At the end of a hectic day at the newsroom, Clark asks Lois if she’d like to go to dinner. Lois says that she can’t, because she’s going to the airport to interview the President, end of scene.
That’s a simple bit of dialogue that the characters could deliver at their desks in about thirty seconds. Instead, Richard Donner turns this moment into a screwball comedy masterpiece, using a single tracking shot with dozens of extras bustling around the crowded newsroom.
Everybody pays attention to the helicopter rescue scene, which is coming up next, but in my opinion, you can’t beat this walk-and-talk scene, which does it backwards and in high heels.
A few weeks ago, when we arrived at the Daily Planet, I wrote about the influence of screwball comedy on this section of the movie. To recap: screwball comedy is a film genre that was popular from around 1934 to 1944, characterized by fast-talking, independent heroines and mild-mannered, emasculated men, in a story that takes a satirical view of social mores around courtship and marriage. There’s usually a secret identity involved, and often a love triangle, so the genre is basically tailor-made for Clark, Lois and Superman.
Inspired by a less well-known but utterly brilliant 1944 screwball film, Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Donner set up this newsroom scene as a two-minute shot, with the principals moving through the complicated Planet set to demonstrate the way that Clark follows Lois around like a hapless, love-struck puppy.
Now, it was while Donner was filming these Daily Planet scenes that the Salkinds really started to worry about whether he was the right guy for the job, because he did so many takes to produce a very small amount of useable footage. The main unit on a feature film usually gets around three minutes of footage a day, and Donner was averaging 40 seconds a day. It took him five weeks to complete what they’d expected would be a two-week shoot, and I suspect that filming this scene contributed quite a bit to the producers’ frustration.
I tried to count how many extras there are in this scene, which is hard to do, because there’s a lot of movement, and some individuals cross the screen several times. According to my count, there are at least forty people in the scene, possibly more. Getting everybody to do the right thing, including the camera crew, must have taken forever to rehearse and shoot.
To show you what I mean, I’m going to give you the whole scene. It begins with Perry hanging up the phone, and walking out of his office.
Perry: Get this Loch Ness update right into composing.
(A reporter hands the phone to Perry.)
Perry: (taking the phone) Yeah?
(Jimmy turns to the seated reporter.)
Jimmy: Did you see the fight last night?
(The reporter looks up, and starts talking with Jimmy.)
Perry: No, that’s it, Ross. Put it to bed.
Jimmy: He had a broken jaw —
(Perry hangs up the phone, and sees Jimmy, still chatting.)
Perry: What are you standing around here for?
Jimmy: I’m not, Ch-
(Perry puts up his hand in front of Jimmy’s face. Jimmy sighs.)
Jimmy: I wasn’t gonna say it.
(Jimmy goes. Perry walks around the desks to look at the article that Lois is typing.)
Perry: Ah, the sex maniac profile!
Lois: Right! Look — nine to five, it’s a Pulitzer prize winner. What do you bet?
Perry: There’s no z in brassiere.
(Perry walks back to his office. On his way, he calls back to Clark.)
Perry: Hey, nice job on that nudist scandal, Kent.
Clark: Oh, gosh, thanks, Mr. White.
(Lois stands up, taking her typed article and her purse. Seeing that she’s leaving, Clark gets up, with his briefcase.)
Clark: Uh —
Lois: Oh, hi Clark. Good night.
(She grabs a hanging garment bag from the coatrack.)
Clark: Uh, here, let me, uh — carry that for you.
Lois: Oh, thanks a lot.
(The camera moves behind a pillar, momentarily obscuring them from view.)
(By the time the camera passes the pillar, Lois is already out of sight. Clark grabs his hat.)
Clark: Uh… Lois?
(The camera pulls back, as several Planet staffers hurry by…)
(…and Clark realizes that Lois has already walked away.)
Clark: Have y– have you got a minute?
(He tries to catch up to her, through the crowd of busy newsroom staff.)
Clark: Uh — excuse me, please —
Clark: Uh, Lois?
(She rounds a corner, past some desks. She’s walking through at a brisk pace, but everyone seems to be getting in Clark’s way.)
Clark: — excuse me —
(The camera pulls back, as Lois puts some papers on a secretary’s desk.)
Lois: And these two go to the addresses on the envelope, okay?
(She keeps walking.)
Clark (to the secretary): Good night.
(Clark catches up to Lois.)
Clark: Lois, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to have a little dinner with me tonight.
Lois (not looking up): Oh, gosh, Clark, I’m sorry, I’m booked.
Lois: Yeah, Air Force One’s landing at the airport, and this kid’s going to be there to make sure that you-know-
Lois: — good night! —
Lois: -who answers a few questions that he’d rather duck.
(He smiles, admiring her.)
Clark: My goodness, don’t you ever let up?
Lois: What for? Hmm?
