Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Monday - Superman and the Mole Men

In the previous series of entries detailing Batman's films, we saw that the character's media history in his earlier days was a bit spotty. Introduced in 1939, he got his first on-screen appearance in the serial Batman in 1943. Six years later, he appeared in another serial, followed fifteen years later by a live-action TV series and movie, followed over twenty years later by the Tim Burton film that finally established the character as a media giant with legs.

Superman was different. Introduced in 1938 in Action Comics #1, he appeared three times on screen during the 40's, in a series of theatrical cartoons and two live-action serials. But it should also be noted that during that same span, he was appearing continuously on radio, five days a week, from 1942 through early 1949 (not counting an earlier syndicated series that ran from 1940 to 1942, or a couple of retoolings in 1949 and 1950). Batman also appeared on radio, but only as an occasional guest on Superman's show. Superman was a fixture of mass media in the 40's in a way that Batman simply was not.

So it should come as no surprise that Superman's return to the big screen after his second serial came sooner than Batman's. A lot sooner, in fact. It was only a year later, in 1951, that the feature film "Superman and the Mole Men" hit theaters.

The film starred George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, and served as the pilot for the subsequent TV series. And it's only fitting that it should be the product of the combined efforts of the folks who made the movie serials and the radio serial.

"Superman and the Mole Men" was written by Robert Maxwell (under the pseudonym of Richard Fielding), the writer of the radio series, and directed by Tommy Carr, who had co-directed the first Columbia serial. It opens with a brief nod to the Superman origin story, mentioning that Superman is the last survivor of an alien race who has come to Earth. This opening sequence features visuals that look much like the opening of the cartoon series.

The story opens in the town of Silsby, home of the world deepest oil well. Clark Kent and Lois Lane arrive to do a story on the well, only to learn that the well is being shut down. Not only that, but Kent notices that even the tools used to work on the well are being buried. Strange.

Must say at this point that Reeves cuts a dapper figure as Clark Kent. And though Lois berates Kent as cowardly, Reeves portrays Kent as a smart and no-nonsense fellow, much like Superman himself, a far cry from the warm and fuzzy portrayal of Kirk Alyn.

Later, Kent decides to visit the mine, but Lois, ever fearful of being scooped, elects to go with him.

Meanwhile, at the mine, strange creatures emerge from the well shaft--a couple of bald midgets wearing furry Dr. Denton's.

They creep up to the window of the night watchman's hut. Later, Clark and Lois arrive to find kindly old Pop Shannon dead of a heart attack. Clark calls the sheriff, then leaves to have a look around. Lois then spots the two creatures in the window and screams.

Later, when the sheriff and Corrigan, the well foreman, arrive, Lois tells them about the two creatures, and it should be noted that she is the source of all the trouble to come later. When asked what the creatures looked like, she describes them as beasts with mole bodies and human heads (which they were apparently supposed to look like per the script, but the make-up man couldn't bear to make them look so grotesque) and says, "Those creatures killed that poor old man, and they wanted to kill me."

So the sheriff and Lois head back to town, while Clark stays with Corrigan to wait for the coroner. And once they're alone, Clark asks why Corrigan really shut down the well and buried all the tools. Corrigan relates the story of how the samples brought up displayed increasing levels of flourescence, and how he worried that they were drilling through pure radium. When Clark suggests that the glow may be simple phosphorescence, Corrigan says he couldn't take the risk that it was otherwise, so he shut down the well. Then Clark notices that the oranges the night watchman had in his hut are glowing. The creatures have brought the radiation with them!

As Clark and Corrigan are hashing things out, the Mole Men are investigating the wonders of the surface world. They encounter sunflowers and a snake, then peer in a window at a little girl. And of course, the girl is not scared at all. One of the actors does this really perfunctory head tilt, like he's supposed to be curious, but isn't really feeling it. And then in a scene reminiscent of the original Universal "Frankenstein," they play with the girl.

Anyway, as Clark Kent is trying to stop the townsfolk from forming an angry mob, they are interrupted by a scream from the girl's mother, and everything falls apart.

An angry mob stampedes toward the little girl's house, grabbing whatever weapons are handy. One guy even breaks off a barber pole.

I don't see how he's going to scare the Mole Men with that, seeing how they're already bald, but whatever. Clark switches to Superman and flies ahead of the crowd to head them off. He tries to talk sense into them, saying that the girl and mother are unharmed, but the crowd, led by a troublemaker named Luke Benson, is not easily swayed. Luke and his friends use their bloodhounds to track the creatures.

Luke and his boys corner the Mole Men on a dam, and one of them is shot, but Superman catches him before he can fall into the water and contaminate the water supply with radiation. And in this early effects shot, we see the return of our old friend, Cartoon Animation, for the flying scene.

Then it cuts to a close-up, featuring George Reeves catching a dummy hanging from a fishing pole.

Superman flies the wounded Mole Man to a hospital as Luke Benson and his boys chase the other one.

We then see several scenes of the lonely Mole Man fleeing. He encounters a grizzled old hobo cooking a pot of beans on a fire, and though the man flees in terror at one glimpse of the Mole Man, not only is his appearance not scary, but we can clearly see the zipper running down the back of his footie pajamas, proving that this is an outfit, not his natural body. Anyway, the Mole Man is trapped in a shed, which Luke Benson burns down. But the Mole Man escapes through a floorboard, unnoticed by Benson and his men.

When Benson returns to town, he tells the sheriff that he has killed both Mole Men, but the sheriff informs him that the one his buddy shot is in the hospital. So Luke organizes a lynch mob to go seize the creature and kill it. But they are hindered by Superman, who likens them to Nazi stormtroopers, then starts throwing them around as he confiscates their guns.

Meanwhile, the Mole Man who escaped the fire has headed down the well shaft and returned with buddies. One of them carries an Electrolux vacuum cleaner with a funnel on the front as a ray gun. They head for the hospital to pick up their lost buddy. Superman intercepts them, and the one who has seen him before does an interpretive dance to tell his buddies that Supes is a good guy, since these creatures apparently can't vocalize at all.

But as Superman is fetching their buddy, Luke Benson shows up with a shotgun, and the Mole Men zap him with radium-filled paint balls or something. Superman leaps in front of the deadly ray, saving Luke's life, then carries the wounded Mole Man back to the well shaft, which the Mole Men climb down and blow up behind them. Their worlds are separate once more.

As a pilot for the show, it's not bad. The personalities of Lois and Clark are sharply defined, and Reeves makes an interesting lead. On the other hand, this makes the Atom Man serial look positively profligate with special effects. With the exception of the one super-catch and a couple of gags featuring prop guns, there's nothing super on display at all.

But one thing is different from the serials. When Superman takes off, he's actually lifted on wires, making for some dynamic take-off shots.

A few episodes into the first season of the series, an accident with the wires would cause the show to stop using them, and then Superman's take-offs would all be portrayed with a springboard and a quick cut.

The show would eventually run for about six years, and in another interesting nod to the serials, Phyllis Coates would be replaced as Lois Lane after the first season. Her replacement?

Noel Neill, who had played Lois Lane in both Columbia serials.

Next week, Movie Monday will be moving to, although there will be at least one more movie featured here sometime soon. See you there!

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