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Before WandaVision: Eight 1950’s Superhero Shows You Should Watch

WandaVision.

Like so many of you, I’d been glued to my TV for the months of January, February, and March on Fridays, waiting for answers and asking more questions, hoping to figure out what the heck is going on so I can have bragging rights when I “know” before anyone else.

My money was on Loki lurking around Westview somewhere, (SPOILER) but that was a bust.

Still, waiting for those new answers each week was nothing new for me.

I grew up on a healthy diet of ride your bike around the neighborhood until it gets dark, no cell phones, chasing fireflies, and weekly superhero concerns like:

Would Dr. David Banner finally find a cure for keeping himself from becoming the Hulk?

Which evil Fembot would Jamie Sommers kick the crap out of?

Why does the actor who plays Peter Parker look so familiar?

Why is it that no one suspects Bruce Wayne and Dick Greyson are Batman and Robin?

How does Wonder Woman run in stilettos?

Where can I get a chakram like Xena?

Watching the Emmy nominated WandaVision move through time by way of decades of beloved sitcoms, it got me to thinking about so many of those great, live action superhero shows of the 20th century that kept me hopeful of being blessed with superpowers by way of magic amulet, lighting bolt, time travel, or radiation exposure.

Memories of my father talking about his childhood as they watched Commander Cody, Zorro, or Buck Rogers and how those who help fight the bad in the world, any world, have always inspired all of us to do better.

So, to make my nostalgic, superhero loving side very happy, I’m going back, before 2000, when CGI was cheesy and the villains were really just jerks with badly thought out plans and totally impractical costumes.

In the spirit of WandaVision’s eight-week journey through family sitcoms and their endless shenannigans, let’s travel back in time to the 1950’s where everyone smoked, the housewives dressed to the nines to scrub toilets, and dinner was always promptly at 6p.

Let’s see when the weekly superhero episodic adventures were a mainstay in American pop culture.

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Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore

The Lone Ranger (1949-1957)
Seasons: 8
Episodes: 221 (30 min)
Network: ABC
Format: Black & white (1949-1956) & Color (1956-1957)

First appeared on radio in 1933 on WXYZ (Detroit).

Starred:
Clayton Moore* as The Lone Ranger (John Reid)
Jay Silverheels as Tonto

*John Hart replaced Moore for 1952-53 due to a contract dispute

A lone survivor of an ambush along with the man who nursed him back to health, seeks to right the wrongs and fight injustice in the American West.

Every week, millions would tune in to hear those three words “Hi! Ho! Silver!” as The Lone Ranger and his “faithful Indian friend, Tonto”, patrolled the west, looking for dudes that were up to no good and causing a whole lot of chaos.

And he did this using a strict moral code that writer/creator Francis “Fran” Striker came up with in the early brainstorming.

The code included:
The Lone Ranger didn’t shoot to kill, only to disarm.
He always used correct grammar and never used slang or colloquialisms.
He always wore his mask in public.
He never smoked or drank.

Tonto’s name meant, “wild one” from one of the local Native American language of upstate Michigan. He appeared in the 11th episode of the radio show and his presence gave The Lone Ranger someone to talk to.
Tonto’s horse’s name was Scout.
Even with his broken English, a strong indicator of viewers that English was not is primary language, Tonto often served as the voice of reason and great sounding board, and always a solid ally.
Something to note, since “tonto” means stupid in Spanish, when the show was aired in Spanish speaking countries, the show change the name to Toro (bull).

Bass Reeves
First Black US Marshall West of Mississippi
1838-1910

John R. Hughes Texas Ranger 1855-1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is discussion and dispute on possible inspirations for the character that include lawmen Bass Reeves, the first black US Marshall west of the Mississippi and Texas Ranger, John R. Hughes.

A recent and brilliant article from Texas Monthly, chronicles Bass Reeves story and it’s worth a read.

Other potential influences could have easily come from fictional characters Robin Hood and Zorro, both based on real people, by the way.

But no matter where Striker got his idea, there’s no disputing The Lone Ranger and Tonto are happy to help those in need and to this day, have a massive following.

You can catch episodes on Tubi TV and through Best Westerns Ever on Amazon.

