Category Archives: Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Lyle Talbot is the best thing about Atom Man vs. Superman. Overall, he might even give the best performance–he flubs some material, but it’s better material than his only serious competitor, Noel Neill, ever gets. There aren’t great performances in Atom Man vs. Superman. The serial wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Talbot is Atom Man. Or Lex Luthor. The serial tries to confuse the good guys by creating two villains, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on Talbot’s both of them. Though it’s actually unresolved; Atom Man might–technically–not be Talbot. Doesn’t matter. A lot of Atom Man vs. Superman doesn’t matter. Like most of the first half of the chapters–it runs fifteen–and the last two. Atom Man isn’t one of those serials where nothing in between the first chapter and the last chapter matter. The last chapter is nowhere near impressive enough to matter.

The serial has a few subplots, like Talbot making artifical kryptonite, Kirk Alyn getting trapped in another dimension (“the empty doom”) while his coworkers wonder what’s happened to Clark Kent, Neill going to work for Talbot. The artificial kryptonite plot line requires a lot of precious metal theft, which means good guys chasing goons and goons kidnapping good guys. Jimmy Olsen Tommy Bond–who starts off the serial in a repeat from the previous one picking on Neill for, you know, being a woman–ends up the most frequent damsel in distress. Neill gets grabbed a couple times, but she at least sticks up for herself. If only then to turn around and beam nonsensically at Alyn when he arrives to save her.

But Neill and Talbot are good adversaries. Neill and Alyn don’t have much chemistry, which seems more the fault of director Bennet and the three screenwriters than anything else. When she’s rescued, she beams at him. When Alyn’s in the Clark Kent spectacles, they bicker without chemistry. They’re both slightly petty towards each other without much cause. Usually because the pettiness just puts them in danger–Neill’s always in the soup because she ignores Alyn (as Superman) warning her about a danger–but the toxic professional environment is a problem. It comes from the top down, of course, with editor Pierre Watkin. He sits at his desk–the strangest thing about Watkin is I think he’s supposed to be gruffly likable and instead he’s just a boob–anyway, he sits at his desk, tells his reporters they’re lying to him, defends super-villain Talbot, has Bond turn on his radio for him. It never gets too bad because Watkin’s part is never so important he’s not dismissible; it’s just another of Atom Man’s easily fixable fails.

Again, director Bennet and the three screenwriters. They do no one any favors.

The serial’s at its best when Neill is working for Talbot. She’s doing on the street interviews for his TV network start-up. Of course, it’s all a front for his robbery ring. Talbot can make robots, flying saucers, earthquake rays, atomic missiles, a teleporter, a spaceship, fake kryptonite, and some other things, but when it comes to fueling his endeavors? Breaking and entering. And when he gets busted, his fallback plan is to literally destroy the planet. Again. Screenwriters not doing anyone any favors. Especially not Talbot.

The three or four chapters with Neill working for Talbot get her out of the Daily Planet newsroom and onto the backlot streets. There are chase scenes, there’s banter with the interviewees, the serial all of a sudden shows some personality. Because when Neill’s playing second-fiddle to Alyn, it has none. She stands, usually silent, staring at him with a beatific smile, and time drags. Usually because it’s just after Alyn–as Superman–has come up with some idiotic plan. The script has zero awareness for Alyn, both as Superman and Clark Kent; at least as Clark Kent, he’s not constantly going into danger and getting in trouble. Plus, Talbot’s teleporter gets the most use getting goons out of trouble so it’s not even like Alyn can catch them. He’s a dunce.

Sadly the script doesn’t give Talbot any material observing Alyn’s constant mistakes; instead, Superman’s supposed to be a worthy foe. Even if he walks into every one of Talbot’s traps with a big grin on his face.

The special effects are another issue. Or lack thereof. Superman flying is, just like in the previous serial, an animated figure over live action footage. At one point, Atom Man vs. Superman does a great sequence–with the little animated Superman–for the flood and it’s awesome. The serial hadn’t suggested it was going to be so ambitious as to use actual miniatures up to that point. It’s never anywhere near as ambitious again. The last two chapters, which kind of should be the big finish, have nothing. Superman versus atomic missile and spaceship and flying saucers ought to be a lot better.

