Superman 1.18: Opening the Box

Holding the hand of the extraterrestrial cuckoo that she’s about to bring home and housetrain, Martha Kent says, “All these years, I prayed for a child.” She should have looked into the best practices on that, I think they’ve been doing it wrong.

So the mystery box cracks open and, as with all mystery boxes, something interesting is loosed upon the world.

It could be a vampire’s coffin, or a crate of Kryptonian weapons, or a treasure chest that gives you pirate fever. If you’re Erwin Schrödinger, there’s a good chance that it’s a radioactive undead cat, who wants an explanation for why you boxed it up with a little hammer and a flask of acid.

Once you open that box, the consequences are yours. You are unleashing something, and you’re probably going to have to pay for its college tuition.

In this case, Jonathan and Martha technically don’t open the box themselves; it drops out of the sky and unleashes itself. Still, they’re the ones who decide to grab a wild animal from space and bring it home, which is at best a public health concern.

You may have noticed that I refer to Kal-El as a dangerous space invader on the regular, and there are a couple reasons why I do that. For one thing, it makes me laugh, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. But the important reason is that if you look at Superman in a way that’s counter to the way the creators want us to feel, it helps you identify what they’re doing to make us not feel that way.

On its own, catching an unearthly organism that you don’t understand and can’t identify and deliberately introducing it into your family structure is a frankly lunatic thing to do, even if it does look like a cute little baby. Presented with different lighting and music, the audience would be very uneasy about the choice these people are making. In fact, Richard Donner just did exactly that, in his previous movie.

In The Omen, a newly-childless couple is handed a baby of uncertain parentage, and when the child turns five, he kills every character in the movie and brings about the end times. So Donner’s handling of the adoption sequence in The Omen is a little different than the adoption sequence in Superman.

There’s the lighting and the music, obviously, and the camera angles that establish a crippling absence of hope. Robert is sitting in a crappy dark hospital slash church in Rome in the middle of the night, and a priest who I guess is also a doctor??? is telling him some very bad news. Robert’s wife has given birth in this terrible gloomy place, and Father Spiletto says that the baby was stillborn. They probably should have gone to a real hospital, instead of this creepy museum that appears to be staffed by factory second clergy.

“I’m afraid it will kill her,” Robert moans. “My god, she wanted a baby so much, and for such a long time.” You hear that a lot lately, it must be going around. “What can I tell her? What can I say?” Father Spiletto has something of an unorthodox answer to that question.

It turns out that at the exact same moment that Robert’s baby died, another mother was giving birth in this hospital, and in that case, the mother died and the baby lived. So the Father pitches the idea that Robert could just take this baby, and tell Katherine that it’s their baby, and everything will be fine.

“Your wife need never know,” says Spiletto. “It would be a blessing to her.” Robert doesn’t ask the obvious question, which is why is there such a high body count in the maternity ward.

It takes a lot of work to make the audience scared of a baby, so Donner does everything he can. In every shot, the kid’s eyes are screwed shut, and he’s red-faced and howling. The scene is dark, with little pools of light for the actors to stand in, and the kid just does not stop screaming.

So there’s a great little scene with Richard happily carrying the baby to Katherine, and they smile and kiss, and snuggle with the child, paying no attention to the fact that the baby is shrieking at the top of its lungs the entire time. I don’t know what the filmmakers did to that baby to piss him off to that extent, but whatever they did, it worked, and they got a good take.

Naturally, the corresponding sequence in Superman is the exact opposite of that. It’s an impossibly bright and sunny day, with picture-perfect puffs of white clouds hanging in the sky. The Kents are completely alone — every shot shows a clear view all the way to the horizon, in every direction — but it feels warm, and safe; the characters are completely at home in this environment.

Jonathan is a little put out by their tire blowing out, but he’s not making a big deal about it, and he does an exquisite little double take when he notices the scorched furrow in the field created by the space capsule that dropped out of the heavens right next to them.

And the baby is utterly perfect — cute, but still approachable, immaculately clean, and showing off the superhero movie physique that we’ve all come to expect. I don’t know if they had a Junior Men’s Health magazine in 1978, but if they did, then obviously this kid had the cover spot.

