ALEXANDER SALKIND is proud to announce the engagement of MARIO PUZO (The Godfather — The Godfather II — Earthquake) to write the screenplay of SUPERMAN
it said, in enormous type.
This was another one of the Salkinds’ full-page ads in Variety, in March 1975. That was the whole thing, a one-line engagement ring with no further information. That was enough, back in the days when they thought Puzo would deliver a decent script.
Four months later, they followed up with another full-page Variety ad, which offered various items of interest. The ad featured a big photo of a locked safe, with the words:
Faster than a speeding bullet…
famed author Mario Puzo has delivered his super “SUPERMAN” original screenplay for Alexander Salkind to the “super kids”, producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler.
It is now under maximum security while the search for a super director goes on.
Which is difficult to know what to do with.
As we’ve seen in the last several posts, the Salkinds liked anything that was biggest and best, and Mario Puzo wrote a best-selling book and a Best Picture movie, so obviously they want to show that off. But bragging that Puzo wrote the Superman script really fast is an odd thing to do, and I’m completely puzzled by calling the producers “super kids”. I can’t imagine what they thought that would convey.
Also, the insistence that the script is “now under maximum security” feels like a bit of a giveaway. Boasting like that is usually a sign that the speaker is overcompensating for a deficiency that they want to conceal, like the fact that the screenplay they’ve received is three hundred pages long, written like a novel, and utterly unfilmable.
I don’t have a copy of the Mario Puzo script, unfortunately. It’s easy to find the revised Newman/Benton script, and the final shooting script by Tom Mankiewicz. But the Puzo script is out of my reach, which is a shame, because it sounds amazing.
It was big, we know that. The Salkinds wanted to produce two films at the same time in order to get a bargain-priced sequel, like they did with The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, so they were expecting a double-length screenplay, but the 300+ page script they received was far too long and far too expensive.
The outline of the two movies was there in Puzo’s script: Jor-El sending his son away from the doomed Krypton, the child landing on Earth and raised by the Kents, an adolescence in Smallville, a move to Metropolis, a love story with Lois Lane, and battles with Luthor and a set of Kryptonian criminals from the Phantom Zone.
But there was too much of it, the action sequences were impossible to achieve, and it was too silly.
This is what I’ve pieced together, from the various descriptions in books and interviews:
The movie begins on Krypton, with Jor-El being criticized by the Council for worrying everybody about a planet-wide disaster. There are four nasty criminals — General Zod, Non, Ursa and Kru-El — who are already trapped in the Phantom Zone when the movie opens.
A note, directly from the script: “Jor-El should be played by the same actor as Superman. Since he is Superman’s father, this will seem natural. It also gives the star a chance to come into the film right away, rather than wait till we are half an hour into the film.”
When we get to Metropolis, the Daily Planet has folded. Clark Kent is a TV news anchor, and Lois Lane is the station’s weather reporter. Jimmy Olsen also works for the station; Perry White doesn’t appear in the script.
The villain’s name is Luthor Lux, and he eats Kleenex tissue when he’s stressed. His headquarters is protected by a mirrored maze.
The script apparently involved an assassination attempt on the Pope, a detail that only one source has ever mentioned — Reed Tucker’s book Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC.
When he’s wooing Lois, Superman realizes that he’s forgotten to bring champagne, so he scans the world using his telescopic vision. He sees that Queen Elizabeth is about to break a bottle to christen a ship, so Superman swoops in and snatches the champagne out of the Queen’s hands.
There’s also a sequence where Superman straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa — an element that David and Leslie Newman cut from Puzo’s script, but went on to use in their own script for Superman III.
And then there’s the Kojak cameo, which everybody agrees is the stupidest scene in the script.
EXT. SKY OVER METROPOLIS – DAY
ON SUPERMAN — on a reconnaissance flight over Metropolis. But what is he looking for, studying the anonymous pedestrians of the city down there. Suddenly his attention is arrested; his eyes narrow.
HIS POV DOWN: Down there, from the back, a shining bald head, a dark suit, a bit of swagger. Can it be?
MOVING SHOT, WIDE: SUPERMAN swoops down on his prey, seizes his shoulder.
The man whirls around and it is… TELLY SAVALAS. With lollipop and big grin
Hey! Superman! Who loves ya, baby?
SUPERMAN smiles, trying to pretend he dropped down to say hi, and then flies up. As he ANGLES TOWARD CAMERA we SEE the disappointed expression on his face.
