40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)

Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted to see this new guy, Christopher Reeve. Never heard of him (no one had!), and we speculated whether he was cast because his name sounded like Reeves, the TV Superman. The advertising was telling us all “You’ll believe a man can fly”, promising cutting-edge special effects, and there was a buzz in the air. I had to see it. Everyone, even my non-comic book loving friends, wanted in, too.

We weren’t disappointed. The all-star lineup was a treat, the story balanced action with humor, and the new guy knocked it out of the universe – Christopher Reeve WAS Clark Kent/Superman! Those special effects were fantastic, seamless in their execution. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a blockbuster, and produced three sequels (SUPERMAN II was as good, maybe even better than, the original; the other two, not so much). All this was forty years ago, and movies have evolved since then, with CGI effects (for better or worse – you make the call) and visual innovations unthought of back then. Does it hold up compared to all those costumed cavorters battling in today’s big screen epics? Recently, Fathom Events re-released SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to theaters, and I took the trip out to Swansea, MA to find out.

I made the half hour trip down the highway on a Monday night, grabbed some popcorn, a soda, and a box of Chocolate Peanut Chewies (hey, it’s a long movie… I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, I promise!). I settled in and prepared to be transported back… back to 1941, it turned out, as the show began with the animated Superman short THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS, a treat in itself! Then SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE started, and I’d forgotten all about that pre-credits black-and-white sequence with the kid flipping through a copy of Action Comics, a throwaway bit, for sure, but it helped set the film’s tone.

The first few notes of John Williams’ iconic score hit, and those eye-popping credits roll (I always smile when I see “Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster”, knowing what a raw deal they got from DC). The first thing we see is Brando as Jor-El, still commanding the screen with his sheer presence (even when he’s later in hologram form), and setting up the sequel by sending General Zod and company to the Phantom Zone. I still love the way he pronounces ‘Krypt’n’ with his faux English (or is it a Kryptonian) accent.

Those Oscar-winning, “cutting edge” special effects hold up astoundingly well about 98% of the time: the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey through “the 28 known galaxies”, and Superman saving Lois from impending doom in that helicopter are standouts. The film introduced the then-new process of front projection, which gives the effects their seamless look. The final cataclysm at the San Andreas Fault was the only part that looked a bit on the cheesy side, but for the era it’s more than passable. Best of all for me was Superman taking Lois out for a fly, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic scenes in ANY film genre. You really will believe a man can fly!

Highlights among the cast are most certainly Gene Hackman’s turn as the evil genius Lex Luthor. He makes a diabolical villain, and his crazy wigs are a funny touch. Lex and his motley crew in their subterranean lair are a mismatched trio to be sure, and while I enjoyed Ned Beatty’s moronic henchman Otis, it’s Valerie Perrine who truly shines as the ditzy (but ultimately heroic) Miss Teschmacher. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter make a perfect Ma and Pa Kent, with both  giving understated performances. Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but his performance is vital to the character’s back story. Veteran Jackie Cooper makes a blustery Perry White, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brief but memorable cameo by Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill as young Clark rushes past the train they’re on; film buffs know they were the original Lois & Clark in the 1948 serial.

When Christopher Reeve first appears onscreen in the Fortress of Solitude, you knew you were watching the birth of a star. His dual role as the shy, bumbling Clark Kent and the heroic Man of Steel is a joy to behold, imbued with a sense of humor without going the camp route. Reeve’s interpretation of the character is the measuring stick for all screen superheroes; compare him to Henry Cavill – there’s no contest! The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder’s Lois is palpable, and rewatching that wonderful scene of Superman and Lois in flight I mentioned earlier brought a tear to my eye, knowing the tragedies that befell both these fine actors later in life. That scene alone will have you wishing they were still with us.

Several screenwriters (Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman) tried to capture the essence of Superman, but it took a rewrite by Tom Mankiewicz to polish this gem. His witty, knowing take on the Superman legend is pitch perfect, and Robert Donner’s superb vision as director brings it all to life. John Barry’s production design is outstanding, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth captures it all beautifully. The film is “dedicated with love and affection” to Unsworth, who died while filming TESS the following year. Altogether, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not only holds up extremely well, it’s a classic fantasy film that has stood the test of time. It’s got heart, humor, and most importantly characters you care about. While I do like some of the superhero films of today (and I’m sure you do, too), I can’t help but wonder… will audiences of the future be heading out to their local theaters to see the 40th anniversary of any of them? Only time will tell…

 

Pulp Fiction #2: The Man of Steel Turns 80!

