I had my first birthday in 1978. It was a big day for my family because it meant that my mom and dad had gotten through their first year of parenthood without killing me. I have no idea what my cartoon character my cake was made to look like. I don’t know what decorations that my mom put up for my party. I’m not even entirely sure that I had a birthday party. My dad was in the Air Force when I was a baby and at the time that I turned one I believe he was still stationed in Ft. Walton Beach, FL, which is the same place where I was born. This was a good four hour drive from most of my extended family so I doubt that they all made the trip just for some cake and ice cream.
1978 was also a big year for movies. John Travolta had another hit in theaters when he donned his leather jacket in Grease. Clint Eastwood was taking care of business in Every Which Way But Loose. And Michael Myers was chasing down Jamie Lee Curtis for the very first time in Halloween.
It wasn’t until December that one movie in particular came out that has since found its way into the list of movies that have had a profound impact on my life. On December 15th we learned that a man could fly when Superman hit the screen.
Superman stars Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman. It was directed by Richard Donner.
I have to make a confession. I was a huge Superman fan when I was a kid. I read Superman comics, watched Superfriends every Saturday morning, and even watched a lot of reruns of the old black and white series starring George Reeves on Nickelodeon. I had a ceramic lamp of the Man of Steel on my desk in my bedroom that my mother had made for me. And even after the lamp part broke, I still kept the statue part as a decoration. I wish that I had that statue now.
My obsession with the Last Son of Krypton didn’t die out as I grew up as most things tend to. I didn’t read the comic books as much in my late teens and early twenties, but I still consumed as much as I could. The day that the animated series hit the airwaves was a very happy day for me.
And when I was 19 I had the “S” shield tattooed on my right shoulder. Yes, you read that correctly. I have a Superman tattoo.
So, obviously, as soon as I was old enough to watch this movie I was placed in front of it as often as it was on television. In the days before VCRs that must have been fairly frequently because I remember seeing it a number of times as a kid. My first few viewings kind of washed over me. I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening with the Marlon Brando scenes. I just remember being amazed when Reeve showed up in that costume and commenced to saving the day. Looking back now I realize that it was almost a full hour into the film before we see that famous costume, but I didn’t know that back then.
Getting Superman to the screen was a pretty big endeavor. There had been a lot of issues involving the film rights to the character that dated back a good 5 years before the movie finally came out. And then the process of finding the right people to make the movie had been daunting as well. Mario Puzo, the man who wrote The Godfather, penned a 400 page script. That is an obscene length for any film, much less a simply story based on a comic book.
The production had its share of directors attached to it as well. Steven Spielberg was Puzo’s choice. He turned it down but said that George Lucas would be a good candidate. Lucas was tied up making Star Wars at the time. Finally, after a few location changes and script alterations the job was given to Richard Donner, who decided that he wanted to start from scratch. The script at this point had grown to 550 pages. He had it rewritten which probably didn’t make Puzo very happy.
A lot of Hollywood’s leading men were considered for the role of Superman. Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Charles Bronson were just a few actors that were seriously thought about. Ultimately, Donner decided that he wanted someone that was unknown to fill the red boots. He wanted the audience to look at the character and see…the character. If it had been someone huge like Schwarzenegger no one would be able to see anything but Arnie in tights.
Reeve was given the part even though he didn’t show up to the audition in a muscle suit as he was requested to do. He was in very good shape and his posture and look just resonate on the screen. He truly looks like Superman. And I always thought that making some beefcake play the part would have been a big mistake anyway. Superman isn’t strong because he’s big…he’s strong because he has super powers. He doesn’t have to be big to have that.
The rest of the cast play out pretty well. I’ve always thought that Margot Kidder may not have been the best choice to play Lois Lane because she’s a little too brash and off-putting. I find it hard to believe that this Kansas farm boy would fall for her. But, she does fit the part of a 1970s newspaper reporter so I guess it does work in that respect.
Gene Hackman is a fantastic actor. He is one of Hollywood’s living legends and he has definitely earned that distinction. But I’m not that big of a fan of his portrayal of Lex Luthor. In the comics, Luthor has evolved over the decades. While he was simply a mad scientist of some sort in the early days, he has since become a truly threatening, and powerful foe for Superman. Hackman portrayed him as being a kind of conniving and smarmy crook bent on gaining real estate to make himself rich. It’s not really a true representation of the character. But, in the late 70s I realize that they were going for something that would make people laugh and that they didn’t really have to think too much about. The sad thing is that we have never gotten a true transfer of Luthor from page to screen. The closest we’ve ever come to the real thing was Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of a young Lex Luthor on Smallville.
Comic book movies are all the rage today. Marvel is releasing two titles every year. DC is doing their best to keep up. And there are all sorts of other comic book properties making their way to our theaters and living rooms every year. From The Avengers to The Walking Dead, adaptations of comics have proven to be a huge industry. And more importantly, we have proven that superheroes are something that we aren’t going to get tired of any time soon.
And all of that can point to 1978 as its origin. When Kal-El’s tiny ship crashed into that Kansas field it changed a lot of things about movies. Superheroes have regularly found their way to us since then. And it all started when Christopher Reeve sailed over the Earth, smiled, and drifted into our hearts.