Friday, July 9, 2021

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane . . . It’s Clark Kent, Superstar

Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero is not a biography in the usual sense. Most biographies are not about folks who hail from the dying planet Krypton. But there’s a good deal to say about an all-American superhero who was born in the depths of the Depression, spread his legend through the pages of comic books, graduated to movie serials and early television, then triumphed in big-screen blockbusters. Today, as a member of the Justice League (along with Batman and other larger-than-life types), he’s still going strong.

 Tye, an eminent social historian who’s written biographies of everyone from Satchel Paige to Edward L. Bernays (inventor of the field of public relations), spends a fair amount of time on the not-always-super men behind Superman. In particular, he homes in on the careers of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster, two overgrown boys from Cleveland who launched the Man of Steel, gave him his secret Jewish roots, and ultimately lost control of their creation. But although Tye takes seriously indeed those who’ve invented, published, and merchandised Superman, he devotes himself equally to exploring the cultural implications of Superman’s popularity. As he sees it, we Americans need heroes, perhaps now more than ever, and Superman continues to fill the bill. His strength but also his vulnerability, his Boy Scout code of conduct, his fundamental sadness as the last of his kind, his need to grapple with the challenges posed by a dual identity—all this has attracted legions of ordinary fans, as well as such extraordinary ones as Jerry Seinfeld and basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal.

 Long before Christopher Reeve there was a movie serial Superman, Kirk Alyn, as well as a TV Superman, George Reeves, who played the role starting in 1951. (Reeves’ apparent suicide in 1959 sparked ironic headlines as well as suggestions of foul play.) But the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner brought Superman into a new era of dazzling special effects. For the first time on screen, a Superman really conveyed the joy of flight. He also finally gave up on the idea of changing into his superhero tights in a telephone booth. By 1978, the traditional four-sided enclosure no longer sat on most street corners, so Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent had to make do with a revolving door for a lightning-fast change of clothes.

 Reeve is the heart and soul of Donner’s production. Frankly, I find the somber opening scenes on Krypton, which feature a silver-haired and silver-tongued Marlon Brando as baby Superman’s father, Jor-el, confusing and dull. The Kansas section of the film, in which the young child adopted by the Kents grows to be a sad and lonely young man, is sweet but by no means inspiring. But then we’re in Metropolis (aka New York City) where dweebish reporter Clark Kent metamorphoses into a swashbuckling superhero. When cast, Reeve was known as an actor, not a body-builder. He was 6’4” and handsome, but needed to add 30 pounds of muscle to fill out his spandex suit. As a trained stage performer he brought screwball comedy chops both to his portrait of the bumbling Clark and of the honest, bashful Superman. In courting Margot Kidder’s plucky Lois Lane, he is charmingly boyish, as when he admits that his super-sight tells him that her undies are pink. Then, deliberately emulating a young Cary Grant type, he slumps his shoulders, compresses his spine, raises his vocal pitch, and changes the part in his hair to become a Clark Kent whom even a smart gal like Lois wouldn’t recognize as her own personal superstar. 

 This post is, in part, a tribute to the late Richard Donner, who left us on July 5. May he rest in peace. 



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