Superman II 2.5: The Donner Party

Or, there’s the option where Lois is smart and figures things out right away, which I personally prefer.

In this version of Superman II, the action begins on the day after the previous movie ended. Yesterday, Superman saved the West Coast and put Lex Luthor in jail, and now the main characters in the Daily Planet newsroom are all busily congratulating each other on how well they covered the story.

And then Lois, sitting at her desk, suddenly realizes the obvious truth: that Clark Kent is Superman.

This is the almost-was, a glimpse of what Superman II would have been if the Salkinds hadn’t fired Richard Donner halfway through production. For the actual theatrical cut, Richard Lester and the Newmans came up with a baffling new scene involving terrorists threatening the world from the top of the Eiffel Tower. This newsroom scene is what Donner would have done instead, and it is entirely adorable.

For one thing, it immediately and explicitly debunks the concept that Lois is stupid, a tough-talking reporter who completely misses the world-shaking story that’s sitting right in front of her. Now that she’s got a photo of Superman in her hands that she can compare with Clark, she comes to the correct conclusion.

So she grabs a black magic marker, looks across the room to where Clark is standing with Jimmy, and makes the appropriate adjustments.

She finishes her sketch…

and delivers a series of cute facial expressions.

Perry calls Lois and Clark into his office, and I’m just going to go ahead and quote this part of the scene, because I like it and you will too.

Clark (to Lois):  How are you today?

Lois:  Oh, I’m just super, thanks. (She nudges him with her elbow.)

Clark:  Good morning, Mr. White.

Lois (elbows him again):  I’m super? Hmm?

(He gives her a confused look.)

Perry:  Morning, morning, morning. You’re late, Kent!

Clark:  Uh, I know, I’m sorry, Mr. White. I, um, got stu-stuck in traffic.

Lois (absently, looking at her newspaper):  Oh, that’s a new one.

Clark:  Excuse me?

Lois:  I mean, as opposed to “I was stuck in a phone booth,” or “I got locked into the men’s bathroom,” or something like that.

Clark:  Lois, what are you talking about? I’m sorry I was late…

Perry:  If you two want to bicker, that’s great; I have just the assignment for you. You’re gonna pose as a honeymoon couple in Niagara Falls, to get an exposé on the newlywed racket.

(Lois smirks at Clark.)

Perry:  Some of those hotels up there are bilking those poor kids for every cent they can get. Real human interest stuff! Make your Aunt Hattie cry her eyes out.

Lois:  That is a great idea, Mr. White!

Clark:  Excuse me, Mr. White, I’m sorry, but I’m right in the middle of a series on the City Council, and —

Lois:  And it wouldn’t take long, we could just — (makes exaggerated “flying” motions with her hands) — fly right up there, and zoom right back again?

(Clark looks worried.)

Lois:  Y’know? (nudges him in the chest) Like Superman?

Perry:  Ha! Yeah, if he’d give you two a ride, maybe we could save a couple of bucks.

(Perry gets up, and starts walking to the door.)

Perry:  I’ve gotta see young Olsen. Six lousy photographs, and that kid’s hitting me up for a raise already!

Clark:  Uh, excuse me, Mr. White? Can I talk to you for a sec —

Perry (out the door):  Doris!

(Clark sighs.)

Clark:  Darn.

(He turns, and looks at Lois.)

Clark:  Well, my goodness. You certainly look like the cat who swallowed the canary this morning.

Lois:  A canary? No, uh, actually, I was thinking about something bigger? (She makes wing-flapping motions.) Something that flies? Something more in blue.

Clark:  Uh, Lois, as usual, I’m, uh, totally in the dark as to what you’re…

Lois:  Let me just turn on the lights for you, then.

(She shows him the picture that she’s drawn on.)

Lois:  Get the picture?

Clark:  Hmm.

Lois:  You know, I didn’t start to put this together until this morning — which is really strange, because a good reporter isn’t supposed to let anything slip by her!

Clark:  Hmm. Well, that’s, um, very amusing. Um, excuse me…

(He walks toward the desk.)

