Superman is the first and best known superhero, creating the genre in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Since then, there have been many stories written about the Last Son of Krypton, leading to the character being adapted to radio, television, film, and books. Today, a look at the first Superman feature film, 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men.
Prior to 1951, there had been theatrical Superman releases, but they were serials run before the main feature, much like the 1943 Batman series. /Superman and the Mole Men/ was a low budget film, not quite running an hour. The movie starred George Reeves as Clark Kent and Superman, Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, Walter Reed as Bill Corrigan, Ray Walker as John Craig, and Jeff Dorey as Luke Benson. Reeves and Coates would go on to reprise their roles in Adventures of Superman, Reeves for the entire run and Coates for just the first season. The popularity of the series made getting other roles difficult for them both, being typecast as Clark and Lois.
The movie begins with Clark and Lois arriving in the town of Silsby, population 1430 and home to the the world’s deepest oil well. The well is the draw for the Daily Planet’s top reporters, but they discover that the well is being shut down. Corrigan, the foreman, isn’t forthcoming on why, not to Lois and Clark, not to company PR rep John Craig, and not to his workers, who are wondering why the expensive tools are being buried. Lois feels like the trip is a waste. Clark feels there’s another story brewing. Corrigan isn’t forthcoming, though.
That night, while the visitors from Metropolis are at the Silsby Hotel, a second set of visitors arrives, coming up from the sealed well. Short, mishapen, they skulk around, eventually finding their way to the seventy-year-old security guard. The guard is found the next morning, dead. A doctor called in rules that he died of a heart attack. Given his age, it’s a reasonable call, except Clark notices that the guard’s tangerines are glowing, and the bag they came in is halfway across the room.
Clark pushes Corrigan on why the well is being closed. Corrigan comes clean; the well is deep, about six miles deep. The company kept going after finding a pocket of natural gas, hoping to find an oil gusher. Instead, the drill brought up goo that glows in the dark. Without a Geiger counter, it’s hard to tell if the goo is radioactive radium or just naturally phosphorescent. Corrigan also tells Clark that the drill suddenly hit a hollow pocket at about six miles down.
Alone, Lois starts to place a phone call. She’s interrupted by the visitors from below. The scream alerts Clark and Corrigan, who rush over to see what happened. They find Lois alone, but she describes what she saw. The group returns to Silsby, where news of the Mole Men is travelling like gossip.
Luke Benson isn’t one to let anything terrorize his hometown and will do what it takes to stop the Mole Men, including inciting a near-riot. The Mole Men, though, are peaceful. A young girl sees them and invites them into her room, where they play. It’s only when the girl’s mother comes into the room and sees the Mole Men that the situation turns worse.
The mother’s screams alert the town, and the mob rushes off to go after the creatures. Clark disappears, to Lois’ dismay, but she follows the story and the mob down the street. When she arrives, Superman is already there. The townsfolk, apparently not getting the Daily Planet, reacts badly, and they try to shoot Superman. Benson tries to punch Supes, earning a sore hand in the process. Superman disarms the mob, bending one rifle in half.
The Mole Men flee. Benson and his henchmen take a pack of hounds to try to find them, resulting in a chase across the desert to a reservoir. Superman catches up and warns Benson of what could happen. The Mole Men may be radioactive and if they fall into the reservoir, they will pollute the town’s drinking water. Benson and his cronies ignore the warning. One shoots a Mole Man. In a flash, Superman is off to catch him before he falls into the reservoir. The other Mole Man escapes, for now.
As Superman takes the wounded Mole Man to the hospital, Benson resumes his pursuit of the remaining one. The chase ends at an abandoned shed. The Mole Man is trapped inside as Benson and his cronies set fire to it. The Mole Man escapes and finds his way back to the oil well. He returns the next day with two more Mole Men and a weapon.
At the hospital, a surgeon manages to save the life of the wounded Mole Man, Lois, Corrigan, and Craig catch up to Clark, already at the hospital, though Superman has left again. Corrigan and Craig warn that Benson and the mob are on their way to kill the Mole Man there. Clark dashes out to check on the Mole Man while Lois, Corrigan, and Craig wait up front for the mob. Superman lands in front and stops the mob from entering. Benson slips away and spots the three returning Mole Men, who get the first shot on him. Superman realizes that they are looking for their friend, so brings the wounded one out, then steps in front of the laser to protect Benson.
Given the low budget, the special effects can be expected to be weak. The crew, though, worked around the limitation. Most of Superman’s powers come from superstrength and invulnerability. Superman doesn’t flinch from gunshots. Rubber can be used for the rifle that is meant to be twisted into a pretzel. Superspeed is shown in his reactions, pulling Lois out of the way of a gunshot. Flight gets trickier, but the movie shows Superman running towards the camera and leaping up, then changes to show the view of the ground from his view. The big effect was the moment where Superman swoops in to catch the falling Mole Man; it’s a quick enough scene that it’s over before the wires can be seen.
Effects, though, aren’t the best criteria to judge an adaptation. Comics have a huge advantage; effects are limited to the artist’s imagination and the cost of ink and paint. Reproducing Jack Kirby‘s art in film or television would push computer graphics to the limit even today. Simpler artwork, such as Superman picking up a car, as seen on the cover of Action Comics #1, still requires extra work as a practical effect. The goal is to represent the character to the medium’s best effort.
George Reeves managed to look like both Clark and Superman. While Christopher Reeve showed the transition from mild-mannered Clark to self-confident Superman through a change of posture and voice, Reeves used wardrobe. His Clark wears oversized suits; Superman is thinner but fit. Clark isn’t as mild-mannered in the movie; he takes the lead on the investigation of the well’s closure where Lois is willing to write off the trip as a lost cause.
Personality-wise, Superman is still Superman. In the movie, he made sure that no one was hurt if he could help it. He never threw the first punch. Superman made the discovery that the Mole Men weren’t dangerous except through passive touch. Benson may have been the villain, but Superman wasn’t going to let the Mole Men take their revenge on him. Reeves’ Superman came from the comics of the time and would still be recognizable compared to today’s version.
B-movies don’t get a large budget, so corners have to be cut. Comparing Superman and the Mole Men to today’s big budget movies isn’t fair. However, the B-movie got to the heart of who Superman was, even with the limited time it had. Superman’s origins were skipped over with an narration during the opening credits. The film jumped to its story early and kept the focus on the plot and on Clark/Superman. Superman and the Mole Man was very much a Superman story.