There are two movie going experiences from my childhood that stick out more than any others. The first, of course, was going to see Star Wars when I was six years old. My father and I snuck out of the house to see it so my brother, two years younger, wouldn’t know we’d gone. The other was roughly a year later when we all went to see Superman. Like the posters said, we believed a man could fly! Richard Donner’s 1978 epic wasn’t the first appearance of the blue boy on the big screen, however. There had been the Fleischer cartoons and a serial, but his other feature film appearance had been the launch of the television series starring George Reeves. Later it was edited into a multi-part episode of the show, but when it appeared in theaters in 1951 it was known as Superman and the Mole Men.
In our story, reporters Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) and Clark Kent (Reeves) have been dispatched to the small town of Silsby, TX to do a story on the world’s deepest oil well. Unfortunately, when they arrive they find that the crew of the well are acting strangely and are in the process of shutting down drilling operations. Of course, that ain’t stopping these intrepid reporters, and they soon start to investigate.
Things get stranger, though, when two small, somewhat human, creatures emerge from the well that night. One of them is played by Jerry Maren of Munchkin fame. Their odd appearance, which some describe as being mole-like, is enough to scare the poor nightwatchman to death. It doesn’t take long for the townsfolk to become terrified of these mole men. Of course, “this looks like a job for Superman!” Oh, spoiler alert here, in case you weren’t aware of it already, Clark Kent is just a disguise for an extra-terrestrial with super-human strength who goes by the name of Superman. Thought I should mention that in case there were any hermits reading this.
Anyhow, the local angry mob is soon in pursuit of the creatures. One even takes a bullet and falls from a bridge, but is caught in midair by Superman and carried off to the hospital. Meanwhile, the mob corners the other creature in a shed and sets it ablaze. The creature manages to escape and return to the well to gather more of his brothers to battle the townsfolk. Now, only Superman can stop a war from breaking out between bizarre underground dwellers and hick-town yokels.
There’s nothing terribly flashy about Superman and the Mole Men. Essentially it is a TV production taken to the big screen. There are no big flying effects, no big action sequences, and the mole man makeup is not especially mole-like. However, there’s no denying the film’s charms. The story is simple, straightforward, and I admit, a bit refreshing considering how some of today’s superhero films go out of their way to be gritty and more mature. This is coming from a time when comic book characters were considered kids entertainment. The folks who made this aren’t trying to do anything lofty, they just wanted to make the kids happy. Viewed with that frame of mind, the film works very well.
For those of us who grew up on Christopher Reeve’s take on the role, this requires some adjustment. Most different is the fact that Clark Kent is not a bumbling awkward nebbish here. Kent’s almost as dashing as Supes is. However, there’s a nice simplicity to the way George Reeves approaches the role of Superman. He’s a hero, he stands for what is right, and it doesn’t get much more complex than that. Interestingly enough, in this case he’s standing on the side of right in a situation not unlike those that would fill headlines in the decades to come. The story could actually be looked at as a commentary on social issues that would grow in significance as the 50’s and 60’s progressed. Ultimately, the mole men are not evil. They don’t do anything to deserve the hatred of the townsfolk. Their only crime is that they look a bit different. In many ways, the angry townsfolk could be described as a “lynch mob.” So even though this was looked at as kiddie fare, it does get a bit deep.
Superman and the Mole Men may not be the best big screen outing for Superman. It falls a bit short of truly capturing the spirit of even the comics of this era. However, Reeves gives us a worthy hero who manages to be an example of standing for “truth, justice, and the American way” that hopefully rubbed off on kids of the 50’s in ways they may not have fully understood yet.