Forty five years!!! One of the things about getting older is that there are so many anniversaries that keep popping up. Only last week one of my FaceBook memories was a posting I made about it being the 40th anniversary of the release of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I remembered that being released! Then, to make matters worse, I saw that the memory was from ten years ago. So it’s actually fifty years since I was a teenager. I’m not sure how it works because I’m positive that 1985 was only twenty years ago.
I had a similar feeling the other day when my local cinema announced a 45th anniversary showing of Superman: The Movie. Once again the years fell away and I remembered going to the cinema to watch it. We’re looking at the Christmas holidays in 1978 when I was a newly qualified teacher living in the Shepherd’s Bush/Hammersmith area of West London. I was living in a one roomed bedsit and it had to have ten pence pieces fed into a meter to keep it warm.
A better alternative was to go to the cinema. Back then it cost, about, a pound to get into the auditorium. These were the days before booking an actual seat. You paid your money, got a ticket, and walked in. You just found a space and sat down. Another difference back then was what you could see. I’ve said elsewhere about what there used to be on offer with regards to main features, supporting features, shorts, adverts, trailers, etc. but what I never mentioned was what used to happen during the day.
Warmth, Comfort, And Entertainment
Back in the late seventies, cinemas were quite a different beast to what they are now. A venue was known as a multiplex if it had two screens and, to be honest, there weren’t very many of them. The vast majority of cinemas only had the one screen and the programme started mid morning and and kept repeating until it closed in the evening. Your ticket got you into the auditorium and you could stay there all day. Warmth, comfortable seats, and entertainment. And you got to keep your 10 pence pieces
There was access to a toilet and a concession stand so you could, alternately, empty and fill your bladder but, as long as you never wandered into the daylight, you could stay as long as you wanted. The food on offer was very, very limited. There was popcorn, obviously, but I’ve never really been a fan. That left boxes of fruit gums, Maltesers, and various ice creams. Still, I was twenty one and indestructible; a diet of sweeties wouldn’t kill me for one day.
Back When Smoking Was Everywhere
In fact, back in those days, the thing that was most likely to drive you off into the outside world was running out of cigarettes. Yes! Back in those days there was an ashtray built into the back of every seat. It seemed like you could smoke almost anywhere. Buses, trains, shops, libraries, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, pretty much anywhere. When I was in the VIth form the teachers actually used to smoke in the classroom.
Still, those days are over now. They still sell cigarettes but they are no longer on display. I gave up in March 2011 when a packet of twenty cost £5. I do remember saying, back in 1978, that I was going to give up smoking when the price hit 50p a pack…hey ho. Regardless, I still get an occasional hit of schadenfreude by going up and asking how much a packet costs now; last weekend they were over £15 for twenty. So, back then, a pound would buy you entry to the cinema or forty fags. Oh, that’s cigarettes for anyone outside the UK.
This Isn’t A History Lesson!
But, as usual, I digress. The whys and wherefores of late seventies cinema going isn’t why we’re here. The main thrust of this article is my thoughts and memories of watching Superman: The Movie both on release, in the years between, and, once again, on the big screen. Let’s face it, while I saw it back in 1978, I have seen it many times in the intervening years. TV screenings, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, and download. I’ve watched all of them during the last forty five years.
I still find it an entertaining film. Is it perfect? No. Do the SFX still stand up against the modern computer assisted versions? Obviously not! But is it still a passible way to pass two and a half hours? Oh yes indeed it is. I said earlier about the benefits of being able to sit in a warm, dark room for the entire day but I honestly think that, even if I’d had to go out and buy a ticket for each showing, I think I would have. The tag line was “You’ll believe a man can fly” and, let’s be honest, you did!
Belief Or Gullibility?
Were we more gullible back in the late seventies? I think gullible is the wrong word; naïve is more accurate. Prior to Superman: The Movie and Star Wars, as it was called back then, the height of special effects sophistication was the stuff that Ray Harryhausen was making; The Valley Of Gwangi, One Million Years BC, The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, and Jason And The Argonauts which is my personal favourite. They did require an awful lot of imagination and willing suspension of disbelief.
