Superman: The Movie at 35

Superman The Movie - Poster

Release Date: December 11, 1978

Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter, Trevor Howard

Directed by Richard Donner; Screenplay by Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The original 1978 TV trailer:

35 years ago this month, Superman: The Movie premiered and the world believed a man could fly.

What better way for me to wind down the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) than with a post on Richard Donner’s beloved cinematic version of the Man of Steel that ushered in the age of the modern comic book movie?

The weekend of December 12, 1978 was a milestone in my movie-going life because as a six year old sitting in the audience of the Mamaroneck Playhouse (for what would be the first of my three screenings of the film that month), Superman: The Movie was the was the pinnacle of movie magic, and since then no other film has been able to move it from the top spot of my own personal Top 10 list.  To this day I still remember the details of that first screening: the large bucket of popcorn that I finished halfway through the trailers, the usher shining a flashlight in the face of a teenager that was talking too loud, and crowd brought to silence as the black and white shot of the curtains parting to reveal an issue of Action Comics opened the film.  What surprised me the most as I looked back on that day was how my brother and I (ages 9 and 6) and a bunch of our friends were there without parents.  It was a different time, one where our folks dropped us off in front of the movie theater and picked us up two hours later.  It’s funny/crazy/unbelievable to think about how normal that was back then.

While the last ten plus years have produced an explosion of comic book films and their sequels, Superman: The Movie is still the comic book movie I measure all others up against.  It doesn’t matter how much the special effects have surpassed the old school, non-CGI effects of Superman: The Movie because I don’t measure this era’s comic book films by the technology and effects, but rather on respect for the source material, character development and the story.

Superman: The Movie, under the direction of Richard Donner, got it right on many levels: the gravitas of Jor-El and Lara (played by Marlon Brando and Susannah York) sending their child to earth as their home planet Krypton faces destruction, the values instilled in a young Clark Kent (played by Jeff East) by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), the playful charm of Reeve’s performance as Clark Kent/Superman…I could go on and on.  On the technical side, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a masterful job photographing the film (sadly he passed away shortly after the production of Superman: The Movie), and production designer John Barry made Krypton and  the Fortress of Solitude as close to real as possible on the screen.  To this day I still think of Lex Luthor’s underground hideout whenever I walk through Grand Central Station.  John Williams’ score brings out the emotion in this film, and the music of the opening credit sequence gets me every time.

Producer Alexander Salkind was able to attach significant names to the production: actors Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Glenn Ford just to name a few.  A film based on a comic book could have simply been dismissed as a kid’s film by this level of talent, but each of their performances truly stand out in their contemporary take on the story of the Man of Steel.  But one area in which Salkind, Donner and the casting department took a huge gamble was with the casting of an unknown soap opera actor named Christopher Reeve in the title role.  When you read the list of names that were considered for Clark Kent/Superman (Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Muhammad Ali – just to name a few), it’s amazing the role didn’t go to an actor other than Reeve in order to use their name to boost the box office.  Despite their talent and star power, a higher profile (and extremely talented) actor from that list would not have brought the same dynamic to the role as Reeve.  In the film, the world was introduced to Superman, just as the audience was introduced to Christopher Reeve.  A better known actor would have been a distraction.  The film didn’t succeed in spite of Christopher Reeve, he was Superman.  Even as the “mild mannered reporter Clark Kent,” Reeve never plays his alter ego as a separate role but rather as Superman playing Clark Kent, down to his wry smile when he stops a mugger’s bullet from striking Lois Lane (played perfectly by Margot Kidder) but hides it from her by pretending he’d fainted.

Christopher Reeve Superman The Movie

Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie
Copyright 1978 Warner Bros.

Here’s a great clip of Christopher Reeve’s appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote Superman: The Movie’s release.  What I love about this clip is how it shows how Reeve’s incorporated his knowledge and respect for the source material into his interpretation of the title role.

I remember news reports shortly after the film’s release of children falling out of their apartment windows when they attempted to fly like Superman.  In an effort to curb further tragedy, Christopher Reeve made an appearance on a day time TV program (it may have been Midday with Bill Boggs), where Reeve explained it was movie make-believe and provided details of how he and Margot Kidder were hooked up to harnesses on wires for the flying scenes.  A crawl ran continuously on the bottom of the screen that read “You can’t fly, please don’t try.”

There was a lot going on during the production of the film, but just as much outside of the film’s production.  Several years earlier, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, out of the comic book industry and making a meager salary as a postal worker, read about Warner Bros. plans to bring Superman to the big screen and wrote an open letter which stated that he and artist Joe Shuster were the true creators of Superman and the injustices he felt they received from National Periodicals/DC Comics.  A movement grew to have Warner Bros./DC Comics provide Jerry and Joe with a pension thanks to the efforts of several figures in the comic book industry, particularly Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson.  They were each given a $35,000 per year pension for the duration of their lives, and “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” was added to subsequent Superman comic book, film and TV properties.  Although Shuster was legally blind by the time of the film’s release, but both he and Siegel attended the premiere of Superman: The Movie.

Over the last ten years I’ve bought a few Superman: The Movie related materials, including some promotional posters that were given away as premiums in 1978, trading cards, and a copy of American Cinematographer devoted to the film  (one of my prized possessions).  As much as I loved the film, I never looked into the story behind the film’s production until I purchased the 2005 DVD which contains three “making of” featurettes that go into so much detail (including the troubles they had making it look as if a man could fly) that they should be required viewing for film students and any fan of filmmaking.  Warner Bros. has made them available for viewing on YouTube:

While there have been more than a few comic book films that I’ve truly enjoyed (X-Men, X2, The Dark Knight Rises), none have had as profound an effect on me as a movie fan as Superman: The Movie.  I’m grateful for this film because after countless screenings over the years, the magic hasn’t worn off and the film is just as meaningful to me as it was 35 years ago.

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