The first Superman feature film debuted in 1951 with legendary George Reeves in shoulder pads and a winning grin. Despite a decent budget, it’s shoddy and thinly scripted, although its sincere call for solidarity and inclusiveness carries on the original vision of the comic, and might just win you over. 4/10.
Superman and the Mole-Men. 1951, USA. Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth. Based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates. Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, John T. Bambury, Billy Curtis, Produced by Barney A. Sarecky. IMDb: 5.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Superman and the Mole-Men (1951) was the first full-length Superman film brought to American audiences. This low-budget production was, in fact, not so much a film that was intended to stand on its own legs, as it was a pilot for a planned Superman TV series. The 58 minutes long movie was produced by Lippert Pictures, the company behind the low-budget surprise hit of 1950, Rocketship X-M (review), the first serious US film to feature a space adventure. The TV series was picked up by ABC, and started airing 1952, and to the surprise of everyone involved, became a major hit show, turning Superman actor George Reeves into a national celebrity.
Superman and the Mole-Men divert from the later TV series inasmuch as it has a more fantastic premise. The movie follows journalists Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), who are doing a story on an oil well that has drilled deeper than anyone else before. Unfortunately, though, it has passed through the Earth’s crust, and entered an underground world. This has opened up a passage for the small, furry, mole-men to climb up on the surface. These strange-looking humanoids cause terror and fear among the rednecks of the small village close to the oil well, as they are feared to be radioactive. Superman’s job is to protect these innocent creatures against an angry mob hell-bent on killing the small group that has surfaced in the village. The first half of the film is basically a detective story, where the two reporters try to find out why the oil well has been shut down, and whether they have actually been pumping up radioactive material, and the second part focuses of the villagers chasing the helpless mole-men, and Superman trying to stop them. After one of their own has been badly wounded, the benign mole-men retaliate with a seemingly ineffective ray cannon.
Superman was a well-established character at the time. The Superman comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster started appearing in 1938, and were very successful, especially with pre-adolescent boys. In 1941 Max and Dave Fleischer started producing a cinema series (review) of 17 10-minute animated shorts, which still stand up today as some of the best Superman portrayals ever. In 1948 Columbia brought Superman to the big screen again, this time as a live-action serial (review) starring bit-part actor and dancer Kirk Alyn as the man of steel. The serial was very successful, and one of the inspirations for Lippert to adapt the comic into a TV serial.
When Lippert first started looking for actors to portray Superman in Superman and the Mole-Men and the TV series, they approached Kirk Alyn for the role. Alyn, however, was not too keen in reprising the role, and asked for a higher salary than the producers could muster. The call then went out to Bud Collyer, the man who voiced Superman in the radio show and the animated films, and also had TV experience as a game show host. Collyer, 43 at the time, thought himself too old for the role, and also pointed out that he didn’t quite meet the physical characteristics of Superman.
Lippert didn’t relent, however, and went in search for more actors who were arguably a bit too old for the role and didn’t quite meet the physical requirements of Superman, and they settled on George Reeves. Reeves, 38 at the time, was a struggling actor who had over 50 feature film or TV credits to his name by the time. He had appeared in bit-parts or supporting roles, often in westerns, since 1939, when he also had a minor part as a suitor in the beginning of the classic Gone with the Wind. In 1940 he got his first leading role in the romantic comedy Always a Bride, but his career didn’t take off. He was drafted in 1942, and appeared in an educational short telling servicemen about venereal diseases they might contract from prostitutes, and one of his finest moments came in 1943, when he starred as the leading man in the propaganda mockumentary So Proudly We Hail about American war nurses during WWII. He appeared in an army Broadway play called Winged Victory, which was also made for the screen in 1944. After the war, however, he had a hard time finding decent work although he did a few leading roles in staple B quickies, perhaps best remembered in his role opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Jungle Jim (1948), and for playing the title character in Columbia’s medieval film serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad (1949).
In the late forties and early fifties he did a bit of TV work, when his agent convinced him to audition for Superman. He was reluctant to accept the role, however, not only because TV acting was at the time seen as below the dignity of an established actor, but also because he had no interest in appearing in a kiddie series, but was still hoping to break it big as a serious actor. He did, however, do the 14 day shoot for Superman and the Mole-Men, and almost immediately afterwards started doing work on the first 1952 season of Adventures of Superman. He ended up playing Superman until his death in 1959.
