Of all the variable incarnations of motion pictures that exist within the world, there is perhaps none more elusive than the legendary TV version. This holds particularly true in the instance of films made before television censors officially threw up their arms and said "We give up" after Dennis Franz's flabby backside first appeared on late night television airings. Prior to that, many theatrical outings underwent sometimes drastic re-edits before they could be shown to the still-sensitive primetime audiences of the late '70s and early '80s.
One good example is the near-legendary network-added prologue to Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964). When it first aired on ABC in '77, network executives objected to the nihilistic nature of the film, so they hired Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman to shoot a new scene with the late great Harry Dean Stanton (as a prison warden) and an unknown Clint Eastwood stand-in in order to give Eastwood's character a "purpose." In other instances, new footage would be shot (sometimes with a film's original cast members, sometimes not) to pad out the runtime of the film ‒ an exercise B-movie king Roger Corman would habitually engage in in order to sell (and resell) a title to networks.
And then there's Richard Donner's genre-defining superhero film, Superman.
Originally released to theaters in 1978 with a 143-minute runtime, the original theatrical cut of the Warner Bros. DC Comics adaptation has seen numerous releases since then, including a compressed 127min videocassette version. It wasn't until 2000, however, that Donner was able to re-stitch the film back together for the newly-formed DVD market. While the resulting 151-minute "Director's Cut" restoration (and its oft-controversial color timing and new sound effects) has since become the closest thing to "canon" as can be, it wasn't the most complete cut of the film. Rather, that honor was bestowed to one of two (!) extended versions created by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to sell to networks in the early '80s.
But whereas Monte Hellman's opening for A Fistful of Dollars could almost be viewed as being formed to appease the religious right, the Salkinds' reason for creating an extended cut of Superman was something ripped right out of the seven deadly sins themselves. Taking full advantage of an option to charge networks by the minute, a jaw-dropping 182-minute edit of Superman was created and sold to ABC in 1982 as a two-part miniseries. This was followed by a staggeringly long 188-minute version, which primarily aired on international stations before popping up on KCOP in L.A. a few years later. In the decades that followed, that final international incarnation became the Holy Grail of Super-fans ‒ even if the only way they could see it was 1.33:1 pan-and-scan copies recorded off of TV.
Fortunately, every now and then, a miracle occurs within the world of home video. In the latter half of the 2000s, an all-but-accidental copy of A Fistful of Dollars' prologue ‒ culled straight from a Betamax recording of the original 1977 network premiere ‒ accompanied MGM's 2-Disc Collector's Set DVD release. But even that little slice of awesomeness cannot compare to the discovery of the original film source of the Warner Archive Collection's unveiling of Superman: The Movie - Extended Cut, meaning this discovery could be restored and released in beautiful High-Definition! In fact, this recently unearthed print could very well be superior to the previously-released now "canon" Director's Cut in terms of its visual quality.
While the color timing image tends to teeter between just right and little on the pinkish side, the overall balance is quite an improvement over the 2011 Blu-ray release of the original Director's Cut BD, which, for the record, is included here as an bonus (along with the same special features as before). The image is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio from a nicely-tuned 2K scan. As far as the aural aspects of this must-have item go for the Extended Cut, the Warner Archive has taken its original mono soundtrack (it was created for television in the early '80s, years before the words "In Stereo Where Available" began popping up at the bottom of our TV screens) and turned it into a wonderful DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack (note: the credit sequences retain the Stereo mix from the Director's Cut).
As for the Extended Cut itself? Well, wow. There is so much to say about this cut, that it could hardly be squeezed into one teeny ol' article. From the get-go, you'll notice differences. Some, such as the expanded destruction of Krypton in the beginning and the great earthquake towards the finale, are impossible to not notice. In fact, they're so long, one wonders if they didn't bring in '70s disaster movie artist Irwin Allen to assist in the editing booth. A great deal of the "new" footage focuses on Gene Hackman's excellent Lex Luthor and his hapless minions, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. And since Hackman is technically the lead actor here (Marlon Brando received top-billing because he was being Marlon Brando about it), that's a good thing.
Granted, there is a great deal of comedy afoot in these scenes, which could either make or break the movie for you, depending on how seriously you insist on taking imaginary characters with the ability to fly and breathe in outer space (and you know who you are). But for those of you who grew up with an appreciation for what Richard Donner's Superman was ‒ a heartfelt homage to the comic strips, Saturday Matinee Serials, and kiddie television series of the past ‒ a little extra comedy certainly won't hurt your feelers any. Nor should the option of being able to view the granddaddy of all theatrical superhero movies (serials notwithstanding) in two entirely different versions.
In short: bravo, Warner Archive!
(I just hope this means some extended TV cuts of those old Irwin Allen disaster movies are right around the corner.)