Superman 1.10: Crazy Little Thing Called Love

So Plan B, as I understand it, was to get everybody in the science council to sign off on constructing a fleet of massive space arks, which would carry the entire population of Krypton to a planet that’s not scheduled to blow up within the next thirty days.

I imagine that Plan C was for Jor-El to just take his own wife and baby in a family-sized rocket ride to elsewhere, but then the stupid science council said that would create a climate of fear and panic, so he had to promise that he and Lara wouldn’t leave the planet.

They’re currently working on Plan D, which is to at least get the kid somewhere with a supply of passing motorists and farm families, and even that’s getting the science council all worked up, so they’re going to have to work fast. Meanwhile, Lara is advocating for some unspecified Plan E. It would have been easier if they could have stuck with Plan A, which was for the planet just not to blow up in the first place.

So Jackie Cooper is terrible as Perry White, is I think my message at the outset of this post. He’s surrounded by screwball comedy characters at the Daily Planet, and he doesn’t have a single funny line. He doesn’t listen to any of the other actors; he’s just waiting for his chance to do the blandest possible take on his next line.

He was fourth choice for the role, brought on the set in a big hurry and dressed up in shirt sleeves and a tie. First choice was Jack Klugman, who would have been perfect; Klugman could have been Perry White first thing in the morning, with fifteen seconds notice. But at the last minute, Klugman turned them down, and their backup choice, Eddie Albert, wanted too much money. Then they hired Keenan Wynn, but as soon as he arrived, he had chest pains and had to go to the hospital. So they called Jackie Cooper and basically just told him to get on a plane, and they’d tell him what the part was when he arrived. Apparently there was some kind of Jackie Cooper delivery service that you could call when you wanted one.

That’s not today’s problem, of course; we don’t have to deal with him until 48:30, which is around 35 minutes away from where we’re currently standing, and even when he’s there, we won’t have to pay him that much attention. I’m just bringing him up now because I’ve already written two posts this week about how great Marlon Brando is, and I’m about to write about how great Susannah York is, and I don’t want you to think that I’m a suck-up.

Because, damn it, Susannah York brings it in this scene; there is no way around it. She appears as Superman’s mom for a total of six minutes in this movie, and it breaks my heart just to look at her.

Admittedly, it’s not hard for a professional actor to key in to their character’s feelings when you’re playing a mother who has no choice but to put her newborn baby in a catapult and fling him into the outer darkness. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you don’t need weeks of sense memory and animal work to get there. Lots of people could play this part. I’m just saying that Susannah York is one of them, and I like looking at her while she’s doing it.

Of course, it helps that the script gives them the absolute minimum number of words to get the scene across, and then stays out of their way and lets them do their job. Here’s the whole thing:

Lara:  Have you finished?

Jor-El:  Nearly.

(He walks towards her.)

Jor-El:  This is the only answer, Lara. If he remains here with us, he will die as surely as we will.

Lara:  But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re primitives, thousands of years behind us!

Jor-El:  He will need that advantage to survive. Their atmosphere will… will sustain him.

(His gaze rests on the baby in his wife’s arms. Then Jor-El moves to the structure that he’s working on. She follows.)

Lara:  He will defy their gravity.

Jor-El:  He will look like one of them.

Lara:  He won’t be one of them.

Jor-El:  No. His dense molecular structure will make him strong.

Lara:  He’ll be odd. Different.

Jor-El:  He will be fast. Virtually invulnerable.

Lara:  Isolated. Alone.

Jor-El:  He will not be alone.

(He peers closely at the crystal in his hand.)

Jor-El:  He will never be alone.

And that’s it.

It’s ninety-seven words long. Two long shots, a couple medium shots and a brief flutter of close-ups, in an avant-garde performance space that we’ve all agreed to pretend is an aerospace research lab. The only splashes of color in the scene are the baby’s swaddling clothes, and the echo of those colors in Lara’s hair and face. One of the actors spends most of the scene very specifically not looking at the other actor.

