By Cory Barker, Noel Kirkpatrick, Whitney McIntosh, and Anthony Strand
The Adventures of Superman
Season 3, Episode 5: “Great Caesar’s Ghost”
Original airdate: May 21, 1955
Cory: Welcome to the latest edition of our roundtable review series! Over the next two months, we’ll be dedicating our time to a group of characters that has grown to dominate the cinema during summer season: Superheroes. Although superheroes are big business in film, they’ve mostly just had fits of stops and starts on television, with very few of the series striking a balance between longevity and quality. Our hope is that this roundtable will elucidate some of the reasons for the failures, while celebrating some of the episodes where television got superheroes right.
I picked the episodes for this theme, and I think “Great Caesar’s Ghost” reflects my logic when doing so. If there’s one thing we know about superhero television, it’s that networks and studios have never truly had the budget to develop the kind of action-packed, set piece-based stories that thrive on film. As a result, the stories end up being less interested in showing off impressive abilities and more about the ways in which these people balance there heroic and normal lives. Moreover, as we see with this episode of The Adventures of Superman, shows start relying more on the supporting casts to give stories life and distract further from the lack of action.
“Great Caesar’s Ghost” is about as dumb as you can get, premise-wise. I can just imagine the strung-out, tired writers in 1955 talking to each other: “Well, Perry White always says ‘Great Caesar’s Ghost’ right? What if…and just go with me here…he actually sees Caesar’s Ghost? Wouldn’t that be aces?” (My writing is very tuned in with the verbiage of the 1950s.) And so, they made that episode. This one isn’t necessarily light on Superman, as we do get to see him fly (quite majestically), close the door of a plane mid-air, and “use” his “x-ray vision,” (it’s too easy to spend much time on the horrid special effects), but he’s certainly not the most prominent character here, which is in theory interesting. But in execution? Yow. Worst of all here is the development of the story and the pacing within the episode. The conceit itself is poor enough, but “Great Caesar’s Ghost” deepens its problems by not going much further than its dumb logline. This math isn’t scientific, but I think approximately 120 percent of this episode was dedicated to Perry White yelling some variation on “DID YOU SEE IT?”
There are absolutely better episodes of this show; episodes that give George Reeves more to do that walk in from the back of sets in a costume (and I truly love how Superman just slinks into rooms from windows here) and episodes that provide better workarounds to the limitations of the time. But what makes “Great Caesar’s Ghost” notable is that every superhero show has a lot of episodes like it. Extended time on TV, even a half-season, is more time than any given film series, which means there has to be more going on. When you can’t threaten the world every act break, and you can’t show off a litany of abilities, you can at least fill out a cast and give other people stuff to do. Sometimes, it just ends up like this.
Whitney: The thing that jumps out at me first and foremost is that this isn’t really a superhero story, rather a workplace show set in a big city newsroom that just so happens to have Superman working there. None of the action is based on Superman himself, but how he reacts to his surroundings. He isn’t saving the world or destroying the forces of evil, rather helping out his friends and co-workers when they’re in need. He’s like a State Farm agent wrapped in blue spandex and a pair of incredibly high-wasted red underwear. Of course, there are the requisite nods to his comic book roots which I enjoyed quite a bit. Instead of making it a dramatic reveal of his abilities when Perry sees him bending the pipes he is saved by the fact that Perry is already seeing things, relegating the scene to a footnote about his super strength instead of a blowup of his guise.
And when Perry tosses out a “Who do you think you are, Superman?” it’s played for laughs and almost works as a necessary reminder that this show is called The Adventures of Superman instead of The Daily Planet Has a Superhero at the Copy Desk. Not centering the whole show around Superman being awesome is also a way to make sure they don’t rely too heavily on his powers in general. When he uses his X-Ray vision on the plane, it pretty much consists of George Reeves looking around the room once and everyone going “yup, seems like X-Ray vision to me!”. A sign of the budgetary limitations as much as it’s a sign of the times. Which is all well and good. These choices turn everyone at the Daily Planet into a glorified Scooby Gang except they all have jobs. As long as the mystery is cracked in the end and their poor editor is saved from what seems like brain damage for the first 21 minutes, the day is saved.
