With barely a year having passed since Atom Man vs. Superman finished its 15-week story, the Last Son of Krypton made his return to the silver screen in Superman and the Mole Men, released by Lippert Pictures. According to my research, the film was meant as a test for a planned Superman television series. Since the late-forties, televisions had begun popping up in homes, and while it still wasn’t considered a mandatory appliance like a refrigerator, it was well on its way. The success of the serials no doubt made National Publications (later DC Comics) and producer Barney A. Sarecky think that television would make a great home for the Man of Steel.
Superman and the Mole Men introduces the two most important cast members of the 1952-1958 series The Adventures of Superman, notably George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.¹ The runtime is only 58 minutes, which (in my mind) shows that it was conceived as a way to get two episodes for the series in the future.²
For many, George Reeves was the first Superman they knew. He was my first live-action Superman, though he’d been dead for 18 years before I was born. The Adventures of Superman were still rerun all the time when I was little. While Christopher Reeve donned the cape a year after I was born, it took awhile before his movie to come to television so was essentially unknown to me. George Reeves in his badly padded suit with the cape that, for some reason, had a neck that hung down to mid-back, was the first “real” Superman I experienced. He was the reason my mother felt the need to tell me that Superman wasn’t real, that he was played by an actor named George Reeves who wasn’t really flying, but was lying on a table and made to look like he was flying. And before anyone decries my mother as being a party-pooper who was trying to kill the magic inside me, please note that she was trying to save herself the heartache of attending her little boy’s funeral, or visiting his broken body in the hospital, after he’d put on his blanky and jumped off the second floor porch trying to fly.
I wasn’t much older when I found out Reeves was dead. Still, this is his first go at the Man of Steel and worthy of a looksee.
George Reeves is Superman. That’s the thing with this character, it seems every actor who has portrayed him has done so perfectly for the time in which their doing so. Well…almost every actor. But George Reeves definitely catches the 1950s Superman perfectly. He gives this vibe of being the uncle you love and who will always have the right answer for you, but will also kick some ass if needed. Reeves was 37 when he first donned the cape in 1951, which is actually a year younger than Kirk Alyn in the first Superman serial. Reeves’s Superman wasn’t as enthusiastic as Alyn’s, though. Reeves was cooler, laid back. When I watched Alyn, his Superman had a look that said, “I’m Superman, mofo! Let’s dance!” Reeves’s Superman is more, “Yes, I’m Superman, and heed my warning. If you don’t, I will easily and nonchalantly kick your ass.” In Superman and the Mole Men, his Clark Kent is seen onscreen almost as much as his Superman and Kent is no bumbling fool. He is intelligent and sure of himself. If he happens to be a little cowardly, well…who can blame him? Superman is as wise as he is powerful, and acts as a counsel to humans as much as a one-man police force.
Phyllis Coates is very good as Lois Lane. This Lois is much more serious in this incarnation than she was for the serials. She exhibits intelligence and strength. I would think that playing Lois Lane would be something actresses at this time would appreciate.
Superman flies! Briefly, anyway. It’s said that the filmmakers behind the Kirk Alyn serials tried having him fly using wires but it didn’t look good, so they went with the animated flying. In Atom Man vs. Superman, they showed Superman flying in close-ups, meaning, Alyn was in front of a light-colored wall/screen with smoke being blown at him. In Superman and the Mole Men, George Reeves flies away on wire. Now, this apparently didn’t stay the norm. Reeves had a bad experience with the wires, falling and nearly suffering a concussion early in the series. He swore off ever using the wires again afterward and the series resorted to Reeves using a springboard to jump out windows or off screen and then was matted into various backgrounds as he lay on a table or something, arms and legs out before and behind him. In this movie, though, the wires are still in use and the audience gets to see, albeit briefly, Superman fly on film.
The story by Richard Fielding (apparently a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth, producers of the series) is actually pretty good. Yes, there are some silly things that I’ll get to in a bit, but there’s a definite message in this tale. The Mole Men of the title are beings that live far, far, far below the Earth’s surface and are found through an oil well that has drilled deeper than any other drill ever. They come up and frighten the people of Silsby, a small town in Texas. A lynch mob is formed to kill the Mole Men and Superman it there to talk sense to the lynch mob and stop them. In the days of the Red Scare, and a decade before the Civil Rights movement would really do their thing, this tale is about acceptance and reason. It is actually a good message for today, in a world where the Pat Robertsons and Westboro Baptists use their 1st Amendment rights to preach hatred in the name of god, in a world where people with dark skin and beards are often harassed for fear of being terrorists. Superman, in 1951, is telling people to chill out. He stops a lynch mob in a time when things like this happened because of the color of one’s skin. Keep in mind, this movie came out less than four years before 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Superman’s insistence that the townspeople, the lynch mob, leave the Mole Men alone is all-too-real.