If you’d rather, you can order the entire series on DVD from Rewatch Classic TV.

 

Buck Rogers (1950-1951)
Seasons: 2
Episodes: 36
Network: ABC
Format: Black and white
Sponsor: Peter Paul Candy Bars

The story of Captain Buck Rogers, a twentieth century football player who’s suddenly in the year 2430. He works out of a secret lab in a cave behind Niagara Falls (the city of Niagara was now the capital of the world) as he battles intergalactic troublemakers along with his girlfriend, Wilma Deering and scientist friend, Dr. Huer.

Although the TV series based itself on Philip Francis Nowland’s book Armageddon 2490AD, the character Buck Rogers appeared in the comics in 1929,  was later a radio, and a 1939 movie starring Buster Crabbe.

In the three dozen episodes, three different actors played the title character, Earl Hammon, Kem Dibbs, and Robert Patene; two actresses, Eve Marie Saint and Lou Prentis played Wilma Deering; and two actors, Harry Southern and Sanford Bickart, played Dr. Huer.

Yeah, they totally recast people, two and three times over.

A studio in Chicago served as their homebase and had a limited budget, which is why the majority of the scenes took place at the secret lab behind Niagara Falls.

Where to watch: Limited episodes available for viewing, but I did find this one on Youtube.

 

Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
Seasons: 6
Episodes: 104
Length: 30 minutes
Sponsor: Kellog’s Breakfast Cereal
Format: Black and white, but seasons 3-6 were filmed in color, but only aired until syndication after 1964

Starred:
George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman
Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane (season 1)
Noel Neill as Lois Lane (season 2-6)
Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen

Look! In the sky! It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!
Nope, it’s George Reeves…the original Superman.

Straight from the 1938 comic creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and the wildly popular radio show of the 1940’s, Superman hit the uber-excited TV audiences in 1952.

The opening sequence stating a “strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities that are far beyond those of mortal men…” had people on the edges of their freshly vacuumed carpets (thanks Mom) every week as Superman battled villains like Mr. Mxyzptik, The Prankster, Ultra-Humanite, and of course Lex Luthor.

Superman did this all while keeping his job at the Daily Planet and fooling everyone by donning a pair of glasses and a sharp looking hat.

Interestingly, George Reeves had been reluctant to take the role because TV was in its infancy and had not gained popularity or importance among many in Hollywood. Plus, the tight filming scheduled of two episodes filmed every six days gave him little time to do any other projects.

Filmed at Desilu Studios, the set sat on the original 40 acres of RKO’s backlot. It would later be used for Mayberry, NC for the Andy Griffith Show.

You can watch it on Apple TV, Amazon, and Vudu.

 

Flash Gordon (1954)
Season: 1
Episodes: 39
Length: 30 minutes
Network: DuMont Television Network
Format: Black and white

Starred:
Steve Holland as Flash Gordon
Irene Champlin as Dale Arden
Joseph Nash as Dr. Hans Zarkov

Pulled from the Alex Raymond comic strip from the 1930’s, the show took a slightly different storyline. They placed it in 3203AD where Flash Gordon patrolled the galaxy as an agent of the Galactic Bureau of Investigation, looking for all those unexpected threats…and maybe a few allies.

Along with his girlfriend Dale Arden, his science friend Dr. Hanz Zarkov, and Commander Paul Richards, the searched the universe while driving around their spaceship, Sky Flash.

Initially created to be in response to the Buck Rogers comics, Flash Gordon had a wide fanbase for anyone who wanted to reach for the stars.

With an episode budget of $15,000 and a three day shooting schedule per episode, the entire show’s run filmed in Spandau, Germany, which accounted for all the aliens they met on their intergalactic encounters to have German accents.

You can find episodes of Flash Gordon at YouTube.

 

Captain Midnight (1954-1956)
Seasons: 2
Episodes: 39
Length: 30 minutes
Network: CBS
Format: Black and white
Sponsors: Ovaltine and Kix Cereals

Starred: Richard Webb

Veteran of the Korean War, Captain Midnight was “a man devoted to freedom and justice” who  leads a private, super secret squadron of super good guys as they battle bad people all over the world.
Initially, Captain Midnight started as a radio show, with a World War I pilot who’d fly dangerous, secretive bombing raids and always return at midnight.

