Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?

I like listening to Old Time Radio podcasts. One that I especially enjoy these days is the old 1940's Superman radio program. As a mere historical curiosity, it's worth noting if only because it was the radio program--and not the comics--that introduced the characters of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, but it's actually fairly entertaining, too! And, at a mere 15 minutes (or less) per episode, it's not too difficult to fit in between other tasks.

There are, of course, the elements of the program's era which can be a bit eyebrow-raising in the modern era. Besides less than politically correct depictions of Asians and American Indians, for example, this Superman doesn't seem to mind putting bad guys in mortal peril in order to get them to surrender (although, even as far back as then, I haven't noticed that he's actively killed anyone. More than a few bad guys have died as a result of their own machinations, though!). And, honestly, this version of Superman seems unusually slow to me. I'm used to reading about and seeing a Superman who can move so fast that he can travel practically anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye, should he so choose. Although the programs do use a variation of the traditional "faster than a speeding bullet" line (it changes every now and again. The episode I'm listening to now says that Superman can "race a speeding bullet to its target," which is certainly close enough), I'm constantly getting the impression that Superman himself is unsure that he can make it from Point A to Point B quickly enough to save the day.

Obviously, at least some of this is simply a side effect of the need to build tension in an action-packed radio adventure. And, generally, they succeed at their goal. It's also really pretty remarkable how voice actor Bud Collyer (who also hosted some early game shows, so I've just gotta respect him!) was able to switch his voice down an octave or so from what he used as Clark Kent to the voice he used for Superman. It's as close as one could hope for in a non-visual medium to actually seeing Kent rip open his shirt to don the red and blue tights.

Hundreds of episodes were made over the course of more than a decade. Not all them exist anymore, but there are more than enough to keep you going for quite a while, especially at the rate of two or three a week (which is about how often the episodes were broadcast in the 1940's, as well). You can find a good supply of episodes for free download (they're believed to be in the Public Domain now) over at the Internet Archive.


  1. As you probably know, my understanding is that superman originally couldn't fly but merely "jump really high/far". I'm pretty sure that was a part of the Max Fleischer cartoons, was that part of the radio mythology as well?

  2. I can't speak to the very earliest radio stories, but he definitely can fly in the ones I've listened to.

    Incidentally, if I'm remembering right, we have the cartoons to thank for the evolution from jumping to flying. After an episode or so of "jumping," Fleischer is supposed to have asked to modify that power of Superman's, as animating such "jumping" was apparently too difficult. I can't speak to when exactly this change would have happened, but certainly by "The Mechanical Monsters," where Superman is clearly seen to be flying.


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