Meeting the fantastic: Superman's first feature film
Since its release late this March, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE continues cleaning up at the box office, demonstrating that audience preference for large-scale superhero features is undiminished. Comics-inspired extravaganzas are as well-designed for adults as for children, given the darker hues in which such dependables as the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel have been presented both on screen and in print. Perhaps such sensibilities are a reflection of the times, but the basic truism of these movies, the hero's surmounting of psychic ills to defeat the super-villain of the moment, still attracts audiences in droves, in addition to the thrills and effects. It's good old Saturday matinee stuff, only on a grander plane, and there's nothing wrong with that.
There was a time in Hollywood when superhero cinema was for kids -- and not just a few grown-ups -- who constituted the Saturday afternoon movie crowd. By the end of the 1940s, there was still a market for the weekly chapter play before television helped end the form in the mid-'50s. The superhero was just what the serials needed in providing 12-to-15-weeks' worth of thrills. That such fantastic characters were already pre-sold via newspaper comic strips and radio, going back to Flash Gordon (and earlier examples) in the '30s, was helpful in generating ticket sales. Both Batman and Superman had each been featured in a pair of Columbia Pictures-produced serials apiece by 1950. There had even been the lushly-produced color Superman cartoons produced by Dave Fleischer for Paramount Pictures in 1941-1943.
Yet neither Batman or Superman had gone the feature film route until National Periodicals, then the publisher of the Superman comics originated by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in 1938, decided it was time to create a single motion picture around its most well-known property.
National had seen the success of the Superman radio program produced, sometimes written and creatively conceived by Robert J. Maxwell (1908-1971). The radio show and the serials issued in 1948 and 1950 by Sam Katzman's production unit had remained loyal to the Shuster-Siegel concept, and the feature would maintain the same fidelity. Additionally, the movie was thought of as a tryout for a television series, also under Maxwell's supervision, and in April 1951, the publisher announced that $400,000 had been allocated to set up a production company, finance the film and shoot what became 24 half-hour TV episodes. Production on SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, a screenplay by Maxwell under the Richard Fielding pseudonym he used on the radio show, began on rented space at RKO Radio studios at the end of that July.
One of the elements Maxwell and his crew stuck to was Superman's connection with science fiction at a time when movies exploring futuristic themes were the rage. Specifically, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, released by Lippert Pictures on Nov. 23, 1951, fell into the invader-from-space subgenre of then-current movie sci-fi. But unlike the Howard Hawks-produced THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and the cult favorite THE MAN FROM PLANET X, both issued the previous April, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN took the stance of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which hit theaters in late September. Both the Superman feature and the Fox production that starred Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal argued that the aliens who have come to our troubled Earth have peaceful intentions that mankind fails to understand. Heavy material for what was then considered strictly kid stuff.
Indeed, Jan Alan Henderson's analysis of SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (in FORGOTTEN HORRORS Vol. 5: THE ATOM AGE, Lower Klopstokia: Cremo Studios, 2011, pp. 197-200) highlights the sobriety of a film (and the initial set of TV episodes) that introduced the Man of Steel to a wider audience "as more along the lines of film noir than as kid-stuff fare." Gary H. Grossman (in SUPERMAN: SERIAL TO CEREAL, New York: Big Apple Books/Popular Library, 1976, p. 59) hailed the production for being "a serious attempt at marketable science fiction."
After a credits sequence full of planets and shooting stars, an offscreen narrator (game show host Jack Narz) informs us of how Superman came to Earth as an infant from the vanished planet Krypton, grew into manhood "with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men" and dedicated himself to helping the inhabitants of his adopted world. He has taken the guise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Metropolis Daily Planet, to mask his true identity and remain a mystery to evildoers.
We then decamp to Silsby, a small southwestern U.S. town and home to what is reportedly the world's deepest oil well. All is not well at the work site: engineer Bill Corrigan (interestingly, the name of Noah Beery Jr.'s early astronaut in ROCKETSHIP X-M, 1950) has suspended further drilling and ordered all tools used in the enterprise to be buried, offering no answers to questions from night watchman Pop Shannon (J. Farrell MacDonald) and his co-workers. This occurs as John Craig (Ray Walker), public relations man for the oil company, arrives with Clark (George Reeves) and fellow reporter Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), who have been assigned by the Planet to do a major feature on the Silsby operation. Corrigan (Walter Reed) remains tight-lipped about the shutdown.