Lois:  Amusing…

Clark:  Yes, sirree, that’s — that’s very amusing.

Lois:  Amusing, huh? (She checks the picture.) Tall…

(He stoops a little.)

Lois:  Broad shoulders…

(He pulls his shoulders in.)

Lois:  Dark hair…

(He tries to smile, unsuccessfully. She puts down the paper, and approaches him.)

Lois:  I gotta give you credit. You really had me fooled. And I’m nobody’s fool…

Lois:  … Superman.

Okay, I’ll pause here. That’s only half the scene — I’ll talk about the more action-oriented second half on Monday — but this is a good place to break, and tell you what this is all about.

Donner shot about 75% of the material for Superman II while they were shooting the first movie, so there was a lot of existing footage that Richard Lester could use when he took over the project. But according to Director’s Guild rules, Lester couldn’t be credited as the director unless he was responsible for more than 50% of the footage in the film.

So Lester had to scrap some of the Donner scenes and replace them with his own work, and one of the things that he cut is the unbelievably gorgeous scene that I’ve just quoted half of.

Now, my friend Anthony wrote in the comments below Wednesday’s post, “I’ve never understood this idea of Richard Lester as the B-Team, especially compared to Donner.” Anthony, this is the first part of my answer to your challenge: Richard Lester looked at this scene, which is objectively better than the Eiffel Tower sequence, and decided to film the Eiffel Tower sequence instead.

When the film originally came out, hardcore fans were aware that some of Donner’s work was cut — the general outline of the Donner/Lester dispute was discussed in professional fanzines like Starlog and Starburst, even before the movie came out — but it wasn’t necessarily clear how much Donner had shot, and how much of his material remained in the finished film.

Then when Superman II was released for television, the Salkinds made an Extended TV Cut, as they did for the first movie, adding deleted scenes and extra material to make the film longer. Some of those extra scenes used footage from Donner’s work, and fans started to reconstruct the “lost footage,” and get a sense of what the original film would have been like.

In 2001, film editor Michael Thau produced a restoration of Superman: The Movie for DVD — and in the process, he discovered six tons of Superman II footage in Warner Bros.’ vaults, including all of Donner’s material. Naturally, this got a lot of people excited on the internet, and Superman fans wrote letters and petitions and impassioned blog posts asking Warner Bros. to release Richard Donner’s cut of the movie.

This was more difficult than you might assume, because there wasn’t an existing “Donner Cut” just sitting around, ready for DVD release. It was just raw footage — all the takes and retakes, which needed to be edited and turned into a movie scene. Donner said that he wasn’t interested in doing all of that work, partly because it was just painful, looking at the discarded work that he’d had such high hopes for.

Also, there’s the 20% of material that never got shot — the Niagara Falls scenes, the villains’ rampage across America, the climactic battle in Metropolis — so a true “Donner Cut” would have big holes in the story.

And then there was the Brando estate. In order to use the Jor-El material that Marlon Brando filmed for Superman II, they needed permission from his estate, which was a hassle. But in 2005, Warner Bros. negotiated with Brando’s estate to use some of his footage in the 2006 sequel Superman Returns, and that opened the door to more discussions about the Superman II footage.

Once that was done, Michael Thau started working on the project in late 2005, and although Donner resisted for a while, he ultimately did participate in the recut. The result was a more-or-less complete movie, including all of the footage that Donner shot, patched together with Lester material for the scenes that they didn’t shoot. It was released on home video in 2006, as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

And yes, it’s worth watching. There are maybe five important scenes that are completely different — this opening sequence, three scenes with Brando, and the honeymoon hotel discovery scene — plus a few scenes with extra Hackman footage. There are also some scenes with the villains in the Daily Planet and the Fortress of Solitude that were partially reshot by Lester, and they’re noticeably different in the Donner Cut.

So as we go through the theatrical cut, I’ll be checking in now and then with the Donner Cut, to see what the original version would have been like. I’ll try not to be too nerdy and annoying about it — I now know way more about the differences between the two cuts than any normal person could legitimately be interested in hearing about — but you’ll definitely want to know about the gun vs the fire, and Eve in the Fortress, and Lois jumping out of the window. In fact, we’ll pick things up right there, when I come back on Monday.

