Superman 1.32: Murder, With a Smile

The thing to remember about Superman: The Movie is that nobody had ever made a live-action feature-length superhero movie before, so they didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what a superhero movie was supposed to be like. It could go in almost any direction: science-fiction, fantasy, drama, fairy tale, action-adventure. Should it be aimed at kids, or adults? How scary should it be?

The movie that they ended up putting together is famous for changing tones throughout the prologue: the glitter opera of Krypton segueing into Norman Rockwell in Smallville. The teen football scene could fit into a contemporary live-action Disney film with no questions asked; one of these days, I’m going to get around to writing that Superman/Escape to Witch Mountain comparison that American film criticism has been waiting for all these years.

But the most important tone shift happens right here, in our first visit to the Daily Planet. This is when the story really begins, and we find out what a Superman movie sounds like. The answer, thank goodness, is screwball comedy.

Everybody makes a big deal about the first line of dialogue on Krypton — Jor-El saying “This is no fantasy — no careless product of wild imagination,” which is a cue for the audience to take the glowing space angels seriously. But there is just as much meaning in the first line of this sequence, which is: “Smile!”

And she does, adorably. Jimmy Olsen is playing with his camera, taking shots of the Daily Planet newsroom, and when he invites Lois Lane to smile for the camera, she looks directly at us, and shoots us an inviting grin that cannot be ignored.

We get a quick flash of Jimmy’s happy smile too, which is equally infectious. We’ve been in the newsroom for about thirty seconds, and it’s bright and noisy, and everyone is smiling.

Then Lois has a question: “How many Ts in ‘bloodletting’?”

And Jimmy, without missing a beat, gives her the answer: “Two!”

He’s still smiling, which means he’s not taken aback by the sudden turn towards the grotesque. These bright, sunny characters clearly talk about gruesome crimes all day.

So here’s the screwball dialogue, which if you don’t mind I’m going to give you a chunk of it.

Jimmy:  What are you writin’, Miss Lane?

Lois:  Ode to Spring. How do you spell ‘massacre’?

Jimmy:  Uh… m-a-s-s… a-c…

Lois:  c…

Jimmy:  r-e.

Lois:  r-e. Thank you!

(She pulls the page out of her typewriter, and walks towards the chief’s office, reading it over as she walks.)

Jimmy:  Golly, Miss Lane. How come you get all the great stories?

Lois:  (knocking three times on the door) A good reporter doesn’t get great stories, Jimmy…

(Perry is in the middle of saying the same phrase to someone in the office; clearly this is an old Daily Planet saw.)

Perry:  A good reporter (Lois chimes in, in unison:) makes them great!

(She ignores whoever Perry’s talking to, and hands him the story, moving smoothly into her pitch.)

Lois:  Chief, here’s that story on the East Side murder case; the way I see it, it’s a banner headline, front page, maybe my picture right here…

Perry:  There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist. Lois Lane, say hello to Clark Kent.

Jimmy:  I told you one ‘p’.

Clark (revealed as the person Perry was talking to): Hello, Miss Lane, how are —

Lois (waves in his direction, without looking at him): Hiya, hiya… (She walks past Clark, and keeps talking to Perry.) Remember my dynamite expose on the sex and drug orgies in the senior citizens’ home?

So that’s the situation in the newsroom, total domination by Lois Lane. That’s the point of the scene so far — to introduce Lois as the most important person in the room, which is very screwball comedy.

If you’re not familiar, screwball comedy is a variation of romantic comedy that was popular from around 1934 to 1944. It developed as a response to the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which was one of those self-regulatory devices that an industry comes up with because they don’t want the government to regulate them, like the Comics Code and the MPAA ratings. Under the Hays Code, you couldn’t show anything passionate or sexual, or depict sex outside of marriage as a good idea. With a lot of potential content locked out, the makers of screwball comedies found ways to indicate adult situations, without actually expressing them outright.

