Superman and the Chamber of Commerce
It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a borrowed idea.
As Superman and Batman battle in thousands of theatres in the coming weeks, it’s worth looking more closely at where the first of them – Superman – came from. Like a host of other successful creations of popular culture, Superman emerged from more than one mind.
Most of these beginnings can be seen in an MGM movie, “The Secret Six,” which came out in the spring of 1931. This film features six masked businessmen who were fed up with a local criminal and put him away. The criminal was named Slaughterhouse Scorpio and was loosely modeled on the famous evildoer of Chicago, Al Capone. The movie also included an idealistic, crime-fighting reporter named Clark. (This is Clark Gable, in one of his first major roles. He stole the show!)
So here, in one film, were key parts of the Superman story: secret identities, “good” vigilantes, and a crime-fighting reporter named Clark. Superman’s creator, Jerry Siegel, would name his idealistic reporter Clark despite the overwhelming (to that point) unpopularity of the appellation “Clark.” (That name did not even place among the most popular 200 boys’ names of the 1920s.) Siegel would later admit he named Clark Kent after Clark Gable.
Superman with his Clark Kent alter-ego emerged for Siegel in late 1933. That was only 18 months after “The Secret Six” opened. It’s hard to imagine Jerry Siegel suddenly invented his Superman independently from “The Secret Six,” which also included secret identities, “good” vigilantes, and a crime-fighting reporter named Clark. That is a long string of coincidences.
“The Secret Six” film was in turn influenced by something else. The movie was partly based on the “real” Secret Six, a group of Chicago business people who went after Al Capone and other gangsters in the early 1930s. These businessmen were a committee of a chamber of commerce, the Chicago Association of Commerce. They were extraordinarily effective by most counts, including Capone’s himself. At one point the criminal said, “The Secret Six has licked the rackets. They’ve licked me. They’ve made it so there’s no money in the game anymore.” The group hired a chief detective, Alexander Jamie, who brought in his brother-in-law, Eliot Ness, to help on the federal side.
The “real” Secret Six (apart from their leader, who of necessity was a public figure – the president of the Chicago Association of Commerce) maintained secret identities because they didn’t want to be killed by Capone or his henchmen. But their secret identities were a part of their glamour and their idea for crime fighting was widely copied and popular in the media. Soon there was a Secret Five in Kansas City and later a Secret Seven in Cleveland, both formed by their local chambers of commerce. And, of course, speaking of media influence, the Chicago chamber’s fight with Capone inspired MGM to make “The Secret Six.”
Secret identities, which had been known before (as in “Zorro”), were extremely popular in the early 1930s thanks to people using them for real-life, high-profile, life-and-death activities. Also popular was the related idea of business vigilantes fighting the bad guys. And when Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion on Oct. 17, 1931, people could take heart that these groups were effective even against the most famous criminal of all time. This may later have been of some comfort and inspiration to Jerry Siegel, whose father died in 1932 when his store was robbed by hoodlums.
Jerry Siegel was a master chef, but he didn’t cook from scratch. He chose the ingredients available to him when he created Superman. And many of his ingredients were from the biggest crime-fighting story of his era, the catching of Al Capone, and from the movie loosely based on that story. Siegel’s genius was in taking his hero to the skies and making him human at the same time with a unique, very personalized secret identity, complete with love interests.
It is interesting how the high-profile struggle against one criminal by, of all things, a chamber of commerce, could have so many ramifications in American cultural life. Business people’s fight to take down the world’s most famous criminal (Capone) resulted, indirectly, in the birth of the world’s most famous superhero (Superman). Superman, in turn, begat Batman and a host of other comic-book heroes.
The Chicago Association of Commerce didn’t create Superman; Siegel did. But Superman couldn’t have existed without the chamber’s Secret Six and the MGM movie made about them. Without secret identities, without the concept of “good” vigilantes fighting crime, without a crusading journalist named Clark – just what would there have been left for Superman to be?
Mead is senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and the author of “The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.”