Director: Lee Sholem
Writers: Richard Fielding (pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth), based on the Superman comic book character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster
Producer: Barney A. Sarecky
Cast: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, Stanley Andrews, Beverly Washburn, Frank Reicher, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ray Walker, Hal K. Dawson, Phil Warren, (and uncredited cast members) Billy Curtis, Jerry Maren, John Baer, Byron Foulger, Margia Dean, Harry Harvey, John Phillips, Johnny Roventini, John T. Bambury, John Barton, Stephen Carr, Bill Coontz, Russell Custer, Adrienne Marden, Jack Lomas, Irene Martin, Frank McLure, William H. O’Brien
Just before the planet Krypton exploded, an infant was sent to Earth in an experimental rocket ship. Krypton’s sole survivor was found by the Kents, a childless, rural couple. They adopted the alien orphan and named him Clark. Although he appeared perfectly human, Clark Kent developed superhuman abilities. Upon reaching adulthood, Kent assumed another identity as Superman to use his fantastic powers to help mankind. Now working for the Daily Planet newspaper, Kent (George Reeves) and fellow reporter Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) are covering the story of the world’s deepest oil well having just been completed in the small town of Silsby. Two strange, short humanoids (Billy Curtis and Jerry Maren) have come up out of the well shaft and are panicking the town’s citizens. Dealing with a potential menace from beneath the earth and the threat of mob violence is a job for Superman.
The Flashback Fanatic movie review
Although there had been many precursors to Superman in myth and fiction, his 1938 introduction in the first issue of Action Comics established the popular template for the superhero genre: a protagonist with incredible powers, a flashy costume, a secret civilian identity, and a devotion to fighting evil. The hundreds of costumed heroes to follow owe their very existence to the Man of Steel.
Ironically, after Superman’s young creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster had their comic strip submission roundly rejected as being too wild an idea by newspaper syndicates, Superman became a massive hit as an original comic book character that proved the relatively new medium of the comic book did not need to keep reprinting newspaper comic strips. Within three years of his comic book introduction, Superman seized his own newspaper strip, flew over the airwaves in a nationally syndicated radio program, and dashed across the silver screen in a series of 17 animated cartoon shorts. Just ten years after first landing on newsstands, Superman made his live-action film debut in the movie serial Superman (1948) starring Kirk Alyn. That was the most successful movie serial ever made and the sequel serial Atom Man vs. Superman appeared in 1950.
Having conquered just about every form of mass media, it was inevitable that in the ’50s, the Man of Tomorrow would take on that soon-to-be-dominant medium of the future: television. Yet before the production of a series would be undertaken, a stand-alone film was made that actually seemed to serve as a TV series pilot. In 1951 the trial flight of that decade’s iconic television series Adventures of Superman (1952-58) landed in movie theaters as Superman and the Mole-Men.
While the story is quite simple, Superman and the Mole-Men has an intention a bit more sophisticated than the frantic and repetitive action antics of the previous movie serials. This is not just a good guy fights bad guys set up. The story demonstrates that villains don’t have to be bank robbers, mad scientists, or inhuman monsters. Normal folks can be turned into a lawless and reckless mob by panic, ignorance, and a rabble-rousing lout. After all, this was the era of the Red Scare and McCarthyism when people were being goaded to look everywhere for the communist threat that was supposed to be infesting America. Paranoia was in the air and could be exploited for political advantage. It also seems pretty apparent that at the heart of such animosity there was often a mean streak of intolerance. Of course, it was expedient to brand someone a commie and persecute or blackball them if they represented a position contrary to the interests of an industry’s bottom line. Hollywood was ground zero for such attacks.
The unknown motives of the mole-men causing fear among the Silsby citizens is certainly understandable, but caution and restraint are advisable. Knee-jerk, reactionary violence is shown to pose great risks to everyone’s safety. It is also shown that such shoot-first-ask-questions-later idiots have already stepped so far over the line of reason that they can’t learn from their mistakes. They even run the risk of endangering the entire town that they claim to be protecting. Despite the sci-fi trappings of the film’s hero and the subterranean creatures, the story is chiefly concerned with the rash human behavior that clashes with the fantastic beings. This is what maintains interest in a fairly simple story with simple characters.
Of course, everyone was drawn to the movie primarily to see the famous comic book character realized on the movie screen. In this short 58-minute film, there is just enough time to see Superman withstand punches and bullets, bust guns, overpower a lynch mob, and fly. Clark Kent dashing into an alley to emerge seconds later as Superman and take off is a clip re-used many times in the first season of the subsequent television series. There are a couple other quick take offs shown later as well as a slow landing that was never repeated. The only other flying shots are a point-of-view looking down at the lynch mob Superman is flying past and two brief glimpses of Superman catching a mole-man falling off a dam. One of those shots uses a bit of animation to substitute for a flying actor similar to what was used extensively in the movie serials. The Superman flying techniques would continue to get more refined during the television series.
