Saturday, June 8, 2013

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

    Countdown to Man of Steel, Part 1, in which Superman ham-fistedly fights against McCarthyism…

THE SUPER-FILM: Barely lasting an hour, Superman and the Mole Men still is something of an endurance test for any viewer willing to seek it out. Acting as something of a trial run for the eventual television series, the film marks the first time George Reeves would don the tights, and sees he and Phyllis Coates’ Lois Lane investigating strange occurrences at a new oil well. Unbeknownst to the drillers, they’ve disturbed a race of underground “mole” people, who climb up to the surface world and wreak all kinds of havoc. Or, I should say, there mere presence causes the town around them to wreak havoc upon themselves, from which only Superman can save them all. Which he proceeds to do by… Standing around and not doing much of anything? Yeah, that sounds about right.

    George Reeves was not the first actor to portray Superman, but he was the gold standard for all that followed. Reeves embodied a sort of idolized moral authority - like the way kids view their dads until they reach adolescence. He had a way out of every bad situation, an answer to every problem; always with a reassuring smile and pat on Jimmy Olsen’s back. It’s a shame that none of that is really in evidence here, as aside from his unusual wardrobe, Superman doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish himself. Sure, he can (unconvincingly) fly and bullets bounce off of his chest, but there’s nary a personality to be found. He just stands there, with his chest puffed out, telling the townsfolk not to get all riled up at the appearance of the Mole Men. It’s completely without color, and the differences between Clark Kent and Superman are so minimal it’s a wonder people can't tell them apart. Reeves’ best days in the role were certainly ahead of him.

    The only other bit of the Superman mythos to make it through the transition is Lois Lane, played by Phyllis Coates. Coates brings the feisty energy required of anyone playing Lois (and even gets to fight off a few would-be attackers, in true Lois Lane fashion), but she too suffers from a barely-there characterization. Superman and Lois indeed feel incidental to the plot, as if they were suddenly shoe-horned into a science fiction B-movie at the last second. They’re the only bits of the movie from the mythos - there’s no Jimmy Olsen, no Perry White, no Smallville or Metropolis or Daily Bugle. If it weren’t for the opening narration, we’d probably be wondering why this dude suddenly shows up in tights for no reason. Well, okay… we wouldn’t really be that confused, considering most everyone knows the basics of Superman (even back then). But the general lack of set-up or explanation ultimately hurts the film - especially one as bland as this one.

    The Mole Men themselves are also predictably lame, being essentially child actors in bald caps - although there is an undeniable creepiness to their early scenes, which sees them peeking through windows at a little girl in her room. This is where the film tries to make some sort of statement, as the rather harmless creatures become a rallying point for the town to get all worked up over and form a mob and panic. There’s a clear Red Scare metaphor going on here, but it never reaches for anything particularly deep or biting. The mob itself comes across as especially dumb and violent, willing to shoot at Superman for virtually no reason at all (hint: there was a reason, but that’s mainly so the filmmakers could show how bullets bounce off of his chest). Although it amounts to nothing, it is interesting to note that this was released during the height of the McCarthy and HUAC hearings, which specifically targeted Hollywood and saw the blacklisting of anyone suspected of any Communist ties. Admirable on the filmmakers' part, but totally ham-fisted in execution.

    It pains me to speak ill of the George Reeves series, which impacted me mightily as a tyke, but sadly its bargain-basement beginning falls far short of the run while it was at its peak.

SUPER-THOUGHTS: The Adventures of Superman featured rather impressive special effects for a television series (at the time, anyway), but none of that is on display here. The classic flying effects from the series are replaced by some rather unconvincing dolly shots (supposedly from Superman’s perspective) and one scene that appears to feature some rudimentary, hand-drawn animation.

    I found the lack of explanation for Superman himself to be very interesting - he just shows up and does his thing without nary a passing comment. A superhero movie like that would never be made today, where everything must be explained and everyone has to have an “origin.”

    When the town forms its first mob and everyone grabs a weapon, I especially liked how the one guy just pulls the candy stripe pole off the local barbershop. That’ll surely put the fear of god into those Mole Men.

    The ray gun the Mole Men use at the end is very obviously a modified vacuum cleaner.

BEST USE OF POWERS: Superman bending a rifle? The Man of Steel doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this outing, other than stand there and spout off a few platitudes to angry mobs.

THE LAST WORD: Although kick-starting a series that solidified Superman’s status as a cultural milestone, Superman and the Mole Men is thoroughly unexciting from beginning to end. 

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