Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Superman vs. the Klan.

I downloaded a series of episodes of the old Superman radio serial called "Clan of the Fiery Cross," which Ben and I have started listening to in the car.  These episodes have some historical significance, as told by Wikipedia and this book:

Apparently There was a human rights activist who infiltrated the Klan and documented a bunch of secret meetings.  He went to the producers of Superman with this information, and they turned it into a series of episodes in which Superman battles the Klan as the main villain.  It helped a lot in delegitimizing them.  Naturally, I love stories about using entertainment media to solve real social problems.

It's really funny to listen to old radio shows.  As a kid I owned some cassette tapes with selected episodes of George and Gracie, The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, and Charlie McCarthy, so I'm familiar with the big-talking style of radio stories, but it's new to Ben and he finds it hilarious.  We've only heard one episode out of 16 so far, so we've only gotten vague hints that Klan members will show up.  What makes it particularly funny is that it's full of slang from the 40's.  I simply have no idea whether the dialogue is well written or sounded natural when, for example, everybody keeps referring to one character (a little league pitcher) as a "sorehead."  "He's such a sorehead!"  "Don't be a sorehead, buddy!"  Over and over again.

It also led to a discussion with Ben about why the production values are so low.  He mentioned that the radio show -- which obviously has one guy playing an organ for all the background music, heroic or sinister -- doesn't sound as good as a movie or TV show.  I pointed out that it costs a lot to compose a professional score and hire a full orchestra, and these guys had to crank out an episode every week, plus the business of radio shows may not have been big enough to justify any kind of serious budget.

What's especially interesting is how thoroughly integrated the advertising is with the show.  One minute the announcer will be breathlessly describing the exploits of Jimmy Olsen, and another minute he'll be saying, "Kids, Kellogg's Pep is delicious.  When your mom brings you Kellogg's Pep, make sure you eat it ALL and don't waste any.  And pass on this important information to your family, so they'll know how to eat Pep properly."  These ads would go on for about two minutes, and Pep was the only product being advertised in the first show.  (I looked it up, Pep was a competitor to Wheaties and contained toy prizes like Cracker Jacks did.)

It was comically transparent, and it made me wonder whether or not advertising has gotten cleverer or more subtle since then.  To be honest, the way I consume media allows me to avoid the most obnoxious commercials.  I don't have a cable subscription, so everything I watch is via Netflix, DVDs, movie theaters, or downloads, and I have ad filters on all my browsers.  When I see a commercial on TV outside my house it tends to make me cringe.  Still, it's probably not as bad as the actors waving products around while doing the show.

You can download the episodes from this archive, or look them up on YouTube.