Monday:
Lois takes a giant leap in
2.6: Gone Out the Window


Footnotes:

Perry and Lois both congratulate Jimmy on his great photography, but there are no pictures of Superman in action. The front page just has a blurry shot of what looks like a mountain and possibly the dam, and a mug shot of a bald Lex Luthor, crossing his arms and wearing a striped prisoner’s suit. When Lois opens the paper to the big two-page spread, there are five pictures of Superman, all of them posed publicity shots. In fact, two of the pictures on the left-hand page are exactly the same picture, cropped differently.

That’s because the Daily Planet scenes were shot early in the production, and they hadn’t filmed much from the first movie yet. Shooting began with the Krypton scenes in April 1977, then the Fortress of Solitude interiors for both movies in May, and the Daily Planet interiors in June. By this point, Gene Hackman hadn’t worn his costume from the first movie yet; I’m actually surprised that they already had a picture of him with the bald cap and prison garb.

Also, they also hadn’t been to New York for location shooting yet, so they didn’t even have the classic “Superman poses in front of the Manhattan skyline” pics that we would see basically everywhere from summer 1977 on.

Monday:
Lois takes a giant leap in
2.6: Gone Out the Window

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Superman II 2.5: The Donner Party

  1. Having seen the two cuts back-to-back yesterday (the Donner Cut for the first time) I can’t fault Lester for wanting to start with a big action piece. This is a cute scene (maybe too cute with that Perry’s office banter), but it’s exciting to see Superman spring into action right off the bat. We already had a slow build-up in the first movie (which I still prefer, but this isn’t that movie, it’s the sequel so a different rhythm is appropriate). The Lois-realization is covered later in the theatrical cut when we really need something more going on in the plot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I suppose there might be people who don’t think that the definition of “thrilling action sequence” is Lois Lane sitting in the newsroom and figuring out on her own that Clark Kent is Superman and then teasing him about it, but I’d want to see the paperwork on that.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. I think a challenge for Superman movies is that the character’s adventures (and arguably best stories) are rooted in screwball comedy/even outright situation comedy (the Lois Lane series). Lois trying to reveal Clark’s identity as Superman is a conflict straight from “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeannie.” The best Donner scenes from the first film and this one work because they are so true to the comics.

        Batman is more directly rooted in noir or hardboiled fiction so yeah, straightforward action adventure is a solid fit. However, I’ve never been that impressed by Superman just beating up other people (my issue with the climax of MAN OF STEEL). And unlike, say, The Matrix, you can’t really jazz up *how* Superman fights with cool martial arts — that’s not really him.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I scrounged around YouTube for Superman II scenes last week and inadvertently stumbled upon Donner scenes so I have been down this rabbit hole all week.
    I definitely prefer this scene to the Eiffel Tower scene but one scene does not a movie make. Based on the first movie, I know Donner is capable of creating good scenes. I have no evidence that he can create a cohesive whole. Lester’s film sticks together well. It flows. And yet, it’s pedestrian, serviceable but not spectacular-at least not on a TV screen, which is the only way I can see it. I had no serious problem with Lester’s version, though Lois seemed to be less perky fun than in the original. I just didn’t find it as emotionally involving as it should have been.
    I actually enjoyed Lex in this one but those scenes are Donner’s, not Lester’s.
    I also discovered that there are fan-edited scenes on YouTube, combining the two movies for the Best of Both Possible Superman IIs. From what I can tell, the pursuit of the perfect fan hybrid edit is a growth industry. It shows how passionate some fans are but also how unsatisfied they are with both versions.
    I haven’t watched the full Donner cut so I will reserve final judgement until I see it. Which, of course, I will as soon as I get out of the fan edit rabbit hole.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. >I’ll try not to be too nerdy and annoying about it

    I hereby threaten to stop reading this blog unless you go right ahead and be nerdy and annoying about every bit of difference between the two. No holding back details.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Yes, I think 100 blog posts is the amount necessary to turn me into a Superman nerd, too. I’m reading Reddit threads, for Rao’s sake! I am already lost in the Donner/Lester Multiverse. And really, they’re both “officially sanctioned” versions of the creation known as “Superman II”, so how can you not cover them both?