For younger readers, Kojak was a popular 1970s television show starring the bald-headed Telly Savalas as a tough New York detective who constantly had a Tootsie Pop in his mouth as a substitute for cigarettes, and “Who loves ya, baby?” was his signature catchphrase. For even younger readers, “television” was the lame workaround that we all looked at while we were waiting for Netflix and Amazon Prime to be invented.
Obviously, this is a dumb idea, but why it’s a dumb idea is an interesting question.
The fact that it’s a comedy scene isn’t a problem; in the finished movie, a big chunk of the middle is explicitly screwball comedy. The problem with the Kojak moment is that it takes the audience outside of the movie, introducing a meta-joke that makes you consciously aware that you’re watching something fictional. Superman mistaking somebody for Lex Luthor might be an acceptable comic-relief moment, but that’s not the funny part — the funny part is that they got Telly Savalas to make a cameo and say his catchphrase.
Basically, it’s a scene out of The Muppet Movie, which is full of cameos like that: Steve Martin as a waiter saying “excuuuuse me!“, Paul Williams playing the piano, Richard Pryor selling balloons to chickens.
It’s okay to have meta-jokes in The Muppet Movie that take the audience outside of the story, because the audience is already expected to be consciously aware of the film’s artificiality. A human character riding a bicycle is nothing special; a frog puppet riding a bicycle is an arresting spectacle. Part of the pleasure of the movie is watching puppets doing things that puppets can’t do, so having surprise celebrities pop out and do some shtick is all part of the show.
Having a moment of pure artificiality in the middle of Superman basically turns Christopher Reeve into a frog puppet on strings for one scene, which is not the emotional impact that we’re looking for.
But the amazing thing about the Kojak scene is that it survived through several more drafts and several more writers. When Puzo’s revised draft didn’t resolve the Salkinds’ concerns, he dropped out of the project, and Ilya Salkind had to figure out who was going to fix the script.
Using his technique of going down the list of successful films and asking the people who made it if they’d like to work on Superman, Ilya found David Newman and Robert Benton, who wrote the 1967 hit Bonnie and Clyde. Coincidentally, they’d also written the book for a failed Broadway musical about Superman in 1969, called It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman, but apparently Ilya didn’t know about that.
Newman and Benton wrote a new draft, cutting Puzo’s script to a manageable level and taking out much of the silliness. In their version, Clark and Lois are newspaper reporters again, Superman doesn’t steal champagne from the Queen and there’s no Tower of Pisa gag. After a couple of revisions, Benton left the project to direct his first feature, The Late Show, and David Newman brought on his wife, Leslie, to write another draft with a stronger part for Lois.
The first two thirds of the Newman/Benton script are pretty close to what we see on screen, although the dialogue isn’t as sharp and there are some iffy ideas that didn’t end up in the film.
For example, here’s an odd bit of stage direction, as Baby Kal-El’s ship approaches Earth:
EXT. MODULE – EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE – DAY
SHOTS: As the module gets closer. It seems as if it will surely land in the heart of the Soviet Union (raising the question in the audience’s collective mind for the first time: what would have happened if Superman had been Russian?) but just at the last minute, the old Earth takes another spin and the rocket heads for the dead center of the United States.
This is a weird idea for several reasons. #1) It would probably just look like it’s headed for the middle of Asia somewhere. #2) Is this a good time to raise new questions in the audience’s collective mind? #3) “The old Earth takes another spin”? What could that possibly mean?
There’s also a slice-of-life domestic Eskimo sequence:
EXT. ALASKA – DAY
FULL SHOT — a narrow, snow covered road which runs alongside a vast Arctic lake. In the middle of the lake, great icebergs float.
The truck comes to a stop, lets CLARK out. The DRIVER looks at him quizzically a moment, then drives on.
NEW ANGLE — CLARK stands at the edge of the ice-filled lake, looking due north.
FULL SHOT — A narrow, snow -covered road ends in the Arctic North. In b.g. , Eskimo igloos can be SEEN. CLARK stands on the roadside, thumb out. DOLLY IN TIGHT TO him.
INT. ESKIMO IGLOO – DAY
An Eskimo man stands at the opening of his igloo. CAMERA POSITIONED BEHIND him so that we SEE over his shoulder. There, far away, is CLARK as we left him at the roadside, wearing only his thin jacket.
The Eskimo bursts out laughing and ducks back in. PAN OVER TO a fur rug where his wife is seated, preparing food. Chattering in Eskimo talk, he points outside, laughing. The woman rises and rushes to the opening of the igloo, peering out.
HER POV; Nothing to be seen. CLARK is gone. VERY WIDE SHOT.
ON HER: She turns and mutters, annoyed, to her husband.
“Chattering in Eskimo talk,” it says. I keep rolling that phrase around in my head; I may never recover from it. I feel like if we tried, we could probably find a way to leave the Eskimos alone.