On April 18, 1938, National Publications presented Action Comics #1, showcasing typical comic book fare of the era like master magician Zatara, sports hero Pep Morgan, and adventurer Tex Thompson. And then there was the red-and-blue suited guy on the cover…

Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men… who can change the course of mighty rivers… bend steel in his bare hands… and so on and so forth! Eighty years ago tomorrow, Superman made his debut and changed the course of mighty comic book publishers forever. An immediate hit with youthful readers, Superman headlined his own comic a year later, spawned a slew of superhero imitators, became a super-merchandising machine, and conquered all media like no other before him!

Wayne Boring’s Superman

And to think he came from humble beginnings. No, not the planet Krypton, but from the fertile minds of two kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The two science-fiction mad teens first presented a story called “The Reign of the Superman” in Siegel’s self-published fanzine titled (aptly enough) Science Fiction, dealing with a bum who gains psychic powers from an experimental drug and becomes a villain. This idea didn’t go over too well, but the lads tinkered with the idea of a super powered being, reimagining it as a comic strip, and the bum as a hero. They pounded the pavement trying to get their brain child sold, getting rejected at every turn, until comics pioneer M.C. Gaines (father of MAD Magazine founder William Gaines) suggested they try National. The boys sold their idea , and in the process all their rights to the characters, for a measly $130 bucks… big money at the time, but when you think of all the loot Superman has raked in over the decades, Siegel and Shuster got super-screwed!!

Curt Swan’s Superman

The Superman Mythos we all know today didn’t really get started until Mort Weisinger took over as editor in 1940. Weisinger, an early member of sci-fi fandom himself, gave us innovations like kryptonite, the Phantom Zone, the Bottled City of Kandor, and a whole host of super-related characters. There was Superboy (The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy), Supergirl, Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, the bizarre Bizarro Superman, and of course Superman’s greatest adversary Lex Luthor, who first appeared in Action #23. National (later known as DC Comics) was very protective of their super-cash cow, filing a famous (or infamous, depending on where your loyalties lie) lawsuit against Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who they claimed was a direct rip-off of The Man of Steel. Lawyers battled it out for years, as the Fawcett side showed how Superman himself was “borrowed” from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and Philip Wylie’s sci-fi novel “Gladiator“. After a long legal donnybrook, with the two mighty heroes all lawyered up,  Fawcett finally folded in 1953.

A radio program starring future TV game show host Bud Collyer as Supe and his alter ego Clark Kent debuted in 1940 and ran until 1951. Collyer also supplied the voice for a series of Technicolor cartoons courtesy of Max Fleischer Studios, who also made the animated adventures of another super-guy, Popeye the Sailor. The shorts were released by Paramount, and contain some of the best animation of the era. Since all are currently in the public domain, here’s the first, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short (invest in the ten minutes it takes to watch, it’s worth it!):

        Superman made his live-action debut in a 1948 Columbia serial starring the virtually unknown Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, battling the evil Spider Woman (Carol Forman) through 15 thrilling chapters. This was Noel Neill’s first appearance as Lois Lane (more on that later). The low-budget Sam Katzman production was highly successful, and a 1950 sequel, ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN was filmed, featuring veteran Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Then in 1951, a feature titled SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was released as a precursor of things to come…

“Faster than a speeding bullet”: George Reeves as Superman

George Reeves , a minor actor who played one of the Tarleton Twins in GONE WITH THE WIND, donned the familiar tights, with Phyllis Coates as Lois. This was made as a pilot of sorts for a television version, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which ran in syndication from 1951 to 1958. George Reeves fit the part perfectly, but Coates left after the first season, to be replaced by… Noel Neill! Co-starring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White, and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson, the 104 episodes were endlessly rerun for decades on local TV stations (and can still be seen Saturday mornings on the Heroes & Icons Channel).

Saturday Mornings with Superman!

Superman made it to The Great White Way in the 1966 Broadway musical IT’S A BIRD… IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN, with music by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (BYE BYE BIRDIE) and book by David Newman and Robert Benton (BONNIE & CLYDE), lasting 129 performances. Supes next flew to the world of Saturday Morning Cartoons in Filmation’s THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1966-70), with Bud Collyer returning to his old radio role. This series, premiering at the height of the BATMAN camp craze, underwent several different titles (THE SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN HOUR OF ADVENTURE, THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR) over its four-year run. Superman would return to Saturday mornings three years later as part of the long-running SUPER FRIENDS.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE introduced Christopher Reeve to the world, with an all-star cast headed by Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois), Ned Beatty , Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford , and Trevor Howard. Directed by Richard Donner, the producers knew the film would be a blockbuster and began shooting a sequel at the same time. Released in 1980, with Richard Lester  eventually taking over for Donner, SUPERMAN II is considered by many fans the best superhero movie ever made… well, at least by this fan! The story pits Krypton’s favorite son against escaped Phantom Zone criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) with the fate of Earth in the balance. I had the privilege of meeting Miss Douglas and Mr. O’Halloran at a comic-con a few tears ago; she had a marvelously bawdy sense of humor, while Big Jack was as intimidating as ever!