Choosing to spend the night in Silsby, Clark ponders the situation while get-a-story-at-all-costs Lois opts to return to the well and possibly force an explanation out of Corrigan. But as darkness falls, two small, furry humanoids with overdeveloped craniums -- the "mole men" -- emerge from the well. They are denizens of a world beneath the planet's crust and are exploring the strange sights on the surface now that a passage has been created by the drilling. Unfortunately, their appearance startles Pop, who suffers a fatal heart attack. His body -- and a strange glow attached to the oranges Pop had been eating -- greet Lois on her arrival. As she phones Clark for help, the mole men peer in the shed window to observe her. Lois spies them, screams and faints.
Clark, Corrigan and others arrive at the site to tend to Lois and make arrangements for Pop. Corrigan finally confesses to Clark that he closed down the project when the drill apparently broke through rock into open space. When the drill came up, pieces of rock and lichen carried the same illumination found on Pop's fruit. Corrigan believes the shiny stuff is radioactive in nature, and opted for the shutdown to spare the workers and the town the risk of contamination until he could conduct a further investigation.
However, news of Pop's death blamed on strange invaders spreads to the simple people of Silsby, who naturally panic. Rabble-rouser Luke Benson (Jeff Corey), whose young daughter (Beverly Washburn) has made peaceful contact with the two mole men, organizes a lynch mob outside the hotel. When Clark fails to quell the townsfolk's hysteria, we witness Superman's first appearance. As Lois carps about Clark's seeming cowardice as he dashes from the scene, he disappears into an alley and returns in full regalia (a scene repeated numerous times in the TV show), flies over the crowd advancing down the street and stops them before Luke's house, urging the mob to listen to reason and return to their homes. Luke remains defiant, prompting the Man of Steel to pick him up forcibly and declare, "It's men like you who make it difficult for people to understand one another."
Despite Superman's pleas, Luke and friends pursue the two mole men to the nearby dam. Luke discovers to his amazement that Superman is impervious to bullets, prompting the caped wonder to offer a rare smile: "Save your ammunition, Benson." Luke succeeds in shooting one of the creatures, who falls from the dam and is rescued by Superman. The other alien takes refuge in an old shack that the increasingly dangerous Luke burns, but the creature escapes through a false bottom and returns to the well to summon reinforcements.
Superman takes the wounded mole man to the hospital, where a young surgeon (John Baer) tends to him, providing us with clues that the mole men and the surface people are not so un-alike. Luke and his boys, who have already subdued the sheriff (Stanley Andrews) and effectively taken over the town, plan to raid the hospital and seize the creature, but after a bullet nearly hits Lois, Superman wades into the crowd and disarms them.
As Superman has feared, the creature's companion returns with others of his kind, bearing what the Man of Steel calls "a weapon -- probably a very dangerous weapon." Luke, still out for his pound of the mole men's flesh, breaks away, lays hands on a rifle and prepares to open fire on the creatures. They in turn blast their ray gun upon him, pinning him to a wall. As Luke screams in pain, Superman arrives with the wounded one, deflects the ray and tells them to return to the well. "You ... you saved my life," the bewildered Luke tells his rescuer. "It's more than you deserve," Superman sternly responds.
Back at the drilling site, Superman hands off the wounded creature to his friends and watches them disappear down the well. Lois, Corrigan and Craig arrive, with Corrigan informing them that tests have proven the glow was only "harmless phosphorence" and not radiation-based. But the mole men then use the weapon to destroy the well, blocking access, perhaps forever, between two civilizations. "It's almost as if they're saying, you have your world, and we have ours," Lois somberly reflects. Superman nods in agreement.
Save for an extended chase scene between one of the creatures and Luke's mob, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN flows neatly for the bulk of its 58-minute length, thanks to the efficient direction of Lee Sholem, who shared directorial duties with Thomas Carr on the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Maxwell co-produced the feature with Barney A. Sarecky, who had been a scenarist for Sam Katzman's Banner Productions releasing through Monogram Pictures in the early-to-mid 1940s. As Richard Fielding, Maxwell did himself proud with his spare but involving script, which creates a palpable air of civil collapse and desperation as unfounded fears grip Silsby and its citizens.
The story becomes more daring as it explores the fear and paranoia underlying the community, which had a valid parallel in a post-World War II, early Cold War America coping with the possibility of nuclear war with Soviet Russia, the belief Communists were working from within to destroy the U.S., and the "flying saucer" craze that added to the national anxiety.