Lois: I mean, I’ve seen how the other half lives. My sister, for instance —
(She counts on her fingers.)
Lois: — three kids, two cats, and one mortgage.
Lois: Yeucchh! I would go bananas in a week!
(She heads toward the ladies room.)
Clark: Well, uh, can I, uh, take you to the airport?
Lois: Not unless you can fly!
(They chuckle. He takes a step towards her, as she takes the garment bag from him.)
Lois: Uh, Clark…
(She directs his attention to the door.)
Lois: I have to change my clothes —
(He turns around, embarrassed. She takes the garment bag.)
Lois: Thank you!
(He turns back, as she closes the door.)
Clark: Well, hey, Lois, maybe we could —
(The door slams in his face. He looks down, and realizes that his coat is stuck in the door.)
(He tries to pull it out, but it won’t budge. He gives a tentative little rap on the door.)
Clark: Uh, Lois?
(Lois suddenly opens the door, freeing his coat, and hands him an envelope.)
Lois: Would you be a pet and mail that for me? Thanks.
Clark: Oh, sure, uh…
(The door slams again.)
(He sighs, and puts on his hat.)
(As he turns the corner, he hears an elevator bell.)
(He sees people walking into the elevator.)
Clark: Oh, uh — going down, please? Going down?
(The people getting into the elevator ignore him. The door closes in his face.)
(Another elevator door opens, and Clark approaches it hopefully.)
Clark: Going down?
Man (pointing at the lights above the door): Going up, up, up!
(The door closes. Turning, Clark greets two reporters walking past him.)
Clark: Good night!
(The reporters ignore him. Clark is left alone in the hallway. He realizes that he needs to push the button to call the elevator, and presses the down button. He waits patiently for the next elevator.)
So there you have it, a perfect screwball comedy scene. And that’s all one take! I can’t imagine what they had to do, in order to get all those people to do the right thing at the right time.
Just having Lois shut the door on Clark’s coat must have taken practice, because he’s turning as she’s closing it. That move alone could screw up the take, and by then they’re a minute and forty seconds into the shot, and they’d have to reset the whole thing, including all the people that Clark needs to bump into.
The point of the scene is to reinforce the idea that Lois is capable and determined, while Clark is hapless and put-upon — a contrast that’s expressed in tiny, careful brushstrokes. She can stride through the newsroom confident and unimpeded, hardly even paying attention to where she’s going, but for Clark, it’s an obstacle course. When she says good night to somebody, they smile and wave back, while his good nights are completely ignored. People don’t even hold the elevator for him. This is important, because it sets up the next sequence with the helicopter rescue, where their positions are reversed.
And it’s romantic, too. I can’t get over the way that he smiles at her, when she says that she’s going to interview the President, and explains why she doesn’t want to live like her sister. She’s blowing him off, and the look on his face is all about how much he adores this fascinating woman.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the scene was inspired by a similar walk-and-talk in Preston Sturges’ 1944 screwball comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and since you probably haven’t seen it, I’m going to do you a favor and give you that scene, too.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek appears to be specifically constructed to violate the Hays Code in a way that the censors can’t figure out or do anything to stop it. It’s a comedy about having sex out of wedlock that doesn’t actually include anybody having sex out of wedlock, or even discussing it directly.
The story concerns Trudy Kockenlocker, a headstrong young woman with an eye for the soldier boys, who are about to leave town and fight in World War II. There’s a dance coming up on the soldiers’ last night before shipping out, and she’s determined to go. Her father refuses to let her go to the dance, so she calls her lovestruck childhood friend Norval, and invites him out to go to the movies instead. Norval can’t go to the dance, because he’s not a soldier: he tried to enlist, but he’s classified as 4-F because he sees “the spots” when he’s nervous.
That’s the setup for the following scene, which is performed in one single tracking shot that lasts for more than three minutes.
Trudy: It was certainly very sweet of you to come and get me right away, Norval.
Norval: Oh, the pleasure’s all mine, Trudy. Except to get into the army, I can’t hardly think of anything that gives me as much pleasure as taking you out.
Trudy: That’s certainly very nice to hear. You certainly helped me out by taking me out tonight, I mean, after I’m all dressed up like a horse and everything.
Norval: Oh, the pleasure’s all mine, Trudy, not that you look anything like a horse. Ha ha! Maybe I should have worn my tuxedo.
Trudy: Thank you, Norval. You certainly helped me out!
Norval: Any time.
Trudy: You really mean that, Norval?
Norval: Really mean what, Trudy?
Trudy: You’d help me out any time?
Norval: Why, Trudy, that’s almost all I live for, except maybe getting into the army, I can’t think of anything that makes me more happy than helping you out. I almost wish you’d be in a lot of trouble sometimes, so I could prove it to you.
(They turn the corner, and keep walking.)
