IT’S A BIRD … IT’S A PLANE … IT’S SUPERMAN! (1975) – It’s the bomb that asks the musical question “How many Lembecks can you handle?” Even the most die-hard Superman fans would have a hard time forcing themselves to watch all of this made for tv movie version of the 1966 stage musical.
The needlessly awkward title is a viewer’s first hint that this cringe-inducing production will fail to live up to its potential. The second hint comes in the form of the distractingly cheap illustrated backdrops in every scene. Even Donny and Marie would have nixed those sets.
Despite music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams and script by David Newman & Robert Benton this Superman musical was Broadway’s biggest flop in history as of the 1960s. It’s no great shakes in its televised form, either.
An early song, titled We Need Him, is actually pretty catchy and had me hoping for something halfway decent. Unfortunately most of the other songs are weak at best and annoying at worst. You’ve Got Possibilities and Ooh, Do You Love You are the only other standouts.
Some of the comedy bits are reminiscent of the intentional camp of the 1960s Batman tv series, except for very seldom being actually funny. Only a few of the jokes land, but the failings of the songs and comedy bits are not the fault of the cast members, who try very hard and who have proven themselves in many other productions.
The two stars are Kenneth Mars as Max Mencken, an egotistical Daily Planet columnist and David Wayne as mad scientist Dr Abner Sedgwick. Yes, not only are the VILLAINS the real stars of this musical but the creative team didn’t even bother having the mad scientist character be Lex Luthor.
Superman himself is virtually a supporting character in his own musical and is played by young David Wilson, who does what he can with the weak material. He’s better as Clark Kent than he is as Superman, since the Clark Kent role lets his comedic abilities shine through.
Lesley Ann Warren plays Lois Lane and gives it her all, even in the fourth-rate songs, making me feel sorry for her for being stuck in this dreck. Oddly enough, when Wilson is doing his “square”, eyeglass-wearing Clark Kent turn he and Warren have a sort of Brad and Janet feel to them.
Loretta Swit portrays Sydney, the slinky femme fatale reporter at the Daily Planet. Her performance is even better than Lesley Ann Warren’s even though her character goes nowhere, storywise.
When Sydney vamps the love-lorn Clark Kent during the song You’ve Got Possibilities a viewer will understandably assume she’s going to make a play for Clark, thus setting up a conflict with Lois Lane. You even figure that maybe seeing another woman with Clark will make Lois get possessive of the mild-mannered toy she never wants to play with, but nope.
Instead of that, the potential subplot sputters out in the next scene as we see that Sydney was just getting Clark Kent primed … for Sydney to fix him up with Lois Lane. We join them as Clark and Lois are already sharing a long, deep kiss so there’s not even any buildup to Lois’ change of attitude toward Clark. Weird.
Allen Ludden plays Perry White and is adequate but nothing truly memorable. (“The password is … mediocre.” Had to be said.)
Gary Owens provides the intentionally melodramatic narration and is sheer perfection. If this thing were better written, Gary’s bits could have been as enjoyable as the old “What’s THIS?” and “Same Bat-time … Same Bat-channel” moments on the Adam West Batman show.
Malachi Throne, Harvey Lembeck and Al Molinaro portray the leaders of a group of Guys & Dolls style gangsters who want Superman eliminated for obvious reasons. A new song, It’s A Great Country, was added to the musical just for them in this telefilm. Their singing and dancing will make you wince.
As for the main villains, Max Mencken (played by Jack Cassidy on Broadway) wants to destroy Superman out of jealousy over the attention he gets and the way Lois Lane fawns over him. Dr Abner Sedgwick wants Supes out of the way because he’s an obstacle to his plans to conquer the world and destroy Sweden for never awarding him a Nobel Prize.
Max and Dr Sedgwick blow up City Hall and launch a public campaign to discredit Superman in the eyes of the public. (Wait a minute, isn’t that a variation on Lex Luthor’s plan in Batman v Superman decades later?) Sedgwick also uses a Death Ray and devises a computer which reveals to him that Superman is really Clark Kent.
Naturally, all the plots and schemes of the bad guys fail and our hero prevails in the end.
The one true distinction of It’s A Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman! is its niche in Trivia Heaven. That distinction is one that only comic book buffs may appreciate. Two supporting characters named Jerry and Joe are cutesy in-joke references to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two creators of Superman who were unsung for decades.
The first professional credit for the pair as the character’s creators would not come until the 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, but the 1966 musical gave them their due in tongue-in-cheek fashion. “Jerry” and “Joe” boost Superman’s flagging spirits during the time when the villains have turned the world against him.
The pair talk about how one of them would like to draw stories about Superman and the other would like to write stories about him. Their fan devotion to the superhero restores his motivation, prompting him to consummate the in-joke by telling Jerry and Joe “Without you there wouldn’t be a Superman!”
When your musical’s most enduring moment is a cultural reference that has to be detected with the aid of an electron microscope you probably know you’ve failed at your primary undertaking.
Speaking of barely perceptible pop culture references, Joe himself is played by Michael Lembeck, Harvey’s son and the reason for my thoroughly lame opening joke about “How many Lembecks can you handle?”
It’s A Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman! contains a few bits of business that succeed in entertaining you. Unfortunately those pitifully few oases are separated by vast deserts of groaningly subpar material that make this thing a trial to get through.
FOR MY REVIEW OF JAMES BATMAN, AN UNAUTHORIZED BATMAN MOVIE WHICH TEAMS HIM UP WITH JAMES BOND CLICK HERE.
FOR MY LEO FONG MOVIE MARATHON CLICK HERE
FOR MY ROBERT GINTY MOVIE MARATHON CLICK HERE