Time Magazine — August 1, 1977:
“Even with the crane and wires, flying is not easy. Christopher Reeve, 24, who plays Superman, has to make a dozen or so passes 50 ft. in the air before he bags his cat, made suitably cooperative by the taxidermist. Every once in a while Superman is brought down for an adjustment of his ailerons. He has 25 different costumes and perhaps six different kinds of capes—for standing, sitting, flying and coming in for a landing. He is now wearing his flying cape, which is stretched out with wires so that it appears to billow in the wind.
“The changes made, he goes back into the air, accompanied by cheers from local residents who are hanging out of windows. “Hey, Supraman, why cantcha get the cat?” someone shouts in that rich blend of gravel and adenoids known as Brooklynese. “Thattaboy, Supraman!” yells another when he actually touches the dusty beast.”
So we’re done now, right? For cuteness? Just the idea that there was a moment in the world when Christopher Reeve in full regalia was swinging around on a wire all night, while people yelled “Hey, Supraman, why cantcha get the cat?” at him. That is all I need, in this heartless universe. That happened.
They really did have trouble getting the cat-catching on film, just one of a couple of minor disasters in the New York location shooting in July 1977. They got a lot of great footage in just a few weeks, including — in shooting order —
- Daily Planet lobby and exterior, for Clark’s first day
- Sidewalk scenes leading up to the mugging
- Detectives following Otis on the street, and in Grand Central Station
- Detective getting killed by a train
- Clark on the sidewalk and Lois falling outside the Daily News Building, for a scene that was planned for the beginning of Superman II
- Clark and the crowd reacting to the helicopter crash outside the Daily News Building
- The crooks’ boat left outside the police station on Wall Street
- The car chase at Fulton Fish Market
- The helicopter takeoff on the roof of the US Post Office Building on Lexington Ave
- Superman handing off the cat burglar to the policeman outside the Solow Building
And then that darn cat, for two nights, ending in rain and disappointment and failure.
There were some minor setbacks during the shoot. The crowd of spectators and reporters outside the Daily News Building on the first day was kind of intense to deal with. At Grand Central Station, they had to set all the clocks to 7:10 to preserve continuity, which caused some commuter chaos. Shooting the car chase turned out to be a long series of sad compromises.
But the biggest problem was the night that they shot all the crowd scenes for the helicopter rescue — July 13th — when New York had a complete and devastating blackout, which led to looting and arson and all kinds of crazy.
It was very hot that night — it’s New York, it’s hot in the summertime — and an approaching cold front caused a lightning strike at 9:38pm which hit one of ConEd’s key transmission lines, and the entire city lost power for at least 12 hours.
Superman filming actually continued just fine, for a while. They were mostly running their lights off of generators, although Lighting Cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth was worried that maybe they were responsible for the blackout somehow. So they kept on looking up and being worried about Lois, while the rest of the city descended into chaos.
The late 70s wasn’t a great time for New York; they were broke and everyone was pissed off. So an all-city blackout was just the thing that people were hoping for, so they could go outside and do some serious damage to their own neighborhoods.
Brooklyn was the worst, especially in Crown Heights and Bushwick. In Brooklyn, there were people tying ropes around the grates protecting storefronts and attaching them to their cars, pulling the grates away with the car, and then looting the stores. That gives you a sense of how wild it was that night in Brooklyn; people had the time to premeditate at that level.
There were more than 1,000 fires set throughout the city. More than 3,500 people were arrested. Thousands of people were trapped in the subways, and needed to be evacuated. And meanwhile, on East 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, crowds of people were screaming and then cheering, per request, to demonstrate how they were feeling about a fictional helicopter crash that they weren’t even filming that night.
After an hour or so, the production started hearing reports of the looting and fires, so they wrapped early, and sent the cast and crew back to their hotels. I don’t know what happened to all the extras; I hope everybody got home okay.
And then, a week later: the struggle to get Frisky out of that tree.
This was an important scene for Richard Donner, who wanted to show Superman’s sincere desire to help everybody that he possibly can. The previous scenes in this sequence involve catching a jewel thief and apprehending smugglers, and in the cat scene, we see Superman helping out on a small-scale, personal level. It’s not just earthquakes and plane crashes for him; he’ll even help a little girl get her cat out of a tree, if he’s able to.
Now, that sounds simple, compared to faking a helicopter crash, but to make the scene work, Superman’s approach needs to be especially graceful. The vibe is that he’s just passing by, notices the problem, and then casually swings down to take care of it. There’s a very specific tone that they were going for, which had to be worked out in aerial choreography for maximum style points.
And they just couldn’t get it. The crane had to swing Reeve over to the tree with the right arc so that it looked casual but didn’t crash into the tree, and at the right speed in order to grab the cat, plus the cape had to billow in the right way. They were even using a live cat on the first night, which must have been harrowing for everyone.
Here’s how Reeve describes the day, in his 1999 autobiography, Still Me:
My flight path took me past the seventh-story windows of an apartment building. I was wearing street clothes and the flying harness with my hair done Superman style as I flew over and over again past the same windows. At around five o’clock a kid of about seven pulled up the window in his room and called out, “Hey, Superman, how ya doing?”
About an hour later we were still rehearsing, and now I was in full costume. As I flew past him again, he called out, “Hey, Superman, my mom says come on in, we’re having spaghetti!” I thanked him but said I still had work to do. At about eight I was still rehearsing the shot (one of our problems was that the cat was getting restless), when my young friend opened the window and said, “Hey, Superman, take care, I gotta do my homework.”
Finally, we started to film the scene. Take after take this kid would look up from his desk and wave as I floated by, trying to catch the elusive white cat. At eleven o’clock we were still shooting. (By this time the cat had been replaced by a dummy.) The window opened one last time. “So, Superman, I gotta go to bed. I’ll see ya!” I guess from his point of view it was just a normal day in Metropolis.
They had to come back the next night, and it rained, on and off, so they kept setting up and then stopping and then setting up again. They finally wrapped at 4:30am, and the only useable footage that they ended up with from the entire two nights was one shot: Reeve coming down towards the tree, with the New York skyline in the background. (It’s the second screenshot from the top, on this post.) It lasts for a little over two seconds.
The rest of the footage was shot in January, outside Pinewood Studios, with some administration buildings dressed as a row of Brooklyn brownstones, with American cars on the street.
In the Director’s Cut commentary, Tom Mankiewicz says that most of the footage was shot at Pinewood, but Donner misremembers it, and claims that everything in the scene was Brooklyn Heights — according to Donner, the only thing they shot at Pinewood was the shot of picking up the cat. This is obviously not true, and you can tell by looking at the little puffs of vapor that come out every time the two characters speak. That is January in England, not July in Brooklyn.
But nobody’s looking at the puffs of breath. We’re looking at the muscles bulging out of his suit, and his devastatingly handsome grin, and the rock-solid awesomeness of Chris Reeve at his peak of perfection. Of course everybody ran outside, to break windows and set fires. What else were they expecting us to do?
How did Superman hold himself back
from smacking Hitler and winning World War II?
1.63: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It.
— Danny Horn