A bigger budget, a better director, a better script, any of these things would help immensely. Because without them, the serial’s something of an incomplete effort. Especially with that lackluster finale. Take Alyn, for example. He does the job the serial asks of him. He has a few good moments throughout the fifteen chapters, but nothing sustained. When Neill is off working for Talbot, Alyn starts ridiculing Bond just because he can. It shouldn’t be a surprise; as Superman, Alyn’s not always concerned with people’s safety or, you know, even their lives. He’ll occasionally let someone die. Or torture out a confession.

Atom Man vs. Superman, despite running over four hours, never gives Alyn any character development. He does go to cover the flood, but it’s just a setup for some Superman. He doesn’t have anything independent of the main story. Even when it seems like he might get something–the kryptonite subplot–the serial just skips away from him. It usually skips away to go back to Talbot, which isn’t terrible, but the slightest semblance of character development might do wonders.

Neill gets the most sympathy in bad scenes. She’s got zip the last two chapters. Her big showdown with Talbot–in her final kidnapping of the serial–doesn’t pay-off.

In the supporting cast, which is practically bit part level of supporting, Don C. Harvey and George Robotham are good. Harvey’s a science goon, Robotham’s Neill’s cameraman. If Jack Ingram–as the chief on-the-street goon–were better, it might help. He’s not terrible, but he’s utterly flat.

Atom Man vs. Superman’s a disappointment to be sure, but more because it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its midsection than the opening. It starts an okay serial (minus Bond being such a dip), gets better (as Bond shuts up), then defaults back to okay (with Bond still keeping the dip to a minimum because he’s barely in it). Neill and Talbot keep it moving, with Alyn a sturdy enough “lead.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).


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Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman and Robin is fifteen chapters; all together, it’s just under four and a half hours. It is not a rewarding four and a half hours. Not at all.

Of the fourteen credited actors, one gives a good performance. Don C. Harvey. He gets to be chief henchman for a while. But not even half of the serial. After Harvey, uncredited Lee Roberts becomes chief henchman; Roberts is terrible. Though he’s less awful once he becomes lab assistant to the mysterious, masked serial villain, The Wizard. The Wizard is stealing technology to remote control moving objects and, eventually, turn himself invisible. The invisible thing is a lot more amusing. Shame it’s only in the last few chapters.

Besides Harvey, the best performances are from George Offerman Jr. and Eric Wilton, both uncredited. They both have rather significant parts–Offerman is leading lady (and literally only lady in Batman and Robin) Jane Adams’s good-for-nothing crook brother while Wilton is faithful butler Alfred. Wilton gets some decent comic relief, Offerman actually has subtext in his performance; they’re all-stars in Batman and Robin.

Because besides those three, the acting in the serial is quite bad. Leads Lowery and Duncan are terrible. The perverse thrill of watching Lowery try to steal scenes while he’s in costume–chirping the thin, exposition-heavy dialogue–runs out somewhere around the halfway point. It’s a very, very, very long fifteen chapters. Most of the chapters’ “plots” relate to the Wizard and his gang wanting to steal something and Lowery and Duncan trying to stop them or something involving discovering the Wizard’s identity. Lowery and Duncan always screw something up–or just get beat up–and then Lowery bosses everyone around like he shouldn’t have egg on his face.

When Lowery’s not in costume, he’s much worse. For a while, Lowery–as Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy and fop–is advising police commissioner Lyle Tablot (who’s usually tolerable) on important matters. Most of these scenes happen in the first half of the serial, when Adams is still in it more regularly; she spends most of her scenes complaining about Lowery being such a lazy good-for-nothing. Who apparently is a police consultant, which she never notices. Because her character is terribly written. As her brother, Offerman gets more to do–unbilled and in a handful of chapters–than Adams ever does. It’s not like there’s any chemistry between Adams and Lowery. He seems stuck up and she seems to loathe him.