The strange visitors in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, however, are harmless, curious newcomers to the surface world whose odd appearance and non-fatal glow left on everything they touch sets off a panic. They are greeted with the same suspicion and foreboding aimed at the alien messenger Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and like Klaatu, the mole men are coerced into using force only when violence has been directed at them. Similarly, Superman, himself of otherworldly origin, humbles Luke and his minions when his calls for sanity are met with gunfire. And SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, in its unassuming way, was also a call for humanity to stand down and try to pursue peaceful resolution of its problems.
Not that SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN sought to make a political statement; the unsettled times were too treacherous for more than a generic film viewpoint, as cast member Jeff Corey soon discovered. After completing work on the film, he was summoned to Washington to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee about his previous membership in the Communist Party and to name others in Hollywood with Red sympathies. Corey's invoking of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination led to his blacklisting in Hollywood, and SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was his last film role for more than a decade. In another sign of the times, Robert Wise, director of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, said later in life that the production was at first unable to obtain military cooperation due to its pacifist stance.
Nor was pushing a viewpoint Maxwell's goal with SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN. The Man of Steel's championing of the initially defenseless creatures speaks to the compassion for the weak and oppressed that defined the character in the comics. In a later episode of the TV series, "The Secret of Superman," renegade scientist Dr. Ort (Peter Brocco) targets that quality in his evil quest to discover Superman's daytime identity. Maxwell didn't deviate from the original conception of the character either in the film or the TV show.
As science fiction, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN is effective and moody. Although hardly unique, the idea of "invaders" coming up from within the Earth rather than descending from outer space was different enough for fantastic films. It also summoned the sense of wonder about the universe the Superman stories on the printed page and on radio, and recalled the genesis of the idea of an inner world Jules Verne detailed in his 1864 novel JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. And the thought that the mole men and the surface dwellers, despite exterior differences, are possibly similar inside opens up speculation that the production didn't have time to explore. An observation by Eddie (Steve Carr), one of Luke's cohorts, that the mole man's scream after being shot sounded almost human raises some hackles as well as curiosity.
Despite a hurried production schedule, Sholem and cinematographer Clark Ramsey created a sense of eeriness to the nighttime scenes that dominate the story. The closing sequence in which the oil well is destroyed, a miniature pictured against what appears to be a pre-dawn light, is unnerving as the final act of violence, an indication of the mole men's destructive capability that Silsby has narrowly avoided.
Henderson's contention that the look of the movie is noirish has been noted by other fans and scholars who found the dark film influence carried over into the first season of the TV show, whose entries were clearly more bleak and violent than the succeeding five seasons. Also supporting this impression is the fact the film and the initial set of episodes were shot at RKO, which fully embraced noir in the postwar years with such classics as OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and THE SET-UP (1949). The lot eventually passed into the hands of Desilu, the company formed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and fans of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW will recognize such exteriors as the Mayberry courthouse, hotel and hospital in the first season of SUPERMAN.
One of the show's greatest features -- sequences of Superman in flight -- are not to be found in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, perhaps due to the special effects team not having perfected the process in time for the film's production. When Superman emerges from the alley for his first appearance, we see him lifted (by wires); the rest of the flight scene is a magnificent crane shot approximating Superman's view of his soaring over the crowd. The scene in which he breaks the fall of the injured mole man from the dam is at first animated, followed by a live-action close-up of the creature falling into Superman's arms. By the time work commenced on the show's first episode, "Superman on Earth," the process of filming Superman in flight was ready.
For actor George Reeves (1914-1959), SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was his first portrayal of the role that simultaneously highlighted and damaged his career. His Superman here is the one that dominated the oncoming TV episodes, a forceful and rather grim superhero to contrast with the supposedly milquetoast Clark. His Clark, however, while slow to action is just as stern as Superman, yet displays an admirably courageous bent in the movie with his initial confrontation with Luke and the aroused populace of Silsby. Both interpretations bore the stamp of Maxwell's hard-boiled influence from the radio show in which Clayton "Bud" Collyer voiced the Man of Steel for almost a decade.
When THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN got the green light for a second season in 1953, Maxwell had been replaced as producer by National's Whitney Ellsworth (1908-1980), and Superman was unwound from his stiff first season image. An indication of Reeves' more playful portrait that later emerged is seen in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN when Lois, flabbergasted at Clark's behavior, tells him she believes he's leading a double life. "Oh really?" Clark responds with a smile, a precursor of the wink to the audience he offered on TV when he foxed suspicions about his true self. For more than few generations, Reeves' Superman became the gold standard to which successors were compared -- and he's still impressive today.
