erik lundegaard

Superman and the Mole Men

Superman and the Mole Men (1951)


“Superman and the Mole-Men” is less movie than intro to the TV series “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves. It only last 60 minutes, I mean. It just seems to last as long as a movie.

It’s an odd intro for the series. We’re never in Metropolis, we never see the Daily Planet, we never meet Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. It’s just Clark and Lois visiting the town of Silsby, Texas, population 1430, to write about the deepest oil well ever drilled: six miles deep. Except, as they get there, 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 another, 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.

Written byRobert Maxwell
Directed byLee Sholem
StarringGeorge Reeves
Phyllis Coates
Jeff Corey

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 just been about truth and justice. That’s it. Only briefly, during a few years of the radio series in World War II, did he also fight for “the American way.” Why did the phrase return here and now? 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 and everything post-war America didn’t want to know about. Public bonfires were even held to burn the things: Batman, Superman, Action Comics, Captain America. Which is why, here, Superman fights for the American way. What are you going to do? Burn the American way? 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’s the American way.

This is never truer than in the movie’s key scene, its climax, which involves the aformentioned standing in the doorway.

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 then lit on fire. What to do? He worries for a bit and crawls to safety. I’m sure someone probably wanted him to dig his way out—mole man: hello?—but there was probably no budget for it. 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, and so Benson incites the mob with a speech that sounds straight out of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party canon:

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 the hospital to lynch the little guy. Who’s there to stand in their way? Not Atticus Finch reading a book and using words to deflect the anger of the mob. No, it’s Superman, purveyor of a truer version of the American way. 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!
Mob: Yeah!
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 delicious is that? From the perspective of 21st-century political debates, in which the Second Amendment is viewed as sacrosanct, and nutjobs everywhere are worried that President 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.

Superman confronts mob on hospital steps
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.

When the presence of the Mole Men first become known, we get this exchange between Lois and Superman:

Lois: I’ve got to get to phone. Why this is the biggest story of the century!
Superman: I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Miss Lane.
Lois: And why not?
Superman: You know what’ll happen. Screaming headlines. Monsters Invade Western Town.
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 in the 1950s. 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 (sneering): 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.

Believe it or not, 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.

Mole Man cornered
Ferocious mole man cornered. Was Stan Lee thinking of this guy when he started writing FF #1?

—June 2, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard