RETRO MOVIE REVIEW – It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman (DVD)

superman1975

Brief Disclaimer: The Low Budget Review is not solely a recent entertainment review blog.  Once in a while, we, your friendly neighborhood reviewers, are exposed to something so spectacular or hideous that we are compelled to provide our readership with a full-fledged review.   Age holds no sway over such power.

 Ahem.

 My exposure to a Canadian DVD version of the 1975 made-for-TV movie musical adaptation of the 1966 Broadway flop It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman was just too delicious of a review opportunity to pass-up.  Superficially, it seems to have all the right ingredients for a success story: music and lyrics by the Tony winning Bye, Bye, Birdie duo of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, a script by future Superman: The Movie and Superman II writing team David Newman and Robert Benton, a cast including Loretta Swit of M*A*S*H* fame, Kenneth Mars (Franz Liebkind of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Inspector Kemp from Young Frankenstein), Happy Days’ Al Molinaro, Lesley Warren (Cinderella in the 1965 television adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, as well as numerous television and film credits) and dashing breakthrough actor David Wilson as Superman.  However, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman is something far more delightful: a terrible, TERRIBLE movie. 

 It’s so TERRIBLE in fact, that I enjoyed nearly every second of it.  To me, there are two varieties of bad movies.  There are those that take themselves seriously.  These truly are terrible.  Then there are those that don’t, that know how terrible they are, how every line is a work of literary garbage, that each character is shallow and one-dimensional and the only thing that can possibly rescue the entire production from becoming ABSOLUTE TRIPE is to spice up the ham for a full-blown main course of celluloid spamwiches.  Thankfully, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman is of the latter persuasion.

From the onset we are introduced to our characters in one of the most deliciously campy ways I can think of: the unnamed, deep-voiced narrator.  Each lead stares into the camera and reveals what they actually think of…SUPERMAN.  We are introduced to Max Menkin, a Daily Planet reporter who obviously dislikes Superman.  The flighty Lois Lane is a bit of an airhead, and is clearly (and mandatorily) in love with the Big Blue Boy-Scout.  Sydney Carleton is the high-maintenance girlfriend of Max Menkin.  Dr. Abner Sedgewick is introduced as a “kindly, fatherly, loveable mad scientist” who says Superman stands between him and, unsurprisingly, the world.  Clark Kent/Superman is essentially self-explanitory.

Bold letters then flash across the screen, revealing the format of the musical: CHAPTERS.  “Chapter One: Who He is and How He Came to Be” involves panels from the original Action Comics Superman issue interwoven with an aged couple discovering a cardboard rocket ship labeled “Contents: One Innocent Babe”.  These are the Kents.  As young Clark grows he displays superpowers, leaves Kansas when his parents die and becomes a reporter with the secret identity of…SUPERMAN (this origin story is burned into the American psyche).  Thus begins the song “We Need Him,” as sung by the citizens of Metropolis City.  A “majestic” skyline glitters behind them (consisting of several sheets of white paper draped on wooden frames).  Buildings are unevenly hand-drawn with permanent marker.  Every once in a while you can see the paper flutter.  This exquisite set design is accompanied by Halloween costumed actors who gracelessly lurch across the stage singing a stock ‘60s pop number.  I’m unsure whether the lyrics were intended to be as self-satirizing as they are in reality.  My favorite nugget of text: (referring to a heroic act achieved by Superman): “He flew my asthmatic son to Albuquerque” (why Metropolis hospitals are incapable of dealing with Asthma is a great mystery of the DC Universe).  Upon completion of the number, we move on to…the rest of the show.            

The central plot is so cliché it’s inadvertently ingenious.  Mad scientist Abner Sedgewick wants to rule the world and in order to do so he must kill Superman.  He wants to rule the world to destroy Sweden because he lost the Nobel Prize ten times.  Let that sink in.  Along the way he allies himself with the mafia and jealous reporter Max Menkin.  Meanwhile, Superman is saving the day as always.  As Clark Kent he can get nowhere near Lois Lane, who rarely even remembers he exists (a running gag).  Sydney Carleton, Max’s mistreated girlfriend, pities Kent and reminds him (with the only number from this show that became well-known) that “You’ve Got Possibilities”.  The rest of the musical involves Sedgewick constructing a “Superman Secret Identity Detection” computer, Superman becoming depressed after he is too slow to save City Hall from exploding, and the ultimate triumph of our hero.  The plot is simple, standard, clichéd in all the right places, outrageously campy, and constantly tongue-in-cheek.           

This plot-related campiness is supplemented by the music.  Charles Strouse takes the upbeat energy of 1960s pop music and paints it pink, throws some sugar on top then pours on the Easy Mac.  His score can go from bubble gum to sugary to cheesy and back (or all three at the same time) and is just as clichéd as the script and lyrics.  Need to supplement a punch with a bang?  Have the brass section play a loud staccato chord (major if Superman’s winning, minor if the thugs are).  Need your villain to seem a tad bit classier?  Add some harpsichord.  Mention an Asian character?  Toss in a cameo of the pentatonic scale (I apologize for using technical musical terms to the non-musically inclined).           

The actors are fantastically terrible as well.  David Wilson’s Superman is goofy, smug, and amiable.  He also can’t shed his Brooklyn accent.  Wilson’s Clark Kent is mild-mannered enough, but the only real distinction between the two characters is the octave difference in spoken pitch.  His singing is also terribly out of tune.  Kenneth Mars plays it straight as sleazy news reporter Max Menkin, and is obviously enjoying every second of hamming it up.  His physical comedy is actually quite good, and he really does the best he can with terrible lines and choreography.  Loretta Swit as Syndey Carleton is a throwaway character who gets the big song but could have been cut from the show.  Her performance is actually quite charming, though she switches accents between singing and speaking.  Lesley Warren may be the weakest cast member, though I’m not sure whether it was a directorial choice or her personal decision as an actor.  She lacks the sex appeal and strength that has always been present in her character of Lois Lane.  Instead, she is ditzy and self-absorbed and speaks every line as if half-drunk and sugar-high at the same time.  Lastly, David Wayne is deliciously DEVIOUS and flat-out Shakespearian as the evil Dr. Sedgewick.  However, the moment he begins to dance, any hint of vile EVIL is SHED and a doofy grin and perpetual spirit fingers consume his mien.  Like the musical, this occurrence is so terrible it results in something altogether hilarious.           

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman is truly one of the worst musical films ever released.  The production values are pathetic, the choreography is horrendous, the direction is insulting, the script and music are clichéd, and all are topped with layer upon layer of hot, gooey Velveeta.  Thankfully, the actors realize the absurd world they have been shoved into and insert their tongues so firmly inside their cheeks that they start to enjoy themselves.  As a result, the audience is able to find immense amounts of mirth from how truly self-aware It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman is of its own silliness.  Would I recommend it to the general film/musical watching public?  Certainly not.  However, if you get a few friends together and have a couple of hours to kill, there are (shockingly) worse things you could do.  2/10.  Necca out.

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2 Responses to “RETRO MOVIE REVIEW – It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman (DVD)”

  1. I can’t believe that something so awful that you watched twice got a 2/10.

  2. it got a two out of ten simply because it earned a 1 each time it was watched. I had the honor of being there for one of them, ’twas an experience not to be forgotten. haha.

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