Posted by blakemp
Writer: Robert Maxwell
Cast: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews
Plot: Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent (Phyllis Coates and George Reeves) are sent to cover the opening of the deepest oil well in the world, but arrive to find that unknown problems in the drill shaft have caused the company to shut the oil well down. As the two of them find rooms at a local hotel for the night, the oil shaft is opened from the inside and two bizarre creatures stumble out. In the morning, Clark and Lois arrive back at the oil shaft to find the night watchmen dead, frightened to death Lois glimpses one of the creatures, but Clark and the oil rig’s foreman are skeptical of her claim. The foreman confesses to Earth that the super-deep drill hadn’t struck oil as planned, but phosphorescent radium, then burst into an enormous hollow area deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
The two Mole creatures are spotted in town and an angry mob forms, planning to hunt them down. Switching his clothes to his Superman uniform, the man of steel races the mob, led by Luke Benson (Jeff Corey). The Mole Men have already escaped, and Superman’s effort to placate the mob is only partially successful – several of them head out that night and find the Mole creatures atop the town dam. One of the Mole Men is shot, and Superman catches him in the air, racing him to the hospital, while the other escapes. Benson’s mob chases the remaining Mole creature to a shack, trapping him, then set the building on fire. He narrowly escapes, but Benson believes him dead, allowing him to return to the drill shaft and slip back underground.
At the hospital, the doctor is afraid to operate on the Mole Man due to the radiation, and Benson is assembling his mob again again. Superman faces down the mob, and the second creature returns from the drill shaft with reinforcements and a weapon. They approach Superman, who realizes they’ve only come to rescue the wounded creature. Benson tries to attack them, and they turn their weapon on him, but Superman saves him. He helps the Mole Men return to the drill shaft, which they destroy from within. No one will ever disturb the Mole Men again.
Thoughts: After two movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, this short movie (only 58 minutes) was made as a sort of test for the proposed Adventures of Superman TV show. The show was given the greenlight and this movie was heavily edited and shown on television as the last two episodes of the first season. These days, such a thing would be really obvious, but at the time, the production values of a TV show versus a B-movie weren’t really that disparate from each other… I’m sure a lot of the audience never even knew.
The film absolutely presumes audience familiarity with the characters. Aside from a short bit of voiceover at the beginning, it doesn’t waste any time with Superman’s origin or establishing Clark Kent’s life at the Planet. In fact, except for Lois Lane, none of the other characters who would be regulars on the TV show make an appearance at all. Reeves and Coates are cut from the same cloth as Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who filled those roles just the previous year (and Neill would replace Coates on the TV show after the first season). Reeves is the square-jawed paragon of heroism that we all expect Superman to be – strong and bold. Like Alyn, his Clark Kent is earnest, but he also has a bit of swagger, a bit of cockiness that we don’t often see in Superman. He’s not a jerk or anything, but neither is he the oafish, bumbling Clark Kent later adaptations would have. Reeves’s Clark is virtually the same character as his Superman, just with a change of clothes. As the TV show progressed over the next few years, he began to adopt a real sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, a bit of a wink at the camera, but in this early appearance we don’t see any of that.
All things considered, there’s surprisingly little Superman in this movie. If you skip the opening narration, Reeves doesn’t put on the famous costume until 24 minutes in (and I remind you, the total running time is just 58 minutes). If a viewer somehow didn’t know who “Clark Kent” and “Lois Lane” are, they could easily think this was just another “monsters from beneath the Earth” sci-fi flick like hundreds of others being turned out at the time. This falls into the edict of the TV producers, I suppose – there was a rule on the show that Superman didn’t show up until the third act. This limited the need for special effects (a term used here loosely), but also helped force Reeves’s Clark into being a tougher character, otherwise the audience probably couldn’t have stood him for that long. The best effect in the film, by the way, are the bursts of light when the Mole Men try to zap Benson… it wasn’t much of a wad, but they blew it at the end.
Coates is a passable Lois Lane, but doesn’t quite have the energy that Neill (and later actresses) brought to the role. She moves the story along and doesn’t embarrass the character, but at the same time, she doesn’t really keep pace with Superman the way you’d want her to. She has a brief exchange with Clark, berating him for always disappearing when there’s trouble and completely missing the obvious answer, even when he slips and says “I” saved one of the Mole Men before correcting himself to “Superman.” It’s stuff like this that sometimes gets Lois branded as less of formidable woman than she deserves to be.
The Mole Men themselves, visually at least, are probably the least-effective thing about this film. They’re creepy, to be certain, but that mostly comes through their odd way of moving and the expressions on their faces. Like so many science fiction movies of the era, the monsters look like actors in bizarre suits, covered in fur and wearing skullcaps that make them look less human, but not totally convincing as monsters.
From a story standpoint, though, the Mole Men work much better than the makeup budget allows. There’s a hint of tragedy to them. They’re never portrayed as evil or even accidentally menacing – they’re simply creatures taken from their own world and placed in one where they don’t belong. Even at the end, when they fight back, it feels much more like self-defense, like a rescue mission, than it does an intentional threat. The scene where they meet the little girl has echoes of the Universal Frankenstein, while the agonized face of the creature trapped in the burning shack reminds me of nothing so much as Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Like the people in that film, you sympathize with the creature far more than the people who torment him.
In the end, the biggest reason to watch this movie is for Reeves. Both as Clark Kent and as Superman, he’s got a strength and a commanding presence, a clear-headed rationality that the character deserves. Reeves was wonderful in this role, even if it did weigh down upon him for the rest of his life. That life ended tragically, of course, and one will always have to question how much of that tragedy was a result of his association with his most famous role… but as a Superman fan, we can only be grateful to have had a performer this early who embodied the hero so well.
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