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Review: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Directed by: Lee Sholem

Premise: Superman (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) travel to the west coast to investigate an oil well that has burrowed into Earth’s core but find that the well has unleashed radioactive underground beings. When the townspeople panic Superman must keep the peace.

What Works: Superman and the Mole-Men was the Man of Steel’s first feature-length motion picture. It was created as a pilot for the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman and the project was only intended as a theatrical feature in case the television series wasn’t picked up. As it turned out the show went into production and the feature was used as the finale for the end of the first season, but a year before the show premiered Superman and the Mole-Men was put into theatrical exhibition anyway. Although it was intended as a demo for the television series, it is quite different in its tone. Superman and the Mole-Men is surprisingly dark in places, at least for a 1950s family oriented television program. In the story, a group of misshapen but innocent creatures emerge from beneath the earth and cause a panic among residents of a rural community. The townsfolk jump to the conclusion that these creatures are out to harm them and rally together a posse with the intention of hunting down and killing the mole-people. Given that this film was released in 1951, the imagery of an all-white mob armed with dogs and guns, chasing down harmless but different looking people and threatening to hang them is quite startling and viewers don’t have to be very sophisticated to see the subtext. By the end of the film that subtext goes beyond suggestion as Superman obstructs the posse and takes a stand for tolerance, compassion, and sanity. In this way, Superman and the Mole-Men plays like the more overtly political episodes of The Twilight Zone, although this film predates that series by eight years.

What Doesn’t: Superman and the Mole-Men isn’t much like The Adventures of Superman television series. Unlike the 1966 feature Batman: The Movie, which is a sampler of the characters and tone of the Batman television show from that time, Superman and the Mole-Men is quite different from its televised counterpart. The tone and underlying themes of this picture are quite serious, where the television show had a lot of humor. In fact, for a 1950s kids film it has moments that are surprisingly strong, such as a scene in which the posse traps a mole-person in a shed and then sets it on fire. The boldness is impressive but Superman and the Mole-Men isn’t quite as much fun as The Adventures of Superman television program nor does it inspire the joy that is usually associated with the character. This film plays more like a Cold War era drive-in feature than a Superman movie and it is more successful as the former than the latter.

DVD extras: The film has been issued on home video as a part of television series The Adventures of Superman. It is also included as an extra feature on some DVD and Blu-Ray editions of Superman: The Movie.

Bottom Line: Superman and the Mole-Men is a notable feature of Superman’s history and with its themes the movie is a really interesting media artifact from the 1950s. It isn’t as much fun as the television show and so the film will likely be of more interest to hardcore Superman fans than casual viewers.

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)