4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“We need him, we need him” — It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!

From August 2017 – January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic that had been made to date in the weekly Great Superhero Movie Rewatch. We kick off this latest revival with a, uh, gem from 1975: It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! We’ll also look at two other twentieth-century movies, Mandrake and Timecop, over the next two weeks before diving into the recent releases.

Since their creation in the late 1930s, no superheroes have been more popular than Superman and Batman. They’ve continued to be the templates for the two types of heroes: the ground-level self-made hero, and the person with great powers.

The pair have also been adapted to other media more than any other heroes, what with movie serials, animated shorts, movies, and TV shows since the 1940s. But only Superman got his own musical…

In 1966, the same year that the Adam West Batman premiered, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! debuted on Broadway. A musical that saw Superman fighting against a mad scientist bent on world domination, the original cast included Bob Holiday in the title role. Holiday really embraced the role, making multiple public appearances in character. This is in direct contrast to the last two people to play the role, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves, both of whom were unhappy with how they were typecast as the Man of Steel. Holiday, however, loved it. Others in the cast included Patricia Marand, Jack Cassidy, and future Alice star Linda Lavin. While the musical uses Clark Kent’s fellow Daily Planet folk Lois Lane and Perry White, the rest of the cast are all ones created for the production, including Max Mencken, a star reporter for the Planet who hates Superman because he’s taken the spotlight away from Mencken himself; Mencken’s secretary Sydney Carlton; a troupe of Chinese acrobats, the Flying Lings, who wind up working with the main bad guy, Dr. Abner Sedgwick, a mad scientist who has repeatedly fallen short of winning the Nobel Prize and has decided to take out his frustrations by ruling the world, which he can’t do until he gets rid of Superman.

The show only lasted on Broadway for four months. There have been periodic revivals of it, including a couple in the Midwest in the 1960s, in Connecticut in the 1990s, in Los Angeles in the 2000s, and several times all over the world throughout the 2010s.

And in 1975, ABC decided to put together a TV movie version of the musical as part of its Wide World of Entertainment series. Even though Holiday had made appearances as Superman as recently as four years earlier, ABC went with theatre veteran David Wilson as Supes. The cast was filled out by several familiar faces to anyone who was watching television at the time: Kenneth Mars as Mencken, David Wayne as Sedgwick, Loretta Swit as Sydney, and Lesley Ann Warren as Lane. Stuart Goetz and Michael Lembeck play two young Superman fans named Jerry and Joe, tributes to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman’s creators.

The movie cut down the script, removed several songs, and rejiggered the melodies of several of the remaining ones to sound more contemporary. In addition, the Flying Lings were replaced with a completely different offensive ethnic stereotype, a bunch of Mafia gangsters (all dressed in pinstripe suits and hats), played by Malachi Throne, Al Molinaro, Lou Willis Jr., and several uncredited others. A new song was written for the gangsters, “It’s a Great Country.”

 

“Oh, Clark, have you been there all along?”

It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!
Written by David Newman & Robert Benton and Romeo Muller
Directed by Jack Regas
Produced by Norman Twain
Original release date: February 21, 1975

Screenshot: ABC

We’re introduced to each member of the main cast in succession: Max Mencken, Lois Lane, Sydney Carlton, Dr. Abner Sedgwick, and finally Clark Kent/Superman himself, who changes clothes in a phone booth. We establish that Mencken and Sedgwick both hate Superman, the former because he’s stolen Mencken’s spotlight as the most popular person in Metropolis, the latter because he stands in the way of his plans to rule the world. Lane, of course, is smitten with him, while Sydney’s more indifferent. Sydney is more interested in Mencken.

Then we get a quick summary of his origin—rocketed to Earth from Krypton, adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (who find his rocket on the ground with a sign saying, in English, “CONTENTS: ONE INNOCENT BABE”), who raise him as their own, and then when he grows up and his parents pass on, he moves to Metropolis and joins the Daily Planet. The people of Metropolis sing “We Need Him,” declaring their love for his presence and protection.

In the Planet City Room, Lane is completely focused on Superman, to the point that she doesn’t even realize Kent is sitting at the next desk. (Twice in forty seconds, she says, “Oh, Clark, have you been there all along?”) Mencken turns in his latest evisceration of Superman while Lane turns in a much more positive piece about the Man of Steel, though she also wonders if her love for him is really a smart idea given that he never seems to show any real affection back at her. Mencken strings Sydney along—standing her up for dates, but still getting her to type his articles—while he tries to hit on Lane.

