Under Kellogg’s sponsorship, the second season of The Adventures Of Superman began steering away from its adult audience. By the third season, the show was aimed almost solely at the pubescent. It was also shot in color, which made it an expensive production with less money allocated for actors or professional writers. Oddly, it was only aired in black and white, not having its color premier for another decade. In this, Kellogg’s was ahead of its time, realizing that color, being inevitable, would assure the series a long syndication run.
With the third season,this is an entirely different series than the first two and, with few exceptions, it’s a dreadful affair. The series’ decline continued until its final, sixth season. Although officially cancelled, The Adventures Of Superman had been picked up for a seventh season with star George Reeves coming in as director (he had helmed three, late episodes in season six) and, reportedly, more money was going to be spent on better scripts. However, Reeves’ premature death put an end to a series which began high and should have bowed out on a better note. Alas, like its star, it was not afforded a happy ending.
The cast still has charisma, but even they can’t save the worst episodes, many of which are excruciating and virtually unwatchable. Still, The Adventures of Superman, with I Love Lucy was the longest running series of the fifties and maintained its popularity (with reruns) for another three decades in syndication, which is almost remarkable given that its lead, who had presented something of a super boy scout image, had in fact been ousted as quite the colorful character, engaged in a sordid affair when he was found dead, allegedly by his own hands.
The third season opens with the godawful Through The Time Barrier (dir. Harry Gerstad) and the Daily Planet staff (all four of them) being teleported to the Stone Age via Professor Twiddle (Sterling Holloway in his last series appearance). The look on Reeves’ face (in stills below) speaks volumes.
The Talking Clue (Dir. Gerstad) is marginally better. It’s about a bank robber named Muscles McGurk and focuses primarily on Inspector Henderson. Shane enjoys the spotlight and our enjoyment factors primarily from his.
The Lucky Cat (dir. Gerstad) is an engaging, silly story about an Anti- Superstition Society with Jimmy (naturally) falling for all the old wives’ tales. Larson, Reeves, and the supporting cast are across-the-board charming and while it can’t compete with the best episodes from the series’ previous seasons, it conjures up memories of the character’s period pulp outings that were still being giggled over and thumbed through repeatedly by adolescents for another two decades.
Superman Week (Gerstad) refers to a celebratory Superman Week in Metropolis, which means Clark Kent is busy as himself and his red caped alter ego. It’s also an indirect sequel to The Defeat Of Superman, which means kryptonite is involved (planted in a bust of Superman). While the green stuff spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E for our protagonist, it’s always a kick to see him weakened by it and trying to overcome its effects. Although, Superman Week will hardly make anyone’s top ten list and Gerstad seems to be struggling with directing actors, it’s competently written and not an embarrassing half hour.
Great Caesar’s Ghost (Gerstad) focuses on Perry White, at home, being tormented by a gangster (who else?) impersonating a god offended by White’s taking the divine name in vain once too often. Dumb fun and commendably harmless (unlike real religions).
Test Of A Warrior (George Blair) sees Superman hobnobbing with injuns. Dated, embarrassingly insensitive, terribly directed and acted. Nuff said.
Olsen’s Millions (Dir. Blair) is not as dreadful as the previous entry, which is saying damned little. A dumb story is superseded by dumber crooks.
Clark Kent, Outlaw (Blair) has more buffoonish thugs and, apparently, Kent has joined them. No surprise then that our ace reporters is actually doing undercover work to smoke out the bad guys. Something akin to a fatigued paint-by-number set, it’s not without its charms, most of which are supplied by Reeves and regular cast members.
The Magic Necklace (Blair). The Tai-Wan necklace is kind of like the Ring of the Nibelungen, except it apparently protects, rather than curses its wearer. Unfortunately, it’s been taken from the museum. Kent goes to Tibet in search of it. Lane and Olsen, not about to be scooped, follow. Naturally, the necklace is going to come in handy when Kent wears it (explaining away his impervious state). It’s rudimentary writing has some appeal, rendering it an episode which is neither remembered for its excellence nor sheer awfulness.
The same cannot be said for The Bully Of Dr Gulch (dir. Blair), which is memorable as one of the worst half hours in the entire history of television, surpassing even Test Of A Warrior and Through The Time Barrier in sheer incompetence. Olsen is in trouble with a bully cowboy need Gunner and, like all bullies, our antagonist is a coward at heart (think Donald Trump as a tumbleweed). Only Reeves’ escapes primarily unscathed. Ed Wood could have improved on it. It’s that wretched.