Superman and the Mole-Men was written by Robert Maxwell, who had worked on the Superman radio show, as well as Whitney Ellsworth, a DC Comics editor and writer, who had worked as consultant on the previous Batman serials, as well as the Superman serials. Both would continue on the TV series Adventures of Superman, with Ellsworth becoming its principal producer. Director was Lee Sholem, a cult director known for his quick shooting pace and efficiency. After working in the editing department for Sol Lesser’s company for some years, he got into directing with the latter Tarzan films starring Lex Barker in the late forties. About the same time as he did some work on Adventures of Superman, he also directed some episodes of Criswell Predicts, a live show featuring TV fortune teller Criswell, best known to a modern audience for appearing in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). In 1954 he directed Tobor the Great, he worked on Men into Space (1959-1960), and his last film was Doomsday Machine (1972). According to his own words, he directed close to 1 300 entries on film or TV, although IMDb only lists about 300 – although the website only credits him with a handful of episodes on TV series where he did do a lot more work.
Superman and the Mole-Men reportedly cost 275 000 dollars to make, but it actually looks a great deal cheaper than that. The sum today would be equivalent of about 1,9 million dollars. Compare this with the great results that Edgar G. Ulmer got with The Man from Planet X (review) for only 41 000 dollars the same year. The film does include some special effects, like the oil well exploding, uses a long point-of-view crane shot of Superman flying and incorporates a bit of wirework of Superman taking off and a quick cut of him saving a dummy from a fall. The most effective special effect is of one of the mole-men trapped inside a burning shed, which is surprisingly realistic and has great sense of imminent danger and claustrophobia. The sets, however, all look cheap and nondescript, the only shot of Superman flying any longer distance in animated, and not necessarily well. The ray-gun was actually built around an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and it looks very much like an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.
There are some clever tricks in the movie, though. The parts of Reeves taking off are actually very well executed wireworks and there is a really clever, high, mobile crane shot which shows Superman’s point of view as he flies over the small town and the angry mob to get to where he is going. The ray cannon effects are quite novel as well, and they don’t really look animated, but seem more like some kind blue screen light and mirror effect.
The filmmakers have done a clever thing in removing the story from Metropolis. This means they get away without creating the famous city, the office of the Daily Planet and so forth. They could also hold up the casting of central roles such as Jimmy Olsen (which wound up being Jack Larsen) and Perry White (John Hamilton got that role). But it also means that the movie ends up looking more like any old serial than a Superman film, especially as Superman himself actually doesn’t appear much until after the 30 minute mark. The fact that Olsen, White and other central characters are missing have good and bad repercussions. It’s nice to see a movie with just Clark and Lois going it alone, but on the other hand, the film lacks a certain fun energy that Olsen brings to the table.
Overall the acting of the film is decent B movie class. Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane is a hard-boiled go-getter, but without the liveliness and soft edges that Noel Neill brought to the role in the previous serial. Her Lane comes off as a rather annoying character, but she does have a nice dry wit and good timing. Just as Neill, Coates also inhabits the persona of a tough city reporter perfectly. Coates only appeared in the first season of Adventures of Superman, and Noel Neill was actually brought in to play the character that would define her for life. Neill has since been something of an ambassador for the old Superman formats at conventions and anniversaries, often alongside Jack Larsen.
The leader of the rednecks is played by noted character actor Jeff Corey, perhaps best known for playing Sheriff Bledsoe in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Wild Bill Hickok in Little Big Man (1970) and the grand vizier in Conan the Destroyer (1984). He appeared in a whole bunch of sci-fi series, like Night Gallery (1969-1973), where he was a staple player. He played Plasus in the 1969 episode The Cloud Minders of Star Trek, and appeared in The Bionic Woman (1977) and Babylon 5 (1996). He played Mr. Ruby in the forgotten Rock Hudson gem Seconds (1966), Caspay in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), appeared in Premonition (1976), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Creator 1985). In Superman and the Mole-Men he is suitably over-the-top, sometimes perhaps too much for an adult viewer.
Otherwise the performances are quite forgettable, with the exception of the mole-men, who aren’t necessarily brilliant, but put in heartfelt performances. Among the short actors who appeared as mole-men was Jerry Maren, who appeared in Planet of the Apes (1968), Prophecy (1979), Tron (1982), Being (1983), Spaceballs (1987) and Dahmer vs. Gacy (2010). Billy Curtis turned up as the Thing in The Thing from Another World (1951, review) – he played the creature in stunt and miniature shots. He was a robot operator in Gog (1954, review), appeared in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), played a Martian in Angry Red Planet (1968) and a child ape in Planet of the Apes (1968).
Overall this film doesn’t come across as a full-length film, but as a stretched-out version of a TV episode. There’s a scene where a mob chases a mole-man over nondescript terrain that goes on forever, it feels like a fifth of the movie. The script is incoherent and often feels like segments awkwardly fitted together. The angry mob feels like a tired rerun of the Frankenstein (1931, review) scenario and some aspects remain fuzzy. I had to watch the film three times to understand why the foreman of the oil well tells his employees to bury all their equipment in a hole (it’s because they may be radioactive, but this is never properly explained, although it is presented as a key question). However, it is fresh to see the reversal of many of the later red scare sci-fi films, as the ”aliens” are benign and the villagers evil – a prevalent scenario in 1951, as the same played out in The Man from Planet X (review) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (review).
