Superman in the Subway

Superman vs. third rail.  Guess who wins?  Special effects here are some squiggly lightning bolts painted onto the film.

Superman vs. third rail. Guess who wins? Special effects here are some squiggly lightning bolts painted onto the film.

I have enjoyed watching the 1951-57 Adventures of Superman TV series since I was a small child in the late 1950s, and for me and millions of other people my age, there will never be a better Superman than actor George Reeves.

While Superman co-creator Joe Shuster apparently based the fictional city of Metropolis on Toronto, where he lived as a child, the TV Metropolis looked a lot like Los Angeles, where the series was filmed.  The iconic LA City Hall stood in for the Daily Planet building, and exterior scenes were filmed throughout the area, and also on the RKO Forty Acres back lot later used as Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show.

In episode 30 (“Jet Ace”), first aired on October 10, 1953, the Daily Planet crew make a short trip to an Air Force base in the vicinity of Metropolis, where there is a large map of California on the wall.  So, as far as the TV series was concerned, it looks like Metropolis was located in California.

That is, except for the Metropolis subway, as featured in episode 31 (“Shot in the Dark,” October 17, 1953).  That looks just like the New York City subway.

Truth be told, in 1953 there were hardly any subways west of the Mississippi.  The only US cities with rapid transit subways were New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Rochester, NY (which shut down in 1956).  Newark had its streetcar subway and there were short stretches in San Francisco.

Los Angeles had about a half-mile of subway downtown for the fast-disappearing Pacific Electric interurban network.  The old Subway Terminal, which operated from 1925 to 1955.

I have always found the depictions of transit systems in movies and TV shows to be quite interesting and informative, in part because they reflect the public perceptions of their time.  For example, streetcars are quite commonly seen in movies made prior to World War II, but rarely seen afterwards.

By the time they started appearing in films again, such as Avalon (1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a streetcar/light rail renaissance was well underway.  But trolleys were so unusual that these films sometimes got the technical details wrong- the ersatz PE cars in Roger Rabbit had both trolley poles up at the same time.

It’s as if people had forgotten what streetcars were like, just as America had apparently forgotten how to build streetcars after 1952.

Chances are, the producers of the Superman TV series could just as easily filmed scenes in at the PE subway terminal, so why didn’t they?  That would have involved the use of streetcars and interurban cars, which were considered old fashioned in 1953.  Public officials in Los Angeles desired a new rapid transit system for the region, and figuring the Pacific Electric could not easily be upgraded into one, they were content to simply let it die.

Los Angeles now has Metro Rail, an extensive and growing network of rapid transit subways, first opened in 1990.  These function as indirect descendants of the former PE and LA Railways lines.  In some places, rail transit has been put back where it once had been before, as in the case of the old PE line from LA to Long Beach, now the Blue Line.

Getting back to “Shot in the Dark,” the writers and producers apparently did not know a lot about actual rapid transit operations, since the story has a few mistakes in it.  In this episode, the “Valley Local” and the “Valley Express” are apparently running on the same set of tracks, whereas in New York, they would likely be relegated to different ones.

In the plot, Jimmy Olsen runs away from a crook holding a valuable photograph that turns out to be evidence that a crook, thought to have died, is still alive.  He gets on a subway train, and the doors close just ahead of his pursuer.

Clark Kent overhears the telephone conversation between the criminals, who decide to take over the following local train and have it smash into the express train that Jimmy is on.  Then, in the confusion, they plan to steal the photograph.

Oddly enough, subway trains in 1950s Metropolis seem to have two sets of streetcar-type K-controllers, one for the motorman and one for the conductor.  One crook knocks out the motorman and pushed the controller handle, after giving two rings to the conductor.  The other crook pushes forward a second K controller, which then makes the train go.

After Clark Kent thinks up a way to ditch Lois Lane, he changes into Superman and flies ahead of the out of control train, where he smashes the third rail and saves the day.  While the special effects in these shows look pretty hokey today, reliving these “thrilling days of yesteryear” is something I hope to do long into the future.

-David Sadowski

The 1951-57 Adventures of Superman TV series was shot in Hollywood and used the Los Angeles City Hall building at right as the Daily Planet building.  Unfortunately, there's no rapid transit line in the median of this freeway.

The 1951-57 Adventures of Superman TV series was shot in Hollywood and used the Los Angeles City Hall building at right as the Daily Planet building. Unfortunately, there’s no rapid transit line in the median of this freeway.

In the Superman episode "Jet Ace," aired just before "Shot in the Dark," the Daily Planet crew are shown at a California air base that is supposed to be in the general vicinity of Metropolis.

In the Superman episode “Jet Ace,” aired just before “Shot in the Dark,” the Daily Planet crew are shown at a California air base that is supposed to be in the general vicinity of Metropolis.

The "M" train approaches.

The “M” train approaches.

A rather basic subway set was built for this episode, with a small stairway, a vending machine, a phone booth, and some subway tile. Looks like Metropolis has a 34th Street station just like Manhattan does

A rather basic subway set was built for this episode, with a small stairway, a vending machine, a phone booth, and some subway tile. Looks like Metropolis has a 34th Street station just like Manhattan does.

The doors are closing... and the camera is panned to simulate the movement of a subway train.

The doors are closing… and the camera is panned to simulate the movement of a subway train.

Jimmy Olsen gets away on the "Valley Express."

Jimmy Olsen gets away on the “Valley Express.”

Lois detains Clark Kent and keeps him from chasing the bad guys.

Lois detains Clark Kent and keeps him from chasing the bad guys.

The Valley Local, after being sabotaged, is supposed to catch up to the Valley Express and crash into it after about three stops, meaning they are traveling on the same set of tracks.

The Valley Local, after being sabotaged, is supposed to catch up to the Valley Express and crash into it after about three stops, meaning they are traveling on the same set of tracks.

The first crook konks the motorman, then throws the K-type controller forward before leaving the train.

The first crook konks the motorman, then throws the K-type controller forward before leaving the train.

The second crook pushes forward a second K-type controller. Apparently the Metropolis subway cars do not have a "deadman switch."

The second crook pushes forward a second K-type controller. Apparently the Metropolis subway cars do not have a “deadman switch.”

Apparently, Metropolis has a subway system that looks just like New York's, as this picture of an "M" train shows. (I guess the M here is supposed to stand for Metropolis, although the trains in this episode are called the Valley Express and the Valley Local.)

Apparently, Metropolis has a subway system that looks just like New York’s, as this picture of an “M” train shows. (I guess the M here is supposed to stand for Metropolis, although the trains in this episode are called the Valley Express and the Valley Local.)

To simulate flight, actor George Reeves would jump on some sort of springboard just out of view at the bottom of the screen, then leap over the camera and land on some mattresses. He got very good at this sort of thing.

To simulate flight, actor George Reeves would jump on some sort of springboard just out of view at the bottom of the screen, then leap over the camera and land on some mattresses. He got very good at this sort of thing.

Due to the limitations of 1950s special effects, here Superman is literally "flying by wire." Two wires holding up actor George Reeves are visible against the dark background of Superman's cape.

Due to the limitations of 1950s special effects, here Superman is literally “flying by wire.” Two wires holding up actor George Reeves are visible against the dark background of Superman’s cape.

Superman lands in the subway tunnel.

Superman lands in the subway tunnel.

One thought on “Superman in the Subway

  1. The third photo from the top depicts an “AA” (8th Avenue Local) train, destination Washington Heights – 168th Street in New York’s IND subway. The poor focus suggests an “M” instead of “AA”. The original IND route scheme gave express lines a single letter and local lines a double letter.

    Liked by 1 person

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