No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. No Metropolis, for that matter. What the hell? This is Superman, right? Yet, we’re in a small town and country (read: a backlot) with Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigating the weird happenings around the oil well. Of course, both characters (and the city) would appear in the TV series, played by Jack Larson and John Hamilton, but for Superman and the Mole Men, neither is present.
The Mole Men are, sadly, pretty lame. I’ll give it to the filmmakers that the actors they chose to play the Mole Men are sympathetic–even cute. But the strange bald-cap/wigs and the zipper-visible-in-the-back “furry” suits for their bodies are laughable. Considering how important they are to the movie, it’s sad. Again, there’s a feeling that because this is a movie aimed at little boys the production values didn’t need to be great. The feel isn’t much better than that of the serials, and the Mole Men look almost as lame as Atom Man’s strange bucket helmet.
Superman…flies? Yes, it seems contradictory to have Superman’s flying in both sections, but if you’ve followed me long enough, you know that I do this kind of thing from time to time (dear oh dear). While seeing Superman take off (with the help of wires) must’ve thrilled the little boys in the theaters across the country, never actually seeing Superman fly except for one shot that lasts less than five seconds must’ve been a huge letdown. His “flying” is implied by the camera looking down at people on the streets as the camera flies overhead, with a few pedestrians looking up and pointing. And that one scene where we see Superman actually flying? He’s catching a falling Mole Man in midair. Cool, huh? But both characters are animated. Just like in the serials. It quickly goes to a shot of George Reeves on wires catching the falling Mole Man (an obvious dummy on a wire). Luckily, they worked this out for the series.
After the Battle
Overall, Superman and the Mole Men is pretty entertaining, and at just about an hour long, it’s the right length. It doesn’t suffer from the bloating that the previous Superman serials had, and the story is actually pretty clever. There’s no supervillain in this. The enemy is the frightened, ready-to-kill people. George Reeves debuts as Superman with aplomb and the feeling that he’s not only watching out for us, but is there to advise and teach us. It makes for a good introduction to a Superman who would last until Reeves’s death.
¹ Coates only played Lois Lane for the first season. Apparently, it was unsure the series would survive past its first season and came out nearly a year after its initial shoot. When the series was picked up for a second season (and beyond), Coates was unavailable to return. The producers went to Noel Neill to reprise her role from the two previous serials.
² This is, of course, exactly what happened. The last two episodes of the first season of The Adventures of Superman were the only two-part storyline of the entire series, entitled “The Unknown People.” The movie was edited down for television and any reference to “Mole Men” was edited out.
Based on the overwhelming success of 1948’s serial Superman, Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Katzman decided to get the gang together for a sequel. So in 1950, children found that the Man of Steel had returned to their local movie houses in Atom Man vs. Superman. With a screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, and directed by Spencer Bennett, the original cast joins with Lyle Talbot as Luthor to tell a sprawling new story.
Like its predecessor, this is an interesting look back at a time when entertainment was more innocent and more naïve. This is a serial that is unabashedly for children and says “To hell with the adults!” It makes me wish I’d been a child back then to see it and other serials of its ilk.
Once again, the cast is really good. This shouldn’t come as a shock since Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return as Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. With the exception of Ms. Neill’s hair and hat (her hair is shorter and black this time, more like her comic book persona) nothing about the actors has changed in two years. Most of their performances are as good, if not better, than they were in the previous serial. Alyn once again dons the cape with gusto and enthusiasm. This is a Superman who revels in being Superman. Clark Kent is just as lazy and cowardly as before, with that twinkle in the eye that lets the kids in the audience know that Superman is just around the corner.
Lyle Talbot as Luthor is possibly the closest Lex Luthor has been to the comic book version on the silver screen. He’s intelligent, mean, and more than willing to do what it takes to become powerful and destroy Superman. While everyone gets hung up on Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, Talbot’s is certainly not going to surround himself with the likes of Miss Teschmacher and Otis.
The story is once again quite epic. I guess it’s difficult not to make an epic story at 15 chapters of 15-to-20 minutes in length (nearly four-and-a-quarter hours). With the mysterious Atom Man to contend with, and the newly “reformed” Luthor suspected to behind him, Superman is kept busy. The story is grander, including a place called The Empty Doom (which is a lot like The Phantom Zone) that we actually go to, a spaceship for Luthor’s escape from Earth, a flying saucer that shoots Clark and Lois down (cliffhanger!), ray guns, synthetic Kryptonite (that’s missing one element to truly work–sound familiar?), and– Well, you should just trust me on this. It’s massive.
