Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible

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So Superman went back to catching Axis saboteurs. The Army sent his patriotic adventures to G.I.s around the world, but when they returned home, they wanted more pizazz. Superman's physical powers became more and more extravagant. Not only could he fly through space, but he could wrestle planets out of their orbits, and with his superbreath could extinguish a distant star.

More significant, it was time for Superman to move on from radio and comics and enter a new medium, time for a mere mortal to impersonate the man of steel on the screen. Kirk Alyn, an agile dancer, began appearing in Saturday serials in 1948, letting his voice drop by an octave each time he reached for his necktie and declared, "This looks like a job for Superman!"

But Hollywood's technology was still so rudimentary that when Alyn lifted his arms and cried, "Up, up and away!" only a spliced-in animated cartoon could show Superman in flight. "When I was Superman, I did it with my attitude," recalls Alyn, now 77. "In my mind, I'd visualized the guy I had heard on the radio. This was a guy nothing could stop. So that's why I stood like this, with my chest out, and a look on my face saying 'Shoot me.' " To demonstrate, the old man rises from his easy chair and adopts the Pose, and once again, Superman lives. "And by the way," Alyn adds, "I didn't wear any padding, the way the other guy did."

Yes, it is true: when Superman moved to television, where George Reeves first donned the cape in 1953, his bulging muscles were made of foam rubber. No matter. There are plenty of viewers who can still recite, at any mention of Reeves in his foam-rubber muscles, a quasi-liturgical text: ". . . Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman! Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and . . . fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"

Reeves, a rather lardy figure, had serious acting aspirations (he had been one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind), and he felt that Superman was somehow beneath his dignity. He also disliked the need to diet for the role. He once referred to his heroic tights and cape as a "monkey suit." After growing famous as Superman, Reeves encountered great difficulty in finding work as anything else (the same problem ended the careers of Alyn and Noel Neill, who played a perky Lois Lane in both the serial and TV show). When ; he did get a minor part in From Here to Eternity, the preview audience guffawed. "Every time he appeared, they yelled again and again," says one witness, Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the TV series. The producers cut Reeves' part to almost nothing. Reeves dutifully went on playing Superman, but when filming for the seventh season was about to begin, he shot himself.

"The attitudes of Superman to current social problems reflect the strong- arm totalitarian methods of the immature and barbaric mind."

-- Marshall McLuhan

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