Jimmy Olsen, ‘absolutely fearless’ newspaperman

Reporter Jimmy Olsen takes on a risky story in disguise

October 1954 Jimmy Olsen comic #1

From its first scene, the 1949 Superman adventure  The Mystery of the Flying Monster demonstrates how radio reminded its audience of the culture of 20th century American newspapers.

The story doesn’t start with the clack of typewriters, the clatter of teletypes or the roar of the press — those come later.

Instead, it begins with a reader on the telephone to the Daily Planet advertising department, calling in a classified ad for the “personals” column:

A young man to assist in a scientific experiment. Must be intelligent, trustworthy and absolutely fearless. The pay is small, but the opportunity for adventure is unlimited. Apply to Professor Joshua Fields…

The ad might as well be for Jimmy Olsen’s job at the Metropolis Daily Planet, which already had taken him from pirate islands to wild-west dude ranches and ghost towns during the previous decade of “The Adventures of Superman.” Unlike most Superman movies, where the fate of the world hangs on the balance, the radio series based most of its plots on news reporting assignments involving Clark Kent, Lois Lane and copy boy or cub reporter Olsen. Radio put the reporters — and the Daily Planet — in the spotlight more than most of Superman’s pop culture incarnations.

Back in the early 1940s, when Jimmy was clearly a “copy boy” and too young to go on a news assignment of his own, the scriptwriters frequently had the eager and “absolutely fearless” lad stow away on a boat or plane, or somehow get to where the action was.  After all, the series was aimed at listeners closer to his age.

As a bonus, young listeners received daily reminders that newspaper careers were important — and available.  So were newspapers, and even boys and girls Jimmy’s age were probably already newspaper consumers. For example, the 1940 story “Yellow Mask and the $5 Million Jewel Robbery” starts with Clark and 12-year-old Jimmy on a train reading the paper — and Clark offers Jimmy the comics and sports section when nothing on the front page catches his interest.

Back in this 1949 episode, we get more newspaper information. We learn the Daily Planet is a multi-edition metro paper, with a “noon edition” already on the street while “Ace newspaper woman Lois Lane” is at the office pounding out a story for the next deadline, something about an announcement from the district attorney.

The authoritative tones of the announcer set the scene (after an ad for young publishing entrepreneurs interested in making and selling greeting cards):

“Someone once said ‘History is just a batch of old newspapers.’
Here in the building where the Metropolis Daily Planet, one of the country’s leading newspapers, is published, history is being recorded as it happens. The clatter of the teletypes seldom pauses; the phones never stop ringing; the presses roll night and day…”

Jimmy Olsen is busy too, risking the wrath of the editor by giving himself an assignment — to find out whether there’s a story behind that classified ad. He’s afraid that if he just tells the editor, the assignment will be taken away and given to Lane or Clark Kent. When he mentions his plan, Lois is skeptical about the idea. Perhaps she was too preoccupied with her own story to lecture him on risk-taking or reportorial ethics, beyond saying the story could be “silly, dangerous, or both.” It’s unclear whether Jimmy plans to identify himself as a reporter when he takes the job. Granted, Lois is not always the greatest role model in those areas herself. In any case, she relays Jimmy’s message to their boss.

“Might be a story in it at that,” admits Perry White, before blustering that the “young scamp” had no right to leave the office and go out on a possibly dangerous assignment his own, then — in character — leaves the room sputtering that the lad is fired. However, he turns kind and fatherly later, when Olsen disappears in an explosion at the scientist’s laboratory.

The “flying monster” of the story title is what the newspaper business might call a “tease,” as the script tries to build some suspense about the exact nature of the experiment for which the professor was in need of an “absolutely fearless” assistant. A sharp 12-year-old listener probably had it figured out in seconds, but the story is more about action than suspense, and the “Adventures of Superman” sound-effects department had a workout on this 1949 episode, from the newsroom sounds muffled behind the door of Lois’s private office to roaring engines, massive explosions and Superman’s super-sonic flight — which also gives announcer Jackson Beck a chance to show his stuff as a play-by-play narrator of the thrilling conclusion.

This story came early in the “each story complete” half-hour format the series used for its last couple of years, after a decade as a “to be continued” serial, and before television’s Superman took over as the broadcast representative of the comic book franchise.

Fans who have are willing to wait a year or more for a new “Superman” movie — or a month for a new comic book — should be impressed that in 1950 radio delivered three full stories a week, not unlike that Daily Planet delivering multiple editions a day, and 10-cent monthly comics spinning off related titles, from the original Action Comics to Superman to Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

It was a different roaring-presses world back then, before 24/7 TV and the Internet!

More sources (some “boilerplate” repeated from yesterday’s edition):

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, 1950s, Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, newspapers, Perry White, Superman. Bookmark the permalink.

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