Teri Hatcher & Dean Cain as Lois & Clark

Two more Super-sequels were made in 1983 and 1987, but frankly neither was very good, and the Man of Steel went quiet on the film front until returning to TV with LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, an updated version of the venerable tale with Dean Cain as Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. This version, broadcast from 1993-97, focused more on the romance between the two characters than is usual, but was a hit with fans, winning a Saturn Award for Best Genre Series during it’s run.

Latest incarnation: Henry Cavill as The Man of Steel

Superman returned to the big screen in 2006 with the aptly titled SUPERMAN RETURNS, starring newcomer Brandon Routh. The Bryan Singer-directed film didn’t do well enough for Warner Brothers to produce a sequel, and the character remained dormant until Zack Snyder’s 2013 MAN OF STEEL, a darker reboot of the legend giving Henry Cavill the title role. This Superman returned in 2016’s BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, and again in 2017’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, and figures to stick around awhile, at least as long as the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t implode!

Jim Steranko’s Superman

Eighty years is a long time, and I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of all things Superman. The character is still going strong today, probably the most recognizable superhero on the planet. DC will release Action Comics  Issue #1000 tomorrow, a milestone in the comics world, and Superman is still the cover boy. As long as there’s injustice in this world, we’ll all need Superman around as a symbol of hope, to keep “fighting (his) never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”!

Dedicated to the memories of Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster

Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane: RIP NOEL NEILL

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She was never a major Hollywood star, but for millions of kids who grew up watching reruns of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, Noel Neill was a true icon. She was the first TV crush for many of us… after all, what kid could resist an attractive, plucky girl reporter who just happened to be a close, personal friend of the mighty Man of Steel?

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Noel Neill was born in Minneapolis in 1920, daughter of a journalist, foreshadowing her future screen occupation. Her mother was a dancer, and young Noel had a knack for performing. She got a gig singing with Bob Crosby’s orchestra, and did some modeling. Noel was ranked the #2 pin-up girl by GI’s during World War II, second in popularity to only Betty Grable. Hollywood came calling, and she was signed by Paramount Pictures. But her screen career went nowhere, and eventually Miss Neill moved to Poverty Row Monogram Studios.

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While at Monogram, producer Sam Katzman cast her as a (what else?) plucky reporter for a series of pictures called “The Teen Agers”. By 1948, Katzman had moved to Columbia, and was about to start a new serial based on DC’s SUPERMAN. Remembering Noel, he cast her as Lois Lane opposite Kirk Allyn as Clark Kent, aka Superman. The serial was cheaply produced, but comic book-crazed kids rushed to theaters every Saturday to see the Man from Krypton in a live-action movie. The serial proved so popular Katzman followed up with a sequel the next year, ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN.

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A television version was made in 1951, but the leads were George Reeves and Phyllis Coates. The first season was filmed, but when it came time for season #2, Miss Coates already had other committments.  Noel Neill was asked to return to the role she originated, and stayed for the next five years, appearing in 78 of the shows 104 episodes, and would’ve returned for another season if not for the untimely death of Reeves. Her Lois is the prototype for the liberated woman, a working girl who’s risen to the top of her profession, and refuses to settle for just any man… she wants a Superman!

Noel Neill took her fame as Lois Lane with good humor, never talking bad about being identified with a comic book (these were different times, before comics took over Hollywood). She appeared at fan conventions and did a cameo as Lois Lane’s mom (with Kirk Allyn s Mr. Lane) in 1978’s SUPERMAN. She also popped up in a 1988 episode of SUPERBOY alongside Jack “Jimmy Olsen” Larson, and as Lex Luthor’s rich, dying wife in 2005’s SUPERMAN RETURNS. Noel Neill passed away on July 3rd at age 95, the last surviving member of the TV cast. Gone but never to be forgotten, as long as there are Superman fans. Rest in peace, Noel. When we look “up in the sky”, it won’t be a bird or a plane; it will be you and George Reeves smiling down on us all.

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 (Noel with her statue located in Metropolis, Illinois)