Our most iconic pop culture moments come from a stroke of genius, a cynical cash grab, or an uneasy combination of the two. But sometimes the path to immortality is longer, more widing, and much, much stupider than you would have ever expected. Look at how ...
One could reasonably assume that Superman was created during a brainstorming session wherein two nerds named every possible superpower and scrawled them onto a dirty napkin. "Flight?" "Yeah!" "Laser eyes?" "Hell yes, for sure!" "He can throw the 'S' symbol on his shirt, and it turns into wax paper and captures people mid-flight?" "I think you know the answer to that!" But when creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first sat down to make the character, they envisioned him less as a godlike alien and more as a homeless dude named Bill Dunn. Oh, and evil.
Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster
"The Reign of the Superman" appeared in the January 1933 issue of Shuster's self-published fanzine Science Fiction, because it was easier to name sci-fi magazines back when there were only like four of them. In the story, a mad scientist named Professor Ernest Smalley finds a meteor and devises a way to make it give people telepathic superpowers. Rather than risk it on himself, Smalley naturally decides to test his invention on a random vagrant he finds waiting in a breadline. After a little convincing, Smalley brings the man back to his lab and transforms him into a very super man, who immediately kills Smalley and proceeds to wreak havoc on the world.
Superman initially uses his telepathic powers to thrillingly ... win card games and manipulate the stock market. But if the World Series of Poker has shown us anything, it's that you can only win so many hands of Texas Hold 'Em before inevitably thinking that you deserve to rule the planet. So Superman devises a scheme to disrupt a peace conference and throw the world into chaos, thereby making it easier for him to wrest control from the powers that be.
And then, plot twist, his powers, uh, kind of just fade away. His meteor magic vanishes like he entered the sixth hour of a five-hour energy drink, and since Regular Man didn't think to open a savings account with his blackjack earnings, he simply goes back to standing in the breadline like he was a week ago. The end!
As you might imagine, this D-Tier Twilight Zone potboiler didn't exactly blow up and transform Siegel and Shuster into international literary superstars. But it did make Siegel think, "What if, instead of being a total douche, this awesomely named Superman guy was nice? And maybe he can live in a house?" Then he rolled with the first part but blew up his home planet, because Superman must always be homeless, no matter what.
It's A Wonderful Life was based on a short story called "The Greatest Gift," which hits the same basic beats, except the hero wants to kill himself out of general dissatisfaction with life, rather than some insurance scam. Also, there's no giant prologue showing you his entire life before we get to see what the world would be like without him.
RKO Radio Pictures
But when Philip Van Doren Stern wrote "The Greatest Gift" in 1939, he wasn't able to sell it to anyone. So after four years of doing absolutely nothing with those 4,000 words, he finally printed them on a Christmas card and sent it to 200 friends. One of those friends was his Hollywood agent, who showed the card to producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Cary Grant, who said that it would make for a great movie starring himself. And sure enough, Liberty Films and RKO went ahead and turned it into It's A Wonderful Life, starring ... Jimmy Stewart, who kind of looks a little like Grant if you squint.
If you're wondering why it took a Christmas card for Stern to get the story in front of his agent when that should have been his first move, he did show it to his literary agent. He had agents because he was a prolific writer, but not of fiction. He mostly wrote Civil War history, with a dash of Poe scholarship on the side. His 1984 obituary lists his many writings, like They Were There: The Civil War In Action as Seen By Its Combat Artists, Secret Missions Of The Civil War, and An End To Valor: The Last Days Of The Civil War, before briefly adding that, oh yeah, he wrote the source material for It's A Wonderful Life.
So it's no wonder that his literary agent, used to placing historical studies about and for men with bushy mustaches, had no idea what to do with this suicide-themed Christmas fantasy. But Hollywood sure knew what to do with it, turning it into something that bankrupted its production company and ruined its director before becoming the most beloved Christmas movie ever.
Cowboy Bebop achieved colossal success through sheer force of cool. Its effortless style and clever mix of action, comedy, serious philosophy, and a corgi earned it widespread critical acclaim, both in Japan and the West. And it was all thanks to the brilliant creative mind of some toy salesmen saying, "We need to cash in on Star Wars right the hell now."