I have watched that scene dozens of times now, and it repays my attention every time. If any of the people involved had not done their jobs precisely the way they were supposed to — the writer, the actors, the director, the set designer, the costume designer, the cinematographer — it would have been silly sci-fi B-movie trash. It is breathtakingly good.

One of the things that I like best about it is the simple back-and-forth rhythm that starts halfway through the scene: He will look like one of them. He won’t be one of them. He’ll be odd, different. He’ll be fast, virtually invulnerable. Isolated. Alone. He will not be alone. He will never be alone.

I was really bad at analyzing poetic rhythm in college — feet and trochees and spondees and anapests — to the extent that I had to stop studying English poetry and fell into bad company and French literary theory instead, where all you needed to know were made-up words that don’t mean anything, so I can’t say exactly why the rhythm of that dialogue appeals to me the way that it does. But it is elevated above the plane of ordinary speech, and I think it’s beautiful.

And the interesting thing — yes, don’t worry, there’s an interesting thing — is that this scene was in the Newman/Benton script, and it sucked. What we see on the screen is the rewrite by “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. Here’s how it would have been, without him:

INT. JOR-EL’S LABORATORY – KRYPTON NIGHT

A large room with complicated equipment scattered everywhere. Jor-El is working on something that looks like a computer in the center of the room. LARA, Jor-El’s wife, enters and watches him as he places glowing crystals into the heart of the machine.

JOR-EL
I have programmed the memory cells with
answers to the problems he will face.

Lara does not seem impressed.

JOR-EL
(firmly)
It’s the only logical conclusion. If he remains
here, he’ll be as dead as…

LARA
— as we will be.

JOR-EL
Lara, please…

LARA
But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re practically animals.

JOR-EL
(patiently)
They are primitive, Lara, but they are not animals.

LARA
A million years behind us.
(pleading)
Jor-El, he’s only a baby.

JOR-EL
(comforting)
Their atmosphere will sustain him. He will look
like one of them.

LARA
He’ll be weightless.

JOR-EL
Yes, true. But on other worlds there would be other problems —
heat, cold, no life, no life support systems… No, Lara, believe me;
Earth is the least of evils. On Earth, his lighter gravity will render
him almost weightless – that can’t be helped. But with his denser
molecular structure, he will also be strong.
(trying to see the good)
He will be fast; he will be virtually invulnerable.

LARA
(despair)
He will be odd, different.

JOR-EL
(conceding)
Well, physiologically, he… won’t quite fit.

That version hits exactly the same beats, and almost all of the ninety-seven words in the finished scene are in there. But Mankiewicz took out the clunky lines, like “Jor-El, he’s only a baby,” and “that can’t be helped”. He shaped the words into that back-and-forth rhythm, and he wrote a real ending to the scene — “He will not be alone; he will never be alone” — instead of the disappointing “physiologically, he won’t quite fit.”

And best of all, Mankiewicz cut the following section completely, which would have been intolerable.

JOR-EL
(urgent)
Lara, there isn’t much time.

She turns away from him.

JOR-EL
(patiently reasoning with her)
You see…
(warmly)
You still have some vestiges of primitive…
what is the word they used to say?

LARA
‘Feelings.’

JOR-EL
You’ve been doing some research in the archives.

LARA
I want to know what my child is going
to face.

JOR-EL
(smiles)
Then you have one of those ‘feelings.’
It was called: ‘love.’

A sudden tremor produces an ominous CREAKING SOUND, growing LOUDER. Now a large crack appears in the wall. Instinctively, Lara runs to her husband’s arm for safety. Then, at the last second, she overcomes this “weakness” and steps back from him.

LARA
And you? Don’t you feel something?

On Jor-El – as he turns away, unable to admit the emotion he feels.

So, I mean, fuck that. Right?