The speed is the first thing you notice in screwball comedies; there’s a lot of rat-a-tat fast-talking dialogue, especially from the female lead, who makes all the men around her try and catch up to her. The woman is usually the more assertive member of the couple, and the man is somewhat emasculated — because he’s mild-mannered, or from a lower social class.

There’s often a satiric view of social mores, especially around courtship and marriage, and the woman behaves in a way that’s just on the edge of scandalous — more independent than people expect, or more aggressive, or cynical. There’s usually a disguise or a secret identity, and there’s often a love triangle, where the fast-talking man and woman end up together, because nobody else can keep up with them.

Christopher Reeve said that his portrayal of Clark Kent was inspired by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, so I’ll use that to illustrate how the fast-talking emasculation works. Bringing Up Baby is a 1938 screwball comedy about a timid paleontologist who gets swept up in the chaotic wake of a reckless, impulsive heiress, played by Katharine Hepburn.

They meet on the golf course, where David is trying to ingratiate himself with a lawyer who he’s hoping will persuade a rich client to donate money to David’s museum. Just as they’re getting started, David hooks his ball, and a stranger playing a different hole mistakes it for hers. She drives toward a different hole, and he tries to tell her that she’s made a mistake.

David:  But you don’t understand —

Susan:  See? There it is, right next to the pin.

David:  But that has nothing to do with it, it —

Susan:  Oh, are you playing through?

David:  No, I’ve just driven off the first tee —

Susan:  I see, you’re a stranger here. You should be over there. This is the eighteenth fairway, and I’m right on the green. If I sink this putt, I’m going to beat my record.

(David sees that Mr. Peabody is watching, impatiently.)

David:  (calls to Mr. Peabody) I’ll be with you in a minute! (to Susan:) What kind of ball are you playing?

Susan:  PGA.

David:  Well, I’m playing a Kro-Flite.

Susan:  Mm-hmm, I like a PGA better.

(They get to the green, and Susan addresses the ball.)

David:  No, I’m just trying to prove to you that you’re playing my ball. You see, a PGA has two black dots, and a Kro-Flite has a circle, you see —

Susan:  Mm-hmm, I’m not superstitious about things like that.

David:  Oh, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it —

Susan:  Stop talking for a minute, will you, please? (to the caddy:) Will you take out the pin?

(She putts, and makes the shot.)

David:  Oh, my. This is so silly, I never saw such —

(They approach the hole, and David picks up the ball.)

David:  There, you see? It’s a circle.

Susan:  Well, of course it is. Do you think it would roll, if it was square?

David:  No, I have reference to a mark on the ball —

Susan:  I know, I was only being silly.

David:  That proves it’s a Kro-Flite, that’s my ball —

Susan:  (overlapping) Well, what does it matter? It’s only a game, anyway.

David:  My dear young lady, you don’t seem to realize, you’ve placed me in a very embarassing position!

Susan:  Oh, really? I’m sorry.

David:  The most important corporation lawyer in New York is waiting for me, over on the first fairway —

Susan:  Then it’s silly of you to be fooling around on the eighteenth green.

David:  (resigned, holding the ball) You don’t mind if I take this with me?

Susan:  No, not at all. Tell the caddymaster to put it in my bag when you’ve finished.

Now, I have to say, I don’t see a huge resemblance between Reeve’s Clark Kent and Cary Grant’s David, apart from wearing glasses and being mild of manner, but that should give you a sense of the aesthetic.

Lois is being the classic screwball heroine here — independent, driven by her own interests, ignoring the man who she considers irrelevant. She talks over people, repeating their lines and blowing past whatever conversation was happening before she walked in. She’s the dominant figure in a room with three men, one of whom is her boss and another is literally Superman. The cynical, scandalous element is her matter-of-fact attitude about her subjects: bloodletting, massacres, sex and drug orgies in the senior citizens’ home.