A bunch of gangsters have a meeting, where they decide that, in order to be successful as gangsters, they need to rub out Superman, somehow.

Screenshot: ABC

Sedgwick shows up at the Planet office to inform Lane that the death ray they have at the university to put down student uprisings has malfunctioned. Kent overhears this, and flies off as Superman to stop the death ray. Sedgwick informs the audience that this is all part of his master plan, to build Superman up before tearing him down.

Mencken offers to join forces with Sedgwick. Meantime, Sydney tries to boost Kent’s confidence with a song (“You’ve Got Possibilities,” a song that would go on to become a hit outside this production). Kent actually makes a move on Lane, and for the first time, she really notices him.

The gangsters decide they need the help of a brilliant scientist, so they kidnap Sedgwick. But upon realizing that they all have the same goal, Sedgwick and the gangsters become allies. Sedgwick instructs the gangsters to blow up City Hall, specifically timing it to coincide with the opening of a new laundromat that is being named after Superman. Superman attends the opening, but when the crowd realizes that he was too busy accepting this honor to stop City Hall from being blown up, they turn on him, egged on by Sedgwick.

Sydney tries to convince Mencken that she’s worth his attention. The gangsters sneak in and club him on the head and bring him to Sedgwick while Sydney’s back is turned. Sedgwick’s super-computer has revealed that Superman is a reporter for the Planet, and Sedgwick thinks it’s Mencken. Mencken himself points out the flaw in his logic—for starters, being clubbed on the head wouldn’t have worked—and then they realize it must be Kent.

Screenshot: ABC

For his part, Kent is devastated at how the city has turned on him. He almost goes off to work in his Superman suit by mistake. Sedgwick comes to his apartment and reveals that he knows the truth, and makes him feel worse under the guise of providing him with therapy. Sedgwick reinforces the notion that he’s a freak.

After Sedgwick leaves, Lane arrives, but he’s still in his Superman outfit. She tries to legitimately cheer him up, and it almost works, but when he uses his X-ray vision, he reverts to depression, still believing he’s a freak. When the gangsters show up and kidnap Lane, he can’t even be arsed to save her. He goes to the pier and jumps into the water, but he’s too strong and invulnerable for a suicide attempt to work. Two kids named Jerry and Joe, who idolize him, tell him that it’s okay to be a freak, as long as you’re a freak who does good. This gets him out of his depression.

Sedgwick decides that Mencken’s no longer useful, and ties him up next to Lane, with some dynamite under Mencken’s chair. But then the gangsters double-cross Sedgwick and tie him up, too. Then Superman shows up, beats up the gangsters, frees Lane, and flies her out of the room. But he leaves Mencken and Sedgwick behind, and the dynamite goes boom. They live, but they’ve suffered traumatic amnesia and no longer remember that Superman is Kent. Sedgwick is now the science reporter for the Planet, and Mencken is a much nicer person, asking Sydney to marry him.

And Lane realizes that Superman is the man for her, to Kent’s confusion…

 

“There’s nothing wrong with being a freak as long as you freak in the right direction”

Screenshot: ABC

In 2006, I wrote an essay for The Man from Krypton, part of BenBella Books’ “Smart Pop” series of essay collections on popular culture. In that essay, which came out on the eve of Superman Returns, I ranked the nine actors who’d portrayed Superman onscreen either in live-action (Kirk Alyn, Dean Cain, Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, David Wilson) or just in voice (Bud Collyer, Tim Daly, Danny Dark, George Newbern) prior to Brandon Routh’s turn in that movie. That essay would be a lot longer today, as it would also have to include Routh, Henry Cavill, Tyler Hoechlin, and a host of voiceover actors, thanks to DC’s plethora of direct-to-video animated films over the last decade and a half: Adam Baldwin, Matt Bomer, Darren Criss, Sam Daly, James Denton, Mark Harmon, Jason Isaacs, Peter Jessop, Kyle MacLachlan, Jerry O’Connell, and Alan Tudyk.

At the time, I ranked Wilson as by far the worst of the nine people who’d played the role, and if I was writing that article today, Wilson would still be comfortably in twentieth place, and it wouldn’t even be close.

I never saw Bob Holiday perform the role onstage, though I’ve seen some footage of him, and I gotta wonder why they didn’t cast him in 1975. He’d done the role as recently as four years earlier in a commercial for Aqua Velva. Based on the aforesaid footage, he actually took Collyer and Reeves as his inspiration for how to portray the Man of Steel.

