Whitney Ellsworth

Active - 1952 - 1958  |   Born - Nov 27, 1908 in Brooklyn, NY  |   Died - Sep 8, 1980 in North Hollywood, CA  |   Genres - Action

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Whitney Ellsworth was a writer/producer who was closely associated with film and television adaptations of comic book characters -- most notably Superman -- for three decades. Born in 1908 in Brooklyn, NY, he had a special appreciation for historical subjects -- especially the Civil War -- and also for painting. He took a mail-order correspondence course in graphic art and did enough with what he learned to eventually become an assistant on the Just Kids comic strip. He was subsequently employed by King Features, where he worked on strips such as Tillie the Toiler and Dumb Dora. In the '30s, he wrote for the pulp magazines as well, and created his own comic strip character, Little Linda, which appeared in New Fun Comics in the middle of the decade.

Ellsworth found his permanent home in the editorial department of National Periodicals, at their DC Comics imprint, where he had charge of the writing for Batman, The Spectre, and Dr. Fate, and also created later a new character, Congo Bill. Among his other duties, he also wrote for the Superman daily comic strip. By the early '40s, DC Comics' heroes had begun appearing in incarnations beyond the pages of the comic books, in various manifestations. There were the Superman and Batman comic strips that appeared daily in newspapers; the radio shows (which was where kryptonite, the one element that could harm Superman, first appeared); the Max Fleischer/Paramount-produced animated Superman cartoons; and from 1943 onward, the movies as well. Ellsworth, in addition to his other duties, was put in charge of representing DC's interests in dealing with the movie serial adaptations of Batman, Superman, and his own Congo Bill, all of which were turned into successful serials during the '40s. The two Batman serials done by Columbia were poor in overall quality, although they did make money, but the two Superman serials made by the same studio were beyond reproach technically, and also hugely successful at the box office, despite the declining marketplace for serials.

In May of 1951, Ellsworth was asked to deliver a script for a proposed Superman feature film, part of an effort to move the Man of Steel from the Saturday matinee to the small screen. Living in New York at the time, he drove west with his wife (ex-Paramount contract player Jane Dewey) and their daughter Patricia, intending to devise his script while on the way across country, amid some sight-seeing. According to an essay by Patricia Ellsworth Wilson, it was after taking a side-trip through Dalhart, TX, and its oil fields that her father conceived the idea for what became Superman and the Mole Men, the property that introduced George Reeves in the role of the Man of Steel. Ellsworth and producer Robert Maxwell collaborated on the final script under the joint pseudonym of Richard Fielding. That screenplay told of an oil well drilled so deep that it goes below the outer crust of the Earth and opens a path to another world and another order of human life living far below -- out of the shaft come tiny, mute, fur-covered humanoid creatures who set about exploring, only to set off panic and a cycle of violence and attempted murder that only Superman can quell. The story was superb science fiction with a gritty, topical edge that reflected the uneasiness of the time in which it was written, and in Ellsworth's and Maxwell's hands it gave a flying start to Reeves' portrayal of Superman and to the Superman television series. Filmed that summer and released later in the year, the movie was an instant hit, and the shooting of the series Adventures of Superman, produced by Maxwell, followed immediately. When that first season of shows finally got on the air nationally in syndication in early 1953, it was a huge hit, and a second season was prepared. Many parents, however, as well as the sponsor (Kellogg's cereals) were unhappy with the level of violence in the first season programs. Maxwell, who had previously produced the Superman radio series, had miscalculated somewhat by emulating the radio show and aiming the television series at a general audience, which included adults as well as children, which also meant that a great deal of realistic violence and dark, threatening situations had to be included in the action and shown, sometimes in graphic detail. The decision was made to turn the production over to Ellsworth. He turned out to be the perfect choice -- he had successfully shepherded the Superman comic strip and various comic books through the changes of the war years and the post-war era. Comic books were under steady attack from various quarters during 1953, in print and in legislative hearings, and Ellsworth understood what was necessary to shield Adventures of Superman from those attacks. For the next five years, through 1958, Ellsworth made Adventures of Superman work with a gentler, less threatening, more child-friendly approach to the character of Superman and the property. He was also responsible for engaging some top talent from the movie world on the production end of the series, including Oscar-winning editor Harry Gerstad and production manager Clem Beauchamp, and cinematographers Harold E. Stine and Joseph Biroc. And after the run of Superman ended tragically with the June 1959 suicide of George Reeves, Ellsworth wasn't done with the franchise -- two years later, he was given the task of producing the pilot for the proposed Superboy series in 1961 which, for reasons that aren't exactly clear, did not sell and was never produced beyond the pilot episode (which has circulated underground among collectors for decades).

Three years later, Ellsworth was called on to help devise the Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which proved far more popular and enduring than those Columbia serials that he'd worked on two decades before (although ironically enough, the Batman television series was so popular, that those two '40s Batman serials were re-released to theaters in the mid-'60s). Ellsworth retired in 1970 with a surprisingly high public profile for a producer of his era -- the Superman series, most of the episodes of which carried his name prominently as producer in their end credits, had been in near-constant reruns for over 15 years at that point, and he was at least as well-known as the two men who had created the character, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. He pursued his interest in painting and on rare occasions was interviewed by those writing about the series. For all of his success in this particular end of the entertainment world, however, Ellsworth never was able to get a series on the air devoted to his greatest personal interest, the history of the Civil War.