For years I’ve been aware of the “Superman” animated shorts made by the Max Fleischer Studio in the early 1940s.
But apart from a few clips, I’d never really watched them. That changed last weekend when I sat down with “Max Fleischer’s Superman: 1941-1942,” a new digitally restored DVD compilation of all 17 Man of Steel shorts.
To put it mildly, I was blown away.
Narratively, these shorts quickly fall into a predictable pattern. Aggressive newshound Lois Lane finds herself threatened - by a mad scientist’s army of flying robots, by gangsters, by Nazis or buck-toothed Japanese saboteurs (these were the war years, after all), by a thawed-out T-Rex, by an erupting volcano.
Unassertive Clark Kent announces, “This is a job for Superman!” and disappears into a phone booth/closet/alley, emerging as the guy with the big S on his chest.
Supe saves the day. Every episode ends with Lois basking in the glow of her front-page scoop and Clark grinning knowingly at the viewer.
OK, so these weren’t the most psychologically daring examinations of the Superman mythology.
But visually these cell-animated shorts were as beautiful, as exciting, as engaging as any of today’s high-tech computer-generated features.
Every aspect of these truly hand-made productions was first-class, from the astonishingly detailed backgrounds to the dramatic lighting effects and skewed camera angles (some scholars believe Fleishman’s “Superman” inspired the look of film noir classics of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s). Explosions and fires (there are plenty) are particularly well done.
And the colors are nothing less than intoxicating. This was Technicolor at its most vivid.
This two-disc package includes a couple of documentaries that provide great insight into the superhero genre (experts say it goes back to Greek mythology and, perhaps, cave paintings) and the Fleischer Studio, which at the time was second only to Disney.
Before “Superman,” the Fleischer brothers (producer Max, director Dave) had big hits with the Popeye and Betty Boop series. But Superman kicked down lots of doors, being the first animated series to have serious themes rather than just jokes.
It almost didn’t happen. The Fleischers were so busy with other projects that when Paramount approached them about turning Superman - already a hit in comic books and on the radio - into an animated series they asked for an exorbitantly high budget, figuring the studio would look elsewhere.
To their amazement, Paramount committed to making each “Superman” short for three times the amount usually devoted to a “Popeye” title. The money was too good to pass up.
We’re the luckier for it.
If you have kids, you owe it to them to get this set. It will be a huge eye opener.
And if you don’t have kids, get it anyway. It’ll bring out your inner wide-eyed child.
OK, gang, let’s segue from good family fun to good family filth.
The new documentary “American Swing” (it will be released on DVD on Tuesday) tells the tale of Plato’s Retreat, a New York club that in the ‘70s and early ‘80s became a national sensation for offering an environment where couples could show up, doff their clothing and have sex with strangers.
The man behind Plato’s Retreat was the late Larry Levenson, the son of a kosher meat dealer (how perfect is that?) who concluded that monogamy was unnatural and that the way to keep marriages happy and intact was to let Mom and Dad fool around under more-or-less controlled conditions.
Having no hobbies or interests beyond sex (apparently he never read a book or had an original thought in his life), Levenson became a true believer for swinging, appearing frequently on TV shows (we see old clips of him being grilled by Phil Donohue and David Susskind) to expound his gospel of wife swapping.
According to one acquaintance, Levenson exhibited “the enthusiasm of a Kiwanis executive showing off his home town.”
Plato’s had a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, dance floor and all-night buffet. For a time it was so popular that it had its own softball team and theme song.
Of course, it also had the “mat room” which, according to one eyewitness, was full of naked bodies “writhing together like a bucket of worms.” You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe when one interviewee admits that after spending a night perched on an unnaturally moist cushion she came home to discover she’d picked up a world-class case of crabs.
Of course she was recalling events 30 years in the past, and a common theme among Plato’s regulars is a wistful nostalgia for the pre-AIDS era. As obviously tacky as the place was, in their memories it seems practically healthy and wholesome.
Written and directed by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, “American Swing” has dozens of interviews with celebrities (out-there performance artist Annie Sprinkle, actor/writer Buck Henry, Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein) and just plain folk who were customers.
And when we say “just plain folks” we mean it. Apparently physically beauty was not a requirement at Plato’s.
What’s amazing is the amount of film, early video and still photos of the naked hordes uncovered by Kaufman and Hart. Don’t watch this while the kids are up.
Levenson, who in the early 1980s spent three years in prison for tax evasion (he thought of Plato’s as a “club” and didn’t see the point in keeping accurate books) died of a heart attack at 62. In the end you almost feel sorry for this garrulous guy whose dream of sexual freedom ran aground.
“He always had time for you,” recalls one regular. “Especially if you had a great-looking wife.”