Although Captain Midnight never ventured into space, he did have his own level of coolness. If you sent the inner wax seal from your jar of Ovaltine to:
Captain Midnight
Box P
Chicago 77, Illinois

You’d get a special decoder device to help you help Captain Midnight should he ever run into trouble.

After the show went into syndication in 1958, Ovaltine no longer sponsored the show and the owners of the character changed his name to Jet Jackson, Flying Commando.

You can watch episodes of Captain Midnight/Jet Jackson on YouTube.

 

Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1955-1956)
Season: 1
Episodes: 26
Length: 30 minutes
Network: Fiction House
Format: Black and white

Starred:
Irish McCalla as Sheena
Christian Drake as Bob Rayburn
Neal the Chimp as Chim

Straight from the pages of Jumbo Comics and the creation of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Sheena was the female answer to Tarzan.

She knew the jungle, talked to animals, and made sure bad people didn’t mess with her home, friends, or family.

And why would a statuesque blonde, white Amazonian be hanging out in the jungles of Africa?
How did she get there?
Why did they call her the Queen of the Congo when the story takes place in Kenya?

It’s all along the theme of being orphaned in the jungle, like Tarzan, but she’s a much kinder, compassionate, and positive presence and sported a tight fitting animal printed bikini very differently than Johnny Weissmuller.

And speaking of Amazonian, Sheena was the first female comic book character with her own title, beating out Wonder Woman (1941) by a few years.

First released Sept. 1938

First released Dec. 1941

Although the story took place in Kenya, all episodes were filmed in Mexico over several months.

 

There is limited information about the series online and the reasons why this wildly popular show only ran for a year, but there’s no doubt that Sheena inspired many kids to stand tall and climb trees.

 

You can watch episodes of Sheena on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

Zorro (1957-1961)

Seasons: 3
Episodes: 87 plus 4 specials
Length: 22-24 minutes
Network: ABC
Format: Black and white and color

Starred:
Guy Williams as Don Miguel de la Vega/Zorro
Henry Calvin as Sgt. Demetrio Lopez Garcia
Gene Sheldon as Bernardo
George J. Lewis as Don Alejandro de la Vega

Based on the character by Johnston McCulley, the weekly episodes of Don Miguel de la Vega/Zorro served as a Robin Hood type for the poor of Southern California during the early days of Spanish occupation, ranked high among viewers.

Guy Williams played the title role of the masked bandit riding his trusty steed, Tornado around the countryside to right the wrongs and keep the local law enforcement on their toes.

Zorro proved to be another great project by Disney as it was their third produced series after Magical World of Disney (1954) and Mickey Mouse Club (1955).

Although it was the first series to feature the masked do-gooer on the small screen, Donald Fairbanks Sr. played him in the silent version and heartthrob, Tyrone Powers played him in the 1940 film and won my heart forever.

You can watch episodes of Zorro on YouTube and The Sign of Zorro on Disney+ and Prime.

 

The Invisible Man (1958-1959)
Seasons: 2
Episodes: 26 plus an unaired pilot
Length: 25 minutes
Network: CBS
Format: Black and white

Starring:
Tim Turner as Dr. Peter Brady (voice)
Ernest Clark as Sir Charles Anderson

Unlike the character who sinks into madness in the H. G. Well’s book by the same name, this character. Dr. Peter Brady, uses his sudden invisibility to help the UK Government solve crimes and find villains with the promise to help him with the antidote.
His situation occurred due to an accidental radiation exposure. Of course.

Interestingly, there were multiple actors who played Brady in bandages, but none were credited.
In fact, Tim Turner wasn’t credited for years due to the secrecy of the theme of the show.
Guess they didn’t want to break that fourth wall.

All episodes can be viewed on Amazon Prime.

But wait! That’s not all!

I’ve got more coming from 1960‘s, 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s.

In the meantime, what’s on your must watch list?

Drop your answers in the comments below and tune in again for more amazing superhero TV suggestions.

 

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