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November 18, 2013

Movie Mondays: Superman and the Mole Men

Look up in the sky! It's George Reeves falling off of wire!

Look up in the sky! It’s George Reeves falling from a wire!

Title: Superman and the Mole Men
Director: Lee Sholem
Writers: Richard Fielding (a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth) (Based on Superman by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald
Studio: Lippert Pictures, Inc.
Release Date: November 23, 1951
MPAA: Approved

Hey everyone, and welcome back to another edition of MOVIE MONDAYS!  As you all should remember, this year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman.  Throughout the year we’ve taken a look at his first two live-action theatrical adventures with Superman and Atom Man VS SupermanWe also took a look at his most memorable outing on the big screen with the 1978 film, Superman starring Christopher Reeve, as well as the two recent attempts to revitalize the character for the silver screen, with Superman Returns and Man of Steel.  So consider these upcoming weeks the round-up, where we cover the rest of The Big Blue Boy Scout’s feature film outings in a back-to-back Movie Mondays Superman Marathon.

Today we’re taking a look at Superman’s fourth trip to the movie theater, which just happens to be his FIRST live-action feature film: Superman and the Mole Men! 

The wind machine noticeably jostles Reeves around during this shot

The wind machine noticeably jostles Reeves around during this shot.

The story begins with a generic prologue explaining that some time ago the planet Krypton was destroyed, and the sole survivor came to Earth to become Superman (George Reeves), a superhero who disguises himself as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.  After the prologue we find Kent on his way to report on the world’s deepest oil well, along with rival reporter Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates).  As it turns out, the well is being shut down because the underground area they’ve tunneled into is radioactive.  That’s the least of the problems, as it seems that a race of Mole Men live in this underground area and have come to the surface world to investigate these strange creatures drilling into their home.  Things escalate rather quickly, and the townsfolk give into their human instincts to hate and fear what they don’t know or understand, instantly deeming the Mole Men a dangerous threat.  Tensions rise and it’s up to Superman to calm the townsfolk and save the Mole Men before things get out of hand and anyone gets hurt.

Superman helps the injured Mole Man

Superman helps the injured Mole Man.

That’s right, I said “save the Mole Men,” which leads me to the best part, and one of the scarce praise-worthy elements, of this film.  Filmed in 1951, after World War II, and near the beginning of the Second Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism, the strongest aspect of this film is the socio-political commentary.  This movie is called “Superman AND the Mole Men” not “Superman VERSUS the Mole Men,” and could have just as easily been titled “Superman VS the Angry Mob.”  This movie, in no subtle way, addresses the brutish mob-mentality humanity is capable of and the horrible way we treat things we don’t understand.  The townsfolk instantly decide to kill the Mole Men based on unfortunate accidents, without checking the facts first.  What’s worse is they decide to attack Superman, too, essentially for standing in their way and not instantly taking their side.

Superman goes so far as to compare the citizenry to Nazis, illustrating just how quickly mob rule can turn into Fascism.  That’s pretty bold talk considering the era in which this film was released.

Our stars' stage direction was probably: "Don't yawn in front of the camera"

Our stars’ stage direction was probably: “Don’t yawn in front of the camera.”

However, that positive element, no matter how impressive, is not enough to carry the rest of the film.  All of the cast members involved in this production are pretty unremarkable.  Each and every one of the people involved in this film give a lackluster performance, though this may be largely the fault of the production itself.  The entire movie was filmed in less than two weeks, and it shows.  Everyone gives a rather forgettable performance, with two exceptions.  Thankfully those two exceptions are our stars Reeves and Coates.  Reeves has a command of the screen, though his performance is nothing very noteworthy.  In one or two scenes, Reeves gives a winking, tongue-in-cheek portrayal as Clark makes a revealing remark in regard to his double-life for the audience to appreciate that flies right over Lois’s head.  If he were given more chances like this to infuse some life into his character, the movie would have been far more enjoyable.  The one thing memorable about Coates’s portrayal of Lois is how annoying she is.  Even when her character isn’t written in an annoying fashion, Coates’s performance is so underwhelming that her delivery does little more than irritate.

SatM 3

What about this look says “Mole” to you?

Another negative element of this film lies with the costuming.  Let’s start with the big issue here, with Superman himself.  His costume is a thickly padded suit that looks like tights being stretched over 1950s football pads.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the lines of the pads are clearly visible underneath the tights.  Also, this gives Superman a noticeably larger frame than when he’s disguised as Clark.  The other problem with the costumes is those of the Mole Men.  These “Mole” men are just little people in zip-up fuzzy black jumpsuits with large prosthetic bald heads.  It’s all just unbelievably laughable. 

I've seen women's blazers from the '80s with smaller shoulder pads

I’ve seen women’s blazers with less obvious shoulder pads.

While on the subject of visible complaints, one should address the special effects.  Now, I’m aware that it’s 1951, so visual effects for flying are somewhat limited.  However, this film is a step down in quality from the Kirk Alyn serial that had come out only one year prior.  For one scene, the film uses the same animated flying stunt-double technique that the ’48 and ’50 serials used, only now it’s extremely low quality and looks awful.  I know that Reeve apparently fell while suspended from a wire and refused to do it again, but the scene could have been done just as easily with Reeves laying on a plank in front of a wind machine, a technique used in the 1950 serial, in this film, and in every film since then.  It’s an unnecessary moment that drags the whole film down.

Another problem stems from the film’s pacing.  Crawling along at a snail’s pace, the film is so incredibly, terribly slow.  Now, I’m all for slow, character-driven films, but that’s not what happens here.  The few character scenes, like Clark working with the town surgeon (the only other rational character in the film other than himself) are wonderful.  The slow pacing comes from overly lengthy scenes of the Mole Men wandering around and doing nothing.  Even in the second half of the film, where the Mole Men are being chased by the angry mob, the viewer is forced to sit through long scenes of the Mole Men wandering through empty unpopulated woods. 

SatM 2

Superman VS the Angry Mob’s Leader.

The social commentary provided by this film is great, and certainly ground-breaking for its release.  No other live-action Superman feature before or sense has offered any sort of socio-political commentary, and only one animated feature has bothered to try with Superman VS The Elite.  So, major points in this film’s favor in that regard.  But the rest of the film is brought down by poor performances and low production values.

Superman and the Mole Men managed to do what no other live-action Superman film has ever done…be boring.  One or two animated Superman films, such as Superman: Brainiac Attacks or Superman Unbound, managed to lose my interest in some places, but Superman and the Mole Men marks the only time I have ever struggled to stay awake during a Superman filmThis film gets an unfortunate score of 4 out of 10.   

Aaron Nicewonger
aarongni@gmail.com
Aaron@comicattack.net

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4 Comments



  1. He had his hands on his hips a lot! lol



    • Hehe! True! I love that the tag-line calls him “The ALL-TIME ACE OF ACTION!” Yet he spends almost the entire film standing still with his hands on his hips.

      There’s ONE action scene, where Superman decides to take the angry mob’s guns. And the scene STARTS and then suddenly fades out. I felt so gypped!


  2. Kristin

    It makes me happy that a film made back then, particularly of this nature. had a message like that. But then it makes me sad that NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Ooooh well.



  3. Yeah. It’s really terrific. This movie came out the same year as The Day The Earth Stood Still. A FANTASTIC sci-fi, that’s stands up to the test of time, and still amazing to this day. And it had a big social message in it as well.

    Unfortunately, the rest of this Superman movie isn’t all that worth-while.



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