Monday, October 20, 2008

VAULTS: 'Superman' going strong at 30


The fourth anniversary of Christopher Reeve's death [-] of cardiac arrest at the age of 52 [-] passed last week. The 30th anniversary of the movie that made him a distinctively irresistible new star, "Superman: The Movie," is approaching in December. Anyone who followed his tragically disrupted but heroic career recalls that it included some haunting connections to this part of the country.

The riding accident that shattered Mr. Reeve's spinal cord occurred during a cross-country equestrian event in Culpeper, Va., in May 1995. Washington had witnessed the auspicious Reeve debut as Superman and alter-ego Clark Kent during a national press junket that preceded the movie's theatrical openings in mid-December 1978.

After missing earlier, impractical opening dates in the summers of 1977 and '78, Warner Bros. was still racing the clock to prepare finished prints for a holiday season release. "Superman" was never previewed in a customary, cautious fashion with unsuspecting test audiences. A packed press screening at the Uptown (then under the management of Circle Theatres) became the movie's first exposure to a curious public. That happy unveiling was followed a few days later by the "official" premiere, an invitational benefit for Special Olympics at the Eisenhower Theater in the Kennedy Center.

The Uptown showing proved a memorable event for my family. Our eldest daughters, then 7 and 4, were among the youngest members of the audience. Our third daughter, a nursing babe in arms, probably was the youngest. We were sitting in the last row on the left side of the auditorium, a location that made it easier for my wife to slip into the lobby if the baby got restless, a recurrent condition during the first sustained sequence, where the destruction of Krypton was being underscored by ear-splitting sound effects. Richard Donner, the film's director, stood just inside the door throughout the screening, so he became an impromptu doorman for my wife during her exits and returns.

Once the galaxy-traveling plot reached Superman's small-town upbringing as Clark Kent, the baby was settling down and it was clear that the movie was nimble enough to switch styles from the portentous to the endearing and comic-heroic.

These proved the attributes that made it an enormous success in the winter of 1978-79, not to mention an abiding pleasure to this day. In the course of the interviews and archival material appended to Warner Bros.' two-disc DVD edition of the movie, leading lady Margot Kidder fondly remarks, "I think it'll work forever." I think she's right, and being there on the night the movie first demonstrated its appeal remains a vivid and cherished privilege.

At the time, I was especially glad that the "Superman" bet had worked out for Andrew Fogelson, who was supervising national publicity for Warners. I had met him a few years earlier when he was the studio's one-man advance team for a distinguished import, Jan Troell's "The Emigrants." Mr. Fogelson was responsible for the ingenious "Superman" campaign that emphasized the slogan, "You'll believe a man can fly."

In a way, the Fogelson team had underestimated the appeal of the movie's arduously contrived but ultimately beguiling flying illusions, which achieved a quality of romantic elevation and bliss that surpassed mere suspension of disbelief. It's fun to see Mr. Fogelson turn up in the "Making of ..." featurettes, recalling the famous slogan and explaining such shoptalk of the time as "negative pickups," alluding to deals between distributors and independent producers rather than unsavory sexual encounters.

For selfish reasons, I'm sorry that the DVD supplements ignore the Washington premiere, along with similar events that were staged in New York and London. I believe Warners had camera crews on hand for the press conferences — and presumably for the Eisenhower gala, which I didn't attend.

One of the amusing sideshows of the junket was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a ubiquitous presence at the hosting hotel although he wasn't a member of the cast. At the time, he was Maria Shriver's beau and roughly seven years away from a date with movie stardom.

Assembled for a video release in 2001, the supplements for "Superman" could use some updating and enhancing if a future anniversary edition is being contemplated. Mr. Donner shares a commentary track with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who was responsible for the final versions of a screenplay that began with Mario Puzo. The filmmakers often call attention to how much special-effects technology had changed by the turn of the century, due to the triumph of computer-generated imagery (CGI).

Completed about 15 years before the CGI transformation, "Superman" is now an invaluable monument to vintage effects work. It drew on an expansive and inventive, but sometimes hit-and-miss, range of handcrafted techniques, from matte painting and model construction to pyrotechnics and optical deception. The DVD set gives this tradition an appreciative farewell.

The recollections of Mr. Donner and Mr. Mankiewicz also enhance a number of famous scenes: Glenn Ford's simulation of the sudden demise of adoptive father Jonathan Kent; the breathtaking scenic resonance achieved during subsequent interludes at a hilltop cemetery and the Kent farm as young Clark prepares to leave home; the terrace interview between Lois Lane and Superman that becomes a preamble to their celestial cruise over New York City; Superman's rescue of the kitty from a treetop in Brooklyn Heights.

Of course, it's impossible to resist such inside stuff as Mr. Donner's quip about Marlon Brando's reliance on hidden cue cards. In the scene where the actor must muse at philosophical length to his infant son, resting in a tiny space capsule, the director confides, "That kid's diapers were worth a fortune, because Marlon's dialogue was written on them."

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