This week, four episodes of “Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere,” transported from the fall of 1940 for your March 2012 spring-break entertainment.
|5: Sept. 4, 1940||6: Sept. 6, 1940|
|7: Sept. 9, 1940||8: Sept. 11, 1940|
On the radio, America’s Kryptonian visitor took his newspaper role so seriously that journalistic assignments often framed his “super” adventures, not the other way around — which was more often the case in his feature film incarnations. However, this week’s episodes have more heroism than journalism, just to move the story along, now that the reporting-frame has been established.
The tale whose 12-minute episodes we’re podcasting, “Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere,” is from Superman’s first year on the air, just a year after the launch of the comic book and newspaper-strip character. There was no heroic task involved in Clark Kent’s “finding the story”; in the opening episode we heard the feature assignment handed down by editor Perry White. The news values involved were as old as Nellie Bly’s trip around the world or Stanley finding Livingstone: The adventure of scientific exploration and the possibility of some new record or discovery.
But there was also some deception involved, if not enough to call for a journalism ethics investigation. Kent’s editor said his scientist acquaintance was testing a new diving-bell and investigating deep-sea life in the interest of scientific knowledge. Later in the story we get a hint that White knew the expedition was literally a treasure hunt. He certainly knows enough by episode eight to send another reporter, one who knows the real quest, to find out whether an emergency rescue is necessary.
In any case, Kent didn’t seem to resent the deception when Professor Thorpe broke the news at the end of episode three. Perhaps the alien visitor’s own agenda — curiosity about human beings and this new planet, plus a need to be of assistance — is close enough to the motives of the average journalist. Even the treasure hunt is to finance the professor’s research, as he says, “for the betterment of mankind.”
(Previous installments of this story: first and second, third and fourth. Earlier podcasts: Origin stories. )
Either way, it’s a story, and — unlike the comic book and movie versions of Superman — this radio hero with the dual identity is a reporter first. The newspaper story leads to the need for Superman’s derring-do, whether it’s a battle with pirates, a wrestling match with a giant octopus, or fight with an anchor chain to keep hurricane winds from putting a ship on the rocks and endangering the scientist and diver Gleason below.
That’s where we pick up the story today, with four fast-moving episodes that finally let actor Bud Collyer drop his voice to its lowest “This is a job for… Superman” register, even when he’s describing his own actions underwater. (Each episode can be downloaded from the Internet Archive using the links on the dates above, if media-player icons are not visible.)
As is usually the case in radio, the special effects are as good as your imagination. For all the action, start from the beginning of episode five. You’ll discover that this early incarnation of Superman, unlike the later cinematic incarnations, can’t survive without air to breathe. If you are queasy about hearing giant sea creatures dismembered, or would rather get back to Kent’s journalism, skip to episode seven or eight and trust to the daily radio-serial’s essential “recap” at the beginning of the episode to catch you up on just enough of the missed action.
By the end of episode seven, Collyer is back in his tenor range, and Kent is “back from his cabin” protecting the existence of his secret identity behind innocent reportorial questions, like: “Professor Thorpe, Gleason! You’ve been saved! How did it happen?!”
In episode eight we meet two more members of The Daily Planet staff — copy boy Jimmy Olsen and reporter Bill Wentworth, sent to the Caribbean by White to find out what has become of Kent and the professor. (A sea-going voyage apparently was no place for a woman — not even Lois Lane; either that, or the series hadn’t settled on an actress to play the part regularly.)
Note: This series does show one sign of its 1940 origin, the casual reference to one of the pirates as “a half-breed,” which along with the frequent World War II use of “Japs” are about as racially offensive as Superman gets. In fact, in the late 1940s, the series staged an impressive campaign for brotherhood and against discrimination, including a story in which Perry White and The Daily Planet took on the Ku Klux Klan.