White, black, gray, silver, transparent and stainless steel, in every combination and everywhere: this is the non-traditional design sense of villainous corporate recluse Ross Webster. He likes his ornamentation any way he can get it: in swoops, angles, circles, puddles or piled up in heaps. When Ross Webster decorates someplace, it stays decorated.
So I don’t know what to do with this lunatic set. There’s so much of it, and it makes so little sense.
I mean, I’m already on record in strong support of idiosyncratic lair design. Back in the first movie, I wrote extensively about Luthor’s bizarre hideout buried beneath Grand Central Station, which I consider a high point in imaginary architecture.
Like Webster’s office, Luthor’s lair was over-stuffed with knickknacks, statuary, framed pictures and other value-adds. It had a roughly consistent color scheme, and was divided into several sections, including an area for physical fitness.
The idea behind this outré approach to hideout design was that Lex Luthor spent a lot of Superman: The Movie hiding in the basement of a bus station, and it was imperative to distract the audience from thinking about that. That’s why everything was so grand and spacious, with eye-catching elements that fired the imagination. The set made Luthor look clever and important, instead of a homeless huckster hiding from the police.
So I can see how they arrived at Webster’s office in Superman III, because it’s trying to lift the same weight. If your villain is going to spend most of the movie cooped up in his office telling somebody else to go and push some evil buttons for him, then he’s going to need at minimum two telephones on his desk, to assure the audience that he is actually an important person that a lot of people want to speak to. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always three phones.
In Superman II, they didn’t need a set like this, because they had the Phantom Zone criminals, who could go outside and wreak visually compelling havoc — burning snakes, defacing monuments and hitting Superman with flagpoles. Lex Luthor and Ross Webster are indoor kids who don’t do any of their own hitting, so you have to provide them with interesting places to sneer from.
The big exciting sets from Superman: The Movie — Luthor’s underground theme park, the busy warren of the Daily Planet office, the transcendental playspace of the Fortress of Solitude — were designed by John Barry, who Richard Donner informed me was a genius and I believe him. Barry was also the designer for A Clockwork Orange and the first Star Wars movie, and he would have gone on to make a lot more great movies, but unfortunately he died in 1979, while he was working on The Empire Strikes Back.
So when Richard Lester brought everyone back to shoot the sequences needed for Superman II, Peter Murton came on as the new production designer. Murton was the art director for Dr. Strangelove in 1964, and then he worked on several James Bond films — Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) — as well as the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile (1978) and the Frank Langella version of Dracula (1979).
Most of the important Superman II sets had already been constructed before Murton joined the production — they already had the Fortress, the Daily Planet, the truck stop diner and the Oval Office, and Niagara Falls was just sitting there waiting to be filmed next to. I think Murton’s main contribution to the film was the honeymoon suite set, which was fine but didn’t look like anything other than what it was, a big pink box constructed at Pinewood Studios to put actors in.
So this is Murton’s first big splashy set — a steel-gray holding pen for wannabe world-masters. Like Luthor’s dream house, it surrounds the players with ostentatious reminders that whoever lives here is rich, clever, devious and eccentric.
I don’t even know where to start with a description, so I guess I just point at this concept drawing and all the screenshots and just say, there — it’s all of that.
There are multiple seating areas, including some that they don’t even use. There’s Webster’s fancy office chair behind his desk, of course, as well as several sets of modular couches popping up all over the room. There are bookshelves and huge lamps and a fountain in the middle, and every bit of wall that’s left over is etched with elaborate faux-Art Deco ridges and textures.
I say faux-Art Deco, because actual Art Deco has some kind of visual focal point, which leads the eye and gives you something to look at. This set looks like a decorator with attention-deficit disorder got all hopped up on caramel mocha lattes, and walked around pointing at things, saying, I want some Art Deco there, and there, and there, and there, and some more over there, and on this wall, and up and around that door. Just splash it everywhere! Art Deco, Art Deco! I want everything to have some Art Deco on it!
That suits these characters just fine, because they are also highly caffeinated non-stop distraction machines. There’s a moment in this scene where Webster is having a plot-relevant conversation with Mr. Simpson, while Lorelei picks imaginary lint off of Simpson’s coat, and then swings herself into a chair as she kicks up her feet and knocks into Simpson’s briefcase, and then she pretends to pick off another bit of imaginary fluff from her bare leg, plus Vera is over on the side with a compact and tweezers, plucking at her eyebrows.
Why are Lorelei and Vera doing these distracting things while the guys try to have a conversation about the plot? Because Richard Lester thinks it’s funny when you add more and more and more stuff to a scene, and even more. That’s why we had flaming puppet penguins marching around the scene of a bank robbery, while everyone paid attention to the mime who was slipping on gumballs. If something is funny, then more of it is more funny, is the general idea.
So that’s the design principle at work here, which gives you huge looming arcs of stainless steel lighting fixtures hanging over coffee tables with their own conical lighting fixtures, next to some tree branches studded with white flowers, and some pictures hanging on the wall, each with their own individual light fixture, and some random statuary between them, possibly Egyptian-themed.
There’s a whole section of couches over by the wall, which nobody even sits on, with what looks like an enormous pile of small black and white cushions that are of no use to anyone.
There’s also a big marble chess set at an awkward height next to Webster’s desk, which you need to crouch down in order to play, and it’s got huge chess pieces that look like shampoo bottles from a fancy hotel, and look! — behind that, there are a bunch more chairs that nobody even comes close to using during the course of the movie.
And then there’s the exercise area in the back corner, cause if it wasn’t there it would have to be someplace else. This was the period when a Soloflex machine was a popular status symbol, so the idea is that Webster is so rich that he has a whole gym’s worth of equipment in the corner of his office.
Although it’s not super clear whether this is Webster’s office, or his home. A lot of it looks like a living room, and if there’s a workout area, then there’s got to be a shower around here. Oh, and look, there’s the third phone.
Most of the stuff on this set is just scattered around everywhere, cluttering things up, but there are a couple items that get a proper scene all to themselves. My favorite one is the carpet/fountain space in the middle of the room that turns over, to reveal a big silly Bond villain map with blinky lights denoting things.
This is followed by another reveal, where the fireplace splits in half, and you see a second Bond villain map on the wall, because obviously nobody has only one blinky Bond map these days.
So that’s what’s going on with the decor in this movie — it’s not very good, but there’s certainly a lot of it. Of course, it could be worse; just wait until you see Luthor’s penthouse apartment in Superman IV.
This one’s for the ladies
Anybody want to take a stab at identifying the people in the pictures behind Webster’s desk? The clearest shot is a little more than an hour into the film, when Gus phones Webster from Smallville. Ronald Reagan’s all the way to the left, and Muhammad Ali just behind Webster. On the other side, there’s Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, but that’s the best I can do.
This one’s for the ladies
— Danny Horn