The Superman animated cartoons, commonly but somewhat erroneously known as the "Fleischer Superman cartoons" were a series of seventeen animated Technicolor short films, produced by Fleischer Studios from 1941 to 1942 and Famous Studios from 1942 to 1943 and released by Paramount Pictures between 1941 and 1943, based upon the comic book character Superman.
Superman was Fleischer Studios' final animated series before Famous Studios took over production on September 20, 1942.
The first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios (the name by which the cartoons are commonly known). In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts. These cartoons are seen as some of the finest, and certainly the most lavishly budgeted, animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In 1994, the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer had recently finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver's Travels, and were deep into production on their second, Mister Bug Goes to Town. They were reluctant to commit themselves to another major project at the time when they were approached by their distributor, and owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures. Paramount was interested in cashing in on the phenomenal popularity of the new Superman comic books by producing a series of theatrical cartoons based upon the character. The Fleischers hoped to discourage Paramount from committing to the series, so they informed the studio that the cost of producing such a series of cartoons would be about $100,000 per short -- an amazingly high figure, about six times the typical budget of a six-minute Fleischer Popeye the Sailor cartoon during the 1940s. To their surprise, Paramount agreed to a budget of $50,000 - half the requested sum, but still three times the cost of the average Fleischer short - , and the Fleischers were committed to the project.
The first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, was released on September 26, 1941, and was nominated for the 1942 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to Lend a Paw, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.
The Fleischers produced nine cartoons in the Superman series before Paramount took over the Fleischer Studios facility in Miami and ousted Max and Dave Fleischer, due to the fact that the brothers were no longer able to cooperate with each other, and the studio's co-owner Dave Fleischer had left Florida to produce Screen Gems cartoons for Columbia Pictures in California as well. The sleek look of the series continued, but there was a noticeable change in the storylines of the later shorts of the series. The first nine cartoons had more of a science fiction aspect to them, as they involved the Man of Steel fighting robots, giant dinosaurs, meteors from outer space, and other perils. The later eight cartoons in the series dealt more with World War II propaganda stories, such as in Eleventh Hour, which finds Superman going to Japan to commit acts of espionage in order to reduce the morale of the enemy.
Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used extensively to lend realism to the human characters and Superman. Many of Superman's actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (flying, lifting very large objects, and so on). In these cases, the Fleischer lead animators, many of whom were not trained in figure drawing, animated roughly and depended upon their assistants, many of whom were inexperienced with animation but were trained in figure drawing, to keep Superman "on model" during his action sequences.
The first seven cartoons originated the classic opening line which was later adopted by the Superman radio series and in the live-action television series a decade later: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" However, for the final two of the first nine Fleischer-produced cartoons and first of the eight Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening was changed to "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!". With the changeover to Famous Studios and the loss of the Fleischers, the opening line of the cartoon series was changed to "Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!" This series also continued (from the radio series) the use of the now-classic exclamation: "Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"
Famous Studios ended the series after a total of seventeen shorts had been produced, replacing it with a series of shorts based upon Marge's Little Lulu. The high cost of the series kept it from continuing in the face of budgetary restrictions that were imposed after removing the Fleischers from the studio. The first cartoon had a budget of $50,000 (equivalent to $1,316,000 today), and the other sixteen each had a budget of $30,000 (equivalent to $789,600 for each of the eight other Fleischer cartoons and $731,111.10 for each of the eight Famous Studios cartoons), bringing the total cost of the series to $530,000 (equivalent to $13,481,688.80 today). In addition, Paramount cited waning interest in the Superman shorts among theater exhibitors as another justification for the series' cancellation.
All seventeen cartoons were sold to Motion Pictures for Television (producers of the TV series The Adventures of Superman) in 1955, and all eventually fell into the public domain (their copyrights having not been renewed by either Paramount, NTA/Republic, EMKA, Ltd./Universal Studios, or even Motion Pictures for Television and DC Comics), and have been widely distributed on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Nonetheless, Warner Bros., via parent Time Warner's ownership of DC Comics, now owns the original film elements to the cartoons.
The voice of Superman for the series was initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead character's voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers' long-time musical collaborator.
A 1944 Famous Studios Popeye the Sailor cartoon entitled She-Sick Sailors parodied the Superman cartoons, two years after production on the cartoons had ceased. In this cartoon, Popeye's enemy Bluto dresses up as Superman to fool Olive Oyl, and he challenges Popeye to feats of super-strength that "only Superman" can do. The musical score for She-Sick Sailors includes echoes of Sammy Timberg's Fleischer/Famous Superman score.
In a rare move for a competing studio, Leon Schlesinger Productions, producers of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (which were distributed by WB), featured Timberg's Superman theme in Snafuperman, a 1944 Private Snafu cartoon Schlesinger produced for the U.S. Army.
The Fleischer cartoons were also responsible for Superman being able to fly. When they started work on the series, Superman could only leap from place to place (hence "Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" in the opening). But they deemed it as "silly looking" after seeing it animated and decided to have him fly instead.