According to Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, he was initially approached by Studio Bones for a pitch, and "after about 2-3 days of deliberating, something I had thrown together over the course of an hour known only as 'Bebop' surfaced." But remember that this was the late '90s. Star Wars: Episode I was getting some serious and soon-to-be-regretted hype, and toy companies wanted to ride the plastic starship wave. Bandai's toy division was looking for a new project featuring plenty of spaceships instead of the mecha that were dominating anime at the time, so they told Watanabe they loved whatever his idea was -- no need to explain it -- and that he had free rein, as long as spaceships were involved
Bandai was all the way onboard until production started and they realized that even if parents didn't object to the profanity, violence, smoking, drinking, and sexual themes, kids were unlikely to clamor for toys featuring characters trying to escape their pasts and find their places in life just because that existential angst happened on kickass spaceships. Bandai's toy department pulled the plug, and it looked like the production was doomed, until Bebop was saved by the timely intervention of, uh, Bandai Visual, the parent company.
The Big Bandai thought they could have a hit even without oodles of merchandise, and so work forged ahead despite some internal concerns that Bebop was too mature. So yes, to be clear, one of the greatest anime series of all time was brought to life by a soulless toy company, killed because it got too artsy, then saved by the toy company's corporate parent. Or, in Watanabe's words, "Usually, the things that are quickly slapped together become the big hits, rather than the ones you would painstakingly deliberate on." The creative process is total nonsense, and it's a wonder anyone ever manages to make anything.
Mew is the stuff of gaming legends. Hidden in the code of the first generation of Pokemon games, he accidentally appeared to some players in glitches, and in doing so spawned a parade of increasingly improbable schoolyard rumors about how to catch him. But despite being one of the most famous Pokemon, Mew only exists because the other 150 were juuust lean enough to let him crawl into the roster and hide under that truck.
Game Boy cartridges didn't have much space, but the developers went to extreme lengths to make full use of it. When the game's debugging process was complete, the debugging tools were removed and the developers were told to keep their hands off the final product. Instead, developer Shigeki Morimoto used the 300 bytes created by the removal of the tools to slip Mew in. It was half prank and half marketing, with the thinking being that Mew could be used in post-launch events if those were viable, but kept as the dev team's little secret if they weren't.
But the debugging must have been rushed, because the game's many notorious glitches cropped up and leaked the existence of Mew. Rumors started, and Nintendo announced a giveaway in a magazine whereby 20 lucky winners out of an eventual 78,000 entries could ship their Pokemon cartridge to Nintendo to have Mew added. After that, executives were probably too busy counting money to fire their workers for disobeying orders, because Pokemon's monthly sales numbers soon became its weekly sales numbers ... four times over.
Arthur Freed, a longtime MGM executive and alleged flasher of a young Shirley Temple, started his Hollywood career as a songwriter. That left him with a fat back catalog of songs, one of which was "Singin' In The Rain." One day, he decided that he'd love to have a movie full of his work, because hey, why not? So he called a bunch of screenwriters into his office and said, "Your next movie is going to be called Singin' In The Rain, and it is going to have all my songs in it." That was all they had to go on. There would be rain, someone would be singing in it, and it would be set in a world in which Arthur Freed's music towered above all.
Freed's MGM unit was dedicated to churning out musicals, so this wasn't a complete power trip. But his songs had absolutely nothing to do with each other, and the writers had no idea how the hell to create an interesting story that linked them all together. It's easy to imagine this scenario turning into a forgettable 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, but instead it became a beloved cultural institution.
The breakthrough came when they decided to set the whole movie in the time period the songs were written in, which was during the transition from silent films to talkies. This would also let them use some of their old comedy material about how ridiculous these newfangled talking pictures were, what with their bad audio syncing and the inability of the actors to stay close to the microphones. So they had a gag wherein a performer sings a song while dropping half his words, and another where it takes a few seconds for an actor's audio to catch up with his mouth. Hey, it was cutting-edge comedy in the '20s, and our jokes about social media will probably look just as dated when they're reread via direct brain upload in 2050.
Anyway, the point is that the writers reused as much of their old material as possible to fulfill their vague obligations, meaning that one of the most beloved musicals of all time was born from an executive's vanity and midwifed by its writers' laziness.
Jordan Breeding also writes for a whole mess of other people, the Twitter, and a weird amount of gas station bathrooms. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see. Following Tiagosvn on Twitter and telling him to stop writing articles to go work on anything else could be the best dumb origin of a future beloved franchise.
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