When people think of the old Superman movies, the Christopher Reeves quadrilogy usually comes to mind. Yet as influential and historically important as those movies are, they weren’t the first theatrically released Superman movies. Like with Batman, there were serials released in the 1940’s but I won’t be touching on those since they weren’t fully live-action. But there is also the live-action Superman and the Mole Men, released in 1951. This happens to be the first theatrically released feature film based on any DC Comics characters. I can’t confirm this, but it may even be the first superhero feature film period, as the only earlier movies I can find were all serials.
Superman and the Mole Man was written by Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth, under the pseudonym “Richard Fielding”. Maxwell had previously worked on the Adventures of Superman radio show, while Ellsworth mostly worked as an editor for DC Comics, and occasionally wrote comics as well. The movie itself was filmed in only 12 days at the RKO-Pathe Studios. With a runtime of only 58 minutes, it actually served as a trial release for the syndicated Adventures of Superman TV series. The movie would later be split into a two-part episode called “The Unknown People”, and would remain the only 2-parter in the series. The writers would both move on to act as producers for the show.
There doesn’t appear to be any information on the casting process, but the movie stars George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Coates is actually still alive at 94 years of age, and although she’s now fully retired, her last on-screen appearance was in the Forsaken Westerns TV series in 2017. She also appeared as Ellen Lane in the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman series in the 90’s.
Reeves on the other hand died of a gunshot in 1959, just over a year after the Adventures of Superman show ended. They officially labelled it a suicide, but nobody in Hollywood who knew him believed that story and thought it was either a murder or an accidental shooting. His friend Rory Calhorn told a reporter, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Some even suspected Eddie Mannix, the MGM vice president at the time, whose wife Toni apparently had an affair with Reeves. There were also rumors that Eddie had mafia ties. Of course none of that was ever proven. There’s actually a 2006 movie called Hollywoodland based on the investigation into his death that’s apparently pretty good. In fact, the mere sound of this mystery sounds more interesting than the Superman and the Mole Man movie itself.
The movie’s soundtrack is specifically designed to give the movie a generic science fiction sound, with no sort of heroic theme present. That soundtrack was apparently removed in favour of the TV show’s production library of music for the first season. And that right there sums up all of the interesting behind the scenes details I could find.
There also doesn’t seem to be much information on how the movie was received, or how much money it made. It was at least successful enough to greenlight the TV series that lasted for 6 seasons. Both the movie and the first two seasons were filmed in black and white, while the rest were filmed in colour. That said, they weren’t broadcasted in colour until the 1965 reruns. Over the years, they’d release VHS collections of scattered episodes. In 2006, they released the show in its entirety to coincide with the DVD release of Superman Returns. That also happens to be the same year that the previously mentioned Hollywoodland released.
Anyway, Superman and the Mole Men is a story about the people in the town of Silsby being prejudiced towards strange beings that start showing up. After the world’s deepest oil well opens up an underground city, small, big headed humanoids emerge and scare an elderly woman to death. Lois also sees these mole men through a window and screams, but nobody believes what she saw. These mole men start exploring the town. After several sightings, most of the adults are terrified, yet they get along well with a little girl and even play a bit of catch. They’re clearly peaceful by nature. Superman realizes this, and with time, so do Lois and the Sherriff. Of course, the regular townsfolk form a gang with the intention of killing the mole men.
The ending is anti-climactic, with Superman confronting the gang and disarming them. The mole men escape, head back underground, and destroy the drill so that nobody can travel up and down the shaft again. That about sums up the movie.
The Batman serials definitely had their charm, with the classic cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and the over-the-top acting from the villain, even if there is a bit of racism behind his portrayal. This movie on the other hand doesn’t really feel like a movie. The intent behind the story is noble enough, suggesting that we shouldn’t be judgmental of strange creatures/beings. Some film historians believe this, along with The Day The Earth Stood Still (also released in 1951) is part of the general reaction to the “Red Scare” of post WWII.
At less than an hour, it doesn’t quite feel like a waste of time, and it is a very historically significant film. With all that said, I wouldn’t really recommend it. Superman and the Mole Men has very good intentions, but it really hasn’t aged well. They clearly didn’t have the technology or budget to make Superman look like he was flying, so he’d instead just land every now and then, and stand in place while people shot bullets at him. Well, save for one shot that isn’t the least bit convincing. If you do decide to watch it, you’ll probably mildly enjoy it, appreciate the themes it was going for, and then move on with your day.
Next up is the 1966 Adam West Batman movie, which also ties into a live-action TV show. 1966 also saw the release of a superhero comedy called The Wild World of Batwoman, but I’m not looking at that one – not only is it unofficial, but its production company was forced to change the title after a copyright infringement lawsuit. That and from what I’ve heard, it’s absolutely dreadful. The few clips I’ve seen of it seem to confirm that. After Batman, we’ll look at all of the Christopher Reeves Superman movies. It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of them, so I’m looking forward to that.