Duncan probably ought to loathe Lowery too since Duncan basically just spends his days in the Batcave trying to science things but being too stupid and having to wait for Lowery. But Lowery’s too busy teasing Adams about something. Batman and Robin’s first chapter does most of the Batman setup–the Batcave, stately Wayne Manor (or just a suburban house), the Batmobile (Lowery and Duncan just drive around Bruce Wayne’s car, telling people they have permission). It starts dumb. It starts a train wreck. Then it just keeps going and going and going and going.

When Harvey’s still lead thug, there’s a certain fun to the serial. The bad guys all walk around in sync; it’s visually amusing. Of course, they’re usually walking around the same handful of locations–Batman and Robin has at least two lengthy chase sequences in the same office building hallway sets, maybe three. But Harvey makes it seem fun.

Since it’s a serial with a masked, mysterious villain, there are a bunch of suspects. There’s radio newscaster Rick Vallin. He broadcasts out of his living room, presumably in a house down the street from Batman’s. Michael Whalen is a private investigator who never really figures in but the script talks about all the time for a few chapters. William Fawcett’s mad scientist, who’s wheelchair-bound but zaps himself in a special chair to walk. Fawcett’s the prime suspect. For most of the serial, whenever he has a scene secretly zapping himself, it cuts to the Wizard entering his cave lair. His cave lair, incidentally, is much cooler than Lowery and Duncan’s. Probably because it’s a converted suburban basement.

The serial doesn’t do much with the suspects. They’re just suspicious as needed, particularly Vallin. While Fawcett’s certainly acting suspiciously, no one ever finds out about the walking zapping, so he’s only a suspect for the audience. In fact, Fawcett’s walking is such a nonstarter the serial eventually just drops the wheelchair. Instead, Fawcett walks around with no one acknowledging a difference. It’s not even a fun stupid, it’s just stupid.

Technically, the serial doesn’t impress much. It does a little–Ira H. Morgan, so long as there’s not much action, shoots day-for-night rather well. It gives some character to the otherwise boring backlot-shot city scenes. It’s not like director Bennet brings anything to them. He’s thoroughly competent but never interested in anything. It might be contempt. Contempt for Batman and Robin is, frankly, a perfectly good excuse for not doing your job on it. Why bother.

There are some okay special effects; they usually come off better when Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s picked some good music for them. There’s no original music for Batman and Robin, but musical director Bakaleinikoff utilizes some more than adequate stock music themes. Certainly more adequate selections than the serial deserves (or needs).

The costumes are bad. Batman and Robin’s anyway. The Wizard’s costume ends up looking all right in the exterior action scenes. Not so much Batman or Robin. Sometimes Duncan has an obvious stunt double for Robin. Lowery at least has the mask, which doesn’t fit right so he’s always peering down his nose, head tilted back. Combined with the way Lowery folds his forearms (does he think bats hold things like squirrels or something), it leads to some silly visuals. Especially when Lowery tries to be authoritative. He’s not, the dialogue’s not just bad but factually ludicrous, and he looks like a jackass. He’s a bore.

But neither Lowery or Duncan are ever good. They’re terrible. Duncan’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a little more unlikable because he teases Adams whenever he gets the chance, costumed or not. It’s obnoxious. Even if Adams isn’t any good.

I’m sure Batman and Robin could be worse–I’m sure someone involved actually improved what the cast and crew were doing (I mean, probably they did)–but I can’t imagine how it could be any more boring. Somehow the chapters manage to move well–the plots are stupid but the pacing is competent–while still being exasperatingly insipid and dull.

It doesn’t help the opening titles for each chapter have Lowery and Duncan, in costume, running around in front of black backdrop and getting confused. Of course they’re confused, they’re jackasses. Each chapter starts with a threat of their inevitable stupidity.

