Saturday, July 13, 2013

The "Forgotten" Superman Movie: Superman and the Mole Men

With the debut of a new ongoing comic and, of course, the release of a new movie, there's been a lot of buzz about a certain Man of Steel recently.  I haven't yet seen the new film, and based on the evidence of  the reviews I've read and the reactions of my friends who've seen it, I'll probably be defering that singular pleasure for some time yet.  No, I'm here today to discuss an earlier Superman movie, though not the one that probably leapt to your mind when you read that last clause.  The film under consideration in this post is one you probably didn't even know existed, even though its likely that you may have seen it.  If so, it probably wasn't in its original form as a movie, but re-edited into the two part episode of The Adventures of Superman that closed out that series' inaugural season.
Superman and the Mole Men (or "The Unknown People" as it was retitled for its television debut), released to theaters in November of 1951, effectively served as the pilot for that long running show, introducing the world to George Reeves, the man who be intrextricably identified in the eyes of the world with the character of Superman for the rest of his life and for another two decades thereafter until Christopher Reeve donned the cape and tights in the late 1970s.  Reeves, an amateur boxer in his youth, had, by the time Superman and the Mole Men began filming in the summer of 1951, been a working actor for a decade and change, even landing, as his film debut, a blink and you'll miss it role in an obscure, low budget B-movie called Gone With The Wind in 1939.   Among his other film credits, and I single this one out only because it happens to be one I've actually seen, is the Charlie Chan mystery Dead Men Tell.  However, it was, of course, The Adventures of Superman that would make him a household name.
Mole Men also introduced moviegoers to the new Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates.  Coates never became associated in the public consciousness with Lois in the way that Reeves did with Superman, as she played the part for only the first of Adventures' six seasons.  There was a two year delay between the filming of the first and second seasons, and when time came for the cameras to roll on the second set of twenty-six episodes, Coates had already committed to another project and was thus unavailable.  She was replaced by Noel Neill, who had played the part opposite Kirk Alyn in the serials Superman and  Atom Man vs.Superman.
Billed on its promotional poster as Superman's "FIRST Full-Length Adventure," "full length" obviously not meaning the same thing in 1951 as it does in today's era of three hour epics, Superman and the Mole Men clocks in at a mere fifty-eight minutes. The film was written by co-producer Robert Maxwell, under the nom de plume of Richard Fielding.  The director was Lee Sholem.  Sholem would go on to split the directing duties on the remaining twenty-four episodes of The Adventures of Superman's first season with Tommy Carr, who had done similar duty on the Kirk Alyn serials. 
Perhaps because it had been told a mere three years earlier in the first serial and thus was fresh in viewers' minds, Fielding/Maxwell's script glosses over Superman's origin in a short opening narration and gets straight to the story.  That's not to say that The Adventures of Superman didn't produce its own version of the origin, but it would be early 1953 before "Superman On Earth" aired, kicking off the series' run.
Curiously, aside from Lois Lane, most of the familiar trappings of the Superman mythos, from the majority of his supporting cast, to his Achilles heel, Kryptonite, to the city of Metropolis itself, are noticeably absent from Superman and the Mole Men. The story is set in the small Texas oil town of Silsby, which, as a sign that is the first image we see following the introductory narration informs us, is the home of the world's deepest oil well.  Big city reporters Kent and Lane have travelled all the way from Metropolis to do a story on the well, only to find upon their arrival that the well is being shut down for reasons that foreman Bill Corrigan tersely refuses to elaborate on.
The mystery deepens when "Pop" Shannon, the aged night watchman at the well site, is found dead of a heart attack later that evening.  The tragedy is enough to loosen Corrigan's tongue, and he tells Kent the story behind the well's closing.
As the drill bored deeper, soil samples began coming back with a strange, possibly radioactive glow.  At approximately six miles deep, the drill bit seemed to be hanging in mid-air, as if it had broken through to the center of the earth.  Strange microbes were found on the drill bit, leading Corrigan to speculate that more complex life forms may be living down there.
He's right, of  course, and now a pair of diminutive, hairy creatures with big bald heads and exhibiting the same mysterious glow found in the soil samples have come up to explore this strange new world that has invaded there own.  Unfortunately, the first person they encounter is poor old "Pop", who is so frightened by their appearance that his ticker gives out.
The death of "Pop" and other sightings of the creatures get the townsfolk of Silsby worked into a lather.  Kent tries to calm the populace, but his entreaties of understanding fall on deaf ears.  Worked into a murderous frenzy by a nasty character by the name of Luke Benson, the frightened citizens form a mob to hunt down the invaders. 
It is only then, twenty-eight minutes into this less than hour long film, that Kent ducks into an alley and changes to his super-heroic alter-ego in order to protect the aliens from the lynch mob, as well as protect the people of Silsby from the creature's possibly radioactive glow.  This is fairly typical of the pattern that The Adventures of Superman would fall into.  Like the later TV adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, due mostly to the limitations of a TV special effects budget, Superman usually only showed up near the end of each episode as a sort of deus ex machina to clean up whatever mess Lois and Jimmy Olsen had gotten themselves into that week.
Benson and his mob succeed in critically wounding one of the aliens with a shotgun and trapping the other in a burning shack.  Superman rescues the alien who gets shot and takes him to the local hospital.  His compatriot escapes from the fire and heads back down the well, re-emerging with reinforcements and a big sci-fi ray gun in order to rescue his wounded friend.
Superman and the Mole Men has more in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than with your typical Superman tale.  Even moreso than in that Robert Wise genre classic, the aliens here are presented as peaceful and sympathetic.  They are shown as innocent and childlike.  In fact, the only person in Silsby who befriends them is a little girl.  She is frightened not by the creatures, but by her mother's hysterical reaction to them.  The real monsters in Mole Men are Luke Benson and his cronies.  Though their fear of the unknown is understandable, they let it get the best of them, blinding them to reason.
The comparison to The Day the Earth Stood Still is apt, as Superman and the Mole Men is truly representative of the best of 1950s science fiction films.  It also represents the best The Adventures of Superman. Based on the color episodes, after producer Whitney Ellsworth, who replaced Bob Maxwell in the second season, decreed that the show should be essentially dumbed down to make it more "kid-friendly", its easy to dismiss the entire series as insipid pablum.  However, the black and white episodes, especially Maxwell's first season, are among the finest examples of 50s TV.

1 comment:

  1. You covered all the bases on this film. I never saw it in its original form, but rather when it was aired in the Adventures of Superman run. I remember how out of place it seemed, probably because AOS was almost entirely shot with sets as opposed to location shooting.

    I remember Reeves from Gone With The Wind, but the only other film I remember seeing him in was a part in From Here To Eternity. He was really a fine actor, and it's too bad he couldn't have done another series like a detective show or maybe played a lawyer, since, as Kent, many viewers were used to seeing him in a desk/investigative capacity.