Flight To The North (Dir. Blair). Chuck Connors is Sylvester J. Superman (see, he has the same last name) and a mule sidekick and…. Chuck made a better Rifleman. Understandably, Connors never returned to TAOS in what had to be a resume low. Blair is better ably skilled directing the jack ass.
The Seven Souvenirs (Dir. Blair). Actor Reeves clearly gets some enjoyment out of interacting with Phil Tead as Mr. Willy. Predictably, Tead (he will later play Professor Pepperwinkle) is a scene stealer. More yawn-inducing gangsters are involved (Superman wraps them up with a bendable crowbar and gets to utilize his x-ray vision.) Innocent fun is the order of this episode, and you’ll find yourself beaming ear-to-ear in spite of yourself.
King for a Day (Dir. Blair) finds Jimmy Olsen in the role of a 24 hour monarch. Both the regular and visiting cast seem to be competing for most embarrassing performance. Blair is on auto pilot as usual.
Joey (Dir. Gerstad) is hardly a promising start to the series’ fourth season. Stiff, indifferent acting, phony sentimentality, and poor writing sink this episode about a gangster and a horse. Even the horse looks bored.
The Unlucky Number (dir. Gerstad). Guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. Oh wait, it’s a rigged election type of thing, with a sinister, shadowy illuminati in the wings, kind of like the ones Donald Trump always warns us about.
The Big Freeze (Dir. Gerstad) Matt Helm and his trusty freeze ray gun have transformed Superman into a frosted treat. Avon is needed now more than ever to bring out Superman’s natural complexion. It’s not that bad of an episode actually and we at least get to see Superman doing something. That said, it’s not very good either.
Peril By The Sea (Dir. Gerstad). Perry White is sucking uranium out of the sea. Hell, there’s even a submarine.
Topsy Turvy (Dir. Gerstad). Professor Pepperwinkle taps the spirit of Charley Bowers in concocting the most senseless inventions. This one makes people think they are upside down. Lois and Jimmy strain not to grate their audience but clipping fingernails generates more excitement.
Jimmy The Kid (Dir. Phil Ford). Jimmy Olsen has a double who also happens to be a gangster (imagine that). Could this mean the exposure of Kent’s secret identity? This is drama! Inquiring minds want to know.
The Girl Who Hired Superman (Dir. Ford). Spoiled Paris Hilton type wants to be entertained by Superman and she has lots of cash to donate to a charity. See Superman climb up a ladder. See him jump down.
The Wedding of Superman (Dir. Ford) is awash in 1950s June Cleaver saccharine. It is based on a period comic book and tolerance is limited to nostalgic sentiments. Reeves’ appeal remains intact, but Neill is never more decorative than here.
Dagger Island (Dir. Ford) centers around a treasure hunt, skullduggery, a faked death, and cheating participants. Sound like one reality series too many.
Blackmail (Dir. Gerstad) is about (drum roll please….) blackmail and you rest assure whenever something as shady as blackmail is involved, Inspector Henderson will come a calling.
The Deadly Rock (Dir. Gerstad) is an improvement. Kent’s boyhood pal is also weakened by the deadly rock from krypton. The series writers should have utilized this kind of drama more often. At least the excitement level rises above a straight line. Too, Lois is bound and gagged, which is probably a plus.
The Phantom Ring (Dir. Ford) is again diving into Wagnerian terrain with a coin that renders people invisible. Kent gets whacked in a plane but as we know….
The Jolly Roger (Dir. Ford) How can you go wrong with Superman and pirates? You can’t. Neill’s pixie island gear certainly helps move things along (she’s at her most charismatic while in full damsel in distress mode and never more appealing than when being potentially violated).
Peril In Paris (Dir. Blair) is an ignominious open for the Fifth season. Diamond thieves have plundered the city of love in an episode which could have used Grace Kelly.
Tin Hero (Dir. Blair) is a slow news day, but Planet subscribers aren’t the only ones suffering from boredom.
The Town That Wasn’t (Dir. Blair). Gangsters use a mobile town to catch unsuspecting motorists in speed traps. Crimes are perpetrated and the law is evaded until Superman sets things right.
Tomb Of Zaharan (Dir. Blair) is awfully dull going for an episode dealing with reincarnation and Egyptian queens. At least Perry White gets some amount enjoyment in seeing his ace reporters stripped down and humiliated.
The Man Who Made Dreams Come True (Dir. Blair). Who would ever guess that superstition could be a channel to the monarchy? Lois gets gagged tied yet again and manages to render that fetish a dull one.
