“Truth, justice, and the American way”
A long time ago, I had a friend whose oft-stated motto (and thoroughly sincere belief) was that “guilty pleasures are the best pleasures.”
While I cannot concur with the statement as a general maxim, I do have a few guilty pleasures that I would hate to give up.
One is watching old Charlie Chan movies.
Another is drinking cream soda, especially the old New York Seltzer kind that was ever so subtly flavored.
Since New York Seltzer is no longer in business, the frequency of my cream soda drinking has gone way down.
And I have re-visited all of the old Charlie Chan films except for the series’ dying gasp entries starring Roland Winters.
In order to pick up the slack, I have been working my way through The Adventures of Superman TV series (1952-1958) starring the ill-fated George Reeves. Reeves’ story served as the basis for the 2006 film Hollywoodland, which piqued my interest in the series.
I had watched Superman only sporadically as a kid. Even back then, I could tell that the program was made on a tiny budget with rapidly assembled scripts. Yet, I kind of liked the characters. After all, what pseudo-journalist such as myself has not identified with Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane?
Upon re-examining the show, I have actually been pleasantly surprised. True, the special effects are primitive (some would say laughable), and the production values straight out of the bargain basement, but there is a very nice chemistry among the actors, some subtle humor, and, in the early black and white shows, an appealing noir-like atmosphere.
The opening credits of the show establish Superman as “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound.” They also assured watchers that, “disguised as mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent,” Superman carried on a “fight for truth, justice, and the American way.”
The premise that these last three items went together was apparently uncontroversial at the time.
But, quite interestingly, the notion of “the American way” was left undefined in The Adventures of Superman.
For example, the show does not turn Superman loose against communism, capitalism, or even racism for that matter.
Certainly, if Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy ran Hollywood, Superman might have spent numerous episodes rooting “reds” out of the State Department, quelling commy insurgencies around the world, and unceremoniously heaving KGB henchmen into outer space.
If, on the other hand, Norman Thomas, avid American socialist, was script editor, Superman might have used his great powers to eliminate poverty and bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth.
If great civil rights lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall called the shots, Superman might have brought about an immediate end to segregation and forced the KKK to embrace a philosophy of Gandhian non-violence.
Instead, the show’s interpretation of “the American way” was neither pronouncedly right nor left-wing.
Of course, this aversion to ideology was to be expected for a show seeking a broad audience.
Then, too, the show’s credibility would have suffered if it took an ideological bent. If Superman truly wished to eliminate communism, poverty, and/or racism, how could the show explain the fact that such evils still existed, in abundance, in the world?
And, so, back in the 1950’s it seemed like a good idea for “the American way” to be different things to different people.
In real life 2007, we may not have that luxury.
Right now, President Bush’s interpretation of “the American way” does not seem to be taking the nation where it wants to go. Nor does it seem to be the partner of truth and justice.
In the 2008 election, along with a president and congress, we will be selecting a vision of “the American way” to be utilized at home and abroad, one that must serve the real needs and most elevated dreams of ordinary human beings.