When I first watched the movie, I thought it was odd that the kid was entirely buck naked on screen, but I get it now — he’s supposed to be a brand new thing that just arrived in the world, and he’s available for whoever wants to call dibs on him. Wearing clothes means that you have parents; if the kid is naked, then nobody else has a claim on him.

Now I want to take a close look at the dialogue in this scene, because there is a very artful trick to this sequence, which they figured out post-shooting script.

As I discussed in an earlier post, there are three major versions of the script: Mario Puzo’s draft, the Newman/Benton draft, and the shooting script by Tom Mankiewicz. The Puzo script hasn’t been published, but the Newman/Benton script and the shooting script are available online. Following the progress from Newman/Benton to Mankiewicz to the actual finished scene, you can see exactly how they achieved the perfect version of this sequence.

So here’s the Newman/Benton version:

Jonathan steps out of the cab and looks at the punctured tire.

JONATHAN
(muttering)
Blamed cheap rubber them
Detroit wiseacres are puttin’ out.

Bitching, he goes around to the rear and unstraps the spare tire and hauls the jack out.

ZOOM IN TO TIGHT CLOSEUP of Martha – Her face freezes in astonishment and disbelief as she sees something in the wheat field.

MARTHA
Jonathan!

ON JONATHAN – who turns and looks, amazed.

JONATHAN
Great God almighty! What is it?

MEDIUM SHOT – the space module has landed in the fields. Jonathan rushes to the strange, eerie metal craft nesting in the charred wheat.

MARTHA
Be careful, Jonathan!

Suddenly a wall of the module opens and a metallic capsule ejects with a little boy still fastened inside.

JONATHAN
What the heck –?

He looks inside the module, then leans over and touches the capsule, burning his hand.

MARTHA
Jonathan!

The little boy, aged 3, springs out of the electronically controlled belts, half-naked.

MARTHA (stunned)
It’s a… baby.

JONATHAN
What’s your name, boy?

MARTHA
Don’t just stand there gapin’, Jonathan.
Can’t you see he’s cold?

Jonathan takes off his jacket, drapes it around the little boy. Now he looks again at the module.

JONATHAN
(can’t get over it)
ho-leeeeeeee.

She lifts the boy with much difficulty and walks back to the truck, regarding the child with wonder. Her husband walks ahead, shaking his head, looking back.

JONATHAN
Well — gotta change that tire
if we’re gonna get home.

MARTHA
(pointedly)
All of us.

[… Skipping past the description of the jack slipping off and the child holding up the front of the truck …]

TWO SHOT – DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD – DAY

The baby sits happily in Martha’s lap. The couple looks ahead, lost in thought, serious.

MARTHA
The good lord works
in mysterious ways.

JONATHAN
He sure as heck does that.

MARTHA
All these years, happy as we’ve been,
how I prayed and prayed
He’d see fit to give us a child.
And just when I finally
accepted my bitter lot…
(firmly)
No one must ever know.

JONATHAN
Folks’ll ask questions.

MARTHA
(determinedly)
We’ll say he’s a child
to my cousin in North Dakota,
and just now orphaned.
(cuddling the baby)
Poor thing.

JONATHAN
Guess I’d better hitch up the rig
and come back to get that…
that thing he was settin’ in.
What do you make of that thing?
Martha? You listening?

MARTHA
I was thinkin’ what to call him.
I was thinkin’ I had an uncle
who was a fine man, you recall him?
The church sexton?

JONATHAN
Who? Clark? I never cared
two hoots for that fella.
(pause)
Jonathan Jr.
That’s got a ring to it.

MARTHA
(gives him a look)
We don’t want a child called ‘Junior,’
ain’t that so, Clark?
Why sure it is.

He scowls a bit, then looks outside the window as he drives.

JONATHAN
Yup, better get that thing ‘fore
somebody finds it who shouldn’t.

Okay, here’s the Mankiewicz shooting script:

JONATHAN steps out of the truck cab, looks sadly at the punctured tire.

JONATHAN
(muttering)
If a man didn’t know better, he’d think
Detroit made those things
to blowout on purpose.

Grumbling, he goes around the rear to unstrap the spare tire and haul out the jack.

CAMERA SUDDENLY ZOOMS IN ON MARTHA:  Her face is frozen in astonishment at something she’s seen in the wheatfield.

