Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Production Histories

Over the next few posts, I'll be writing about the sorts of books other people write about Superman. There are several genres, each of which includes four or five books. Today, I'm looking at the "production histories." These aren't about comics, so much. They're about cartoons, radio, tv, theater, and movies. They're behind-the-scenes looks at the shows.

First up is Gary Grossman's Superman: Serial to Cereal. The title reflects the early film serials and the fact that Kelloggs sponsored the radio and television "Adventures of Superman" shows. His book mostly deals with tv and serials; there's a bit about the Fleischer cartoons from the early forties and the radio show starring Bud Collyer, but not much more. It was published in 1976, part of a series on popular culture edited by film critic Leonard Maltin.

It's got all the conventions of the production history genre: short biographies of the stars and producers (both before and after the show), descriptions of the episodes and the author's appraisal of them, some of the controversies and difficulties. I'm going to assume these are fairly standard for production histories of any show, though I must admit that I don't make a habit of reading these sorts of books. I'm racking my brain for any I've read, and come up with nothing.

Specific to Superman, though, are details of the extent to which the actor becomes typecast. In the case of Superman, however, typecasting seems almost the wrong term. If you're cast as a type, you can at least play that type in lots of different shows. If you're a thug, or an ingenue, there are all sorts of shows that have that type of character. If you're Superman or Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane, then apparently you're done for. It's more specific than typecasting--it's character casting. Also, I'm guessing that few other shows' production histories go into so much detail about the technology required to make a man fly onscreen. All of these books do, and every one of them details the accidents that happened because of it.

Grossman's is pretty good, though dated. He includes lots and lots of pictures. However, it's also sometimes really boring. Do we really need that much information about an actor who played a villain in one episode of The Adventures of Superman? I suppose some people would say yes.

Next up is The Making of Superman: The Movie by David Michael Petrouare, which I haven't read. No offense to Petrou; it's largely because I can't bear to absorb any more information about the production of Superman: The Movie and its sequels.

I did read Bruce Scivally's Superman on Film, Television, Radio, and Broadway. Not bad. It tries to be more comprehensive that Grossman's. It's more recent, so it's got lists of websites and whatnot. All the components of the genre are there, and it gets all the way to 2006's Superman Returns.

There's Superman vs. Hollywood, by Jake Rossen. This is the most sensationalistic of all the production histories. It revels in the controversies and the rumors/legends that have grown up around the actors and shows. It has its villains and heroes. Again, all the biographies, the behind-the-scenes, the flight technology, etc.

Then there's Flights of Fantasy, by Michael J. Hayde. This one focuses almost entirely on The Adventures of Superman, which was the title of both radio and television shows. It's exhaustively thorough, and does the most debunking of the legends. As such, it was interesting to have read this one prior to reading Rossen's Superman vs. Hollywood, which doesn't even attempt to debunk, say, the story that a kid pointed a loaded gun at George Reeves during an appearance as Superman because the kid wanted a bullet that had bounced off Superman for a souvenir. Rossen reports it as fact; Hayde does a bit of digging and concludes that the story was concocted by Reeves as an excuse for limiting his appearance in costume. Hayde cites interviews with Reeves and concludes that this was a fear the actor developed (justifiable, I think, since both he and Collyer and others had been kicked and hit by kids attempting to test their invulnerability).
I found these interesting at first, but I must admit I'm surprised that there are even this many of them. At most, they deal with comics in a superficial manner. Hayde states that the comics may be great, but that Superman owes his popularity to the producers and actors of Adventures on radio and tv. The information is virtually the same in all of them, though each has its own spin. Some, such as Hayde, deal more with Reeves' death than others (Grossman, for example, barely discusses it at all). In all, the genre caters to fans more than a general audience, which is exactly appropriate.

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