Thursday June 06, 2013
Movie Review: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
“Superman and the Mole-Men” is less movie than intro to the 1950s TV series. It only last 60 minutes. It just seems to last as long as a movie.
At the same time, it’s an odd intro for the series. We’re never in Metropolis, never see the Daily Planet, never meet Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. It’s just Clark and Lois visiting the town of Silsby, Texas, population 1,430, to write about the deepest oil well ever drilled: six miles deep. As they arrive, though, the well is being shut down. Why? I would’ve guessed because they drilled six miles deep and never struck oil but apparently there’s a more sinister reason for the shutdown. Hideous things are emerging, mole men, who cause old men to have heart attacks and young women to scream, and who bring out the vigilante in the small-minded and intolerant. That’s what the movie’s really about. If the villains in the first two “Superman” serials were megalomaniacs bent on world domination (Spider Lady and Lex Luthor, respectively), the villains of “Superman and the Mole-Men” are your next-door neighbors, preaching intolerance and vigilante justice.
Preventing this, standing in the doorway of injustice, as it were—in a move which prefigures other doorway stands (see: Atticus Finch)—is the Man of Steel, Superman, who, as the opening intro tells us, is “a valiant defender of truth, justice and the American way.”
Interesting sidenote. For most of his career, Superman had fought for truth and justice. Full stop. So why add “the American way” here? I’d always assumed a Cold War scenario, the American way vs. the Russian way, but according to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: An Unauthorized Biography,” it was a defensive salvo against another kind of intolerance. By this point, comic books and superheroes were seen as gateway drugs to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. Public bonfires were even held in Southern cities to burn Action Comics, Detective Comics, Captain America, etc. Think of all of that money going up in smoke. Anyway, that's why Superman fights for the American way here. It’s patriotism as the last refuge of the witch-hunted.
Superman vs. the Second Amendment
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating, since, in this movie, Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, amazed at the amazing things he can do, Reeves takes it down a notch. Or two. Or 10. Growing up in the mid-1970s, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman (until Christopher Reeve came along), but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of a fan now. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. (Maybe that is the American way.)
This is never truer than in the movie’s key scene.
Two Mole Men—midgets with low-budget furry costumes and bald wigs—have emerged from the well to creep around the small town of Silsby. To what end? I guess they’re just exploring. But they cause a heart attack and a scream, and they’re trailing radium, so rabble-rouser Luke Benson (veteran character actor Jeff Corey, doing good work) gathers a mob to capture them and string ‘em up. One is shot atop a bridge, but Superman, or at least a shitty animated version of Superman, catches him and carries him to the hospital, then seems to forget all about the other one, who is pursued by bloodhounds into a shack. The shack is lit on fire. What to do? He worries for a bit, then crawls to safety. I’m sure someone wanted him to dig to safety—mole man: hello?—but probably no budget for this. So he crawls.
Back in town, Benson and the mob hear that the first mole man didn’t die after all, some nut in a cape saved him, so Benson incites the mob with a speech that sounds straight out of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party cannon:
Now them two reporters from back east … they’ll try to stop us, like as not, but we ain’t gonna be stopped. This is our town. We don’t need any strangers telling us what to do.
And off they go to lynch the little guy. Who’s there to stand in their way? Not Atticus Finch reading a book but Superman. It’s right through might.
The mob doesn’t know who they’re dealing with yet.
Mob guy: We’re running this town. Maybe we want to string you up, too!
Superman: I’m going to give you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers!
They blow that chance. A gun goes off and Superman has to shield Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) from the bullet; then he urges her inside and away from the door, and says the following to the mob:
Whoever fired that shot nearly hit Miss Lane. Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.
Which he does. He beats up a bunch of Texans and takes the guns from their cold, not-so-dead hands. How great is that? From the perspective of 21st-century political debates, in which nutjobs everywhere worry that Pres. Obama is “coming for their guns,” this is a laugh-out-loud moment. What used to be entertainment is now a nightmare scenario for the paranoid. Who knows? Maybe Superman put the fear in them in the first place.
Defender of truth, justice and sensible gun control laws.
Superman vs. the First Amendment
That's how this Superman deals with the Second Amendment. He's not much better with the First Amendment.
When the presence of the Mole Men becomes known, Lois tries to get to a phone to call in the story, but Superman urges against it.
Lois: I’m a newspaperwoman and I have an obligation to report the facts.
Superman: That’s true. But these facts would start a nationwide wave of hysteria. You saw what happened here tonight. No. If we’re going to stop this thing, it has to be stoppped here and now.
PR dude: He’s right, Miss Lane.
Lois (deflated): I guess so.
Oh, Lois. Where’s our feisty girl from the Fleischer cartoons or the Kirk Alyn serials? Or the comic book or comic strip? This is part of the tamping down of Lois Lane. She can’t hear the scoop for the wedding bells in her head. She promises to love, honor and obey even though there ain’t no ring on that finger.
So what happens after Superman dispenses with Luke and the mob? The escaped mole man returns with two others and a big ray gun, which they train on Luke, who screams in pain until Superman steps between him and the gun.
Luke: You saved my life.
Superman: That’s more than you deserve.
Eventually the mole men return underground and blow up the well. “It’s almost as if they were saying, ‘You live your life and we’ll live ours,’” Lois says, amazed. Superman nods.
And that’s the end.
“Superman and the Mole Men” is a dry, little black-and-white movie filmed in a dry, little backlot somewhere. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous. It’s like something you’d only watch when you were sick in bed; and it would only make you sicker.
But it’s worth it for the gun scene.
Ferocious mole man cornered. Was Stan Lee thinking of this guy when he started writing FF #1?