Tuesday, March 25, 2014



Joseph, my manager, called this morning with disappointing news. The producers of the musical remake of Airport '75 have decided to go with Linda Granger for the role of the stewardess. I'm never one to wish ill fortune on a colleague but I do hope they keep the Nyquil in the first aid kit locked up when she's on set. To add insult to injury, I've been offered the part of Gloria Swanson. I'm a little miffed. It's a well-known fact that I am forever and always 39 years of age and therefore much too young to play her in her twilight years, not to mention that I'm a much bigger star than she ever was. I told Joseph I would consider taking the part if it was rewritten as Vicki Lester and I got at least one solo ballad and one rousing tap ensemble. He'll see what he can do.

Joseph then informed me that my Sink For Your Supper concert tour has a new booking in Opp, Alabama where I am to open the snake wrangler's hall of fame. I was unaware that there was such a profession or that it had the need for a hall of fame but a booking is a booking. Joseph has suggested that the tour be reconceived somewhat, given some of the stage faux pas that have bothered me recently. Rather than a motorized iceberg, he's suggested something more topical involving snake charming and proposed a new line up of material to be called the Ssssoundssss of Ssssilence . I'm not sure and will wait until I see what ssssongssss he's ssssuggessssting I incorporate.

The letter 'S' being somewhat on my mind, I was quite pleased to find a DVD in my viewing stack with one emblazoned on the cover. It has to be a sign, I thought, and so I slipped the new release of Superman into the home theater system for a look. Superman, from 1978, was one of the first attempts to turn the mythos of the American comic book into a big screen feature and remains one of the most successful. It was also one of the first of the blockbuster event movies that were pioneered by Spielberg and Lucas in the mid 70s with the success of Jaws and Star Wars .

The film was dreamed up, originally, by the father/son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind. They envisioned a massive undertaking that would explore the full genesis of the Superman story and legend. Such a story would require multiple films to tell (a technique they had learned with The Three and The Four Musketeers ) which could be shot simultaneously. To generate interest and financing in the project, they hired Mario Puzo, of The Godfather fame, to draft a story and screenplay. His massive four hundred-page opus was revamped by various teams of writers and finally shaped into Superman and Superman II by Tom Mankiewicz (son of the legendary Joseph L.). The Salkinds next coup was to sign Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, Superman's Krypton father, for top billing and a then astronomical $3.7 million dollars for 11 days work. Then, under director Richard Donner, filming got underway in earnest in 1977 and continued for nearly a year.

The chief problem was finding an actor who could believably pull off the double role of nebbishy Clark Kent and heroic Superman and make the stunts and the comic book milieu seem real. They found their man in Christopher Reeve who was perfectly matched to character and material. Reeve instantly became a star in his satin tights. Shooting was long and troubled as this was in the infancy of the special effects revolution. ILM and most of the other special effects houses had just begun to experiment and CGI hadn't even been thought of yet. Nevertheless, Superman was completed barely in time for its release date at Christmas, 1978. Three quarters of Superman II had also been completed, including most of the principal photography, when the producers Salkind suddenly fired director Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester, a director of very different sensibilities (which is why II has none of the elegance and grace of the original and the franchise went rapidly downhill).

For those few who have not seen the film, Superman is the story of Kal-El, saved from the destruction of the planet Krypton by his doting parents and sent to earth in a none to subtle update of the Christ story. The film opens on Krypton, a planet of ice and crystals that looks a lot like a frozen Hyatt Regency lobby circa 1975. Jor-El (Marlon Brando), one of the elders of the society (declaiming his lines like Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar ), predicts the imminent destruction of the planet by its sun. He apparently is the only member of this super-race with any understanding of physics or astronomy. He is, of course, right, and just before the planet is destroyed in a strange Cirque de Soleil ballet, he saves his infant son by stowing him in a spare Christmas tree ornament and sending him off to earth. There he is found by a childless couple named Kent, dubbed Clark, and raised in a bucolic Norman Rockwell farm community named Smallville.

Young Clark is obviously not like other boys (as he can outrun locomotives and kick footballs into the next country) and, after the death of his foster father, he heads off to the arctic to meet the spirit of Jor-El and fulfill his destiny as a red jackbooted and caped fighter for truth, justice and the American way. Leaving the arctic as the fully-grown Superman, he heads off to Metropolis where, still disguised as Clark Kent, he joins the staff of the Daily Planet newspaper as a reporter and makes the acquaintance of reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and photographer Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure). He falls for Lois, but has to keep his separate identities secret from her, not easy to do when rescuing her from various perils. Soon he’s involved in the nefarious plotting of arch-villain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his bumbling sidekicks (Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine) who plan to destroy most of coastal California. Why a self-proclaimed criminal 'genius' would put up with these two comic relief types for more than two minutes is not explained.

The film still works on the strength of Christopher Reeve's performance. He plays both roles with absolute conviction and keeps the more cartoonish aspects of the film from gaining the upper hand. His scene with Lois on the terrace which leads to them flying together over Manhattan is a gem. What doesn't work are some bizarre shifts of tone. The first forty-five minutes of the film are given over to the establishment of the back-story. These sequences are treated reverentially, almost as an American elegy. This is particularly true of the Smallville sequence where the young Clark (Jeff East) seems to be starring in an Andrew Wyeth painting, complete with amber waves of grain in all directions. When we hit Metropolis, however, everything shifts to cartoonish over the top characters and plotting. A decision was made to make the story modern day (1978 - now quaintly period - especially the clothes and hair on the extras) but Clark and Lois et al., to stay true to their comic roots, act and dress in a more forties manner. It's a little off putting but Reeve and Kidder manage to pull it off.

For the most part, the visual effects are pretty nifty and work well, especially in the flying sequences (you can occasionally see the wires if you squint real hard). There are, however, some cheesy miniature shots here and there that would never have passed muster if they hadn't been under a tight deadline. It's amazing, given what was available for visual effects at the time that they were able to pull off as much as they did.

The DVD is a minor masterpiece of how to put together a re-release of an older film. Warner Brothers went back to Donner's original vision and reinstated some sequences that had been cut from the original theatrical run due to time. These are mainly an extension of the Krypton sequence and a few other minor scenes from later in the film. There is also a feature length commentary from Donner and Mankewicz, the uncredited writer who are obviously old friends and having a lot of fun reminiscing and telling anecdotes. Also included are about 75 minutes worth of new behind the scenes documentaries showing how many of the special effects were achieved and giving a history of much of the backstage drama. Best of all are Christopher Reeve's original screen test (with Holly Palance) where, despite being seriously skinny and sweating copiously, he nailed the part. There are clips of other 'actors' screen tests for Superman as well that are a hoot. There are also the screen tests of a number of actresses for Lois Lane (Deborah Raffin, Anne Archer, Lesley Anne Warren, Stockard Channing) - it's easy to see why they went with Margot Kidder but I would have plunked for Stockard Channing who had a lot more bite. The wide screen transfer is remarkably good and the sound is decent stereo.

Naked baby. Collapsing Lucite. Magic green crystal. Underground 'Grand Central' villain's lair. Guided missile napping. Gratuitous Rex Reed. Buried heroine. Helicopter crash. Major Valerie Perrine cleavage. Gratuitous Larry Hagman. Reverse time effect. Imperiled girl scouts.

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