One can view the film as an environmental fable, as we as humans drill so deep into the Earth’s core that we upset the balance of nature. And it is of course impossible not to draw parallels between McCarthyism and the fear of the other. The idea that the script portrays is that we should not judge because of fear and prejudice, but rather seek friendly cooperation. But it can also be seen as a wider call to acceptance of minorities and differences, be it ethnic minorities, disabled or sexual or gender minorities. There is a scene where Superman quite literally stands in a doorway between the injured mole-man and the angry mob and gives a heartfelt speech of how we should not judge people because of their appearance or origin. That same sincerity carries through the whole movie, as with a young doctor who agrees to treat the mole-man even though he might risk his own life through possible radiation. This heartfelt sincerity is one of the best qualities of the movie, and makes it very enjoyable even though the production values are occasionally crappy.
Furthermore, as Joey Davis points out at Geek Buzz, Superman and the Mole-Men is probably the feature film that comes closest to realising Siegel and Shuster’s original comic book vision of Superman: “Originally, Superman was a social justice crusader, a vigilante who took down corrupt politicians, white collar criminals, slum lords, wife beaters, and those who would hinder the free press. He spoke out against bigotry of all kinds. Like Siegel and Shuster’s parents, Superman was a refugee and he never shied away from defending those in American society who weren’t afforded the same rights and opportunities as the majority enjoyed.” or as comic writer and superhero scholar Grant Morrison puts it in an interview with New Statesman: “At the beginning, Superman was very much a socialist superhero”. Superman’s roots as a socialist — or “social justice warrior” as he would probably be derided as today — went out the window with WWII, when American superheroes were harnessed en masse in order to represent American foreign policy. Captain America famously punched Hitler in the noggin and Superman encouraged readers to “slap a Jap”. Davies writes: “The TV series that followed would be stripped of most social messages, sanitized for a white, middle America TV audience and comics wouldn’t regain their social commentary swagger again until deep into the 1960s. Yet Superman and the Mole- Men, in all it’s black and white, simplistic glory, gives us an early glance at what the comic book genre was born to be.”
George Reeves will always be remembered as the one true Superman for a whole generation of TV viewers. Reeves puts a slightly different spin on Clark Kent than the one familiar from the radio show, the Kirk Alyn serial and the later portrayal of Christopher Reeve. Traditionally Clark Kent has been portrayed as a slightly dimwit and something of an easily frightened lightweight. Reeves puts almost the same macho attitude in Kent as he does in Superman, making Kent more of a leading man figure than usual. Some viewers find this refreshing, but I personally like the strong distinctions between the characters, simply because it brings a lightness and sense of play into many of the Clark Kent scenes, which are absent from this movie. Neither does Reeves actually fit the part physically. His head is almost perfectly square, whereas the comic book Superman always had a longer face, and Reeves looks slightly older than his 37 years. Although physically fit, Reeves lacks the broad chest and the Y-shaped athleticism of Alyn or Reeve. This led to him being forced to wear shoulder and chest padding that were clearly visible beneath the costume, creating an unintentionally hilarious look.
As an actor, though, there is nothing wrong with Reeves, and he wears the hero grin better than his predecessor Alyn. In the film he is all business, and it wasn’t until later in the series that a certain playfulness found its way into the role, for good and bad. Reeves himself had a love-hate relationship with the role. Even after two seasons, he was ready to hang it up, and even founded his own production company on hope of becoming a producer and director, although nothing much came of it. The role allowed him to work, but also made it difficult for him to get cast in other roles, because of his fame as Superman. His dislike for the role seems to have been played up by later speculations regarding the reasons for his death. Although he jokingly referred to the Superman suit as ”the monkey suit” and didn’t like to wear in on publicity occasions, Jack Larsen has said that he only once heard Reeves speak ill of the Superman role. He was honestly attached to his young fans and took his role as role model seriously, even giving up smoking as to not influence the kids.
The design of the mole-men has been much ridiculed, and with reason. They are described as ”hideous, black, hairy creatures”, but in fact they are simply wearing crushed velvet clothes that look nothing at all like fur (was it supposed to?), and the worst bald caps in cinema history. They are, however, the first and only ”supernatural” creatures to appear on Adventures of Superman, when the movie was split into two episodes of the series. Drawing more on the radio show and earlier crime serials, the series had Superman fight mobsters and bank robbers, as well as the occasional mad scientist, but none of the colourful villains of the comics. All reference to anything supernatural was cut, and the series, like the film, tend to feel very much like a standard masked vigilante serial. However, the the scripts did get a bit tighter and the special effects better as the series started. The series had George Reeves actually flying on wires (not very well executed, but still) and doing more ”supermanny” stuff like bending steel and crashing through walls than in the movie, which lacks much of Superman’s superpowers.