MARTHA
Jonathan!

JONATHAN turns, looks, eyes widening, equally amazed.

JONATHAN
Great God Almighty! What is it?

The space module has landed in the fields. The engines are silenced.

JONATHAN rushes to the strange, eerie metallic geode nesting in the charred wheat, MARTHA close behind him.

MARTHA
Careful, Jonathan.

Suddenly: a wall of the module opens. A capsule ejects a little boy still fastened inside, cushioned by the three blankets.

JONATHAN
What in the Sam Hill —

He looks inside the module, leans over, touches the capsule, burning his hand.

MARTHA
Jonathan!

The little boy, aged 3, suddenly springs out of the electronically controlled belts, half naked.

MARTHA
(stunned)
It’s a … baby.

JONATHAN stares, dumbfounded. MARTHA smiles softly at the baby, wraps him in the three blankets, picks him up.

MARTHA carries the BABY back to the truck, looks at him with wonder. JONATHAN walks in front, shakes his head.

JONATHAN
Well – better change that tire
if we’re gonna get home
and see about contactin’
that boy’s proper kin.

MARTHA
(defensively)
He hasn’t got any – not for sure.
Not around here anyways.
You saw that magic contraption
he came in, same as me.

JONATHAN has arrived at the truck, starts jacking up the front end…

JONATHAN
I did. But I ain’t gettin’
hauled off to no booby hatch
by tellin’ other people I did –
and neither is you.

JONATHAN removes the lugs and the punctured tire.

MARTHA
You take things easy now, Jonathan.
You mind what Doc Frye said
about that heart of yours…

[… Skipping past the description of the jack slipping off and the child holding up the front of the truck …]

INT. TRUCK CAB – DAY

The BABY sits happily in MARTHA’S lap. The COUPLE look ahead, lost in thought, MARTHA in particular.

MARTHA
(carefully)
All these years, happy as we’ve been,
how I prayed and prayed
the Good Lord would see fit
to give us a child.

JONATHAN
(looks – alarmed)
Martha, there is something
downright strange about that boy.
Where he come from,
what he just did back there.
Now surely you don’t mean to…

MARTHA
(firmly)
No one must ever know.

JONATHAN
But folks’ll ask questions . . .

MARTHA
We’ll say he’s child to my cousin
in North Dakota, and just now orphaned.
Jonathan, he’s a baby…
(cuddles baby)
Poor thing.

JONATHAN
Well…
(sigh)
Maybe we could give it a try for the time bein’.
I’d better hitch the rig and come back
to get that… that thing he was settin’ in.
What do you make of that thing? Martha?
Martha Kent, you listenin’ to me?

MARTHA
I was thinkin’ what to call him.
I was thinkin’ I had an uncle
who was a fine man, you recall him?
The church sexton?

JONATHAN
Who?- Clark? I never cared
two hoots for that fella.

So, comparing the Newman/Benton script with the shooting script, what changes did Mankiewicz make?

For one thing, there isn’t as much tension between Jonathan and Martha in the shooting script. Newman/Benton has Martha scolding Jonathan: “Don’t just stand there gapin’, Jonathan. Can’t you see he’s cold?” At the end of the scene, Jonathan suggests naming the kid Jonathan Jr., and Martha passive-aggressively confers about it with Clark: “We don’t want a child called ‘Junior,’ ain’t that so, Clark? Why, sure it is.”

Jonathan’s first line is softened a bit, changing from “Blamed cheap rubber them Detroit wiseacres are puttin’ out,” to “If a man didn’t know better, he’d think Detroit made those things to blowout on purpose.”

Martha’s description of being childless has also softened. In the Newman/Benton script, she says, “All these years, happy as we’ve been, how I prayed and prayed He’d see fit to give us a child. And just when I finally accepted my bitter lot…” Mankiewicz takes out the phrase “bitter lot,” and just focuses on the happy part of the line.

All of these changes lighten the tone, making the characters less grouchy.

Here’s the scene that we see in the movie:

(Jonathan looks at the punctured tire, and kicks it in frustration.)

Jonathan:  Now, wouldn’t that beat all get-out. Would you —

(Turning to Martha, he realizes that she’s gaping at something in the field behind him. He turns, and they look at the scorched field.)

