“Tomorrow we’ve got 75,000 people in the Dome…and a psycho on the loose.”
We don’t need Dr. Fakey to tell us to avoid the Super Bowl this year—I think the NFL took care of that quite nicely themselves. So, instead of watching multi-millionaires disrespect the anthem and flag of the former United States of America, why don’t you sit down this weekend and relax in front of some old-timey 1970s made-for-TV thrills, such as 1978’s all-star gridiron suspenser, Superdome?
By Paul Mavis
Kino Lorber Studio Classics put out a seriously cleaned-up Blu-ray transfer of ABC’s Superdome, a disaster-era thriller from director Jerry Jameson, starring David Janssen, Donna Mills, Tom Selleck, Jane Wyatt, Van Johnson, Clifton Davis, Ken Howard, Vonetta McGee, Susan Howard, Peter Haskell, Edie Adams, Ed Nelson, Robin Mattson, Michael Pataki, and M. Emmet Walsh.
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As MTVs go, Superdome is enjoyably preposterous…although not nearly as outrageous as that commentary track slapped on the disc (more about that unsportsmanlike conduct down below).
New Orleans, Super Bowl Week. The Cougars‘ General Manager Mike Shelley (David Janssen) jets into town and immediately faces a crisis: where to snag some deep-fried catfish. Luckily, the snatch-of-the-day, foxy reporter, Lainie “get ready for the last name because it foreshadows everything” Wiley (Donna Mills), has cough cough “car trouble” cough cough, and she gets not only a lift into town, but also a promise of a press pass, courtesy of overly-tan, salt-n-pepper chest hair ‘a blowin’ in the wind, reeking-of-cigarettes-and-booze Mike. Mike’s other problem: the wid’er lady Fay Bonelli (Jane Wyatt), the team owner, has a bad ticker so she’s selling the team. She only asks Mike to deliver one more win for her dead husband’s memory, so she can go out with “honor” (yes…that’s for real).
Meanwhile, all sorts of human foibles are on the scrimmage line this week. Impossibly handsome quarterback Jim McCauley (Tom Selleck) is afraid to fly…but not afraid of some illegal use of hands on nubile stew Rita (Lisa Wolff). 12-year veteran crybaby Dave Walecki (Ken Howard) has a bum knee (walk it off!) and a worse wife: tight, humorless Nancy (Susan Howard), who waits until her washed-up husband actually makes it to the Super Bowl to give him unending existential sh*t about their marriage (thanks, Nance—I don’t need to concentrate at all these next few days!). Cold, calculating Cougars‘ Business Manager Doug Collins (Peter Haskell) doesn’t want any more blacks on the team (not good for business, he claims, because “things have changed,”). Aging management agent Chip Green (Van Johnson) has to land Tom Selleck (Johnson positively swoons when he first sees Selleck) or lose his job, according to his glad-handing douchebag boss, George Beldridge (Ed Nelson). Chip’s pretty daughter, Gail (Robin Mattson), thinks she can help
Gramps Dad by getting close to anyone on the team. And former Cougar star P.K. Jackson (Clifton Davis), making it rain up in he-yah with a flashy S.B. party, is there to do a job, a dirty job that involves team trainer Whitley (M. Emmet Walsh), who hands out Percodans like Pez candy (mmmmm….my favorite. Percodan. Not Pez), and the Cougars losing the game…or P.K. and his girl, Sonny (Vonetta McGee), will lose their lives.
Superdome, produced by the network’s own ABC Circle Films production company (meaning bigger budgets, longer running times, and a primo slot on the schedule, compared to other MTVs broadcast on the network), aired back on January 9th, 1978, as part of The ABC Monday Night Movie, after the network’s Monday Night Football season was finished. I remember watching it, not because I was particularly gripped by David Janssen or 1970s football fever (I lived geographically between the last two OG teams that have never even gone to the S.B.—the Lions and the Browns—so…who cared?), but because I suspected Car Wash over on NBC would be cut to hell, and because CBS’ Variety ’77 special stunk. It made sense for ABC to try and extend their Monday Night Football cash cow with a similarly-themed MTV, so why not try and soak up some of that Super Bowl promo gravy that year (the first S.B. aired in prime time—a big deal back then) with an “all-star” thriller set in the very location of the Bowl game that year: the famed Superdome?
