By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
The Village of Barons is celebrating 45 years since the release of the 1978 blockbuster hit, Superman.
Various locations in southern Alberta, including the Barons school, transformed into Smallville for several weeks during the summer of 1977. Because of the number of local extras, and the sheer scope and budget of the film for its day, the film is of particular interest and importance for many people in the area, including the Barons Historical Society, which currently has a myriad of original photos, articles and memorabilia on display at the local History Centre.
The History Centre has in its possession original newspaper clippings from local and national media, original photos of locals taken on set, and tons of trivia, and other little-known anecdotes of the making of one of the highest-grossing films of its time.
Produced by the Salkinds, a father-son production duo, the decision was made to shoot Superman and its sequel Superman II simultaneously and was the first time this process was used to intentionally shoot multiple separate features. As a result, modern acting contracts include the “Salkind clause”, which clearly identifies the number of films being made, although much of the original dually-shot footage for the sequel did not end up in the second film.
Stockard Channing, who appeared in 1978’s Grease as the bold and audacious Rizzo, appeared in early screen tests for the role of Lois Lane. Before the unknown Christopher Reeve was cast in the title role, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Neil Diamond were all considered for the role.
Initially, Nick Nolte signed on to play the Superman/Clark Kent. Nolte, who was largely unknown at the time, eventually backed out of the film after multiple delays. Research materials displayed in Barons also provide a robust background on pre-production of the film.
Although Warner Brothers Studios was initially reticent that the film would lurk in the shadow of the first Star Wars film, an early teaser trailer proved to be a success, churning up interest and enthusiasm from viewers and helping to keep hope, and production, alive. The film included impressive visual effects for the day, meaning that the cost to make the film was substantially higher than anticipated. While larger budget films of the era typically cost around $25 million, Superman faced continuous cost overruns, and ended up costing an estimated $55 million. However, the box office earnings were equally impressive, bringing in over $300 million in revenue for the studio.
Following its theatrical release in late 1978, Superman received a “Special Achievement” Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Score and Best Sound.
An article preserved in the Barons History Centre published by “The Star” reported that by this time, production costs had soared, “up, up and away” to $33 million from August 1977. It was reported that Christopher Reeve was paid $250,000 for his nine months of work on the project while Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman earned $3 million and $1 million, respectively.
In an article published Aug. 13, 1977, former Lethbridge Herald staff writer, Roger Epp, reported on the week-long shoot which took place in and around the Village of Barons. Mayor of Barons at the time, Frank Machacek was brimming with excitement from the Village’s time in the limelight with over 70 Barons and district locals auditioning and appearing in the film, primarily in the train and school scenes. Machacek himself appeared in-scene as a spectator on the train.
Those involved in the movie magic were primarily 14-16 year olds who were motivated by both a lack of finances and curiosity of the inward workings of tinsel town. It turned out, the job was not all it was cracked up to be. Locals, including dozens from Lethbridge, were bussed to filming locations at around 6:30 a.m. where they would remain in 1940’s-era hair and costuming for the duration of the shoot. The extras were often at the mercy of the weather, and were required to wait for clouds to roll through before shooting could commence. An untitled interview, stored at the Barons History Centre, with Glenn Ford who played Clark Kent’s “Pa” in the film, commented on the region’s “unpredictable” weather, which prompted long delays while filming in southern Alberta. Ford also recollected a moment of panic while filming one scene in particular in southern Alberta. According to the film’s director, Richard Donner, a brake test was supposed to be done prior to filming a scene in the town of Blackie, which depicts Ford driving a pickup truck. He told the reporter, “it was coming down the hill and we noticed that it wasn’t slowing down.” Ford reportedly tried to use the handbrake, but slammed into some equipment, thankfully without any injuries.
At the time of filming, locals were hopeful the film would bring visitors and interest to the area. Today, the Barons Historical Society is hoping some good marketing can help garner more interest from visitors, and fans of the film.
The Barons History Centre houses documents and records from Barons and surrounding areas and is open every Wednesday from 1-4 p.m. at 301 Main St.