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Yeesh! If that scene is Lois being smart, the alternative would have to involve recasting the part with a slab of granite. Not only would she have to be spectacularly dumb to notice Clark’s resemblance to Superman only after she’s been in a whole movie with the two of them, but the dialogue you quote is just excruciatingly awful. It’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of six sitting through Lois’ nudge-nudge, wink-wink game with the word “super,” and the rest of it isn’t much better.

    This brings up one of the serious problems with the first movie. It’s natural to think that if you just cut out the dead stuff, the remaining 80 minutes or so would have been a pretty good movie. That would start you with the first scene in the Daily Planet office. When you watch the existing cuts, that scene is a pretty fair homage to His Girl Friday and similar films of the 1930s and 1940s. But it only works because it’s such a relief that the opening 47 minutes of non-entertainment are over and we’re finally allowed to watch the actual movie. If you enter from freedom and start with that sequence, you’ll notice right away that while the actors move and sound like they’re doing a classic screwball comedy, the lines they have to speak are clunky and witless, with none of the glittering wit that still makes those movies fun to watch today. Start the second movie with this scene, and you’ll retroactively expose that deficiency of the first movie, leading the audience to wonder why they came back to the theater to see another installment in the franchise.

    Bad as the Eiffel Tower scene is, at least it isn’t a continuation of the badness of the first movie. Nor are its faults pervasive throughout this movie as the subpar dialogue is in the first one. Commenters on yesterday’s post mentioned that they had watched Superman II more than once and had entirely forgotten that the Eiffel Tower scene- you couldn’t do that if it represented weaknesses that kept recurring throughout the whole film. So if this scene was the alternative, I’d say the Eiffel Tower scene was the lesser evil.

    Like

    1. “Bad as the Eiffel Tower scene is, at least it isn’t a continuation of the badness of the first movie.”

      No, it’s its own fresh badness.
      I prefer Donner Lois to Lester Lois. Lester Lois is lacking. I think Donner got a better performance from Margot. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something off about Lester’s Lois.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Maybe Margot Kidder was trying to adapt her acting style to Christopher Reeve’s. In the first movie, each of the actors did a good job individually, but since no two of them takes the same basic approach to the craft you can’t help but notice them acting. In some scenes it’s enough of a distraction that you wonder if they knew they were all in the same movie.

        Superman II is not without its shortcomings, but that’s one problem it doesn’t have. For example, when Lex and his crew share the screen with the Phantom Zone baddies, the contrast between the grandiose style of the one trio and the earthy style of the other is funny. If the same chaos had prevailed among the actors in this movie as in the second, that joke wouldn’t have been possible. No three actors in that one worked enough in the same way that you would reflexively divide them into subgroups.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. “I’d want to see the paperwork on that.”

    Clark did.

    But then he pretended that Lois’s editing mark-up just confused him.

    I’m amazed at the height difference. Even when she’s in heels and he’s doing the Slouch of Don’t Mind Me. I forgot just how apart they were, when they saw eye-to-eye.

    “there’s something off about Lester’s Lois”
    Donner’s lady got moxie, ya see, the gal’s got spunk. Charmin’. Relentless. She can wear a fella right out, I tell ya. One smart tough cookie, ya know, Toots? It’s fortunate for the world that not too many broads wanna be a girl reporter like that dame. One o’ her is all the Daily Planet could handle, fer shure.

    Donnor’s movie would have begun with Lois figuring it out, then end with the Flight of Fuggedaboudit. Thematic unity.

    But not nearly as exciting as starting a movie with with Le Bomb Threat. A poorly written bit of script, but a great >idea< to start a comic book film with risk, action and spectacle. Movie 1 had the grandeur and tragedy of Krypton, the grandeur and flatness of Smallville, the grandeur and magic of lifting helicopters and kitty cats and girl reporters through the sky. And a bunch of other stuff. For Movie 2, the audience is up to speed on the situation, let's get right to it! What else is he gonna lift thru the sky! Ooh, how about Le Bomb!

