Magazine article The Spectator

The Dark Side of Tinseltown

Magazine article The Spectator

The Dark Side of Tinseltown

Article excerpt

Peter Hoskin marks the 50th anniversary of the death of George Reeves, TV's original Superman Uncork the champagne, put on your best frock, and grin like the good times are never going to end. After all, it's 1959, and Hollywood is the place to be. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot has just left movie theaters; that great John Wayne film, Rio Bravo, is still doing the rounds; and the whole town - no, the whole world - is gearing up for the release of some Biblical epic they're producing over at MGM. What's it called? Oh, yes: Ben Hur. So much glamour, money and talent that you can't help but enjoy it all.

Or maybe not. Looking back from 2009 on that fertile patch of Hollywood history, there's one moment which resonates dolorously above the clink of so many cocktail glasses. On 16 June 1959, only a few kilometres away from the famous Hollywood sign, the 45-year-old George Reeves was found sprawled across the bed in his home; a bullet wound to his temple; and blood, brain and bone fragments sprayed across the sheets.

The coroner's report marked it down as a suicide. But, to almost everyone else, it was no less than the death of Superman.

You see, starting with the feature film Superman and the Mole-Men in 1951, and continuing with the television series The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), Reeves had been the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the caped hero for nigh on eight years. The children of America would rush to catch his latest adventures; their noses pressed against the screen as Reeves burst through walls, chased hoodlums and tied prop guns into knots. Swell, just swell!

Watching those shows now, their visceral appeal is clear from the opening sequence.

A gun spits, as the voiceover intones: 'Faster than a speeding bullet!' A train hurries towards camera: 'More powerful than a locomotive!' A towerblock dominates the frame: 'Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!' And, suddenly, there's Reeves as Superman - all padded shoulders, jutting chin and brilliantined hair - standing resolutely in front of the Star-Spangled Banner, ready to fight for 'Truth, Justice and the American Way!'. Make no mistake: the Soviets just couldn't compete.

Get past the opening, and you're treated to some incredibly warm character-work from Reeves. Both his Superman and his Clark Kent radiate kindliness: a quality determined not just by the scripts - as in qSuperman and the Mole-Men, when Superman actually defends the title creatures from the vigilante hysteria of small-town America - but also by the easy charm Reeves brings to the role. Sure, he can duke it out with the most depraved villains in all Metropolis. But what really makes this Superman special are the knowing winks he directs towards camera, or the impromptu moral guidance he gives to other characters and - by extension - the audience. In short, he's a father figure. A Superdad for kids growing up in the shadow of The Bomb.

But now Superman, Reeves, father to millions, was dead. And the horrible news, coupled with the blunt headlines - 'TV'S "SUPERMAN" KILLS SELF' announced the frontpage of the New York Post - shocked many of his young fans to tears. They sat morosely in their rooms; lost their appetites; and refused to go to school. And who could blame them? For most, it will have been their first lesson in mortality, and among the most powerful they'd ever receive. …

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