But, at the time, both demonstrated new levels of believability. I had originally intended to go for an early showing, get lunch and then go to a library or museum. Instead I ended up watching it over and over…four times. I was captivated. I had, quite literally, seen nothing like it before. Remember though, that this was in the days before ultra high definition images were available in the cinema let alone the living room. It was also before directors had the chance of re-editing and re-releasing their films…
Lack Of Control?
The big difference between the seventies versions of Superman: The Movie and Star Wars is that one has had extensive cosmetic surgery while the other is, pretty much, untouched. The Star Wars that you see nowadays is a very different beast to the one that I saw in the ABC in Staines. There were, apparently, potatoes standing in for asteroids and spitfires versus tie fighters in blink and you’ll miss them sight gags put in by the SFX guys. George Lucas kept creative control of his project and spent the next forty (and counting!) years making tweaks.
That luxury was denied Richard Donner. Despite the success of Superman: The Movie, it returned over $300million against a budget of $55million, and having filmed over three quarters of the sequel, Superman II, Donner was sacked from the sequel due to differences with the Salkind brothers, Alexander and Ilya, and the producer Pierre Spengler. That could be why, apart from a couple of directors’ cuts, the version you see nowadays is, pretty much, the same as the original.
Budge Up, I’m Trying To Make A Film
While on the subject, there’s more than just the temporal proximity of the original releases that connect Superman: The Movie and Star Wars. Both filmed at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and, almost inevitably, shared a lot of the production crew. They did also share one significant prop! The chest that Obi Wan Kenobi kept the light sabre in is the same as the one that Lex Luthor keeps the Kryptonite from Addis Ababa in.
Another crossover was at a more basic, physical level. Christopher Reeve was not the first choice to play Superman. Oh my word, you need to sit down before I start! The obvious candidates included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Jenner all had the physical attributes needed. Remember, this was when Caitlin Jenner was still Bruce and was an Olympic decathlon gold medallist.
I Can’t Believe He’d Fly!
At the other end of the spectrum was Elton John and Neil Diamond! Yes…they were both throwing their hats into the ring. Admittedly, some with more accuracy than others. Paul Newman was offered his pick of the roles on offer. Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and James Brolin were all considered for the role. Hell’s teeth! Mohammed Ali was also offered a pick of the parts but he declined. One guy who applied was turned down flat but ended up playing an important behind the scenes role.
That guy was Dave Prowse. Yes, the Dave Prowse who was the body (but not the voice) of Darth Vader. He applied for the role but wasn’t considered. It may have been the same Somerset accent that prevented him being the voice of Vader, I don’t know. But I do know that there was no full face mask to make adding the sonorous tones of James Earl Jones a lot simpler. Where he did succeed was in being the driving force behind turning the skinny, scrawny bag of bones that was Christopher Reeve into a believable form of Superman.
Making A Man Of Steel
It could be argued that casting Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone would, at least, give you the body of the Man Of Steel and you could worry about the accent or the drawl later. That would, of course, have been the same argument for casting Dave Prowse. Ultimately though, it is far cheaper and easier to get one man to eat a protein rich diet and hit the gym rather than get a voice actor to synchronise two and a half hours of dialogue. Not to mention having to repeat all that palaver for any sequels.
In the comics Superman is 6’3” (1.90m) tall, and 16 st 6 lbs (104 kgs). To start on a positive note, Christopher Reeve had the height, he was 6’4” (1.93m) tall, unfortunately he was only 12 st 2 lbs (77 kgs). Enter former British Weightlifting Champion and actor Dave Prowse. By the time shooting began Reeve was weighing in at 15 st 2 ibs (96 kgs). However, he took his training very seriously and kept working out; by the time he made Superman III he was around the 16 stone mark, about 101 kgs. He worked out so much during the shoot that the early traveling matte shots did not match the later ones and they had to be re-taken.
So, We’ve Got The Lead…
Of course, with a film of this nature and magnitude, there were other actors in the running for other major roles. Dustin Hoffman, George Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Wilder were all considered for Lex Luthor. While Natalie Wood, Lesley Ann Warren, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli, Shirley MacLaine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jessica Lange, Carrie Fisher, and Stockard Channing were in the running for Lois Lane. Goldie Hawn was first choice for Eve Tessmacher. Jessica Lange and Ann-Margaret were considered after she turned it down. Even Richard Donner wasn’t the first choice and he had to wait until Steven Spielberg and Sam Peckinpah turned down directing duties.
