Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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The Donner Party is Over

At long last, I have seen something that would resemble Richard Donner's cut of Superman II. For years, it has been considered almost axiomatic that as decent a film overall as it was, the movie would have been much better had the Salkinds allowed Richard Donner to complete the second film. Now, having seen the so-called "Donner Cut" as released on DVD, I'm not so sure. The Donner cut is not the ULTIMATE IMPROVED version of the film that so many were expecting. Some of this was inevitable because of where production on Superman II ceased in order to concentrate on finishing Superman, but some of it were creative decisions that would not have been altered overmuch by changing the ending of Superman.

The real question now is what did Donner bring to the film versus what Lester brought to it. There is no denying that there is a goofiness to the humor in Lester's footage, but as Ilya Salkind rather validly points out in his commentary, so there was in Donner's as well. What becomes most apparent in the new cut of the film is that Lester brought an adult sensibility to the relationship between Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Superman (Christopher Reeve) that doesn't exist in the Donner cut. While the new edit of the film is, admittedly, incomplete, mixing the original Donner footage with that shot by Lester and some screen tests, and with as much Lester footage peeled back as possible, it nevertheless presents many completed scenes that are just not as good as those in the Lester cut.

Both Tom Mankiewicz and Donner gush over the idea of opening the second film with Lois tossing herself out of the window of the Daily Planet. All of these scenes were completed by Donner, and I'm sorry, but I am not as enamored of the idea as they are. Lois comes across right away as being unstable (perhaps why Donner and company cast Margot Kidder in the role, but I digress) and it therefore cuts severely into any sense of affection the audience might have for her. The scenes leading up to her jumping out of the window are fine enough, but unfortunately the pay-off is Lois covered in fruit. While the scene in the Eiffel Tower isn't perfect, it's absence in the Donner cut actually demonstrates how much the film needed it on many levels - but I'll get back to that in a moment. While I agree that one of the advantages sequels have over their predecessors is that the filmmakers can assume a certain familiarity with the characters, but unfortunately while this scene would have worked later in the film, but as a re-introduction of the character it just didn't work for me. Furthermore, by trimming the Lester footage down to its bare essentials to tell the plot, there is very little of Clark and Lois or Superman and Lois, and since ultimately, the film hinges on Superman giving up his powers for her, and if their relationship doesn't mean anything to the viewer than it doesn't work as well.

And I have to say that with the exception of some excellent scenes towards the end, outside the Fortress of Solitude and when Superman brings her home, Lester's footage of Lois and Superman is much more effective on many different levels. While it may not be fair to compare the screen test footage of the revelation scene with its counterpart in the Lester cut, it should be remembered how invested both actors are in that sequence, and in the 'magic kiss' scene at the end which contains one of the most moving conversations in any film of this genre.

Okay... the Eiffel Tower scene. This was shot by Lester to replace the fact that the intention was to end Superman with a cliffhanger. The Donner cut has a brief bit of recap showing how the original film was supposed to end, with Superman diverting the missiles and opening the Phantom Zone. Since this was not shown happening in Superman - the three villains are seen at the beginning of the film (and briefly are passed by Kal-El on the way to Earth in the 2000 cut) but do not re-appear - there was a need to insert a reason for their escape from the Phantom Zone. Now... the scene at the Eiffel Tower accomplishes two things... it frees the villains, yes, but it also re-establishes Superman. This is something that is not done in the Donner cut; while he uses his super powers as Clark at the beginning of the film to save Lois, the first time we really see the boy scout in all his primary colored glory is at Niagara Falls. Until his return in Metropolis, all we see Superman do is save one kid. The diversion of a hydrogen bomb about to make Parisian flambé is a feat it takes Superman to accomplish, and while Lois is certainly reckless in the scene, it is a lot less obnoxious than her throwing herself out the window. One of the things I was most interested in seeing was more of the rapid-fire Hawksian dialogue in the Daily Planet ("And don't call me sugar!"), but there really wasn't that much of it in the Donner cut. In fact, some of the reshot Lester scenes (in which Lois suddenly has an office at the Daily Planet) have more of that element than what exists in Donner's version.