But the real problem with the Newman/Benton script is what they do with Lex Luthor.
As a personality, he could give ten psychiatrists five years work: a genuine case of rampant pathological aberration that manifests itself in a changeability that is
so marked as to go beyond the term “mercurial.” He is one minute charming, sweet, paternal with his underlings; the next minute he can (and often does) become savage, cutting sadistic, caustic. There is in him as well, a genuine sense of humor, though invariably warped, and a great streak of self-pity, that causes him to wallow in anguish from time to time. His own nervous habits are equally peculiar, i.e., he eats Kleenex nervously, chewing on it to calm himself. This is the greatest criminal on Earth — LEX LUTHOR.
INT. LEX LUTHOR’S OFFICE – NIGHT
As ALBERT enters, he looks questioningly O.S. left.
Lay it on me.
I hope you like it.
So far, Albert, it’s nothing to write home
about, y’know? Y’know?
(NOTE: Luthor’s constant “y’know” is a nervous twitch, though a verbal one. What drives him crazy is when people actually reply to it.)
ON LUTHOR – Now we SEE him for the first time, seated behind his massive desk.
I know, but —
Stop saying you know when I say ‘y’know.’
I know you know.
(with barely a glance
to OTIS hovering back)
Yes, I know you’re here, Otis. What do you
want, a brass band?
ON OTIS — at a loss for words; as always awkward and unsure of himself in front of his boss.
No speeches, Otis. Just watch
what Albert has prepared.
What are you waiting for?
ALBERT whisks the cloth away to reveal an incredibly detailed table-top moquette representation of a section of the Southwestern United States, particularly the California desert area. All look expectantly to LUTHOR.
We are pleased.
He reaches forward, pulls a Kleenex from the desk dispenser and begins to chew it.
And that’s terrible.
I mean, I get that they’re going for mercurial, but they’ve layered on all these neurotic habits, like saying “y’know” all the time.
Now, I’ve recently spent some time transcribing excerpts from Ilya Salkind’s DVD commentary, and couldn’t help but notice how often Ilya says “y’know”, so it’s possible that this quirk in Luthor’s dialogue is actually the Newmans and Benton making fun of their boss, and if so, then I have to respect the chutzpah. Still, it’s an irritating sound to fill up your movie with.
And for the life of me, I cannot imagine watching Lex Luthor stand there on the movie screen and absently chew Kleenex. I appreciate that nobody else has done it before in the history of motion pictures. But I feel like somehow it would lead to mob violence.
And then there’s the self-pity, which is grating.
INT. LEX LUTHOR’S SUBTERRANEAN HIDEOUT – OFFICE – NIGHT
On the TV screen as we SEE the end of the same newscast.
Man or myth? The answer is up to you.
REVERSE – On a battered OTIS, who sits glumly watching, EVE is putting his arm in a sling.
WIDEN THE SHOT TO REVEAL LEX LUTHOR seated at his desk, watching the TV with a dark, worried, preoccupied expression. He is chewing Kleenex with great intensity. ALBERT stands nearby.
I needed this, y’know? I
really needed this. Just when
I’m nearing the fruition of my
project, Big Bird flies into town.
Go ahead! Kill me by inches! Put
me on the agony rack!
Here’s another one:
INT. MUSEUM – DAY
ON THE DOOR — as they enter, look around. LEX LUTHOR spots the glass cases and crosses to them quickly, quietly.
HIS POV: TRACKING down the row of cases filled with various rocks and minerals from the area. Suddenly the CAMERA COMES TO AN ABRUPT HALT on one of the cases. One of the rocks inside is missing. We can READ the small card below the empty space: “Meteorite That Landed in Addis Ababa in June 1940.”
CLOSE ON LUTHOR — glowering.
They’re killing me by inches!
(to the sky)
Go ahead! Make me suffer! Milk
Still, there’s most of a good movie here. It needs to get polished up and rearranged a bit, and somebody needs to put their foot down and finally take out that Kojak cameo, but we might be able to make something out of this.
FAVORING LUTHOR: He gets up from his desk and begins walking out of the room. His very manner, not to mention his beckoning gesture, causes his three cronies to follow him.
(quietly, in a
Some people can read ‘War and Peace’
and come away thinking it was a simple
adventure story. Other people can read
the ingredients on a chewing gum
wrapper and come away with the
secret of the universe.
(pops a Kleenex in
his mouth; chewing)
But we have to eighty-six the Kleenex. Y’know?
Richard Donner is hired,
and the battle begins…
1.5: The Discovery of Fire
— Danny Horn