald, and Dan Gordon in charge of
production. The sleek look of the series continued, but there was a
noticeable change in the storylines of the later shorts of the
series. The first nine cartoons had more of a science fiction aspect
to them, as they involved the Man of Steel fighting robots, giant
dinosaurs, meteors from outer space, and other perils. The later
eight cartoons in the series, which were all Famous Studios
productions, dealt more with World War II propaganda stories, such as
in Eleventh Hour, which finds Superman going to Japan to commit acts
of sabotage in order to reduce the morale of the enemy; in another
episode an angered Adolf Hitler had a cameo role at the end of Jungle
Drums after Superman foiled another Nazi plot.
The first seven cartoons originated the
classic opening line which was later adopted by the Superman radio
series and in the live-action television series a decade later:
"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" (The radio
series also eventually used the cartoon series' theme music.)
However, for the final two Fleischer-produced cartoons and the first
of the eight Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening was
changed to "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a
locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!". For the
remaining Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening line was
changed again to "Faster than a streak of lightning! More
powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring
hurricane!" For international prints of Superman cartoons
starting with "Eleventh Hour" the opening line is
"Faster than a flash of lightning! More potent than a beating
surf! Faster than an active hurricane!" This series also
featured a slight variation of the now-classic exclamation (also from
the radio series): "Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a
plane! It's Superman!".
Studios ended the series after a total of seventeen shorts had been
produced, replacing it with a series of shorts based upon Marge's
Little Lulu. The high cost of the series kept it from continuing in
the face of budgetary restrictions that were imposed after removing
the Fleischers from the studio. The first cartoon had a budget of
$50,000, and the other sixteen each had a budget of $30,000, bringing
the total cost of the series to $530,000 (equivalent to over seven
million dollars today). In addition, Paramount cited waning interest
in the Superman shorts among theater exhibitors as another
justification for the series' cancellation.
The rights to all seventeen cartoons
eventually reverted to National Comics, who licensed TV syndication
rights to Flamingo Films (distributors of the TV series Adventures of
Superman). All eventually fell into the public domain, due to
National failing to renew their copyrights; thus, they have been
widely distributed on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Nonetheless, Warner
Bros., via parent Time Warner's ownership of DC Comics, now owns the
original film elements to the cartoons.
A 1944 Famous Studios Popeye the Sailor
cartoon entitled She-Sick Sailors parodied the Superman cartoons, two
years after production on the cartoons had ceased. In this cartoon,
Popeye's enemy Bluto dresses up as Superman to fool Olive Oyl, and he
challenges Popeye to feats of super-strength that "only
Superman" can do. The musical score for She-Sick Sailors
includes echoes of Sammy Timberg's Fleischer/Famous Superman score.
The previous year, Merrie Melodies did a
parody starring Bugs Bunny called Super-Rabbit.
a rare move for a competing studio, Leon Schlesinger Productions,
producers of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (which were distributed
by WB), featured Timberg's Superman theme in Snafuperman, a 1944
Private Snafu cartoon Schlesinger produced for the U.S. Army.
Paramount's involvement in the Superman
franchise did not end with the sale of the cartoons. In 1995, after
being sold to Viacom, Paramount's television syndication unit
absorbed Viacom Enterprises, and as a result, Paramount now held the
TV rights to the third and fourth Superman films, along with the
Supergirl film (which up to that point had been held by Viacom). Full
rights to Superman III and Supergirl are now with WB, but Paramount
still has some partial rights to Superman IV (as part of the Cannon
Films library), and TV distribution is now held (on Paramount's
behalf) by Trifecta Entertainment & Media.
In 1985, DC Comics named Fleischer Studios
as one of the honorees in the company's 50th anniversary publication
Fifty Who Made DC Great for its work on the Superman cartoons.
Writer/artist Frank Miller cited the influence of Max and Dave
Fleischer, including them among a list of prominent Golden Age comics
creators whose work he acknowledged at the end of his 1986 comics
series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The series strongly
influenced the creation of the acclaimed animated television series
Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the similar-looking Superman:
The Animated Series. Comic book artist Alex Ross has also listed the
shorts among the inspiration for his take on Superman's look.
The robot robbery scene from "The
Mechanical Monsters" short (above left) has been echoed by
several later works. In 1980, Japanese animation director Hayao
Miyazaki created an identical robbery with a similarly functioning
robot in the last episode of the second Lupin III TV series, a robot
design he used again in his feature film, Castle in the Sky. The
elements of the scene were borrowed again in 1994 for "The Tick
vs. Brainchild" (Season 1, Episode 9 of The Tick), with the
robbery committed by Skippy, a cyborg dog. The 2004 feature-length
movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (above right) kept the
setting in the 1940s, but scaled up the scene from a single robot
robbing a jewelry exhibition to an army of gigantic robots stealing
city infrastructure. The movie gave a nod to its source following the
robbery with the newspaper headline, "Mechanical Monsters
A 1988 music video for the song "Spy
In The House of Love" by Chrysalis Records recording artists Was
(Not Was) borrowed footage extensively from Famous' Secret Agent
episode. The Paramount Superman cartoons are widely available on VHS,
DVD and online.
CLUB FEATURETTE DEPARTMENT
All seventeen of the Max Fleischer
Superman cartoons can be viewed by clicking the link below. The voice
cast included: Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark Kent, Joan Alexander as
Lois Lane, Julian Noa as Perry White, Jack Mercer as Jimmy Olsen and
Perry White and Jackson Beck as the Narrator.
The first Fleischer Superman Cartoon is
presented above. The other sixteen can be viewed by clicking the
links below. The voice cast included: Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark
Kent, Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, Julian Noa as Perry White, Jack
Mercer as Jimmy Olsen and Perry White and Jackson Beck as the Narrator.
Check out the SuperHero Stuff Superman
merchandise page, your directory to the biggest collection of
Superman products on the Internet. They have Superman tees coming out
their ears; and have tons of other cool Superman products, too, like
Superman hoodies, belt buckles, baseball caps, sandals, magnets,
alarm clocks and even Superman underwear! All products are official