(Two things: One: Perry’s sick for a few days and Clark Kent already has his name on the door for a job he “doesn’t even want”? Real stand up guy, that Superman. And the other: If I’m understanding this correctly, Jarvis was a part of the gang that was torturing his boss the whole time? How long a con was this? Did he have gambling debts? I think we’ve found the real mystery here.)
Anthony: I watched The Adventures of Superman pretty regularly on Nick at Nite as a small child, but I don’t think I’ve seen a complete episode in twenty years. I have to admit that it plays very differently to an adult. The pacing is sluggish, with the scenes of Perry White saying “Who’s there? Who’s talking to me?” feeling especially endless. Most of the acting is pretty stiffy (Jack Larson’s Jimmy Olsen, for example, sounds much sadder than I remember.) And, like Whitney mentioned, this isn’t much in the way of actual superheroics.
All of that said (and despite the $12 budget), I still got a thrill from watching this episode. I’m enough of a Superman enthusiast that I’m happy to spend time watching just about any incarnation of the character, but there’s something special about George Reeves’s “friendly big brother” take. He plays Superman and Clark exactly the same way, which makes them seem more like equals to me. When Clark has been made temporary editor in this episode, he absent-mindedly says that Superman hasn’t been seen because “I’ve been so chained to my desk.” This is a version of Superman who is so dedicated to being Clark Kent that he forgoes superhero business to edit copy for the Daily Planet. That’s ridiculous, but it’s also very charming. Like Whitney said, he’s the Daily Planet’s personal superhero.
Of course, this episode isn’t really about Superman at all. It’s about Perry White, a character who isn’t really suited to carry a story. J. Jonah Jameson over at Marvel gets to play all kinds of fun Spider-Man-hating notes, but Perry is pretty much a stock grumpy editor. One of the few truly memorable things about Perry is his tendency to yell “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” as part of his rants. So the creative team here just took that and ran with it, which makes for a bizarre episode. We never get a good explanation for how Morley’s gang was able to execute this plan, and Perry doesn’t go crazy enough for it to really be all that entertaining. But then, at the end, Superman wears a trenchcoat and pretends to be a ghost and gets shot by some gangsters, so that’s better than most things that happen on TV.
Noel: Anthony and Whitney, you’re both all too correct. It’s not very superhero-y by today’s standards, and it’s a damn flimsy premise on which to hang a 25-minute episode of anything, let alone a superhero we’ve come to associate with great powers and abilities, powers and abilities the show’s opening even invites us to recall.
I wouldn’t even say that I enjoyed the episode (I lack your enthusiasm for the character, Anthony) but I short shrugged off the problems anyway. It’s such a–and pardon me for using the phrase as I hate using the phrase–Golden Age of superhero comics plot. Superman comics from the 1940s and 1950s didn’t involve that many super villains or world-destroying threats. Instead, Superman did battle with a lot of gangsters and old guys in suits, and by “did battle with” I mean he did exactly what Superman does in this episode: He tricks them and uses the minimal amount of his powers to do so. Even the “friendly big brother” nature of Reeves’s Superman that Anthony wonderfully describes is a carry-over from the comic version at the time.
So, yes, it’s a pretty unexciting and repetitive episode of television, but I bet it would’ve made for a pretty solid 22 page comic book story at the time.
This is the first of our multi-week series on superhero television. Here’s the upcoming schedule:
6/20: Batman 1966, “King Tut’s Coo”/”Batman’s Waterloo” (S2E53/54, YouTube)
6/27: Green Hornet, “Corpse of the Year” Parts 1 and 2 (S1E18/19, YouTube)
7:/11: The Six Million-Dollar Man, “A Bionic Christmas Carol” (S4E10, YouTube)
7/18: Shazam!, “Thou Shall Not Kill” (S1E3, YouTube) and The Secrets of Isis, “Spots of Leopard” (S1E3, Hulu)
7/25: The Greatest American Hero, “The Two Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Fastball” (S2E2, Hulu)
8/1: The Incredible Hulk, “Stop the Presses” (S2E9, Hulu)
8/8: The Flash, “The Trickster,” (S1E12, Amazon Instant)