Actually, wait, I did think of a way to improve Batman and Robin. A laugh track.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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Superman (1948, Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr)

Superman is a long fifteen chapters. The first two chapters are the “pilot.” They set up Kirk Alyn as Superman. He comes to Earth as a baby–with the Krypton sequences in the first chapter the most impressive thing in the entire serial–and grows up through montage to become Alyn. The first chapter has him heading off to Metropolis, intent on becoming a reporter so he can keep his ear to the ground for trouble. Except there’s trouble–a runaway train; wouldn’t you know it, Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) are on that very same train.

For a while, Superman keeps up the pretense its a special effects spectacular. Sure, Superman flying is just a cartoon, but there’s a lot of super-action. And then there’s less. And then there’s less. And the script doesn’t make up for it. Screenwriters Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole take away from Alyn and, eventually, Neill and Bond to focus on the villains. Because only the bad guys get any developments. They’ve got the schemes, they have all the new characters, they have all the action. Alyn, Neill, and Bond are mostly just cliffhanger bait.

The first two chapters of Superman set up the ground situation. They also introduce Perry White (Pierre Watkin), the Daily Planet, whatever else. Third chapter brings in villain Carol Forman. She’s playing the Spider Lady. Most of the cast is her gang of interchangeable thugs. Except George Meeker and Charles Quigley. Quigley because he’s a mad scientist, Meeker because he never gets to do anything except bicker with Forman. Wait; he does torture the good scientist (Herbert Rawlinson), but it’s offscreen. Chapter three also introduces the “Reducer Ray.” Superman has a mission from the government to protect it. But Forman wants to steal it.

At one point, she tries to steal it using a ray more powerful than the reducer ray. Superman’s short on sense.

Alyn foils most of Forman’s early schemes. Then she discovers Kryptonite. For a while, Alyn versus Kryptonite is a big part of Superman. He can’t rescue Bond because of Kryptonite, he can’t rescue Neill, whatever. Bond or Neill. One of them is always in trouble, usually for doing the exact same stupid thing they did to get in trouble before. By the end of the serial, Bond ought to have more rapport with the bad guys; he spends most of his screentime their captive.

After the Kryptonite plotline, Superman just becomes about Forman trying to get Quigley to try to get Rawlinson to do something with the reducer ray. Steal it, duplicate it, destroy it, something. And Watkin wants Neill, Bond, and Alyn to get to Quigley before the cops–even though everyone’s aware of Forman’s Spider Lady, she’s not the target of the investigation. There aren’t really any cops in Superman. The occasional flatfoot or jail guard, but otherwise, it’s all either Neill, Bond, and Alyn or Forman and her goons. Even when Alyn–as Superman–captures a goon, he’ll deliver them to the Daily Planet for interrogation instead of the cops. It’s a very, very strange system of criminal justice they’ve got in Metropolis. It’s also incredibly ineffective because, while Watkin can fight, Bond can’t. Neill can’t. Alyn can’t. Alyn’s never Superman when he needs to be. He’s always Clark Kent at the worst times. Sometimes intentionally. Alyn goes on the reducer ray transport mission–the one Superman’s supposed to be doing–as Clark Kent to cover the story.

Four screenwriters and they couldn’t come up with anything better. Directors Bennet and Carr wouldn’t have been able to handle much better though. Not with action. Their problems shooting action–specifically rising action and tension–are clear from the second chapter. They never improve. They may even get worse once the serial gets into the treading water portion of its chapters. Chapters nine through fifteen are pretty much indistinguishable from one another; the set pieces are never significant (except for Watkin’s fight scene). Superman frontloads its superhero action. Alyn gets a little bit more to do at the end–in chapter fifteen, not fourteen, they really wait for the end in fifteen–but it’s not spectacular. In fact, his great scheme to put a stop to Forman once and for all is something he could’ve done in chapter five. And spared us the rest of the serial.

Bennet and Carr end up showing a lot of aptitude for comedy. The bickering between Neill and Alyn is narratively problematic–even though there’s an indeterminate but at least a few months flashforward in chapter three, Neill and Alyn never act like they know each other any better than after they first meet. Four screenwriters and none of them can figure out how to write a scene for the two top-billed actors. Not even when Alyn’s Superman. Neill is passed out for nearly all of her rescues and only really gets to chitchat once. Before Alyn tells her to scoot off to her office. Because with the good guys, Alyn’s Superman is authoritative. With the bad guys he’s either vicious (which is at least interesting) or a complete goof. Alyn’s showdown with Forman is utterly anti-climatic. He’s grinning like a moron, she’s barely paying attention to him; not a great showdown.