Disappearing Lois (Dir. Blair). Lois goes undercover to oust the gangster Left in a fun episode. Spanish fly meets French Maid.
Money To Burn (Dir. Gerstad). Arsonists burn the Daily Planet. Perry White waxes suspicion before being abducted. Super fireman comes to the rescue. Superman with a firehose…Ding! Turn the page! Can’t wait for the action figure set. Cool stuff.
Close Shave (Dir. Gerstad) Crooked barbers. Lois gagged and tied. What more can you ask for?
The Phony Alibi (Dir. Blair). Pepperwinkle has invented another useless device straight out of Dr. Seuss land. This one teleports people through telephone lines. Lois shows off her come hither pearl necklace.
The Prince Albert Coat (Dir. Gerstad). Life savings given away in a coat pocket. Stop the presses, this is a story. Actually, all turns out well and we’re relieved.
The Stolen Elephant (Dir. Gerstad). Poor Jimmy didn’t get anything for his birthday but lo and behold mom has placed an elephant in Jimmy’s shed. Sad to say, but bad kidnappers want the elephant too. Nail-biting suspense.
Mr. Zero (Dir. Gerstad) is the nadir of the entire series, and quite possibly the most execrable thirty minutes to ever disgrace the idiot box. It’s a cardboard takeoff of a comic villain and is literally a pain-inducing endurance test. If it borders on masochism for its viewers one can only imagine the humiliation it inflicted on cast. After catching only a few minutes of Mr. Zero, my wife quipped, “No wonder Reeves was depressed.” This episode alone should have sent off alarm bells that the golden cash cow of Superman was in mortal danger.
Whatever Goes Up (Dir. Gerstad). Jimmy has his own Charley Bowers moment when he invents an anti-gravity formula. Perry and Jimmy are no Ozzy and Harriott. Smartly, Superman steers clear of the schtick.
The much missed Tommy Carr returned for the sixth season opener: The Last Knight, but even he can’t salvage its pedestrian script. Wisely, Carr bowed out of TAOS permanently after this brief return. It’s about a medieval museum, a society for the preservation of knights and dragons, and Superman climbing into a suit of armor. Still, nothing in it is as humiliating as what we have seen the previous three seasons.
The Magic Secret (dir. Ford) is the entry episode of an odd trilogy from TAOS. It’s also a return of sorts in that we see Reeves actually locating a joyful pulse in his Superman role for the first time since season two. While Reeves clearly enjoyed mantling Kent, in the sixth season we sense him actually having fun with his visitor from another planet role. Reeves’ appeal is intact as a welcoming father figure; something that none of his successors tapped. Christopher Reeve was the Superman your big sister had a crush on. Dean Cain evaporated before our eyes as he waxed angst, pleading repeatedly for Lois Lane to love him, not Superman. Brandon Roth could have been a case study for clearasil and Henry Cavill’s Passion of the Superman is only fit for masochistic boys spinning their tires in parking lots. Reeves never strikes one as being insightful and he uses that no-nonsense approach to full advantage, rather like a patriarch for a clan of misfits. Here, Superman learns the trick of elevation from grandpa White and tries it out on gal pal Lane whose body shields both himself and Olsen from deadly, raining Kryptonite. How cool is that?
Divide And Conquer (Dir. Ford) finds Reeves in dual roles. Superman gets split in half and has a little trouble putting himself back together again. He’s weakened enough that he can’t break cell bars by himself and his better half is forced to assist, he feels the sting of a bullet and his takeoffs lack zip. In other words, he’s not impervious here and much the better for it. This is a strange entry with strange writing and peculiar texture.
The Mysterious Cube (Dir. Blair) is ever weirder. There’s a cube of mysterious substance that Superman cannot penetrate. A gangster is inside, awaiting the right moment to emerge, well after he’s declared dead with the statute of limitations department. Superman vibrates through the wall, stopping midway, almost trapped (a bit like Flash here) in the unknown substance. Superman messes with the Naval clock and…Reeves’ enthusiasm level is in high gear here as it has been for the most recent episodes and he takes us along with him for the ride.
The Atomic Captive (Dir. Blair). A sinister spy ring is afoot with femme fatale X-29! Superman, knowing that his molecules differ from this of Lois and Jimmy,charges them with his positive neutrons, protecting them from deadly radiation! With that out-of-the-way, Superman again averts a mushroom crisis, drives the H-Bomb back into the ground, and bests sinister commies. What were they thinking?