All right, in the last essay, I pretty much bashed the writing and direction of Superman (1948). In many ways, the same problems persist. While there are very entertaining parts of Atom Man vs. Superman, there are some show-stoppingly bad parts. The serial is off to a pretty fast start, since Superman’s origins were told in the last movie (chapter 1), so we get to see our Metropolitan friends going about life and our Kryptonian hero do heroic things. Somewhere around the halfway part of the series, though, things begin to go wrong. Chapter 7, “At the Mercy of Atom Man”, the story stops dead as Luthor tells his aide the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins. Now this came as a shock because the way the story was told in the first serial, even Superman was unaware of where he came from. He suspected it was the planet Krypton because Kryptonite had an ill effect on him. Not only does Luthor retell the origin, but the audience is given much of the Krypton scenes from the first serial’s first chapter all over again. If you didn’t see it the first time back in 1950, this was probably great–especially if you were a kid–but even back then, an adult would’ve rolled their eyes at the strange nature of the backstory. And how does Luthor know? He was the only person on Earth who was able to decode a message from Jor El, sent out across the universe to get help for his doomed planet. From this point, the story gets weird. Lois Lane quits the Daily Planet after one insult too many from Perry White and she goes to work for Luthor, who now runs the local TV station. He says he’s reformed but Lois and Clark and Jimmy and Superman have spent the first half of the serial not believing him. But now she believes him. To make matters worse, her journalistic integrity is thrown to the curb because she’s a girl-on-the-street stopping pedestrians to ask them about the weather or if they prefer country life or city life. The one news story she’s sent on as a TV reporter–a major flood in the upstate town of Lawnville–she messes up because she refuses to take heed when the police tells her to move, the flood was on its way. There are other strange things, too, and stupidity on the part of the characters so the story will keep going.
Lois Lane isn’t herself in this serial. Look, Noel Neill is Lois Lane. She played the reporter through these two serials and all but the first season of the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman. And she was spunky and dead-on in the first serial, but in this serial I think she could have been better. Not only is the part written pretty poorly, but she sometimes goes through scenes as though she’s sleepwalking. Now, I don’t think it’s her. I think she was directed poorly. Maybe it was the huge amount of work filming a serial for a low budget took. I don’t know, but this Lois Lane is good sometimes, and other times she’s just blah. I wanted to like her but just didn’t care. Again, I think it was the way she was directed. I hope it was.
Atom Man was lame. His costume was horrible and he was confusingly lame. The big reveal on his secret identity was silly, too (thought surprising).
The reusage of footage got to be annoying. In the last few chapters of the first Superman serial, I noticed that when Clark changed in the Daily Planet closet, it was the same shots used. The same can be said for Superman’s take-offs out the Daily Planet’s window. This serial uses it, too. Over and over and over. They reuse a lot of footage from that first serial, actually. I guess over two years and 15 weeks, a child wouldn’t notice it. Still, I think it’s lazy.¹
The budget seems better on this one than on the prior one, though not much. It could just be a trick, though. Either way, lack of a budget means silly-looking stuff. The animation is even greater this time around. Though I give kudos to them showing us Superman flying up-close, so Kirk Alyn could be seen “flying.” The animation doesn’t only go to Superman flying, but also the flying saucer and spaceship I mentioned.
After the Battle
My feelings of Atom Man vs. Superman are pretty similar to my feelings on 1948’s Superman. They’re both great fun if you go into it with the sense that you’re time-travelling. If you’re looking for a deep, modern Superman adventure, you’ll hate these. If you want to see adults essentially do with Superman what you would’ve done with your action figures at six or seven years old, then you’ll enjoy them.
I’m really glad I watched these serials. They were only the third and fourth serials I’ve seen and they made me want to see more. They’re also fun to see from a historical perspective, like when Lois Lanes is annoyed with her “newfangled typewriter,” which looks like a manual office model except is electric. Also, seeing an early TV is pretty cool, too.
Overall, I recommend the serials, but only if you’re willing to play along. Take them for what they are: stories meant for young fans in a different world, a world before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Reaganomics, terrorist attacks, and overt cynicism.
¹ In rewatching The Incredible Hulk TV series for the past year (I’m almost done!), I noticed footage reused over and over again, sometimes completely out of context.