Lois is a beautiful young woman acting in a not-traditionally-feminine way, and if you’re not head over heels in love with her by this point in the scene, then maybe watching movies just isn’t for you.

So of course, within moments, she’s got the ignored, emasculated hero dealing with an extremely metaphorical pants explosion, humiliating him in a way that we’re going to have to repair in the second half of the scene. Let’s meet back here, and talk about that tomorrow.

How does the movie get us to warm up
to the new clutzy Clark?
1.33: The Coming of Clark Kent

Movie list

 —  Danny Horn

35 thoughts on “Superman 1.32: Murder, With a Smile

  1. This is great; comparing 1978’s Superman to screwball comedies from the 1940s is obviously something I didn’t think to do as a kid. But I’ve seen Woman of the Year and His Girl Friday in recent years, and the connection to those movies and this scene especially is clear. Added to my watchlist: Bringing Up Baby.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Screwball comedy was a great way for movies to go “women who have jobs and personalities are actually FUN TO WATCH,” just as noir and crime thrillers made the femme fatale’s behavior okay because watching nice people sew and pour tea all day is not inherently compelling.

      Of course, movies aren’t real life–if I had to deal with Hepburn’s character in my daily existence I’d probably go on a tri state crime spree out of sheer frustration–but films like Bringing Up Baby and others at least made audiences unconsciously go you know what? Having an intelligent woman around sounds fun, not terrifying to my very notion of myself as a man/woman in my current society.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Margot Kidder was nearly 30 when Superman was filmed. Lois Lane writes about gruesome crimes all day. Shouldn’t Lois already know by that point how to spell ‘rapist’ and ‘bloodletting?’

    This scene tells me she has a learning disability. I’m sure that’ll become a significant plot point and be addressed later in the movie’s story.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. That makes total sense–Lois has to be “relatable” and plenty of people have trouble spelling. When you’re cranking out copy at 80 wpm, it’s probable your issues would crop up a lot!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. So true! Spelling is one of the things I’m actually pretty good at, and yet there are some words that I always have trouble remembering, especially with certain letter combinations. Usually I’ll immediately see that they look wrong as soon as I write or type them, but not always.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. The 1978 Superman was also preceded by RAT PFINK AND BOO BOO and THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN.

      I always got Margot Kidder confused with Debra Winger and Karen Allen.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, as long as you’re going to do comparison/contrast with a Disney film, you could try “The Cat From Outer Space’.

    Just sayin’.

    Was any mention made about Clark Kent’s credentials? We expected him to get a job at The Daily Planet because that’s where he worked in the comics. But this Clark hasn’t had a job in twelve years, and before that he was the waterboy for the Smallville High football team who didn’t get to go to sock hops. At least Lois was introduced as being a writer in adolescence. Why would Perry White hire this stiff? Because he’s nerdy/cute?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Lois, Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, but listen, not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, but he is, in my forty years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”

      Perry White: Superman The Movie 1978

      Liked by 3 people

    2. > But this Clark hasn’t had a job in twelve years

      We don’t know for sure how soon after flying away from the Fortress of Solitude he gets to Metropolis. He could have gone back to Smallville and started submitting stories to the local paper, parlaying that into a regular job. Then, eventually, Metropolis and the Daily Planet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The idea of spending twelve years in the Fortress learning about the human heart and then still having to go do an internship after that is more depressing than I can handle. I mean, yeah, I went to grad school too, but there’s a limit.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. “Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the f**king Peace Corps.”