    What if Lois had the newspaper with her, along with her phrase book? We don't even need the explanation that it was free on Le Concorde. And she's always got a marker pen in her purse. Cause that's what brave news gals with moxie do, ya see.

    So she doodles, obviously a strong talent, rather than spelling, her weakness, while nervously hanging out at the bottom of the elevator.

    Then when Superman saves her, the paper could get dropped and shredded in the elevator machinery. She could confront the guy who flies in to save her, then goes "humph" at his bratty cute little love interest and flies off when she says she's figured it out.

    Once back at the Planet, Clark denies everything and Perry sends the bickering duo to Niagara Falls.

    Meanwhile on the Moon….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And another fan edit is born!
      I don’t think the problem is that Lois lacks spunk. I think it’s that the movie lacks heart.
      There’s a scene where Lois is crying and it looks like someone plastered fake tears on her face. Donner would have shot until he got real tears. Lester was fine with “good enough” even if you become aware that what you’re seeing is an actor acting instead of a character feeling. Superman losing Lois again is pretty passionless for a tragic end to a supposedly great love story. He could have just as easily been washing his hands of her.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Great comment! Yes! You put your finger right on it.

        Donnor kept shooting until he had the verisimilitude in the take. No matter how outlandish the comic moment, it had to include heart before he was done.

        Even when some people found it boring,
        Donner’s film had Kryptonian crisis with heart.
        He had space incubator tutorial with heart.
        He had Smallville with heart.
        He had screwball comedy with heart.
        He had magical sky rescue with heart.
        And so on…
        Including THAT scene of Lois’s death. With a hell of a lot of anguished heart.

        It seems Lester’s theme wasn’t verisimilitude, but fun.
        Hey, it’s fun to see Lois and Supes at the Eiffel Tower.
        Check it out, it’s fun to see the evil Kryptonians on the moon.
        They’re evilly redoing Mount Rushmore! How fun is that!
        Clark’s back for revenge on the trucker! This is gonna be fun!

        Which made for a movie that in some ways, was more fun.
        But in a lot of ways, lost a LOT of heart once Donner was gone.

        But it is a lot easier to crank out a schedule and budget if All Ya Need is Fun, Fun, Fun is All Ya Need.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. See, this works!

      The problem with Lois figuring it out in the newsroom is that she does it with Clark right there. I get that that’s the whole setup, that she looks back and forth from Clark to Superman’s picture, and it’s to get the dialogue rolling, but there’s nowhere to go from there. Even if Clark denies it, which of course he does, she knows, and every scene between them HAS to be about that fact.

      If Lois figures it out when Clark isn’t in front of her, you can do the “hmmm…wait…hmmm…but” gradual dawning thing, then sometime during the honeymoon suite scene have it all come together in a blinding flash. This doesn’t make Lois look dumb, if it’s done right. It’s relatable: everybody’s suddenly grasped something that should be obvious but was so close to home we couldn’t focus on it without the pieces in just the right place.

      I get all the reasons for both the Eiffel Tower and the newsroom opening–I wish they could have been distilled into something like your scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yesterday I was looking for the Donner Cut on HBO Max. Instead I found “Lois & Clark,” the 90s series with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, and rewatched the 1st episode.

    I know, this is a *movie* blog, but I have to put in a plug for L&C. It has more humor, more glitz, and more guest stars than any movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hey, that’s me! I’m the Anthony!

    Here’s the thing: I don’t disagree with you at all. This scene is way better than the Eiffel Tower sequence. Like I said in that post, I agree wholeheartedly that Donner’s Superman movie is better than either with Lester’s name on them.

    What bothers me is when people (not you!) say things like “They fired the great Richard Donner and replaced him with this hack Richard Lester.” Which is the opposite of what’s true outside of Superman. Lester’s the guy who made a series of delightful comedies and Donner’s the guy who made four Lethal Weapons.

    Take Superman out of the equation, and Lester’s an interesting director with a unique style, and Donner’s a bland journeyman.

    Liked by 2 people

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