Just this week, Mark Evanier posted a video of Superman Day at the 1940 World’s Fair. Though the footage has been available online for some time, this was the first time it has been noticed by a larger amount of people and fans (Evanier’s blog has lots of followers, for obvious reasons).
As Robot 6, Bleeding Cool, and other sites picked it up, people who had never seen it before responded in astonishment — here were home movies of the first time that National/DC trotted out someone dressed like Superman. Seeing legions of kids with \S/-shields on their shirts being led by Boy Scouts IN AN ELEPHANT PARADE! This was a big moment for the American superhero. Before there could ever be a Hollywood blockbuster with a Hulk and schwarma, this was IT. And it was barely two years after Action Comics #1. And all the original characters are there: Donenfeld, Gaines, Liebowitz — and Jerry with his wife, Bella.
But what are these films, exactly? Where did they come from? I first learned of their existence in 2006 when I saw them on eBay. I contacted the seller (a film dealer) and helped him identify some of the people in the film. I told the families about the listing, too. After lengthy communications with the seller in which I did my best 1989 Young Indy impression (“belongs in a museum”), he agreed to sell DVD copies of the films to me. When they finally arrived nearly a year later (my Dad lent me the money), I sent copies to the families, and deposited a copy in the library (Young Indy for the win). I eventually used some of the footage in my documentary Last Son. A year or so later, Time-Warner bought some of the original 16mm reels from the seller (for thousands of dollars) and included them in their documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.
As I worked on SUPER BOYS, I began to find more clues as to where the films originated from. Their pedigree became more complicated (we should expect that by now, right?). What I figured out (and the connect-the-dots are in the book), is that the films were originally Jerry’s. There are a number of segments I have (still unseen by the public) of his home life with Bella playing badminton and drinking cocktails and having a family dinner (personal stuff, so I didn’t really use it). I also think that Joe is the one behind the camera in the Fair footage, which is why we don’t ever see both of them in the same frame. After Jerry’s divorce from Bella, I am fairly certain she kept all the films (the original packages from Eastman-Kodak are addressed to their house, which she kept in the divorce and lived in for the rest of her life). A film camera is also listed in the divorce settlement. She kept a lot of things. When she died, I believe that the films passed down to her and Jerry’s son, Michael. When Michael died in 2006, he was still living in this very same house, alone. So I think the reels of film never moved.
After Last Son first screened, I began to get some calls and emails as to where I got the films. These were not DC people, or the seller, but local people here in Cleveland (lawyers, collection agencies, etc.). As I say in the book, I think (and this is just a theory), that these films were found in Michael’s house after he died — and then somehow ended up on eBay.
Are these films stolen? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. That ominous dash in the previous paragraph aside, I really don’t think there is a big conspiracy here. When single people die and their estates fall into probate, clearing out their stuff before a house can be sold is common procedure. It’s horrible — but it happens every day. Don’t ever let it happen to you.
Maybe someone did drop the ball or miss an email (or didn’t care), but I don’t think anyone was really at fault here — it all seems (sadly) fairly procedural. My theory is that the films were put up for sale or as part of a larger estate deal, and the film dealer eventually bought them, with no idea what they were (I do know that). The fact that no one knew who Michael Siegel was (or what these archaic films might contain) is completely feasible (and forgivable), I think. That’s why those of us who talk about these people and write books about them do the work in the first place.
I didn’t find out about Michael’s death til over a month later. I contacted his lawyer and monitored the case in probate, but there was only so much I could do or get access to. I found out later that there had been an estate sale, and that I had missed it. What still puzzles me though is that fairly recently, while writing the book, I discovered that even more original reels had been sold on eBay for just over $2,000. Who bought those films, what is on them — and where they got them — remains a mystery.
I also found this: a classified ad in a 1958 page of the New York Times:
There are some things in the past we will never know for sure. Maybe.
Theories aside, the strange circumstances of the film being made public, to me, don’t matter in the face of their obvious historical value. If something had gone differently along this possible chain of circumstances, we might have never seen Superman Day. And the footage is loaded with clues as to who these people really were. They speak volumes.
If you read the book, you’ll know I did communicate with Michael Siegel before he died. One of the things people really seem interested in is that Mike really liked Superman, despite all the other stuff. I like to think that these movies are kind of Mike’s legacy — we never got to hear his full story, but he (in a way) allowed us to see these things by keeping them safe for all those years. Whether he would want them made public or not, I cannot say, just as I can’t say for sure how they ended up in public at all, or even if they should have. But they did, and they offer the essential version of what Superman is — an iconic image best celebrated by childhood. What we see in the film is real — and not Hollywood.
As great as Superman Day was (and we can see that), it was also, I think, the last day of the Golden Age of Comics. It was Superman’s highest point, and also the moment where Jerry realized that he was nothing more than a cog in a machine. And the day after the event, this one we can now watch in a digital conversion of flickering 16mm film, a terrorist’s bomb ripped through the fairgrounds, causing death and dissension to a nation already concerned about war. Coming home from this event, I think that’s when Jerry really decided that things had to change.
Here are more of the films, from the digital versions I purchased, which I present here for educational purposes. This is the actual awards ceremony that crowned Supergirl and Superboy. For more on their identities, see the great site Superman Thru The Ages, which has a letter from the actual Superboy, William Aronis.
Here is footage of Joe, c. 1939, with friends at a lake excursion. Watch for a cameo of Jerry, too.
Still think Joe was a geek?
Here is some footage from 1940 of Jerry and his wife Bella visiting the Empire State Building in New York. By 1940, Jerry was comics-famous and making lots of money. We always tend to think of these guys as bitter old men, not young creators who were literally living out their dreams. So it’s good to see this — the happy moment, on top of the world — sealed on film. It was not all bad. That’s good to know — and see.