It’s hard to overstate just what an impact “The Adventures of Superman” had on America in the 1950s.
Kids were comic-book crazy back then and comics had sold millions of copies a year for more than a decade. Superman was one of the most popular and when the DC Comics superhero hit TV, a generations-long love affair with the Man of Steel became as solid as steel bars, breakable only by Superman himself.
A great deal of the credit for the impact of the series goes to “Superman on Earth,” a lean and sturdy telling of Superman’s origin directed by veteran helmer Tommy Carr. The series – which started in black and white, as befits a show that revolved around gangsters, hoods and other film noir staples more than science fiction – sparked millions of Superman toys, Halloween costumes and, eventually, more movies and TV shows over the course of six seasons beginning in the fall of 1952.
The debut episode hews surprisingly closely to the Superman mythos as they’d been created and fleshed out in the comics and radio show.
The story opens on Krypton, as scientist Jor-El tries to tell the Kryptonian ruling council about the eminent destruction of the planet. They scoff at his forecast as well as his plan to build rocketships to transport the population to the planet Earth.
Before Jor-El can complete a rocket to take him, Lara and baby Kal-El to Earth, Krypton begins to tear itself apart. Jor-El and Lara wrap little Kal in a blanket and place him in the rocket.
in these first 10 minutes or so, the show plays like a “Flash Gordon”-style space opera – complete with, legend says, “Flash Gordon” leftover costumes.
After the rocket gets to Earth, it’s the heartfelt but hokey Smallville portion of the story, with Eben and Sarah Kent finding the rocket from Krypton and deciding to keep the baby. Flash forward to Clark at age 12, asking Ma why he’s different from the other boys. Then flash forward to Clark’s 25th “birthday” and Pa’s heart attack. As is familiar from so many iterations of the story, Clark decides to leave Smallville and go to Metropolis.
There’s a funny shot of George Reeves as Clark, “walking” down the sidewalks of Metropolis, putting on glasses as a disguise and deciding to become a reporter because newspapers were where the action is and Superman would know immediately when trouble broke out.
One of the strengths of the series was that Clark was a sharp guy who leveraged his powers as Superman in his everyday life. After gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White brushes him off – even after Clark shows initiative by entering his office through the window, 28 floors up – Clark hears Lois tell Perry about a man hanging from a dirigible out at the airport. Clark bargains with Perry: If he can get the man’s exclusive story, he’ll get a reporter job.
Superman shows up, rescues the man – played by Dabbs Greer, later memorable as the minister in “Little House on the Prairie,” and gets his story – frustrating Lois and winning the job.
The show wraps up with a customary joke by Clark – “Maybe I’m Superman” he taunts Lois – and bang, in less than a half hour, the show has introduced America to the the world’s greatest superhero.