And Forman’s been a lousy villain. Her grand plan isn’t even clear. She wants to extort money or maybe she doesn’t. In the first few chapters, Meeker and then Quigley tell her how wrong she is about everything and question all her orders. The scenes aren’t good but at least they have some energy. After Forman consolidates her power, things just get even more boring. Because then it’s just about waiting for things like raw materials for the reducer ray or just waiting for the ray’s battery to charge. And her underground lair, complete with an electrified spider web for unwanted visitors, is a boring set. Superman’s got a lot of boring sets, but Forman’s spider-cave is the worst. It might just be because the serial wastes so much time there.

Most of the acting is okay, without any of it being standout. Alyn, for instance, gets into a good groove as Clark Kent while Superman is getting less to do, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Same goes for Neill. She’s better than anyone else–except maybe Watkin, who’s awesome–but she’s still not able to get any momentum out of the role. The script doesn’t do character development. The best it does for the actors is one-off scenes; there’s one scene of screwball for Neill and Alyn and it’s great. There’s one scene of dread for Neill, as a reporter, and it’s great. The actors make the scenes happen–though the directors get both those examples too–but they’re just filler.

Bond is all right for a while but gets tiring. Towards the end he gets to be the crusading reporter–including threatening poor Mexican immigrants (Metropolis in this Superman, incidentially, is L.A.) and flying the Daily Planet airplane. He bosses Neill around, dives headfirst into dangerous situations, gets his ass kicked time and again. He was a lot more likable as Neill’s sidekick.

Forman’s not good, but she’s a lot worse at the start than by the end. Same goes for Quigley. Meeker’s pretty steady. So’s Rawlinson. Frank Lackteen is pretty good as Neill’s stoolie who dumps her to be Alyn’s stoolie. It’s more poorly written than weird, kind of like they wanted to have two characters but didn’t.

Technically, Superman’s fairly unimpressive. The cartoon flying Superman is never embraced. The set pieces rarely involve any superpowers. Sometimes super-strength. But the superpowers are usually only for when Alyn’s in the tights, meaning Clark Kent is played as a regular boring guy. Including when Alyn gets beat up by the goons while trying to save Neill. Why didn’t he change into his tights? Why didn’t he just beat up the bad guys while in his suit? Just another of Superman’s many logic mysteries.

Earl Turner’s editing is awful. Ira H. Morgan’s photography is fine. It’s either the same interiors (Superman reuses office sets a lot) or the same exteriors around the Columbia lot.

There’s clearly a lack of budget. There’s not much inventiveness to work within the constraints either.

Even with the always disappointing cliffhangers (and cliffhanger resolutions), the overemphasis on Forman and her goons, the utter lack of non-expository moments much less scenes, Superman almost gets through. For a while, the occasional Kirk Alyn Superman scenes payoff. For a while, it seems like there might be something for Neill to do.

Then, after the drag of the final six chapters, Superman rushes to a disappointing finish. The serial doesn’t just not make up for its losses, it goes out on bigger ones. Futzing the showdown with Forman should be the last straw, but somehow the screenwriters manage to make it even worse with a peculiar, “comedic” end tag. Directors Bennet and Carr, regardless of previous comedy prowess, do nothing to save it. Because it’s lost. But it’s also finally over.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr; screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole, based on an adaptation by George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland and characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Carol Forman (Spider Lady), George Meeker (Driller), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Charles Quigley (Dr. Hackett), Herbert Rawlinson (Dr. Graham), Jack Ingram (Anton), Frank Lackteen (Hawkins), Forrest Taylor (Professor Arnold Leeds), Nelson Leigh (Jor-El), Luana Walters (Lara), Edward Cassidy (Eben Kent), and Virginia Carroll (Martha Kent).


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