Phyllis Coates' Lois is also the product of the tough gal reporter projected by the radio version of SUPERMAN, and like Reeves, her unyielding interpretation also overshadowed the series, at least for the episodes that followed completion of the movie. Born in 1927 and like Reeves, a former a contract player at Warner Bros., Coates was freelancing when she won the part of Lois and to her credit, she makes Clark's rival for scoops pretty memorable, unafraid of inflicting physical violence when the occasion called for some, as in the movie when she stamps on the feet of two goons restraining her. In SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, her headstrong sensation hunter offers a stark counterbalance to the more reasonable Clark.
Reportedly unavailable when National planned a new season for THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, there is a belief that Coates' aggressive Lois didn't fit in with the kinder, gentler nature of the show when the first season was deemed too full of murder and mayhem. She was replaced by Noel Neill (born 1920), the plucky Lois of the two Superman serials, whose TV heroine was more lovable but also more vulnerable, forever being kidnapped by the villains of the moment. Coates, however, had the satisfaction of playing Lois' mother Ellen Lane in "The House of Luthor," a 1994 episode of THE ADVENTURES OF LOIS AND CLARK, ABC's re-imagining of the Superman legend that starred Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.
Jeff Corey's Luke, overdosed on his sudden prominence as the chief instigator of the film's violence, is magnificently hissable and his comeuppance near the end of the film is a welcome moment. Corey, who entered the movies in the late '30s, had worked himself up to prominent supporting roles thanks to such productions as THE KILLERS (1946), BRUTE FORCE (1947) and HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949).
He survived the blacklist by becoming one of Hollywood's top acting teachers, and it was through the efforts of one of his students, singer Pat Boone, that he was cast in a Boone film, 1963's THE YELLOW CANARY. Corey was immediately back in demand and continued working for decades; his last appearance was in a 2000 episode of the CBS police drama THE DISTRICT starring Craig T. Nelson. Corey died two years later at 88.
The rest of the cast is professional and convincing in their portrayals. Among them in what is widely believed to be his final film role is Frank Reicher (1875-1965), Captain Englehorn of KING KONG and its sequel, SON OF KONG (both 1933), as the unsympathetic hospital superintendent who opposes treating the injured mole man.
Kudos, too, to the small person actors playing the mole men -- Billy Curtis, John Banbury, Tony Baris and Jerry Marvin. Mute throughout the film, they vividly express much of the fascination and fear the creatures experience in the unexpectedly hostile upper world. Our sympathies at their plight are immediately aroused. (Curtis went on to guest star in the THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN's fifth season episode "Mr. Zero").
As soon as SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN wrapped after an estimated shooting schedule of less than two weeks, the company entered a frenzied period of producing the TV show, cranking out four episodes every 10 days, according to Grossman. Work on the series ended in mid-October, but National withheld distribution of the show to syndication for more than a year, fearful of response to the show's violent nature. Test-marketing revealed that audiences adored the program, whose state-of-the-art special effects were a major draw. Success that greeted the show's wider distribution in early 1953 resulted in a call for a second season.
While most of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN's first season had our hero combating gangsters and the like, some shows did explore the concept of super science perverted for criminal purposes, as in "The Secret of Superman," "The Mind Machine" and "Crime Wave." Others took a turn for the macabre in "Mystery in Wax," "The Deserted Village" and "The Evil Three." Some of the first season's influence is found in the early entries of the second season, but the show's regression toward children's programming continued unabated from then until the last episodes were lensed in the fall of 1957.
In its original form, the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN didn't include the condensation of SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN into the series' only two-part episode, "The Unknown People," as widely believed for decades. Henderson reveals in his critique that the film was not included in the syndication package until a re-release in the '60s, providing season one with a full compliment of 26 episodes. And until SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was released to home video in the late '80s, the TV version was the only one known to fans who had grown up on the series.
Shorn of several minutes, primarily from the chase scene, with Darrell Calker's more sci-fi-like original score for the film replaced by the familiar library music used in the series, "The Unknown People" managed in abbreviated form to maintain the tension of the feature. And as such, it stands apart from the other first season entries as the more fantastic and imaginative of the stories presented.