Superman 1.33: The Coming of Clark Kent

It’s a textbook case of Hollywood ugly. Christopher Reeve is tall, handsome and built like a truck, with piercing blue eyes and a terrific smile. About thirty minutes from where we’re currently standing, he’s going to be the smoldering hunk in one of the all-time heart-melting romantic comedy scenes, and everyone in the theater will be thoroughly in love with him.

So how much work do you have to do, in order to make him look like a forgettable schlemiel? Well, you grease his hair down and give him big unfashionable eyeglasses, and then he hunches his shoulders, swallows his dialogue, and projects an uncomfortable glassy stare, with his mouth pulled tight in what you might call a resting frogface. At that point, he makes a convincing nerd that you wouldn’t look at twice.

I’m kidding, of course; he’s still insanely gorgeous, and if you don’t feel like hitting that, then I would be happy to take your turn. But the show must go on.

We left Clark Kent yesterday in the middle of an involuntary pants explosion, trying to open a bottle of fizzy soda. He is that most unfortunate of men, the male lead in the opening salvo of a screwball comedy, his superheroic dignity sacrificed on the altar of a humiliating meet-cute.

In the middle of a routine designed to show everyone that he’s a normal human whose physical structure isn’t any more millions of years advanced than anyone else’s, he’s been struggling to open Mr. White’s soda bottle, and Lois absently takes the bottle out of his hands and bangs it on the desk a few times to loosen the cap. When Clark opens the bottle, the liquid sprays all over his crotch, and Lois is quick to apologize.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, brushing unhelpfully on the less interesting part of his pants. “I didn’t mean to shake it up like that!”

“Well, of course not, Lois,” Clark smiles. “I mean, why would anyone want to make a total stranger look like a fool?”

That line sounds like it’s supposed to be a joke without actually being one, and Lois is unsure how to react. They actually give her a moment to register several different responses — surprise, polite amusement, and then wariness, because she’s not sure why she’s smiling, and it’s just sunk in that this is some new type of person that she’s never run across before.

I’m open to other interpretations, but I think that line is meant as the verbal equivalent of the greased-down hair and uncool glasses — an indication that this guy doesn’t fit in, in a scene that’s otherwise non-stop laugh lines.

For example, the following Perry/Jimmy exchange. Cub photographer Jimmy Olsen slipped into the office uninvited as Lois entered, to meet the new guy and see what all the shouting is about, and he’s been hanging around near the doors.

Perry:  Olsen! Why am I paying you forty dollars a week, when I should have you arrested for loitering? Go get Mr. —

Clark:  Kent.

Perry:  — a towel! Move, kid, move!

Jimmy:  (awkwardly backing out) Right, chief!

Perry:  And make mine black and no sugar!

Jimmy:  Right, chief!

Perry:  And don’t call me sugar!

Jimmy:  (confused) Right, s-sugar.

(Jimmy immediately hands the order to a passing copy boy.)

Jimmy:  Hey — chief wants coffee, no sugar. I’ll take a tea with lemon. (He hurries away.)

So that’s adorable, and none of that is in the shooting script. In the script, Jimmy’s left behind in the newsroom when Lois barges into the office, so his little interjections and reactions were added during shooting. I think they realized that they had a super-cute Jimmy and weren’t doing enough with him, and they took steps to correct that error.

This introductory scene is almost over and the main character of the movie is still standing around awkwardly with tight lips and wet pants, so they have to do some quick footwork to make sure the audience actually has a reason to like Clark.

The key to getting the audience to like a new character is to have them make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point. The joke is coming up, and since he’s Superman he’s basically a walking plot point, but we need to see the friend, to prove that somebody in the cast likes Clark.

It’s weird how receptive we are to picking up social cues from characters on the movie screen; once we like one character, then we look to them to tell us who else in the environment is worth caring about. At the beginning of the scene, Jimmy gave Lois his recommendation — “Golly, Miss Lane, how come you get all the great stories?” — and then Lois vouched for Perry, by doing a funny sales pitch for her latest story that implied a long-standing, pushy-but-affectionate relationship between the chief and his star reporter.

You can see what happens when a character doesn’t get that stamp of approval: the redshirt copy boy doesn’t make an impression. Jimmy just gives him the coffee order and walks away, clearly treating the guy like he doesn’t matter, and the audience instantly follows that cue, and forgets about him completely. I know that he’s just a non-speaking member of the newsroom background crew, but we’re just getting started with the Daily Planet staff, and Jimmy’s disrespect is a cue not to be curious about this low-status chump.

So poor, put-upon Hollywood-ugly Clark needs a reference in order for us to care about this secret identity, and Perry provides it, telling Lois that Clark’s got the city beat.

When she objects that that’s her beat, Perry says, “Look — Clark Kent may seem like he’s 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.”

