GEORGE REEVES: A Birthday Appreciation

The Superman for a generation of fans was born Jan. 5, 1914.

Arlen Schumer, historian and recurring contributor to 13th Dimension, is the biggest Superman fan I know. I mean, the guy lectures in a Superman cape with enough energy to power Metropolis. So when I saw that we were coming up on the anniversary of George Reeves’ birth, Arlen was the first guy I turned to for an appreciation. He did not disappoint. — Dan

By ARLEN SCHUMER

I never liked the way George Reeves looked as Superman.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to begin an appreciation of Reeves—on his birthday, no less—but hey, if there’s one thing I did learn from his Superman, growing up on reruns of the TV series in the 1960s, it was “never lie” — because his Superman (and the comic book Superman I also grew up with) never did.

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For one thing, to the visual sensibilities of this budding young artist — whose first favorite was Curt Swan, the definitive Man of Steel penciller of the Baby Boom Generation — Reeves just plain didn’t look like the comic book Superman! Where was the spit-curl, fer crissakes? Reeves’ slicked-back hair drove me nuts when I was a kid — and it was brown, not the blue-black of the comics! His build didn’t match the requisite comic-book musculature of Swan’s Superman, not to mention the even-bigger Wayne Boring barrel-chested version, as seen in reprints in those ubiquitous Superman annuals of the ’60s. And who couldn’t spot the padding in Reeves’ Super-suit?

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When I later became aware of the Rock Hudson of the ’50s, flipping past those terrible movies with Doris Day that I saw on TV, I wished he could’ve played Superman instead of Reeves, because he looked exactly like the Superman of that decade, like the one that DC artist Win Mortimer drew on dozens of Action and Superman comics covers. He probably used Hudson as a model!

But what Reeves had down, what no other live-action Superman has ever quite gotten as perfectly — Christopher Reeve came closest—was Superman’s super-good nature, his yellow sun-lit personality, his very essence as a human being. We never thought of him back then as an “alien,” as is fashionable now.

Reeves played Superman as part benevolent beat cop from the neighborhood, and part stern schoolmaster, part father figure and part religious “Father” figure. As a pop culture icon, Reeves’ Superman was as much Santa Claus as Uncle Sam. His trademark cool, calm demeanor during all manner of calamity, and genuinely genial interactions with all ages and both genders, was a little bit o’ Buddha and a whole lotta Jesus. A Righteous Gentile and a Super-mensch, too!

Superman and his pal, Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson).

Superman and his pal, Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson).

Reeves might’ve been even better as Clark Kent than he was as Superman. His Kent wasn’t the bumbling oaf/newshound nerd that we’ve come to expect since the first Chris Reeve movie—he was as confident and resourceful as Superman. And certainly no wimp. Reeves, cutting quite the masculine figure (remember his dashing self in the beginning of Gone with the Wind?), was no doormat for Lois Lane. No one’s done Clark Kent better, in any medium. And no one’s ever done that last-shot wink-and-a-smile like Reeves patented.

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Since this is Reeves’ birthday, it’s ironic that his death continues to fascinate us — not just for the JFK-like conspiracy theory that contends Reeves’ 1959 gunshot death at age 45 was a homicide, not the official finding of suicide (see the underrated 2006 film Hollywoodland for an incredibly well-done dramatic interpretation of the controversy) — but for the more meta idea that Reeves’ death, the first “Death of Superman,”  came when it did, at the dawn of the new, tumultuous decade. (Plus, the urban legend persists that Reeves committed suicide by jumping off a building dressed as Superman.)

His fall ended up foreshadowing the deaths of our real-life superheroes, the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the years to come.

Reeves prepared us for the deaths of the Sixties.

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Arlen’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is revised and back in print, a lustrously illustrated hardcover, coffee-table book. To order a signed hardcover from Arlen directly, hit up www.arlenschumer.com. There are also links to Archway Publishing (an offshoot of Simon & Schuster) for the unsigned hardcover and an e-book edition.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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11 Comments

  1. Thanx for giving me this opportunity to get down thoughts I’ve felt about Reeves for YEARS, Dan–but never any place to “put” them! 🙂

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  2. George Reeves was the consummate Superman/Clark Kent. “Hollywoodland” just amplified the fact that his death was a murder and no straight-thinking individual should believe otherwise. He was a tragic loss.

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  3. Also, for Superman fans ~ please read the book “Hollywood Kryptonite”! 😉 שלום

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  4. Wonderful tribute to the great George Reeves. Kudos, Arlen!

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  5. Arlen, interesting that you reference Rock Hudson. For some time now I’ve thought that Boring based his Superman on Hudson. He was a longer taller Superman, much like Rock. And Curt Swan’s always reminded me of being based on Cary Grant (especially, my favorite,…. the Max Fleischer Superman.)

    Although I can appreciate it, I never really cared for the Superman show. I do however, miss the feel of Superman of those days though.

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  6. Never thought of it that way, but I guess Reeves did foreshadow and prepare for what was to come in the 1960s. Very insightful take on the death of a superman.

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  7. Hey Arlen,

    Woopie Goldberg remarked on the fact that Reeves revered Spencer Tracy both as an actor and a leading man. Perhaps the fact that the actor never had the chance to be a leading man in any “A” feature made him pour his heart and soul into the dual role of Superman/Clark Kent. I think you hit on something. Reeve’s portrayal of Clark was perhaps more complex, mature and integrated than his interpretation of Superman to the level where no later movie incarnation was able to address. This is fascinating to me because modern movies are always depicted as inevitably superior to primitive ’50’s TV. Yet “The Adventures of Superman” describes a complexity of values never even attempted by Christopher Reeves’ Superman or anything
    since. After watching the visually stunning, yet morally bankrupt Batman V. Superman, I longed for and missed… George Reeves.

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  8. George Reeves was Superman. No one has ever come close. Charismatic, believable and timeless.,Both his interpretation of Clark Kent and as the Man of Steel brought a warmth and originality missing before and since other actors have stepped into the role. Christopher Reeve came closest.

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  9. I believe to this day that whether he was Superman or Clark Kent, George Reeves came across as a pretty decent guy. He is still missed.

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