Journalists aren’t the only people who were sometimes stereotyped in old-time radio dramas or other popular culture forms of the 1930s and 1940s.
In these closing episodes of a 15-part Superman adventure from September 1941, we find ourselves in Central America with several “types”: a tribe of “savage head-hunting Indians,” a treacherous British-accented “local white derelict” of the tropics, and the ironically named John Carter, manager of a rubber plantation, typical of the “great white hunter” characters in films and stories by the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Were the “Adventures of Superman” writers making a conscious reference to Burroughs’ character John Carter of Mars? A superhero of sorts himself, Carter had been popular in pulp novels for 30 years by 1941, even if he didn’t prove a box-office blockbuster when he finally made it to the movie screen in 2012.
In these episodes, Superman not only battles dangerous natives, he convinces their aging chief he is “the Great Spirit” and promises him long life in exchange for the jungle medicines he has travelled to Central America for — both to save Carter’s life and to rescue the Metropolis Football team from a sleeping-sickness poison they were given at the start of the series.
In any case, Clark Kent’s sudden expedition to Central America does remind us that journalists sometimes took on an “explorer” role as early as the 19th century, with Henry Morton Stanley’s search for David Livingstone in 1871 and Nellie Bly‘s record-setting trip around the world in 1889, both of which had been dramatized in popular-history programs on the radio.
Neither Stanley nor Bly was as well equipped to negotiate with natives or fight a 50-foot boa constrictor and fly home quickly as Superman — in time to make a difference in a “last three minutes of the game” football drama.
|Episode 13: Clark Kent and John Carter||Episode 14: Superman as Great Spirit.|
|Episode 15: Get those Central American drugs!|
The final episode brings Kent back to Metropolis and his original goal of helping the university football team recover from a drug the players had been given, one that sapped their strength and left them dizzy and stumbling around the field just as they were headed for a championship.
Winning the championship was presented as an essential ingredient in raising matching-funds to qualify the university for a $3 million bequest for medical research. Its ultimate target was to find a cure for infantile paralysis (polio), a real-life villain in the 1940s. (A search of the New York Times archives finds 421 stories during 1940 and 1941 about the disease and attempts to combat it. The first polio vaccines were not developed until the 1950s.)
This is the final JHeroes installment for the story, “Metropolis Football Team Poisoned,” each including several “Adventures of Superman” daily episodes from the 1941 serial.
First installment: Clark Kent, unethical sports reporter
Second installment: Clark Kent, burglar or bungler?
Third installment: Lois Lane Steps In