Today, Superman and the Mole-Men is looked upon either with a fuzzy nostalgia or outrage. Derek Winnert falls into the first category, giving it a perhaps surprisingly decent 3/5 stars: “Despite antiquated shoddy effects and a sagging budget, it’s still very good fun. The ideally cast Reeves and Coates give bright and lively performances and are an iconic pair”. Also positive is Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie and Musings and Ramblings, who applauds the themes in the film, which are much closer to the original comic book stories than the later film versions: ” I’ve never seen the TV series inspired by this feature, but after seeing this, I can understand something of its appeal”. Will Kouf at Silver Emulsion awards the movie 2.5/5 stars, calling it “fairly slow and boring […] But I did enjoy it quite a bit myself”. TV Guide gives it 2/5 stars, writing: “It’s a simplistic allegory of human rights [..] directed with a certain crudity but retaining an innocence that worked out nicely”.
Not all are as forgiving. Eric Hillis at The Movie Waffler gives Superman and the Mole-Men 4/10 stars, writing: “Tolerance is always a good attribute to possess, especially if you plan on making it through this turkey”. Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum doesn’t spare the rod in his 1.5/5 star review: “Sweet fucking Christ this movie sucks. The best thing about the movie is George Reeves. He does a good job as The Man of Steel, but they only give him two things to do: Jack and Shit.” Alan Jones at Radio Times refrains from taking the Lord’s name in vain, but his 1/5 star review is no kinder, as he calls Superman and the Mole-Men a “poorly produced” “tawdry quickie” with the mole men as “dwarves in fur pyjamas toting vacuum cleaner ray guns” and Superman performing “pathetic super stunts”. And Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button, in his usual slaying mode, is so quick to give out zero-star reviews, that he nullifies this film even before realising he actually likes it: “Mole Men isn’t good, but it’s definitely has some good things about it.”
In my opinion, the biggest problem of the film is its pacing. Despite the jumps from one place to another, there’s a constant feeling of very little happening, and when things happen they feel a bit underwhelming. The scenes of Superman doing his heroics are too mundanely shot to really register, and they are sometimes lost in the bustle. The film sort of trudges along, and when things actually do happen, the filmmakers savour the moments for a bit too long, turning a potentially explosive scene into a yawner. This may be a case where the series was actually better than the movie.
Whatever the flaws of the pilot film, it was successful enough to launch the legendary TV series, a series that ran for almost eight years until the tragic death of its star, George Reeves. There has been much speculation regarding Reeves’ death in 1959. After an impromptu party at his house instigated by his fiancé and a few friends he went upstairs to his bedroom and apparently shot himself in the head while inebriated. He was quoted as being depressed because of his failing career as a serious actor. Many claim, though, that he was in a good mood just days before his death, and he had actually signed a contract for another two seasons of Superman, with a pay raise. His mother refused to believe he committed suicide and hired private detectives to find what she presumed was a murderer. Wild speculation was enhanced by the fact that he had had a long affair with the wife of Hollywood studio boss, others suspected his current fiancé. No evidence or even clear motive for a murder ever surfaced, but speculation refused to die out, mainly because he wasn’t seen as a suicidal man. He was described by all his co-stars and friends as a gentleman and a modest person without the ego that often comes with fame. His perceived good mood and his upcoming seasons of Superman have been seen as evidence against suicide. But what all these fail to take into account is that depression and suicide don’t follow logic, as the recent case with Robin Williams has once again proved. The case of Reeves’ death was speculated about in the 2006 film Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck as Reeves. The movie presents both possibilities without taking clear stance for the one or the other.
Plans to continue the Adventures of Superman using archive footage of Reeves, and instead focusing on Jimmy Olsen were made, but Jack Larsen found the idea distasteful and the project fell through. Both Larsen and Neill appeared in cameos in the 1978 film Superman, as well as the TV series Lois and Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman, and the 2006 Superman Returns film, in which Neill played Lex Luthor’s dying wife in the beginning of the movie, and Larsen played a bartender.
Superman and the Mole-Men. 1951, USA. Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth. Based of characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates. Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews, Ray Walker, Hal. K. Dawson, Phil Warren, Frank Reicher, Beverly Washburn, John T. Bambury, Billy Curtis, Margia Deen. Music: Darrell Calker. Cinematography: Clark Ramsey. Editing: Albrecht Joseph. Art direction: Ernst Fegté. Makeup: Harry Thomas. Property master: George Bahr. Sound cutter: Bud Hayes. Special effects: Ray Mercer. Wardrobe: Izzy Berne. Produced by Barney A. Sarecky for Lippert Pictures.