Wilson, by contrast, seems to be using John Travolta’s portrayal of Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter as his inspiration. Seriously, his Superman sounds less like the man of tomorrow and more like a goombah from Belmont or Bensonhurst.

To be fair, even if Wilson was the best Superman ever, he would be hard-pressed to have done anything with this farcical storyline. The story comes across very much like a lot of pre-2000 adaptations of superhero comics, viewing them as puerile and beneath contempt, and not worthy of being taken in the least bit seriously. But even other goofy takes like the 1960s Batman TV show and the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show had a certain heart and heroism. This musical doubles down on the silly without leavening it in the least. Superman is barely a hero in this.

Screenshot: ABC

I grew up in the 1970s, and I love so much about the decade, but the era’s fascination with goofy-ass musicals has always been incomprehensible even to me. This is the same time period that gave us The Star Wars Holiday Special and Legends of the Superheroes and other bits of ridiculousness. This particular production was also done on the cheap, even by the standards of the time. Superman’s flying effects are klutzier than what they did with George Reeves twenty years earlier, and the backgrounds are probably meant to look like comic-book drawings, but mostly just look like they didn’t want to spend the money on properly painted sets.

What’s frustrating is that the basic outline is a story that could work. There’s a very good message about believing in yourself here, embodied primarily in Sydney’s “You’ve Got Possibilities” pep-talk song to Kent and later in Jerry and Joe’s urging of Superman to let his freak flag fly. And the notion of Superman being wracked by guilt because he failed to stop a crime is one that good stories can be built off of (and have in the comics). But it’s buried under a lot of nonsense.

Lesley Ann Warren manages to be the worst interpretation of Lois Lane you’re ever likely to see. She edges out Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns, who was merely bland. Warren’s version is actively offensive, as she’s a complete ditz. Plus, an entire musical number is given over to Lane pining for the life of a housewife when she finally sees Kent instead of Superman, which is the most colossal misreading of the Lois Lane character in her entire eighty-four-year history. I should add that this is not Warren’s fault: she’s excellent, as always, it’s the role as written that’s a problem.

Screenshot: ABC

Indeed, with the obvious exception of the title character, the acting here is pretty good. David Wayne’s deadpan serves the psychopathy of Sedgwick beautifully, Kenneth Mars pretty much Kenneth Marses it up as Mencken (he’s probably best known for his comedy German accents in Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Young Frankenstein), and Loretta Swit brings a sassy dignity to the role of Sydney. Sydney as written is pretty much the same character Swit played in M*A*S*H’s early years, a woman inexplicably in love with a total asshole, but as performed by Swit, she’s more Lois Lane-like than Warren’s character…

The best part of this ridiculous movie is the part that was wholly original to it: the Mafia gangsters who replace the Flying Lings. In particular their intro scene, which is a beautiful piece of satire. It starts with the gangsters reciting the criminals’ Pledge of Allegiance (“I pledge allegiance to the mobs of the United Hoods of the Underworld, one family, all invisible, with larceny and rub-outs for all”), and finishes with the song “It’s a Great Country,” in which the gangsters wax rhapsodic about how great it is to be a criminal in the good ol’ U.S. of A. where there’s free enterprise, where politicians can be bought, and where there are no real gun laws. (That last bit hit hard given the events of recent weeks…) It’s truly the best song of the bunch, as the rest of the music in this musical is okay. Nothing great, nothing awful. Some are better than others, and “We Need Him” is an earworm of the highest order (seriously, it was stuck in my head for hours after I watched this…). And all the actors can, at least, sing, even Wilson, who came out of musical theatre….

 

Next week we take a look at another swingin’ Seventies gem, an adaptation of the comic strip Mandrake the Magician from 1979.

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to support the Kickstarter for Phenomenons: Season of Darkness, the second volume in the shared-world superhero anthology series published by Crazy 8 Press. The anthology features stories by Keith and fellow Trek prose stylists Michael Jan Friedman (who also created and is the editor of the series), Peter David, Geoffrey Thorne, Ilsa J. Bick, Robert Greenberger, Paul Kupperberg, Aaron Rosenberg, and Glenn Hauman, as well as screenwriter Dan Hernandez and novelists Mary Fan, Michael A. Burstein, Marie Vibbert, Russ Colchamiro, Hildy Silverman, and Alex Segura. Please consider supporting the anthology on Kickstarter!

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