By Jarrod Jones. By the end of the 1940s, Hollywood’s response to Superman’s tremendous popularity had most definitely been an appropriate one — between Max and Dave Fleischer’s stunning Superman animated shorts and Kirk Alyn’s 15-part movie serials, the Man of Steel was virtually everywhere. But never once did it occur to these studio moguls, who were already reaping the rewards of adapting Superman to the silver screen anyway, to adapt the hero’s exploits with the same veneer they applied to their prestige projects. Just think about it. It’s really quite bizarre.
In a time where high-flying superhero pictures are virtually every production studio’s safest bet, I’m experiencing a bit of aesthetic jetlag. The spark is beginning to dwindle. And whenever I find myself underwhelmed by mainstream adaptations of my favorite characters, I turn inward to find the films, television shows, or comic books that never existed… but should have. So that’s what this article is all about. Daydreaming.
Join me as I consider an alternate reality, where the mammoth success of comic books in the 1940s was met by Hollywood with the same care and diligence typically given over to large-scale productions like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or the tongue-in-cheek gusto afforded to genre fare like Samson and Delilah. Join me as I consider Michael Curtiz’s Superman.
Here are the parameters:
- Our Superman film could have been made at any point between 1939 and 1949, arguably the highest point of the character’s popularity.
- Studio contracts are not an issue. As this Superman picture will have been produced by Warner Bros. (instead of Paramount, who handled the Fleischer’s animated serial, or Columbia, who make Kirk Alyn a household name), no actor included in this film would be stymied by contractual obligations from other studios — not a rarity for the time, but for a film on this scale? You betcha.
- The only actors employed in this film are stars who worked during this era.
- The film would have been directed by Warner’s Golden Goose, Michael Curtiz, who in this alternate world would have still made Casablanca by the seat of his pants, among other prestige pictures. Only thing is, Superman would demand a fantastic vision on par with a Fritz Lang and the panache of a Cecil B. Demille. Both attributes were once exemplified by the technical expertise of William Cameron Menzies (who made the towering Things to Come way back in 1936, a film that contained imagery that looked like this — and this). Menzies would be Curtiz’s second-in-command, bringing an ambition and scale required to recreate the doomed planet of Krypton, while making a beleaguered Metropolis under siege look utterly fantastic. Curtiz would supply the whirlwind romance between Lois Lane and Superman with his typical flourishes.
- Under no circumstances would Max Steiner compose music for this film. Holy cow, what a showboat. Instead, Warners would hire Dimitri Tiomkin, the composer responsible for some of my all-time favorite movies (Dial ‘M’ For Murder, Rio Bravo).
With all that understood, let’s get into the fun part — the casting.
Cary Grant is Clark Kent/Superman. Come on. This one makes so much sense, it hurts. Not only did Cary Grant have the acting chops, the physique, and the charisma to portray the Last Son of Krypton, for all intents and purposes he was Clark Kent in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. (It’s been said that Christopher Reeve even chose to emulate Grant’s character, David Huxley, when he donned the glasses forty years later.) Grant’s expertise in playing the milksop (see Arsenic and Old Lace) and the hero (Gunga Din) has been well-documented. Grant is forever the Superman of my dreams.
Barbara Stanwyck is Lois Lane. Of all the actors of this particular era, Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely one of my all-time favorites. Stanwyck had all the attributes of Lois Lane and more: she was tough-as-nails when she had to be, stoic and removed when the situation called for it, and completely vulnerable when nobody was looking. Stanwyck’s body of work speaks for itself. But the next time you watch Meet John Doe, look closely: you’re looking at the best personification of Lois Lane ever put to the silver screen.
Claude Rains is Lex Luthor. Luthor, snake that he is, was a tough one to pin down. It would be essential that the actor assigned to Luthor have not just the cunning, but the magnetism required to be a proper foil for Cary Grant’s Man of Steel. As one of the greatest character actors of all time, Claude Rains had both. It’s likely that Rains was always above playing a rat like Luthor, but watching him in films like Notorious and Casablanca, it’s difficult not to see the actor tapping into pure evil and making it look so damned suave. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Orson Welles and Myrna Loy are Jor-L and Lora. Given that the period in which we’ve placed our focus took place during comics’ Golden Age, Superman’s Kryptonian folks would have to have their original Siegel and Shuster designations. (I’ve always had an affinity for those names, anyhow.) As most Superman pictures deal in Kal-El’s wondrous origin story, there would definitely have to be an opening sequence featuring Orson Welles and Myrna Loy as our hero’s biological parents. Wells always had that larger-than-life zeal (watch him in Macbeth, the man’s a monster), and Loy’s otherworldly beauty and tremendous heart are what endeared her to millions of fans around the world. Both had what it took to convey Curtiz and Menzies’ Krypton with grace.
Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi are John and Mary Kent. As it is with Jor-L and Lora, so it must be for John and Mary Kent. As Superman’s adoptive parents, the Kents had yet to become fully realized characters (it wouldn’t be until 1948 before they were even given proper names), so why not throw some Richard Donner-level star power behind the fine folks who gave Superman such a proper upbringing? Had Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi been Superman’s folks during the character’s defining years, the whole world might have been a better place.
Hume Cronyn is Perry White. Clark Kent and Lois Lane need a proper editor, someone who could command respect and get results from this particular pair of intrepid reporters. Hume Cronyn has always been my only choice for
George Taylor Perry White, a man of short stature whose presence commanded attention and respect. (Watch him put the fear of God into Burt Lancaster in Brute Force.) Cronyn is the actor you want whipping The Daily Planet into shape. (And I wouldn’t mind this throwaway exchange: Clark Kent: “Sorry, m-m-Mr. Taylor!” Perry White “That’s WHITE, Kent!“)
Mickey Rooney is Jimmy Olsen. Come on now. There was no other choice. While ol’ Mick was into his twenties around this period, his cherubic looks and undeniable energy makes him the prime candidate for our cub photographer. And the presence of all this marquee talent would make sure that the notorious ham wouldn’t gobble up too much scenery. Plus, he looks great in a bowtie.
Tyrone Power is Bruce Wayne. Michael Curtiz’s Superman wouldn’t miss an opportunity to implement another popular character from Detective Comics, Inc. It’s only fitting that the hustle-and-bustle of Metropolis would attract a notorious playboy like Bruce Wayne to its gilded towers, wouldn’t you say? Tyrone Power, handsome leading man and swashbuckler of the age (Black Swan, The Mark of Zorro) would be my only pick for the dark and charming Mr. Wayne. What’s that? Too on the nose? Ah, you’re crazy.
But why stop there? Since we were about as likely to see such a film made as we’re likely to find the time machine that could make it possible, why not make room for a villain from Superman’s Silver Age? I mean, why not?
Charles Boyer is Brainiac. Brainiac wouldn’t begin to terrorize the cosmos until 1958, but because Brainiac is the most famous Superman foe this side of Luthor, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include our green-skinned would-be despot. Charles Boyer’s reputation as a sophisticate would have dodged one heck of a bullet, considering that Michael Curtiz’s Superman would have been shot in black and white. That means any blows to his ego would have been properly set aside for Boyer to flex his considerable menace as the alien fiend. A team-up between Claude Rains’ Luthor and Boyer’s Brainiac? My head just exploded.
Who would you cast in a Golden Age ‘Superman’ movie? Let us know in the comments section below.