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: 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?
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
— Danny Horn