The Superman Silver Mine (Dir. Blair). Someone’s trying to steal the silver mine that its filthy rich owner had donated to charity in Superman’s name. Watch out.
The Big Forget (Dir. Howard Bretherton) opens with gangsters named Mugsy Maple and Knuckles Nelsen trying to steal an anti-memory vapor! Naturally, Superman is impervious and, luckily for him, the vapor works on his Daily Planet staff after having seen Kent change into the old red and blue. Superman even uses his Super breath to suck out all the deadly fumes.
The Gentle Monster (Dir. Bretherton) refers to Mr. McTavish, a piano playing, boxy robot with slinky for legs and an ounce of kryptonite in his heart. Of course, Superman’s enemies get wind of the gentle monster’s ingredients and that spells predictable trouble afoot for the aging boy scout.
Superman’s Wife (Dir. Lew Landers) is often cited as a fan favorite. It’s certainly aided by Lew Landers stepping in as director (he had previously helmed big budget, A- efforts at Universal, including The Raven, Son Of Frankenstein, and Tower Of London). One suspects the real reason for this episode’s popularity lies in pseudo-cult guest star Joi Lansing posing as Superman’s wife to weed out a gang of thugs. There are no surprises but Reeves’ Kent/Superman begins to take on a more organic texture in this season. Rounder, graying at the temples and more saturnine, he’s less lecherous, less foppish and more interesting than before. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like Errol Flynn’s performances of the forties in which an actor, aging beautifully, is confined to unbecoming projects. In his mid-forties, Reeves ‘ Superman is a patristic hero. It’s almost as if the protagonist of the Fletcher cartoons has lived long enough to become a princely hero in an adolescent world, commanding the small screen like a veteran.
The oddly named Three In One (Dir. Landers) is one of the better episodes from seasons three-six. Landers gives the material a cinematic visual milieu, rendering it a queer texture unlike any preceding episode, which is likely unintentional and makes one wish he had directed more of them. Even the dramatic B music score seems to place it a notch above the norm.
Detective work is needed to keep Superman from being framed by criminal elements. The broken down circus setting, a golden sphere, strongman, and Superman (in the guise of a night rent-a-cop) add up to a craftsman’s figurative, surreal watercolor with only narrative bullet points and clunky dialogue being rendered as obtrusion.
With the narrative centered around circus performers, Three In One is more than the sum of its parts. It has a reflective quality with Reeves’ lit like Lee Majors and evoking memories of Lon Chaney. It was effective enough to inspire an homage in “The New Adventures Of Superman,” starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.
He’s never cooler than when stripping off his keystone kop disguise and playing golden sphere pitch and catch with the good-hearted, Lurch of a strongman. It often looks like an episodic precursor to Adam West’s Batman series and has an undeniable silver screen sheen. A testament to its oddness lies in the popularity of stills being culled from this episode.
The Brainy Burro (Dir. George Reeves) is the embarrassing entry of season six. Understandably, Reeves directs with little enthusiasm for the trifle of a script about a mathematician jackass.
The Perils Of Superman (Dir. Reeves) is another fan favorite with Reeves thoroughly enjoying himself behind the camera. Fortunately, his enthusiasm proves contagious as he embraces the spirit of serial chapter plays. The Daily Planet staff has been abducted by nefarious men in lead masks. Reeves the actor hilariously milks the simple line of dialogue “Oh, no,” while being submerged in acid. The spirit of serials such as The Adventures Of Captain Marvel and King Of The Rocket Men are fully tapped and improved on (all serials were hampered in pacing, which is not a problem here in a thirty minute setting). It’s also an indirect to sequel to season two’s Man In the Lead Mask.
All That Glitters (Dir. Reeves). Super Lois and Super Olsen take charge of a dreamy episode, which ends with Jimmy exclaiming to Kent,”Golly, Mr. Kent. You’ll never know what it’s like to be Superman.” “No, Jimmy, I guess I never will,” replies Kent. Reeves and cast were clearly having fun, like children playing with a big toy set. However, with hindsight 20/20 and knowing the actor’s fate shortly after, this is a bit of dialogue that literally delivers shudders.
Our image of the 1950s live action Superman is undeniably etched in the knowledge of his counterpart’s self-murder which was enigmatic enough to inspire Hollywoodland (2006 dir. Allen Coulter). The role of George Reeves proved a renaissance of sorts for actor Ben Affleck. Predictably, complaints were lodged against both the film and Affleck. Affleck plays a facet of Reeves that is apt as he nails both the role and its source of inspiration.