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Now…do I remember Superdome being good? Honestly…no; I just remember Janssen’s kiln-baked tan, Mills’ Farrah ‘do…and the Dome, of course, which held a certain fascination with the American public at that time (when we were happily pleased with ourselves for doing everything bigger and better than anyone else in the world). Watching Superdome now, it’s a fairly preposterous thriller, with a largely nonsensical script well-handled in that efficient, anonymous “glossy, flashy ABC MTV” house style that marked 90% of their output. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with the illogical plot holes: the NFL taps personal phone lines? In 1978, “times have changed” backwards, where viewers won’t watch blacks play on the team, according to Peter Haskell? The assassin kills the stew sleeping with Selleck…and not Selleck (that might put a mild damper on the post-game flight, but surely not the game itself)? Why kill Walsh for refusing to play along? It ties up a loose end, sure…but shouldn’t they also kill Davis and McGee for screwing up Selleck’s drugging? And fricasseeing the quarterback in a giant GranPappy Fry Daddy of a whirlpool, literally minutes before the game is going to start, is going to work how in making sure the Cougars lose the game (like they wouldn’t cancel the game immediately after a homicide in the locker room)?
All of that, though, is stuff you laugh at after the movie is over. If something like Superdome, through speedy direction and competent performers, can at least divert your attention away from the inconsistencies during the runtime, then it’s done its job: it entertained. And Superdome entertains. Perhaps more with unintentional laughs than the makers would have cared for…but in Hollywood, you take what you can get.
And the inadvertent laughs are plentiful. Too bad Superdome‘s script, from Barry Oringer (lots and lots of episodic TV, from The Fugitive and Mannix, to Barnaby Jones), didn’t stay as smart and funny as the opening scene, where 1967’s number one draft pick Bubba Smith tells the press, “Because when we go out on that field, we’re not doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for the team, the coach, and most of all, for the people who made this game what it is today: our agents.” Instead, the vibe goes south real quick with the amusingly flat sports announcer narration, (“[New Orlean’s] famous Southern charm buried under acres of rabid fans!” is one of the more tortured, frenzied allusions in the narration…which are always accompanied by jarringly sedate stock footage), and the professional-yet-ultimately pointless cross-cutting between the various sub-stories (it’s pointless because it generates neither deeper connections between the various stories, nor suspense).
It’s a tie between which subplot gets bigger yocks: Mills’ and Janssen’s faintly rank May/December (…1937) romance, or Ken and Susan Howard’s Scenes from a Marriage…on the ABC After School Special! Once you discern exactly why Mills is pushing so hard for Janssen to push it so hard (which should take all of about 5 minutes for the average TV mystery viewer), their sexual bantering scenes are hilariously grotesque. Fondling his fire-baked hand while peering at the grousing, grumbling, grisled Dr. Kimble with an intensity that can only mean she’s focusing on keeping her lunch down (it’s fairly shocking to ponder that Janssen’s only 46 years old here…), Mills’ direct declaration, “Make love to me,” has Janssen looking over his shoulder to see if she was addressing someone else, before he stumbles out, “I don’t even kiss on the first date.” To which Mills offers the classic mantra of the 1970s “Me Generation,” “If it feels good, baby, do it.” Janssen, thoroughly embarrassed, offers a sardonic, “That’s very heavy,” while looking down at his shrimp (couldn’t resist).
Now, you might be tempted to assume I’m slagging this off out of context. But I assure you, even as a teen in the late 70s, dialogue like this was already laughably cliched (later, at a picnic, with Mills going further into science fiction as she breathes, “…and do it and do it,” into Janssen’s huge ear—he would have heard her from across the park—her earlier admonishment, “Well…we’ll have to improve that dialogue,” seems right on target).
Those broad scenes are easy to goof on, but Kenny and Susie Howard’s neurasthenic byplays are far more comically inept. The White Shadow at least has the good taste to look mildly sheepish delivering his exhausted lines about exhausted weakling Dave Walecki. Susan Howard, however, seems to think she’s doing Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem ved Superdome. Going for ultra-realism within a silly little TV exploiter like this doesn’t make you a hero…it makes you look ridiculous. It’s a clash of tone. Couldn’t she have found even a modicum of humor here within her character or the situation? Her entire body is clenched (even her hair, to quote Oscar Madison).