        Bluto, Animal House (1978)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Lois is adorable and Clark is adorkable. Match made in heaven.
    Really, except for Perry White, this movie is cast exceptionally well. But J. K. Simmons can’t play every editor, can he?
    I’m still debating if this movie could have jettisoned everything before Metropolis and still have been as big a movie. It would definitely have been a different movie. It’s classic comic book from here, with an emphasis on comic and that’s what I remembered after 40 years. It’s also why I didn’t watch the sequels.
    But it’s no fault of Christopher and Margot who were lovely together.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, I never thought about this being a tribute to screwball comedies either, not that I was sure I knew what they were before now. I always thought Lois Lane’s questions about her stories was sppsd to be way to let us know that we’re no longer in Kansas anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Margot’s Lois is very much in the tradition of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy in His Girl Friday.
    I would have loved to have seen Christopher and Margot teamed together in romantic comedies. They could remind me of William Powell and Myrna Loy. A “Thin Man” revival? Alas, not to be.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The amusing thing about the Margot Kidder Lois is that she’s a bit of an asshole, not a bad person but a funny sexy jerk nonetheless. Certainly she is more along the lines of many male characters from the time and after. Yet she’s got a great HUMANITY about her (Margot was great at that. Cf. Black Christmas) so we root for her. The great flaw of Superman I & II is that there isn’t enough of a link between the real Clark we see in Smallville and the invented Clark he hides behind when he is Superman. We can blame the screenwriters but I’d prefer to blame someone else; the REAL huuuuge asshole (to quote the late Norm MacDonald – imagine it said in a Canadian accent for the full effect) of Superman, no, not Luthor, or either Salkind: Jor-El! Yep, that asshole Jor-El with his “you are nots” and “you cannots” and his “stand there my only begotten Son while I teach you for frickin’ years. Oh, by the way, when just before you return to civilization – or, at least, the United States – I want you to watch Ryan O’Neill in What’s Up, Doc? for tips on your fake Clark disguise”. That guy’s a Krypt’nian fundamentalist goofball who studied at the Robert Duvall School for Constipated-Sounding Cod-English accents. Oh la!
    One more thing, Lois amusing assholery turns up in less charming fashion with a lot of Eighties heroes, Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman and Bruce Willis’s David Madison from Moonlighting are hoooge assholes who the audience is supposed to find so darn cute. At least Groundhog Day (and, clunkily, Scrooged – not surprising as both are A Christmas Carol Redux) critiques this. Of course everyone knows that Egon and Ray are the heroes of Ghost Busters* while I’d have Maddie over David any day (Maddie’s probably more like the Margot Lois really). Um, and my point is… missing apparently!

    * Okay, the REAL hero of Ghost Busters is Annie Potts as Janine but… Ha.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The amusing thing about the Margot Kidder Lois is that she’s a bit of an asshole, not a bad person but a funny sexy jerk nonetheless. Certainly she is more along the lines of many male characters from the time and after. Yet she’s got a great HUMANITY about her (Margot was great at that. Cf. Black Christmas) so we root for her.

      I wouldn’t say that about Black Xmas, but I’m inclined to agree about Sisters.


      1. Fair enough, Mr Ubiquitous. I found her more sympathetic in Sisters than a jerk; well, except for one of said, er, sisters knife-happy antics.
        Hey, I wonder if Black Xmas will be covered here? That’s the third remake, the Black Christmas/X-Men “mash-up” in which the loon is loose in not a sorority house but the X-mansion, isn’t it? *cackles*

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The fact that Lois is a bad speller tells you that she became a crack reporter despite being a poor writer and a woman (well, this is 1978). A simple but significant bit of characterization.


  9. Bringing up Baby and His Girl Friday are 2 of my favorite screwball comedies and I guess I’d say I do see similarities between David and Clark. Clark makes a lot more sense if I think of him as based on David. Meanwhile my store of most interesting facts about His Girl Friday. The only music in the entire movie is under the credits. Other than that people are either talking or taking deliberate silence pauses at every other moment is full of talk. The bit about the mock turtle is a joke based on a previous Cary Grant roll. He also slips his real name in there as the last person who tried to do them in was Archie Leach. My best bit about Bringing Up Baby is that I just saw a part of the prop dinosaur is in a prop store in Las Vegas.

    Liked by 1 person

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