Since this entire story takes place in the small town of Silsby, we do not see reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane in their usual workaday settings of the city of Metropolis and the Daily Planet newspaper offices. However, their characterizations are firmly established in this film. Lois Lane is feisty and often frustrated with Clark Kent’s evasive behavior. Of course, Kent is trying to maintain the secret of his identity as Superman and enjoys a bit of private amusement harboring that knowledge. It is also fun for the audience when Kent almost slips up referring to something Superman has done in the first person.
Since 1939, George Reeves had played small roles in A-pictures and starred in B-films. He had an important role in the 1943 Oscar-nominated wartime drama So Proudly We Hail! Then, like many actors during World War II, Reeves’ career was interrupted by his wartime service. After the war, Reeves seemed to have difficulty reestablishing his acting career momentum. When he first donned the cape of the world’s greatest superhero in 1951, Reeves was just taking on another acting job. Upon resuming his Superman role for the initial 26-episode package of the Adventures of Superman television series, Reeves may have hoped, as others involved thought, that no sponsor would pick up the show. One year later the Kellogg’s cereal company agreed to sponsor the program and it became an enormous syndicated hit. Reeves would continue playing Clark Kent/Superman for five more seasons.
Although he had no great affection for the character and later resented being typecast by his success as Superman, Reeves did appreciate the role’s importance to the young fans. George Reeves was a true pro and a fine actor that made his Superman real and appealing. His Superman is a hero because he wields his great powers wisely and compassionately. Reeves’ Superman is not a bully spoiling for a chance to showoff, but when he clobbers someone they deserve it.
Reeves’ interpretation of Clark Kent is quite interesting. He did not portray the mild-mannered reporter as a complete klutz and coward. He made Kent just as likable and respectable as Superman. That may have made the flimsy disguise of a pair of glasses and a less forceful manner a pretty risky way to maintain a secret identity, but it probably helped Reeves maintain his own interest playing the character and maintained the audience’s interest between bursts of Superman action.
It must also be noted that Clark Kent’s previous portrayals in radio and the movie serials were never as wimpy as the comics sometimes had him behave. Since Robert Maxwell had produced the radio program, co-wrote the Superman and the Mole-Men script, and would soon produce the first season of the Adventures of Superman television series, he may have been instrumental in making Clark Kent a character that does not lose the audience’s respect, as they must spend plenty of time with him before he saves the day as Superman.
Reporter Lois Lane had always been pretty daring in her efforts to get a big scoop. Phyllis Coates’ portrayal of the character was independent, assertive, and could be quite dismissive of Clark Kent, despite his intelligence and integrity. Beneath all of Lois’ negativity was probably a sense of competitiveness and an unrealized resentment that her mild-mannered co-worker might be the Superman of her dreams who will not share his secret with her.
Phyllis Coates has starred in plenty of B-films and serials and guest-starred on many television series, but, like her co-star George Reeves, she will always be most remembered for her role in Superman and the Mole-Men and the subsequent television series. Once the first season of the show was picked up for syndication and more seasons needed to be made, Coates was not available and was replaced by the Lois Lane of the movie serials, Noel Neill.
The actors playing the first two mole-men that climb out of the oil well shaft, Billy Curtis and Jerry Maren, were two of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939). They are befriended by little Beverly Washburn, who would later play a member of the creepy Merrye family in the cult film Spider Baby (1964/released 1967).
Prolific character actor Jeff Corey plays lynch mob leader Luke Benson. Right after this film, the House Un-American Activities Committee lynched Corey’s career. Despite Corey having abandoned his interest in communism years earlier, he was not going to provide names of people for the committee to harass. While he was blacklisted as an actor for 12 years, Corey became a noted acting teacher. Fortunately, Corey resumed acting in the early ’60s appearing in many more films and became a familiar face on television guest-starring in a multitude of series.
Nowadays, superhero films are a mainstay at the box office. Modern film production technology has made the special effects challenges of superheroes far easier to overcome. Hence, there has been a wave of overblown spectacles trying to push people out of their media cocoons at home to see something ideal for the big screen. Ultimately, this leads to apathy. When anything can be shown effectively and in excess, there is no longer an awe factor that will sustain audience involvement. There had better be some charm and humanity to make all of the razzle-dazzle matter. Those were the superpowers of George Reeves that really make Superman and the Mole-Men work.
This is a fun movie. I only saw it for the first time about a year ago. You are so right that the excess of special effects in films has done away with the awe factor for a lot of moviegoers. Personally, I like the old-style special effects. Last night I finally got around to watching Avatar and it was exhausting. Give me a 58-minute mole man movie any day. I like Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane more than Noel Neill, although Neill is very good in her own way. Next month I'm planning to go to a convention called the Monster Bash, and Beverly Washburn is scheduled to be there. It'll be nice to see her. Let's hope I don't get lazy and cancel the trip, which I've been known to do!ReplyDelete
AVATAR did not do much for me, either. I often feel that some filmmakers are just trying to impress us with their "vision." That usually just results in a technical exercise trying to push the special effects envelope. Hell, just give me George Reeves smashing through a brick wall any day.ReplyDelete
I hope you get to meet Beverly Washburn. I'll bet she has some interesting stuff to say about SPIDER BABY.