Granted, both actors are already battling uphill with that banal dialogue that seems leftover from the last time a washed-up football player had existential rumblings in Super Bowl Nawlins (suddenly Big Daddy Cat Chuck Heston don’t look so bad…). Forced exchanges like, “I met a man. We went to bed together. It felt good,” (she’ll never write for Penthouse Forum), followed by both slapping each other (my wife lost it on that one…), or “Do you know what it’s like to make love and feel all alone?” (during or after?), are marvelously, simultaneously straight-faced and idiotic. Nothing beats her final ego booster to TWS, delivered with all the earnestness of a high school freshman in her first supporting role: “You’ll always be my hero…oh don’t you KNOW that?” (Just…screams).
The rest of the cast does what it can with their brief little skits. Veterans Ed Nelson, Edie Adams, Peter Haskell, M. Emmet Walsh, and Michael Pataki have to score within their handful of scenes or be forgotten in the rush, and for the most part, they do (poor Edie Adams has literally nothing to do, though). Clifton Davis’ and Vonetta McGee—both solid, as expected—potentially had the most interesting subplot in Superdome, but incomplete backstories (she’s…a prostitute? His girlfriend? An assassin? All three?) and fumbled plot development (so…they both just get a pass for pulling this stunt?) sideline them. Jane Wyatt and Metro legend Van Johnson (a far better actor than he was ever credited as) get miles out of the inches they’re given in the script; those old studio pros knew how to wring unearned nuance from even the most dire scripts. The newcomers, Selleck (full of easy charm) and Mattson (sweet and earnest), at least don’t embarrass themselves. The producers weren’t dumb, either: both are offered up as eye candy for the viewers, with Selleck shirtless at one point, and Mattson rocking a one-piece to rather startling Bonnie’s Kids effect.
And that just leaves the thriller angle…and it’s not terribly thrilling. The ending finally gets some characters scrambling around inside the dome, but the denouement is too little too late (“Get away from that whirlpool!” is a new classic), while the limited budget keeps the structural gymnastics to a minimum (Janssen’s stunt double hangs awkwardly over the field for a second or two, while a visibly terrified Mills was ordered to go out on a teeny, tiny catwalk, 24 stories up). Despite what “film historians” (heehee!) Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell gush and pant about on Superdome‘s commentary track, director Jerry Jameson (who’s also on the track) is a competent craftsman who could churn out an entertaining product on time and on budget, as he did with the previous year’s similarly-structured disaster epic, Airport ’77 (made on the cheap, it returned 5x its budget—that’s what Hollywood wants, not Douglas Sirk, boys).
ABC wasn’t asking “auteurs” Peter Bogdanovich or Blake Edwards to do Superdome. They wanted a (cheaper) veteran TV helmer who could manage the large cast and the New Orleans location shooting on a tight production schedule and slim budget. And what’s wrong with that? Why the rather desperate need to make it more than it is (…unless there’s a subtle contempt for this kind of material in the first place—why else the histrionics to transform it into “art”?).
I don’t think I’ve had a more enjoyable Blu-ray commentary experience than hearing these gee whiz kids slobbering over increasingly bored, even contemptuous adult Jerry Jameson. The simplest, most basic editing choices or plot twists make these guys plotz (Berger’s amazed, “Look at this! We’re across the room!” after an elementary edit, is now one of my all-time favorite shout-outs). Despite Jameson repeatedly telling them they’re barking up the wrong auteur tree with their wildly overreaching blathering (you can’t get any more clear than Jameson flatly stating, “These pictures are not that designed,”), they just keep it up, asking these ridiculously vague, intangible “film school” questions when they have this incredible resource right in front of them, telling them they’re wrong.
This guy Jameson, no doubt, has seen it all (or most of it), and he wants to do what he does best: tell stories. Why the hell didn’t you just let him talk? I want to hear what he remembers, what he saw of Hollywood and the networks back in the day, what it was like for him to watch Janssen sniff around Mills, how it was to work with legends like Johnson and Wyatt—who the hell cares what you clowns think about mise-en-scene and modernism and Douglas Sirk, and your futile efforts to shoehorn Jerry Jameson into the auteur theory? Isn’t it enough when Jameson sums up his own work: “I liked it okay. It was what it was,”? On that note: I eagerly await their next aesthetic excreta.