You’re intelligent people, and I’m sure that I don’t have to explain why that would have been juvenile and embarrassing, but I’ll do it, just to have it on the record.

Terrible underlying concept #1: Logic and reason are male, and therefore associated with strength; love and emotion are female, and therefore associated with weakness.

Terrible underlying concept #2: As civilizations advance, they become more logical and less emotional, stepping upward from the primitive instincts of the female, toward the higher achievements of the rational male. If you project far enough into the future, civilization would become so rational and science-based that they would even forget the word for “feelings”.

Now, there are vestiges of that primitive worldview in the finished scene — the man is talking about powers and advantages; the woman is talking about feelings and fears. Ultimately, we’re expected to believe that Jor-El’s more-or-less rational plan is the correct answer, and that Lara’s emotional response doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

But Brando as Jor-El is clearly feeling this loss as deeply as she is; he’s just got a different way of expressing it. She’s trying to catch his eye, and he just stands there playing with his crystals, because in that moment, he can’t face her. Of course he feels love for his son, and pain at their parting; that’s why he’s constructed this elaborate years-long Powerpoint presentation that he’s packing into the spacecraft.

So this moment belongs on the Tom Mankiewicz honor list: another bullet deflected by a smart script doctor. Maybe civilization is advancing, after all.

Monday:
1.11: A Misuse of Energy.


Footnote:

This didn’t fit in the post, but I have to show you this amazing trading card. The photo is clearly a candid behind-the-scenes shot, of Susannah York messing around with the cute baby between shots. But the caption says “A Final Farewell from Lara!” which makes her look pretty jolly as they shoot her son out into the void. Maybe she’s not that good with feelings after all.

Monday:
1.11: A Misuse of Energy.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman 1.10: Crazy Little Thing Called Love

  1. Like all the other actors in the Krypton sequence, Susanna York is intelligent, charismatic, memorable, and speaks with a British accent. Granted, Marlon Brando’s British accent consists of replacing the “-on” at the end of “Krypton” with a sniffled “n,” while the others are actual British people using their typical stage voices, so dialectally he doesn’t quite fit- he’s odd, different. But at least he looks like one of them.

    With Mario Puzo credited as the story author, Marlon Brando as the top name in the credits, and Al Pacino as someone the Salkinds seriously believed could play Superman, I occasionally wonder what the movie would have been like with an all-Godfather cast. That would of course have meant that Abe Vigoda would have been Perry White, and he would have been even better than Jack Klugman.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I had no memory of Jackie Cooper being in this movie, which of course proves your point about his innate blandness.

    I love how the primary colors of Kal-El’s swaddling are so vibrant in the white-gray-blue environment, accentuating his unique and important role.

    We can all be thankful for Tom Mankiewicz creatively consulting the hell out of the original script by David Newman and Robert Benton. For those who may be interested, there’s a fascinating book by Mark Harris called “Pictures at a Revolution” which delves into the making of the five best picture Oscar nominees of 1967. Newman and Benton worked with Warren Beatty to create “Bonnie and Clyde” a decade before they wrote the “Superman” script, and the book goes into detail about their creative process.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If Krypton’s so all-fired advanced and logical and all (according to the original script) why is baby Kal-El in such bright, shiny colors, I wonder? I know in film terms it’s to signal the audience that THIS IS SUPERMAN RIGHT HERE, and to create a visual center for the scene, but it also is a channel for all the emotions of this ridiculous, horrific situation; their entire civilization is about to be blown apart, with not even a memory of what was, and the only remnant, being shot across the stygian abyss of an unforgiving universe, is a helpless infant in a Bauhaus version of a spider egg case.

    It’s why Jor-El came up with this bizarre idea at all (and frankly, since he clearly has been working on it for quite a while, the only logical one–even Krypton couldn’t build enough space arks for the planet’s population in a month) and carried it out. We have to have a particle of hope to fling into Fate’s eye no matter how utterly final the end seems to be, and hope is bright and shiny and has a big S on it.