Martha:  (awed) Pa!

Jonathan:  Oh, my.

(They look over the rim of the crater, and see 3-year-old Kal-El walking out of the capsule. He raises his arms to them, in greeting. Jonathan and Martha smile.)

(Jonathan takes the tire off.)

Martha: (entranced)  All these years, as happy as we’ve been, how I’ve prayed and prayed the Good Lord would see fit to give us a child. (She embraces Kal-El.)

Jonathan:  Honey, would you hand me that rag up there?

Martha:  You take things easy now, Jonathan. Remember what Doc Frye said about that heart o’ yours.

(He laughs, then grows serious and looks at the boy.)

Jonathan:  Now, the first thing we’ve got to do when we get home is find out who that boy’s proper family is.

Martha:  He hasn’t got any. Not from around here, anyway.

Jonathan:  Martha, are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?

Martha:  (a little shyly) We could… say he’s the child of my cousin in North Dakota, and just now orphaned.

(Jonathan laughs, and shakes his head.)

Jonathan:  Oh, Martha…

Martha:  Jonathan, he’s only a baby!

Jonathan:  Martha — now, you saw how we found him. (He notices she’s looking away.) Martha Clark Kent, are you listening to what I’m saying?

And then the jack slips out, and Kal-El lifts up the truck, end of scene.

The most striking thing about that scene, compared to the shooting script, is that Jonathan has been completely de-grouched.

The Detroit tire rant is gone, replaced with a tame “Now, wouldn’t that beat all get-out.” There’s no tension between Jonathan and Martha at all; she says that she wants to adopt an alien boy, and he just stands there and twinkles. He calls her “honey”. She reminds him about his bad heart, and he chuckles.

Jonathan smiles at everything that Martha says in the scene, and the harshest that he can get with her is “Oh, Martha…” Glenn Ford has clearly made the choice that Jonathan Kent absolutely adores his wife.

There’s no line about getting hauled off to the booby hatch. There’s no line about how he doesn’t like one of Martha’s relatives. There’s no line about how strange he thinks the child is. They took out almost every instance of no, don’t, ain’t, never, and neither.

And in addition to the dialogue, there are a dozen little physical moments that tell the story of their marriage. They are constantly showing us that little Kal will be brought up in a loving home, where he’ll be safe, and appreciated.

I don’t know who made the choices that ended up changing the scene so much — it was probably a collaboration between Donner, Mankiewicz and the actors, somewhere between read-through and shooting. They cut out everything that wasn’t necessary, and focused on the real heart of the scene, which is how much Jonathan loves Martha.

And that’s how they slip this little fiend past us, and turn a scarcely-believable plot contrivance into something that feels natural and correct. Then Clark kills everybody in the movie, and brings on the end times. I mean, you can’t say they weren’t warned.

Tomorrow:
1.19: Left Behind.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman 1.18: Opening the Box

  1. My favorite review of THE OMEN is in the book THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME, by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell Dreyfuss. It’s a bit milder in its overall assessment of that movie than I would be, but it is still spirited and full of laughs.

    Anyway, those three scripts for this scene recapitulate the whole development of superhero-storytelling. The first one reads like the dialogue from a 1930s comic book, stuffing line after line with cornball phrases meant to beat the readers over the head with the colorfulness of the rustic characters. The second is like a 1950s TV show, still working hard to establish the characters as humorous backwoods types, but with the dialogue slimmed down a little to allow for the use of some visuals and to give the actors space to do some stage business to get the audience laughing at the yokels. The actual screen version shows us that the characters are plain folk from a farm in Kansas, but doesn’t make any effort to link up with stereotypes about such people and to capitalize on the audience’s habit of laughing at those stereotypes. It is respectful, not only to Kansas farmers, but to the mature sensibilities of the audience. It’s just wonderful that director fresh from the wreckage of a disgrace like THE OMEN could play the key part Donner must have played in shaping something so fine.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. When I rewatched The Omen recently, I was A) wondering why Gregory Peck never said anything about “what about this kid’s father? Doesn’t he want him or…?” and getting distracted by the Rottweilers–I love Rotties and would have ruined the shoot, had I been there, petting them and cooing “who’s a good widdle hellhound? Is it you? YES IT IS!”

