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Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

superman mole menSuperman and the Mole Men (1951)
AKA Superman and the Strange People, The Unknown People (Episode title when re-broadcast as a two-parter for Adventures of Superman)

Starring George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews, Ray Walker, Hal K. Dawson

Directed by Lee Sholem

Expectations: Low.

Alright, who’s ready for some Superman? In anticipation of Zack Snyder’s take on Supes, Man of Steel, I’ll be running through 11 films that have previously taken a crack at the last survivor of the planet Krypton. Now what exactly those 11 films are is for me to know and you to find out, but expect things that line up with the grand Silver Emulsion tradition of balancing the mainstream with the not-so mainstream. So once again, who’s ready for some Superman? I can’t hear you! Are you ready?

Oh, so you are ready for some Superman? Well… hmm… this is awkward… in that case, you’ll have to wait. Mostly. Because Superman and the Mole Men isn’t all that much of a Superman movie. He’s in it, and he a few heroic and super things, but mostly it’s about Clark Kent, some intolerant townspeople and a few balding mole men. I had incorrectly assumed that the title referred to some struggle that would occur between Superman and the mole men, and I imagined Superman punching short, squinty-eyed guys in the face, but instead he’s actually protecting the li’l guys! This makes Superman and the Mole Men something of an interesting allegory for the Communist scare in America, and even if it didn’t deliver the super thrills I wanted, it was nice to see Superman protecting the weak and misunderstood mole men. Of course, I would have also accepted him punching them in the face, but when I first envisioned that alternate path I had no way of knowing just how harmless they’d end up being.

The mole men emerge!

As a fan of special FX, especially of the inventive, handmade variety, I was very excited to see how the fantastic aspects of Superman were handled in this early ’50s production. There aren’t a lot of FX, but what’s here is pretty great given what was probably a fairly small budget. Towards the end of the film, the mole men get tired of the townspeople taking their anger out on them, so they go home and come back to town with their Electrolux vacuum cleaner mole gun. I don’t know the real name, but I’m calling it a mole gun. I’ll also accept “mole ray.” In any case, when the gun fires it’s an impressive blast of light, made even more impressive when Superman stands in front of it and absorbs its power without flinching. During my adulthood, I’ve come to disregard and scoff at Superman, even though in my youth I was obsessed with the character and the Christopher Reeve movies. This moment reawakened that long-dead love, and got me very excited to see the rest of the films I’ve got lined up.

A key component to Superman is flying around, and while technology certainly limited what they were able to achieve here, they were able to get some nice results. There’s a few shots of Superman taking off, and every time it happened I had to rewind the movie to watch it again. It looked like they sped up the film in certain shots, and that maybe George Reeves was on wires, but I was unable to definitively figure out how they pulled it off so seamlessly. It legitimately looks like George Reeves just leaps into the sky, soaring off to save the day; I bought into it completely. The first time he flies they cut to a great crane shot that travels up, up and away over the small town set, selling the illusion even further.

Superman had been previously portrayed in two movie serials (1948’s Superman & 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman), but Superman and the Mole Men was the first real Superman film produced about the character. It isn’t exactly a feature-length film by today’s standards (it only runs 58 minutes), but trust me, it’s long enough. The film also served as a pilot for the TV series Adventures of Superman (which debuted in 1952), and this is a key point to keep in mind when watching this one. It never once feels much like a movie, but it always feels like an early TV show. This is fine, of course, as long as you like ’50s TV shows; it’s just something to keep in mind before you write this movie off for being ultra-boring and slow-moving. And speaking of TV shows, my love of The Andy Griffith Show paid off here, as I was able to spot that this was made at the same studio. Some light digging revealed that Superman and the Mole Men was made at the RKO-Pathé Studios in Culver City, CA, which were later bought in 1957 by Desilu and used for their TV shows! Learn something new every day.

Superman and the Mole Men is fairly slow and boring, though, so I’d say that unless you’re hardcore into the character or classic film/TV stuff, you should avoid this one. But I did enjoy it quite a bit myself, and it’s a great way to kick-start a Superman series!

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