For this weekend, four episodes concluding “Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere,” transported from the fall of 1940 for your March 2012 entertainment.
|9: Sept. 13, 1940||10: Sept. 16, 1940|
|11: Sept. 18, 1940||12: Sept. 20, 1940|
At this point in what was originally a 12-day Superman serial, reporter Clark Kent’s role has pretty much concluded. His news assignment set the plot in motion, with his newspaper job playing more of a part in the storytelling than it did in later 20th century Superman stories, but getting to the end of the story naturally requires more super-doing.
The script writer has to stretch some “recap” muscles at the start of each of these four final episodes of “Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere,” as the narrator, a despondent oceanographer and Kent take turns catching listeners up with a complex plot involving exploration, deception treasure-hunting and piracy. I’m presenting all four at once, trusting that listeners will make judicious use of the fast-forward button. (The episodes are 12 minutes each, with two or three minutes of introduction, recap and conclusion.)
In the eighth episode last week, Clark Kent also demonstrated that a good reporter has excellent first aid skills among his other attributes, taking care of the professor’s stab wounds after the pirates attacked at sea and stole the $2 million in gold. As episode nine opens, Kent convinces the professor that he also can do something for the more seriously injured ship’s captain. (Thorpe, of course, does not suspect the “something” involves donning a red cape and flying the dying captain to a doctor.)
Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Kent’s editor Perry White has become suspicious and sent another Daily Planet reporter to the Caribbean looking for Kent. Perhaps the actress playing Lois Lane had the month off. In any case, the rescue mission fell to a reporter named “Bill Wentworth,” whom I haven’t run into in other Superman episodes.
In a further demonstration of newsroom camaraderie, Jimmy Olsen — still a copy boy of 12 or 13 — managed to stow away on Wentworth’s chartered plane out of concern for his pal, Kent. In rapid succession, he put Wentworth’s rescue project in jeopardy, and then found an essential clue in the mystery — one of the gold doubloons from the professor’s stolen treasure.
Up to this point in the first year of the series Superman was keeping secret his very existence, not just his secret identity as Kent. By the end of this story, that begins to change, when Jimmy becomes one of the first people on Earth to meet the mysterious flying man — and ask him whether he ever changes into normal clothes. (Curiously, one of the first people radio’s Superman met was another boy named Jimmy who asked a similar question — and who christened the alien visitor “Clark Kent.” See Getting off the ground at The Daily Planet.)
Kent doesn’t get to exert many of his “mild-mannered reporter” skills in these closing “Bathysphere” segments, although in episode 10 he does notice a red glow in the sky and knows a house on fire when he sees it. Far from the Planet’s circulation area, that’s not a story for Kent to cover — but it is another job for Superman, rescuing Wentworth and Olsen from the burning building, a convenient coincidence pulling the two plotlines together, and sending Wentworth to the hospital — and out of the story.
Like any good wordsmith and mentor, Kent also gets to teach Jimmy (and this juvenile series’ young listeners) some vocabulary, starting with a discussion of his dehydration after the fire, and including nautical vocabulary like port, starboard, channel and jetty. After that, the concluding episodes are all a job for Superman – literally putting a minefield between him and the story’s finale in the pirates’ treasure cave, with a surprise from Mother Nature as well as that surprise for Jimmy Olsen.
In fact, Kent doesn’t get to be a journalist again in this serial, which leaves him and Olsen in the Caribbean. In a similar fashion to 1930s radio soap operas, “The Adventures of Superman” segued into its next story while wrapping up the last. So, as Clark and Jimmy say farewell to Professor Thorpe, the boy catches a turtle as a souvenir — and finds the words “Help” and “Dead Man’s Isl.” carved into its back.
“There may be a swell story behind this plea for help,” says Kent, a reporter again.
Thus began a new six-episode story called “The Curse of Dead Man’s Island,” all of which is available at the Internet Archive’s Superman collection. For the curious, here’s the The Curse of Dead Man’s Island transitional episode.
If Kent found time to sit down at a typewriter and knock out a story about the Bathysphere adventure or phone in a synopsis to the rewrite desk, radio listeners missed it. With another adventure starting, it would be six more days before Kent was reminded of his professional responsibilities by a cable from his editor: “Return at once. Big story breaking. Need you.” But, once again, the newspaper assignment would set the radio plot in motion.
See my notes on previous installments of the Professor Thorpe story: first and second, third and fourth, fifth through eighth. Earlier JHeroes podcasts include Superman, Clark and Lois origin stories.
For anyone who prefers skimming to listening, James Lantz at the Superman Home Page has written a full plot summary of Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere.
As I mentioned last week, this series does show one sign of its 1940 origin — casually racist references to the pirates as “greasy half-breeds.” After World War II, the Superman series was filled with more enlightened messages about international peace and brotherhood, including an anti-discrimination story pitting The Daily Planet against the Ku Klux Klan.