The death of Margot Kidder brought back memories of Lois Lane, but not just Kidder’s portrayal in the 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. As a reporter at the Daily Planet and Superman’s girlfriend, Kidder offered a spirited performance.
But to me, and a generation of Baby Boomers, the role of Lois Lane will always be defined by a woman with another alliterative name: Noel Neill.
Neill died in 2016 at the age of 95 and carried her portrayal of Lois Lane with humor and pride throughout her professional life, which lasted into her last decade. Neil’s personal story — and her version of the dogged woman reporter — is so distinctive, and I would say inspiring, that it deserves a special place — on the same stage with Lou Grant — in journalism culture and history.
According to various biographical sketches, Noel Darleen Neill was born in Minneapolis. She was the daughter of a journalist and a stage dancer, good genes for what she would become. She was a versatile performer in childhood, and a photographer’s model in her teenage years. Remember those pin-up photos from World War II? Images of Betty Grable — and those legs — were most popular and famous to this day.
Guess who came in second? The future Lois Lane, a young woman named Noel Neill. (I looked up some of these photos from the 1940s on Google Images and found a number, including one rated “excellent” on a website devoted to women’s beautiful feet!)
Her beauty and versatility got her lots of work. From 1940 to 1948, her filmography lists her as having roles in 42 different movies, about half of those uncredited. Many of these were youthful comedies or musicals in which she played chorus girls or hatcheck girls. But there was one recurring movie role that set her on the path to international stardom.
From Wikipedia: "In 1945, producer Sam Katzman gave Neill the recurring role [seven times] of Betty Rogers, an aggressive reporter for a high-school newspaper in his series of 'Teen Agers' musical comedies, beginning with 'Junior Prom' in 1946."
So in real life, Noel Neill is the daughter of a newspaper reporter. Then in her young acting career she played the role of an aggressive teenage reporter in seven movies. This is getting interesting.
By 1948 (the year I was born, and the year that television began its big breakthrough in American culture), there had already been two highly successful versions of the Superman legend. It began with the comic books created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of course, spinning off as a memorable radio serial.
It was Neill’s producer, Sam Katzman, who created the first live-action version of the story (the flying sequences were animated), two 15-episode serials shown in movie houses, each episode ending with a cliffhanger designed to bring audiences back week after week. An actor named Kirk Alyn portrayed a sturdy but colorless Superman/Clark Kent in the two serials: "Superman" (1948) and "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950).
But who would get the role of Lois Lane? Katzman remembered a certain actress who portrayed a “news-hawk” in those teen musicals and cast Noel Neill.
She was fabulous!
I have watched five episodes of the first serial and we first see her sitting in a train car, banging out a story on a big typewriter, which is surrounded by news clips. She is a working woman. She berates cub reporter and photographer Jimmy Olsen for his plan to check out a girl on the train, throws a paper at him and tells him to get back to work.
They don’t know it, but the train is in trouble and Superman winds up saving them by bending a train rail with his bare hands. It turns out to be a big story, and Lois is really pissed that she gets scooped by a new reporter at the paper, Clark Kent.
Superman rescues Lois countless times, but it’s not because she is weak; it’s because she is so dogged, determined and courageous. Wearing a professional suit, a sporty hat and sensible pumps (no Wonder Woman whips and chains), Lois rushes into an abandoned mineshaft to rescue some miners. Even as she falls to semi-consciousness, she gets to her feet and tries to lift one of the miners, who looks three times her size. Superman will carry them out.
Clark Kent is driving her back to the office to file a story when Lois, a mischievous look on her face, drops a large flashbulb out the window, which makes a popping sound. She wonders aloud if they have had a blowout. Kent goes to the back of the car to look, and Lois slides to the steering wheel and leaves him in her dust. No one is going to beat her on this story.
In another episode she tries to foil a kidnapping on the street, struggling with a thug, and is kidnapped herself and tortured in the actual electronic web of “the Spider Lady,” the masked leader of a criminal gang.
Yes, we know there is a superhero ready to save her, but that only makes a stronger case for the greatness of Lois Lane. She is a super reporter without superpowers. She makes NBC’s Richard Engle look like a choirboy at a Sunday school picnic. She is the Ginger Rogers of news reporters, capable of doing everything a male reporter can do — but backward and in heels.
Directors could have glammed up Noel Neill, like some version of comic strip heroine Brenda Starr, but to their credit they were less interested in her legs (and feet!) than in her energy, her good humor and her clever determination to get the bad guys — and beat Clark to the punch.
"The Adventures of Superman," starring the great George Reeves, appeared on television screens across America in 1951 and ran for seven seasons. Phyllis Coates played Lois for the first season, but commitments forced her to abandon the show.
Hmm. Let’s see. Who could replace her? Hey! How about Noel Neill?
She and Jack Larson (as Jimmy Olsen) would spend the rest of their days honoring their roles in the Superman tradition. She played cameo roles in the movie "Superman" (1978), in the TV series "Superboy" (1991), and in "Superman Returns" (2006).
But should Neill’s version of Lois Lane be held up as a feminist/journalist icon? She is by no means perfect. In the serials, she has a habit of paying off tipsters in cash. And my colleague Al Tompkins wonders about her powers of observation. Could she really not see that Superman and Clark Kent were really the same person?
In a documentary, Neill said that children would often ask her that question: Why could you not see that Clark was just wearing a pair of glasses? Her answer: "I don’t want to lose my job!"
From her teenage years into her 90s, Noel Neill loved portraying the job of a relentless reporter. Wikipedia notes that in 2010 the Illinois city of Metropolis, the self-proclaimed “official home of Superman,” erected a statue of Lois Lane. But which actress would serve as its model? Only one choice, of course: Noel Neill. She proudly posed next to it.
So move over a bit, Lou Grant, for a woman who could do everything you could do journalistically — and much more — while wearing a fashionable hat and pair of sensible pumps. When’s the last time you dove into a mineshaft, Lou?
There is an exit off I-275 in Tampa to Lois Avenue. But I can never think of it by that name. To me, it’s always Lois Lane.