Now, the much scoffed at 'Magic Kiss' may not have been the best solution to the problem of the ending, but unfortunately without Donner having had the chance to film an alternative ending after the 'turning back the world' maneuver was moved to the first film, the Donner cut is forced to present this as the conclusion of the film. Now, this may have worked as an end had Superman not used it, but here it not only is a strange retread, but it also non-continuous with the two scenes Donner shot to go after it. Why does Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) have a new camera if his old one was never destroyed? Why should Lois have any sort of memory of going to the North Pole at all? Why does Perry White (Jackie Cooper) wonder what just happened if nothing did? Most annoyingly, while Rocky (Pepper Martin) may have been a complete asshole, Superman taking revenge on him takes on a fascist aspect when one considers that in this reality, the two had never met before. Beating up a guy for something that he might do isn't in keeping with the Superman persona, and doesn't sit well. Ironically, this scene works just fine in the Lester cut, in which Rocky is only getting his just desserts.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the Donner cut that are infinitely superior to the Lester version. The restored scenes with Jor-El now play much more naturally, and I must admit that I enjoy the additional Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) material. But... it is the confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude that is one of the best aspects of the new version of the film. No thrown "S," no finger beams, no teleportation or holograms. Just the cruelty of General Zod (Terence Stamp) against Superman's wits and his familiarity with his foes. The battle in Metropolis also plays a bit better in the Donner cut as, while it is culled from Lester shot footage, the silly ice cream gags, toupee zingers and that guy laughing on the phone as Armageddon is breaking out around him are removed.

I must say that I am quite glad that the sequences with Marlon Brando were completed early in the schedule, as while I felt that Susannah York's maternal appeals in the Lester version worked, the sequences between Brando and Christopher Reeve are much more confrontational, and that look that he gives Lois is priceless. By making Superman's re-attainment of powers something that he must pay for with tangible means, the new version of the film completes an arc started in the first film and developed in the additional Brando scene in the 2000 cut of Superman.¹ It also makes the scene at the end with Zod more interesting, as now the connection between Kal-El and Jor-El has been reinforced, and Superman is using the tools given him by his father to defeat the Kryptonians.

However, the presence of the villains is again hobbled by Michael Thau's interest in cutting back as much of the Lester material as possible. In order to maintain them as a constant threat, he cuts to and from the Zod sequences making them too short as a result. The film therefore feels much choppier, and the reduction of the footage surrounding the levelling of East Houston minimizes somewhat the threat of Zod, Ursa and Non. There are also little bits and pieces throughout the film that are vestigial remains of subplots established in the Lester version, including Lois' fresh orange juice kick and Non's inability to use his heat vision when he first gets to Earth. These are very distracting, even though the absence of the source of the allusion is understandable. On the other hand, one can't help but notice in Lester's cut the removal of Zod at the White House taking the machine gun and the glee with which he enjoys shredding several guards with it, and after seeing Donner's version, Lester's final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude is eye-rolling in comparison.

The score is mostly re-tracked by Jay Duerr from Superman. While this is little different contextually from what appears in Lester's version, which the much thinner Ken Thorne orchestrations (Ilya Salkind's credibility in this regard is seriously questionable; while he is correct that many of the musicians at the Superman II sessions played on Superman, there is no way that is a 120 piece orchestra), it is rather oafishly done. The scene in which Superman loses his powers is particularly annoying, as are much of the action sequences. For some reason, the same several cues get used over and over again, which I would understand had this not been the score for Superman, from which plenty of raw material exists that could have been molded into a decent score for the film. Interestingly, the selections from Thorne's score that do show up (Lex and Eve heading to the Fortress, the President kneeling, Clark's return to the Fortress, Superman bugging out at Metropolis and the villains at the Fortress) are those that I included on my Man of Steel mix. The larger scale of Williams' recordings benefit the film, which has an okay sound mix, which is why it is so disappointing that the editing job is so haphazard.

