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.


  1. Anonymous3:06 PM

    We've only heard one episode out of 16 so far, so we've only gotten vague hints that Klan members will show up.

    Which story are you listening to? "Superman vs. the Hatemongers" (or some such), or "Superman vs. the Clan of the Fiery Cross"? The latter's the one with the obvious KKK allusions, but the former also deals with topics like intolerance and bigotry.
    As I recall, "Hatemongers" is about Unity House being built despite bigots' best efforts. When "Clan of the Fiery Cross" begins, Unity House already exists, though the Clan's not happy about it.

  2. It's the Clan of the Fiery Cross, as I mentioned in the post. If we're not totally burned out on Superman after these episodes, maybe we'll go back and find those other ones.

    1. Anonymous3:59 PM

      D'oh! Yeah, you did say. That'll teach me to grep before replying (not!).
      And yeah, the Pep commercials are cute at first, but they get annoying after a while.

  3. I heard somewhere about someone using 'Candid Microphone' recordings to study casual speech as far back as possible. Super cool.


  4. We've listened to the series through episode six so far. I kind of enjoy how completely unsubtle the message is. The announcer keeps reminding us... "When we last left our story, we heard how the TOTALLY UNAMERICAN bigots and scum in the Clan of the Fiery Cross hate this one family, which is DECENT AND LAW ABIDING and their kid PITCHES A GREAT GAME OF BASEBALL, simply because their skin is a different color. What will happen next?!"

    I can imagine a Fox News analog in 1947 wringing their hands and tut tutting about the inappropriate tone of the piece. As a matter of fact, the KKK demanded a boycott of Kellogg's (apparently the show's only sponsor) but Kellogg's didn't back down and the ratings went through the roof.

  5. It does not surprise me in the least that Superman went against the Ku Klux Klan. I am not a specialist, but wasn't Superman/Clark Kent a Jewish metaphor/fantasy? In any case, Superman is an immigrant.

  6. Listening to very dated radio broadcasts seems like a neat exercise. I expect that advertising has evolved quite a bit as the ability to reach a larger audience increased and different methods were found to be effective. I wonder if people of that era were quite as naive as the commercials would lead us to believe, or if the commercials were just very inept by modern standards.

    You can look up “Century of the Self” online fairly easily, which has an interesting take on how business has evolved their practices to make people want to buy things. It is four hours or so of documentary, but I found it interesting. It did strike me as a bit conspiratorial, so I don’t take everything it states at face value, but it is an interesting take nonetheless.

  7. Most 30s, 40s and even 50s shows have that hokey style of slang and 'with it' speech, but I recently (like, this Century!) heard a 1930s Cop show that was audio verite- they rode along and went to real crime scenes (usually domestics or false alarms) but I was fascinated to hear that everyone in the 1930s actually spoke just like you and me- probably a little better! Virtually no slang, and well-constructed sentences, but clearly real- no actors. One episode with 'Ladies of The Night', they sounded like particularly erudite graduates, not the 18 year olds they were. But shows like this and The Whistler for instance, make Vincent Price seem withdrawn and shy.

  8. I used to listen to radio dramas and comedies all the time. My family didn't get a TV until the middle of the 60s, when I was 15. I love the slang of that period. Thanks for reminding me about the style...the theater I work with is doing a radio-style show for New Years' Eve this year, and I intend to be front and center.

  9. In the 50s, I got my mouth washed out with soap for using slang of any sort. I was also expected to use good grammar, spelling and penmanship. We were all being trained to be good little clerks for the British Commonwealth, you know. The Empire was fast dismantling, but it took a while for the rest of the British world to catch up.