      I like the slimmed down final scene here, because Donner, and demonstrated by The Omen, knows that you answer the most important question–how are the Kents going to explain this miracle child?–with whatever ridiculous thing you like. They just say he’s some orphan nephew or second cousin, and it’s understood that their community is simply going to believe them. Nobody’s going to get on Google to look up car crashes in North Dakota or call any agencies or whatever.

      And once you’ve answered that question the rest of the questions are unimportant. You can get on with the story.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Danny –
    I agree that the scene as filmed really nailed the heart of Jonathan, Martha and baby Clark.
    I just checked out the 4-disc special edition of “Superman The Movie” from my local library. My 11-year-old twin daughters, in 6th grade, just are not into superheroes and don’t want to see it? They don’t exactly have my pop culture DNA apparently? During my current transitional phase, I’m going to watch parts of it while they’re at school.
    Disc1: Original 1978 theatrical release and commentary by producer Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind.
    Disc 2: “2000 Expanded Edition” with commentary by Donner and Mankiewicz.
    Discs 3 and 4: Lots of extras, documentaries, etc.
    Your blog has inspired me to re-check out the film, which I recall seeing in theater during its release in Des Moines, Iowa, in December 1978, with my mom and sister. We were visiting Aunt Penny and Uncle Lloyd in Des Moines.
    Also, I do remember reading a movie tie-in novel that had lots of stills from “Superman the Movie.” I read it shortly after the movie’s release. I don’t have my copy any more, but there are things I remember about it. Have you read this novel version, which expands the movie even more, sometimes in somewhat different directions as I recall?
    I was a journalism major in college and when I first realized I needed glasses and got an eye exam, I went to the glasses store with my copy of Superman. I was looking at the stills from the novel because I wanted frames to most closely resemble Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent! The people at the glasses store thought I was pretty goofy, I think.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. The tie-in novel is called Superman: Last Son of Krypton, and it’s actually a different story. Mario Puzo’s contract gave him the right to novelize the movie, and he didn’t want to. So they published a different book as the movie tie-in, with pictures from the film. I’ll definitely have a post about it, later on.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Was this part of the movie filmed in Canada? I’m curious because Glenn Ford was a Canadian by birth and got a lot of work in the later part of his career because his presence could help the producers qualify for certain Canadian tax breaks.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. If they had filmed in Oklahoma, they could have had a bright, golden haze on the meadow and corn that was as high as an elephant’s eye…

        Like

  4. >>Martha: (awed) Pa!

    If the Kents have had no children of their own, why does Martha call her husband “Pa?” Has she had a psychic flash they’re about to find a baby?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. It does seem a little mutually insensitive considering the whole “heartbreak of childlessness” thing. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but very Midwestern and repressed, so they don’t drink and kill their imaginary kid in front of witnesses. They just stick to hurtful nicknames.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Really enjoying your righting and blog of my Favourite Superhero and Superhero Movie!
    The one thing you haven’t touched on yet tho is the Canadian angle.
    Joe Shuster co creator and Artist of Superman is Canadian.
    Born and raised in Toronto.
    Metropolis is a stand-in for Toronto. A building in Toronto is a replacement for the Daily Planet.
    Joe Shuster had a girlfriend named Lois!
    And has been been mentioned Alberta is not only Kansas but the backdrop for the missile convoy when Lex and company are tooling around.
    As a proud Canadian and to quote Jor El – “These are matters of undeniable facts!”

    Like

  6. “…because Donner, and demonstrated by The Omen, knows that you answer the most important question–how are the Kents going to explain this miracle child?–with whatever ridiculous thing you like. They just say he’s some orphan nephew or second cousin, and it’s understood that their community is simply going to believe them.” Actually, no — given the era (and even around 15 years before the movie was released), they’re going to believe that the Kents had a cousin or niece who “got herself in the family way” out of wedlock and went on a “visit to relatives out of town” for let’s say 6-7 months.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Acilius’ comments are interesting when it comes to earlier rural humor usually following formulas. Unfortunately, the problem is, it’s gotten a lot worse than that. Now “rural humor” is mainly a whole of of jokes about inbred characters and Klan rallies! So that kind has actually gotten even LESS sophisticated.

    Liked by 2 people

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