The new DVDs feature interesting duelling commentaries; the theatrical Lester version has a talk by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, while Donner and Mankiewicz reteam on the Donner cut as they did on the 2000 version of Superman. While some of Salkind's statements are a bit on the off side - the aforementioned comment about the score, his reasoning behind dropping Marlon Brando from the film - the truth is that his defense of many of the decisions Lester made when he took over Superman II are actually pretty valid. Nobody denies that Richard Donner is the reason why Superman worked so well, but to be honest his attitude on the commentary seems to jibe with Salkind and Spengler's story, and it is pretty easy to believe that it was Donner who broke ties. Donner and Mankiewicz come across as rather smug several times, often deriding choices Lester made that, as I have outlined, I thought work better than what they did. Of course, context is everything, but neither of them seem to want to give the released film any sort of credit at all, despite the fact that it is almost as popular as the first and that it is very coherent despite the tumultuous background the film had. I believe their discussions of making a career out of the franchise - Donner would eventually accomplish this goal with the Lethal Weapon movies - but don't find it too hard to believe that he was very difficult to deal with. I'm not justifying the Salkinds changing Dicks mid-project like that, and I know that Lester didn't get along at all with Kidder, but they were the ones who put the project together and had to make a decision. It is clear that decision had a lot to do with the business aspect of the productions, but by the same token, they got a good film out, one that many people I know liked even better than the original... and Donner didn't, being instead pre-occupied with such immortal classics as Inside Moves and The Toy

Now, my criticisms of the Donner cut is of the version that has been officially released. The truth is that had Donner finished Superman II, it would not have been the same thing. The finale of the film would have required something similar to the Eiffel Tower and 'magic kiss' sequences anyway, and if he had been around to shoot more of the film, it is possible that it would have been a more balanced experience. The brevity of this version of the film is not necessarily something that was part of Donner's design; I feel that his own released version of Superman II would most likely have had a similar running time to that of the Lester theatrical release, and, more importantly, have stood on its own merits as a film of its own, while the Donner cut is ultimately only a curio. What is presented as "The Donner Cut" is at best a compromise between what Donner shot and what was needed to tell the story. If the Lester cut may have dragged in some areas (Niagara Falls), it should be remembered that for all of its unfulfilled potential, his version of Superman II is still a wildly entertaining film. The Donner cut, however, because it is so inextricably linked to the first film, does not play well in its context mostly because of the ending. Combined with the shakier dramatic content and the fact that the film gives the viewer no time to savor anything - which is certainly not consistent with how Donner paced the first film - the existing version of the Donner cut can only be enjoyed in context of knowing the backstory behind the project.

However, it is wonderful to have both versions of the film available. It would be interesting to cut a new version of the film together, one that would include the scenes that play better in the Donner cut but which follows the basic template of Lester's and is consistent with Superman and Superman Returns. This would require the inclusion of the 'magic kiss,' but the payoff would be worthwhile. But as it stands, each version of the film remains somehow flawed, Lester's less so. Ultimately, I think that this current adoration that the Donner cut is getting is only because there are so many things that are different, it is like watching a new film. I think that it will blow over eventually, however, and that of the two Lester's version will be recognized as the more dramatically balanced of the two.

¹ Both the 1978 and 2000 cuts of Superman are included in the new 4 disc/Ultimate Collection. The picture transfer on the 2000 cut is sharper and has brighter colors than the original DVD release, but the improvement is so slight that it may not be apparent on smaller monitors. The theatrical cut looks grainy and fuzzy, not unlike its historical home video appearance, though without the bleached colors that plagued the original laserdisc release of the film (which was the last letterboxed incarnation of that version). As I've mentioned before, I prefer the 2000 cut anyway, and seeing it on the big screen was a fantastic experience. The big news that the theatrical cut was meant to contain the original Dolby Stereo track but doesn't now leads to a mystery... there is a Dolby Surround track on the DVD. I'm not exactly sure if that's a mixdown of the 5.1 track or what. The disc of Superman III definitely has the reported trouble (I wanted to hear the commentary, damn it).

² Ironically enough, this lame, offensive film starred none other than Richard Pryor, whose participation in Superman III marked for many the moment the film series really jumped the shark for good.

We had the annual Union Christmas party on Friday. It took Saturday to recover from it.
Tags: film music, john williams, superman

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