Opinions are still divided over Reeves’ cause of death with camps alternately claiming a conspiracy of murder, manslaughter as the result of an argument, or that he, as the official inquiry ruled; killed himself. There’s proverbial fire behind the smoke for all the arguments. Reeves broke off his decade long affair with the hyper jealous Toni Mannix who was married to a studio mafioso. According to Phyllis Coates (the first TV Lois Lane) Mannix phoned her within two hours of Reeves death and told her that “the boy had been murdered.”
It has also been claimed that Mannix confessed Reeves’ murder to a priest, some years later, although she was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time. The weapon, a Lugar, was registered to Mannix’ husband, Eddie but one must question why Mannix, if he were responsible, would be foolhardy enough to kill his wife’s lover with his own gun?
Noel Neill, the second Lois Lane also rejected Reeves death as suicide and said “I don’t know who killed George Reeves, but it wasn’t George Reeves.”
Some place the blame at Lenore Lemmon’s feet. This was Reeves fiancée who had a reputation for a violent temper. According to some sources, Lemmon ran downstairs moments after the fatal shot, yelling “tell them I was downstairs.” One thing is almost certain-Lemmon was present in Reeves’ bedroom when died, although she was highly intoxicated, as was Reeves’ himself (3 x the legal limit). Lemmon certainly didn’t help claims of innocence by immediately taking off for New York with thousands of dollars in travelers check left by Reeves. None of Reeves’ guests that night of his death could be described as being close friends to Lemmon, so why they would continue lying/covering for her for years? Even after her death? The odds of such loyalty are rendered nonsensical. Yet, why did none of them call the police for almost an hour after Reeves’ death? Of course, they were all highly intoxicated as the investigating officers were quick and right to point out.
Reeves’s body did show signs of a recent struggle with fresh bruises on both his face and chest, but this could have been from a recent car accident. Other sources have made claims that a mechanic had warned Reeves “somebody wants you dead.” Allegedly, Reeves brake line had been cut and drained of fluid, thus causing his accident. Adding to the murder theory was the recent abduction and killing of his schnauzer and Reeves’ filing a restraining order against Mannix after receiving literally hundreds of threatening, prank phone calls. However, Reeves had more than one accident while driving and the incident with brake accident had been almost a year previous. Reportedly, Reeves car troubles were primarily alcohol related.
Too, there is no denying that Reeves had a serious drinking problem and was depressed enough to have had two previous suicide attempts. While some claimed this unlikely as Reeves spirits were high and enthusiastic (he was slated to direct an entire season of TAOS) others, including Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen) argued that Reeves was terribly depressed, which all the guests at Reeves’ home agreed upon. “If you think George was happy about another season of Superman, you didn’t know George very well,” said Larson in an interview. Noel Neill expressed disagreement with and exasperation in Larson’s assessment, saying she knew George as predominantly happy. Reeves’ did have a sign on his dressing room door, which read “Honest George,” and he seems to have enjoyed his status as the patristic father figure to cast and crew, but he also burned his Superman suit at the end of every season and once quipped to Phyllis Coates,”we’ve reached the bottom of the barrel.” When an author attempted to dispute Reeves’ depressed state, citing sources such as the dual Lois Lanes (neither of whom had seen Reeves for months), the argument was countered with, ” but according to people who had been around Reeves at the time of his death, all state that he was depressed as hell. Who are you going to believe?”
Affleck captures the pathos facet of George Reeves and does it ably, giving the subject due respect. Regardless of how Reeves died, he almost certainly died instantly, probably never knowing what hit him, even if it was an accident or the result of a heated argument with Lemmon. He went out faster than a speeding bullet and in a perfect world, Reeves was granted an almost flawless exit.
About Alfred Eaker:
Alfred Eaker is a prolific fine arts painter and muralist, an award-winning filmmaker and film critic, and a traditionally-published author. Following on the success of his debut novel, “Brother Cobweb,” Eaker is currently collaborating with Todd M. Coe on the related Graphic novel: “The Brother Cobweb Chronicles.” It will be available in the spring 2021. The audiobook version of Brother Cobweb is also being produced, and will soon be released too.
As an American artist with an inquisitive soul, he has always been deeply engaged into the social and political climate of his country. Eaker is currently working on a mural painting entitled “Elvis: An American Hymn.” Through it, Eaker is trying to bring affirming answers to issues of race, integration and hope so desperately needed at this moment in America.