    I mean, this is a guy who said, okay, I won’t rescue my wife or me because God forbid we panic a population that’s going to be wiped out in a month, great governing there, advanced civilization, instead I’ll fling my completely defenseless baby into space. Hope is crazy, that’s why it works sometimes.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is no logical reason why Jor-El and Lara wouldn’t accompany their child. We normally see some form of hand-waving to justify the action, but this one is arguably the weakest (Jor-El gave his word).

      Jor-El could be the one who needs to launch the ship so he has to say, but why can’t Lara go? Past origins have her saying, “My place is with you,” which is of course sexist BS and not how a mother behaves.

      I will give Byrne credit for saying that Kryptonians are such isolationists that they were unable physically to leave Kryptonian (a condition that Jor-El fixed in his son).

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think there are other retellings that state that Jor-El doesn’t have a big enough passenger rocket ready in time. All he has is a scaled down test module that was only big enough for a baby.

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  4. Also, John Byrne brought back the idea of an emotion-free Krypton when he rebooted Superman in 1986. Which makes sense because, again, John Byrne is THE WORST.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Byrne’s Superman was quite the Reaganite, and had zero interest in his Kryptonian herirtage (calling it a “curiosity”). He considered himself an “American” (and was technically “born” on Earth). If that’s the case, then WHY BOTHER GIVING HIM THE KRYPTONIAN BACKSTORY? He might as well have gained his powers from a genie or have been a mutant.

      Byrne was big on Superman’s middle-American upbringing in Kansas being what made him so noble, which is annoying for us godless liberals on the coasts who do manage to have decent values. The Clark from the early Superman stories could’ve hailed from the city. He had “street smarts.”

      Spock on STAR TREK was interesting because he was truly of two worlds and struggled with his human and Vulcan heritages. Byrne’s Krypton was “emotionless” but it didn’t matter because Superman rejected his heritage as immaterial.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Did anyone ever write an “imaginary” or “what if” story where the Kryptonians were actually successful in evacuating a significant number of people to Earth? One day you’re a reasonably contented human being minding your own business and the next a hundred million superpeople drop out of the sky. Definitely some possibilities for conflict there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. SUPERMAN 18 by John Byrne and Mike Mignola is a good “what if” Kryptonians made it to Earth.

      It reminds me of the current “Great Replacement” fears from Republicans lately: Basically, any “what if” that involves more than just Kal-El (or a bottled city of tiny Kandorians) reaching Earth results in the Kryptonians conquering Earth.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Did anyone ever write an “imaginary” or “what if” story where the Kryptonians were actually successful in evacuating a significant number of people to Earth?

      I mentioned it in Danny’s previous entry, but they basically remade Earth into Krypton 2.

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  6. Danny — Glad to see you focusing on all the many ways Tom Mankiewicz improved the original script. It’s a master class in not just writing but the unsung art of “screenplay polishing.”

    Krypton as a civilization of emotionless beings doesn’t work for many reasons, chief among them is the fact that the civilization’s defining trait is ARROGANCE (an emotion, by the way). We should also care that these people blew up, so making them as unlike us as possible (even looking down on us) doesn’t help.

    The SMALLVILLE series implied that Kryptonians had visited Earth prior to their destruction. This included Jor-El who picked Earth to send his son because he had an affection for the planet and its people. This makes sense when you consider that a planet supposedly so advanced seems to have no space program beyond what Jor-El cooks up in his lab.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Man, Keenan Wynn as Perry White would have been the closest to the ball of comedic rage that the radio version was (“It’s my gasket and I’ll blow it if I want to!”) but he also would have eaten the actual Daily Planet globe (plus unlike Klugman, thanks in large part to Disney, his angry sputtering wrath wraiths were usually comedic villains).

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Couldn’t disagree more about Jackie Cooper.
    He is a highlight! Gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie.
    And humour is an essential highlight I like to think should be a part

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