You wouldn’t think that a character would need a solid-gold typing test when we’ve just spent the last forty-five minutes watching him outrace a train and fly around in his personal ice castle, but that line helps us to accept that Clark belongs in this new environment. Audiences are weird like that, and skillful scriptwriters know how to quickly establish a character in the audience’s esteem. Less-skillful scriptwriters, please take note.

There’s another little moment here where Clark asks Perry to send half his salary to his silver-haired mother, which helps to connect Clark to the loving son we saw in the prologue and establishes that he’s kind, but a lot of people are kind, and you wouldn’t want all of them in a movie. The most important thing at the end of the scene is for Clark to make the joke that we’ve been waiting for.

Amused by his fish-out-of-water demeanor, Lois asks him, “Any more at home like you?” and he responds with a deadpan “Not really, no.” This is his first actual funny line, which means we now have a set of four characters that we’re going to care about for the rest of the movie. Clark Kent, you are cleared for takeoff.

Tomorrow:
1.34: Meanwhile, in the Comics…

Chapters

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman 1.33: The Coming of Clark Kent

  1. Of course there have been whole lists of that “Hollywood ugly” tradition.
    Another famous one is Lynda Carter on WONDER WOMAN, where you’re supposed to accept that giving her glasses and tying back her hair is really supposed to make a difference.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. This scene really is terrific. The slowness of everything we’ve seen up to this point, the mostly white screen representing Krypt’n, Marlon Brando’s mutterings about God knows what while the baby hurtles through space, the dead emptiness of Kansas, the return to a mostly white screen and Marlon Brando’s voice with the Fortress, abruptly gives way to an actual MOVIE. The sudden relief almost makes the tedium of Act One worthwhile.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I was happy to know his mom was still alive. The Clarks must be a hardy breed. But couldn’t he have sent her a check himself rather than having his employer do it? Maybe with a little note? If he didn’t want to zip over to Kansas himself? Unless Ma is mad at him for disappearing for 12 years without a word and tears up all his letters upon arrival?
    But we’ve moved on from Kansas and now Ma is the setup for a joke.
    Also, there’s Clark’s hat. I really don’t remember seeing young men in hats in 1978. I suppose it adds to the disguise and the old-fashioned wholesomeness that Clark is projecting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I liked the hat because it shows the Clark persona as kind of lifted from the comics, which were still saying things like “golly jeepers, that man’s robbin’ that bank!” and considering it edgy.

      1978 was just three years after the Vietnam War and four after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Having Clark and Lois as the newb and the hard-bitten pro reporters wasn’t just because of the comics–they slot in to that adrenaline soaked insane period of history–urban decay, Women’s Lib, the first modern risings of the environmental movement–and you think you know what the the characters are going to be doing. After all, the city beat includes massacres and senior citizen sex and pill parties!

      But instead of being All The President’s Men, it’s presenting kooky plots by campy villains and grafting the make believe of the comic book world over the top of the hard-driving dramas of the time. It was a brilliant blend of genres that I don’t think could have worked in any other context.

      So having Clark in a hat, suit and mannerisms that would have been twenty years out of date is a way of saying; this world is catching up with ours. It means well, it acts silly, but it tries really hard. It makes Lois and the others feel protective towards the doofus, which in turn helps mask the fact that he’s actually protecting the whole damn planet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the strength of the Richard Donner Superman is in its variety (not quite infinite but still…) in contrast to many later superhero movies which hammer on one or two notes endlessly; here we have strange white doomed Krypt’n, elegiac Andrew Wyethian Smallville, the cold wastes of the Arctic and the spectacular Krypt’n-on-Earth Fortress of Solitude, the screwball comedy Daily Planet, the bustling dirty/clean New Yorkian Metropolis, Luthor’s amusingly unlikely hidden lair, the disaster movie scenes when MrLuthorSir’s plan goes into action, and, as they say, many more. Another advantage it has over many 21st Century super-features is *real* wit rather the smarmy reheated pseudohip pseudowit that is easy for people and poor writers to imitate and is all over the place in these post-Whedon post-Downey, Jr, Iron Man times. Not only that but we also get Ned Beatty’s gloriously dumb Otis. Um, we also get some of the too stupid elements of the Gene Hackman Luthor but at least that’s preferable to Kevin Spacey Sadist-Luthor or the jittery young slimeball-Luthor from the Snyder abominations (of which by far the best element is the Gal Gadot Wonder Woman who is almost – ? – Christopher Reeve calibre and probably the best and most satisfying to watch actor in any super-action scenes as she actually appears superhuman and astonishing).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been watching a lot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show lately, which is another thing that these newsroom scenes feel a lot like.

    They really should have just gotten Ed Asner to play Perry White.

    Like

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