Trudy: You can prove it tonight.
Trudy: I am in a lot of trouble, Norval. They didn’t call off that military dance. Poppa just called it off as far as I was concerned.
Norval: Oh, he did. Well, he probably had pretty good reasons, then. That’s what parents are for, to listen to their advice. That’s why I always miss losing my parents so much.
Trudy: I know, Norval, but he didn’t have a good reason, he’s just old-fashioned! The soldiers aren’t like they used to be, when he was a soldier, you know, all in France and like that.
Norval: Oh, aren’t they?
Trudy: Of course they’re not! They’re fine, clean young boys from good homes —
(She stops, dramatically.)
Trudy: — and we can’t send them off, maybe to be killed in rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, without anybody to say goodbye to them, can we?
(He takes her arm, and starts walking again.)
Norval: They’ve probably got their families.
Trudy: Well, even if they have, they ought to have girls, and dancing, and how about those who haven’t got any families? How about the orphans? Who says goodbye to them? You oughta know about them!
Norval: The superintendent probably comes down from the asylum, for old times’ sake.
Trudy: Norval, I think you’re perfectly heartless! I just hope you get into the army someday, and the last thing that happens to you — the last thing you get before you sail away — the last thing you have to treasure before fighting beneath foreign skies is a kiss from the superintendent!
Norval: Well, what do you want me to say?
Trudy: I want you to say, “Trudy, it’s your bounden duty to say goodbye to our boys. To dance with them, to give them something to remember, something to fight for! I won’t take no for an answer! So I’ll drop you off at the church basement, take in a movie, then pick you up and take you home like a chivalrous gentleman, so you won’t get in wrong with poppa!” That’s what I want you to say.
Norval: I won’t say it.
Trudy: Oh, please, Norval.
Norval: I won’t do it! I won’t sit through three features all by myself!
Trudy: Couldn’t you sleep through a couple of them?
Norval: Suppose you get caught. Where does that put me with your father?
Trudy: Why should I get caught? Anyway, I’m not doing anything wrong!
Norval: Well, the whole idea sounds very cheezy to me, Trudy!
Norval: I’m not trying to be d-d-disagreeable, but if you want me as a kind of a false front, a kind of a decoy, I might just as well take you home right now, and say goodbye to you.
(She starts to cry.)
Norval: Doesn’t cut any ice with me. Go ahead, cry. Cry all you like. I’ve seen you cry before. (She sobs.) Oh, stop it, will ya?
Trudy: I’m not crying for me, I’m just thinking of those poor boys, going away like poor little orphans.
Norval: Well, you’re not the only dame in town, are you?
Trudy: That’s right, insult me!
Norval: I’m not insulting you, Trudy, I — oh, where will I meet you?
Trudy: Doesn’t matter, now that you’ve spoiled everything.
Norval (hopefully): Doesn’t it?
Trudy: What time is the third feature over?
Norval (resigned): About 1:10, if my seat holds out.
Trudy: All right, I’ll pick you up at 1:10.
Norval: Pick me up? What do you mean, pick me up?
Trudy: Don’t you think I oughta take your car? The boys mightn’t have any.
Norval: Take my car! First, you get me out under false pretenses, which you never had the slightest intention of ever —
(She starts to cry again.)
Norval: Then you want me to sit through three features, all by myself, and now you want to take my car in the bargain, for a bunch of – of – of all the confounded nerve I ever, I —
Norval: All right. All right! Here. (He gives her the keys.) The car’s in front of my house. Is there anything else you want? How about my gas card, my money, my watch? Maybe one of the boys could use it! (He shakes his head.) What a war.
(He turns around, and walks into the movie theater without her. She squares her shoulders, and walks back the way they came, to get his car.)
So that’s a remarkable scene, and later on in the picture, they do another lengthy walk-and-talk where Trudy gives Norval the horrifying news that while she was at the dance, she got drunk and married one of the soldiers, who she can’t remember and doesn’t know his name, and now she’s pregnant, and her father’s going to think that it’s Norval’s baby.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when you let screwball comedy into your life, and that, against all odds, is the kind of energy that Richard Donner wanted in Superman. And then the characters go outside, and he drops a helicopter on them.
1.52: Clap Your Hands.
The take that they use in Superman actually does have one mistake, right at the end, but they used it anyway, because nobody notices it unless you’re going line by line through the scene and taking screenshots, which normal people don’t do. As you can see in the screenshot below, the guy who walks by as Clark turns the corner to get the elevator looks up at the camera for a second, to make sure that he’s got his cue.
Also, you should watch The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; it’s one of my favorite movies, and it’s vastly under-appreciated. You can rent it on YouTube, and you will not regret it.
The movie performs a Ritual of Summoning
disguised as an action sequence…
1.52: Clap Your Hands
— Danny Horn