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.
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.