Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kirk Alyn

Kirk Alyn was a small part actor from the early thirties on who is remembered today chiefly for one role…but what a super role it was! Alyn became the first live-action, on-screen incarnation of SUPERMAN in the 1948 15 chapter serial of the same name. Now you young whippersnappers might not be familiar with serials. A movie serial was a short (usually two reels, about twenty minutes) film that, along with cartoons, newsreels, travelogues and assorted short subjects, usually preceded the movie you actually paid to see back in the early half of the last century. They were usually action based melodramas—westerns, spy thrillers and the very first comic book movies! The idea was that if you liked this week’s chapter, you would want to return to the same theater the following week to see what happened to the hero after the inevitable cliffhanger (sometimes literally in a serial!) ending. For many years, pre-television, it worked. For the record, this was all before my time but it sure sounds fun!
SUPERMAN arrived late as a serial for some reason, preceded by BATMAN, THE PHANTOM and even rival CAPTAIN MARVEL! When he did arrive, however, it was in the personable person of Kirk Alyn who made the part his through two serials, a total of thirty chapters. Married to marvelous deadpan comedienne Virginia O’Brien, Alyn had been working steadily in vaudeville, B westerns, gangster melodramas and even other serials for some years but to the general public was a relative unknown. His winning, energetic performance as both Clark Kent and Superman made the character believable and tied him to it forever more. His supporting cast included the lovely Noel Neill in her first appearances as the spunky Lois Lane and former Little Rascal Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, a character taken largely from the radio series at that point. The special effects were, like everything else on a serial, produced quickly and cheaply but when Superman flew, it was shown with cartoon animation which, perhaps surprisingly, worked!
Alyn returned for ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN, loosely based on a popular long-running story arc from the radio version of SUPERMAN but here featuring Lyle Talbot as the screen’s first Lex Luthor. (Talbot turned up in one of my favorite TV gags in the 1960’s. On the always surreal GREEN ACRES, the Douglases were visiting the fictional governor of whatever state would name a town Hooterville. Lisa says "Don’t I know you from somewhere?" and the governor, played by actor Lyle Talbot, responds wistfully with, "I used to be Lyle Talbot!")
After this, Kirk Alyn became the Quality Comics hero BLACKHAWK for fifteen chapters. Supposedly he was offered the television version of SUPERMAN but turned it down due to the effects of typecasting he was already seeing. George Reeves was given the role in the short feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN that served as a sort of pilot for the TV series.
IMDB lists Kirk in a number of unbilled small roles after that dribbling out in the early sixties. In 1971, even though his version of the Man of Steel was by then largely forgotten, the retired actor wrote and self-published his memoirs, A JOB FOR SUPERMAN, and sold autographed copies of the book via mail-order. The oft-mentioned nostalgia boom brought Kirk new celebrity as he was a welcome presence at film collector and comic book conventions, often arriving with his own telephone booth for changing into you-know-who.
In 1977, Alyn and Neill were called on for a nostalgic nod in the big-screen mega-blockbuster in the making SUPERMAN. The pair were to play the parents of young Lois Lane as she witnesses the teenage Clark Kent outrace a train. No stranger to self-promotion by this point, Alyn milked the opportunity in both the regular press and the fan press making the scene out to be perhaps bigger than it was. In fact, in the finished film as originally released, his role—along with much of that scene—was for all intents and purposes, cut! Restored in the original two part TV airing and a later DVD edit of the film, the scene is cute but it isn’t much and was probably a tad too self-referential for its own good. Probably a good idea that it was originally cut. Alyn worked the convention circuit after that brief return to the spotlight but he also returned to acting, appearing in a low budget horror film as well as in some of Jim Harmon’s new old-time radio style productions in California. Kirk Alyn died in 1999 with the inevitable headlines that said SUPERMAN PASSES!
Today Brandon Routh debuts as the new Superman and by all accounts it is a stunning debut! Whether or not he knows it, however, Brandon has Kirk Alyn to thank for being there and doing it first! As you can see from the picture above, Kirk even got the T-shirt!

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