#9 in my ranking of the theatrically released Superman films.
Filmed as a glorified television pilot before they were all that common place, Superman and the Mole Men feels like a subpar two-parter of a series. It eventually became a two-parter in the series Adventures of Superman that filmed after this, starring George Reeves as the eponymous hero, and that’s where it probably appropriately belongs. This is technically a feature film, even at only 58 minutes, but it’s more accurately remembered as a forgettable entry in a hardly remembered television series.
Clark Kent (Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) have been sent to the remote Texas drilling town of Silsby to do a story for the Daily Planet on the deepest drill in the world. There’s a problem, though, that the company representative is trying to shut down the well because of unexplained damage to the drill equipment. He’s trying to cover it up, and when Kent and Lane arrive with seemingly no story, it seems as though they are going to go home with nothing to give back to Perry White. That is, until three mole-men rise up from the hole in the ground and give an old man a heart attack. With news of happenings, limited to an old man having a heart attack, Clarke and Lane stay in Silsby to investigate and get their story.
One thing that should be noted is how little Superman is actually in this film. It’s usually more of a common criticism with Batman movies that the balance of hero/alter-ego are out of whack, but it’s way out of whack here. Superman is barely in the first 50 minutes of this 58-minute film, and that’s probably because the problem the characters face is so small. There are larger implications that the movie never explores, but ultimately this is about two strangers wandering into a town and then trying to get out. This is hardly the stuff of Superman adventures. I well know the limits of filmmaking in the early-50s, but the very nature of this conflict is wrong for Superman. This ends up feeling like one of the more pessimistic Twilight Zone episodes than an early adventure of the man in red and blue.
Anyway, two mole-men climb up out of the hole, and they just kind of wander around until they climb into a small girl’s bedroom. The small girl rolls a ball to them when her mother walks into the room and screams, alerting the town. So sets off a mole-manhunt led by Luke (Jeff Corey), out to kill the two mole-men no matter what. This is what sets off the whole rest of the film. Three guys out to murder two small men. I get it, to an extent. This is Superman standing athwart humanity and holding himself up as the American ideal, so having a counterexample for him to stand against makes sense. However, Luke ends up the only prominent member of the community, so it ends up feeling like Superman against all of humanity. I don’t think that’s supposed to be the point.
Luke shoots one on top of a wall, Superman saves the falling one through flight, and the other gets cornered in a remote tool shed that Luke and his buddies set fire to. Well, this sounds like a great opportunity for some daring-do from our great flying superman. He can come in at the last second and save the little guy from certain death. Except he never shows up. The mole man pries lose some floorboards and crawls out in an extended bit that really drags, feeling like we’re waiting for Superman to come along. When he never does, and it’s just the mole man squirrelling away, everything just feels wrong.
This is such a low stakes affair where Superman ends up doing shockingly little that I find it curious that it excited anyone enough to lead to a television series. The mole man shouldn’t be saving himself. Superman should be swooping in at the last second, doing some derring-do conveyed with primitive and adorable early special effects to fly off with the little guy. It’s so weird.
Anyway, the guy gets away, gets two more mole men, and they carry around a comically large thing that’s supposed to be some kind of gun. Meanwhile, the hospital administrator is threatening to fire the doctor who admitted the mole man into the hospital because they don’t treat dogs. It’s a metaphor. However, Clark Kent convinces the doctor to perform life-saving surgery anyway, despite the threat of potential radium poisoning, and the mole man is all fixed up in time for the three new mole men to come upon the hospital, nearly kill Luke, and give Superman the time to present their healing friend and show Luke how awful he is by saving his life.
What was I expecting from this? Great art? No, not really. I was expecting competent serial-like thrills, and this fell below that. Stolid, stilted, and not really all that exciting with a curious story that seems to just be about how America is kind of awful, Superman and the Mole-Men is just not that much fun.