Anyway, last night I was sitting there watching it once again. A different cinema, a different city, a different millennium but the same film. The years just rolled away and, if I closed my eyes and concentrated, I swear I could smell the smoke from a Player’s No 6 and could hear the usherette walking up the aisle. Admittedly, there were no extra features other than ten minutes of adverts, courtesy of Pearl and Dean, and ten minutes of trailers. Then it was the censor certificate and away we go.
Back To The Past?
And how was it? Quite frankly, I loved it! It still had the same charm, humour, and whimsicality that was there on day one. Was it perfect? No! Don’t be ludicrous, it’s a forty five year old film. It was shot in the days when the height of sophistication for making a man appear to fly involved very thin wires, big fans, and back projection. Oh, and something called a travelling matte. We all know about mattes; they used to be, basically, a painting with a hole in it for the action to appear in. Travelling mattes meant that, instead of a single picture for a whole scene, there was a slightly different picture for each frame.
There’s loads more to it than that but that’s the main thrust of the technique. Remember, this was back in the days when computers were not the every day object that they’ve become. I was an early adopter; I had my first home computer in 1981. OK, it was only a Sinclair ZX81 but it was a start. I graduated to a BBC Micro when they came out and an Acorn Archimedes when they were released. At work I used an RML 380Z. I was sending emails and arguing in chat rooms from the early eighties. It was a fact that computers couldn’t do a lot to help out with special effects back then.
Then Versus Now
I suppose what helped a bit was the lower resolution that was the standard back then. Before the main feature one of the trailers was for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 and it was fairly obvious that we were dealing with a significant difference in video effects. The trailer was pin sharp whereas the feature was ever so slightly fuzzy. The trailer had a group of characters flying through space turning somersaults and leaping about while the feature had one guy planking while fans blow his cape around. Obviously I’m simplifying; there is that scene where Superman and Lois are flying around but it’s mainly just Superman.
It was a wee bit unfortunate that one of the first superhero cinematic outings had been immediately preceded by a trailer for one of the very latest. It’s not a question of DC versus Marvel but the twentieth versus the twenty first century. Talk about chalk and cheese! Story wise Superman: The Movie still stands up; little things like the first time Clark Kent changes into Superman. The trope is that he changes in a phone box. He runs up and it is one of those little canopy phones. It still made me smile.
Isn’t That What’s His Name?
Of course, the other elephant sized trope in the room is the “popping on a pair of glasses and nobody can tell that Superman is Clark Kent” one. That can be addressed by the autobiography of the worst ever James Bond (sorry Jilly!), Roger Moore…he saw Christopher Reeve walking through the canteen at Pinewood Studios in full Superman costume, oblivious to the swooning female admirers he left in his wake. When he did the same thing dressed as Clark Kent, no one paid him any attention.
Interestingly, something similar happened with Harold Lloyd: when he wasn’t making films and removed his iconic round glasses nobody paid any attention to him. Lloyd was the inspiration for Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, especially in the detail of the glasses. Still think that it is far fetched? Just Google “Zooey Deschanel without fringe/bangs” and you get some idea of how easy it is to change your appearance just by combing your hair a different way.
Summing Up Superman: The Movie
In short I’d have to say that I always enjoy the chance to see a favourite on the big screen. Some others I’ve seen are Die Hard, It’s A Wonderful Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, Beetlejuice, and The Big Heat. Most of them I’d only ever seen on a TV set. Seeing them in a cinema is always a joy. This time, though, the joy came from remembering the time when I was young, fit, and could stand up and sit down without my knees making a noise like the semi-final of a castanet competition.
Perhaps it was the little things which I’d forgotten about. For instance, in a Superman film you’d expect the chap playing the lead to get top billing. Not here. First up was Marlon Brando who got $19 million; $3.7 million fee and 11.75% of the box office gross profits. Not bad for seven minutes of screen time! Next up was Gene Hackman who was paid $2 million. Christopher Reeve’s name doesn’t appear until after the title and he was paid a, comparatively, paltry $250,000. That, however, was for both Superman: The Movie and Superman II!
Movie Grade – A+
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!