Sunday, November 28, 2010

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Square-jawed reporter Clark Kent (George Reeves) and his partner Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) come to the small American town of Silsby to have a look at the deepest-drilling oil well in human history.

It seems as if the reporters have come in vain, though. For some mysterious reason, the boss of the drilling project (Walter Reed) has closed down all drilling operations, and that just after the drill has poked into the hollowness at the Earth's centre. At first, Bill Corrigan, as the bossman is called, only explains his reasoning vaguely with a report to the head office he had to make. There's nothing else forthcoming from the man, at least until after the elderly night-watchman of the drilling operation dies from a heart attack caused by something terrible he has seen. Or so the film explains. I suspect the truth is quite different and the pair of midgets dressed up in furry suits with bad bald wigs who have crawled out of the centre of the Earth he sees have caused the old man's death by inducing a deadly attack of laughter.

After the watchman's death from ridiculousness, Corrigan becomes a lot more forthcoming towards Clark, telling him of the mysterious phosphorescence he found once the drill went deeper. This being the 1950s and all, any glowing stuff can only be explained as radioactive matter.

So the new guests on the surface of the Earth aren't just frightening/hilarious to behold, but also potentially deadly carriers of radioactivity for anyone coming into contact with them. It's fortunate that they only seem to have come to look around a bit and just didn't count on the surface natives getting as easily riled up as the examples in Silsby. Soon, there's a well-armed, angry mob out for innocent mole-men blood, and only Clark Kent's other identity, the insufferably smug Superman, can protect them.

Lee Sholem's Superman and the Mole-Men is a bit of a dry-run for George Reeves' stint as Superman that would begin about a year later in the TV show The Adventures of Superman, and the film's interpretation of Clark Kent and Superman are basically identical to those in the show (at least as much as I've seen of it). Officially, Clark is defined as mild-mannered, but in practice he's as unpleasant a know-it-all as every male lead in a film from the 50s ever, just with the added surprise that he seems to be quite competent in his job as a reporter. In fact, Kent the reporter seems to be much better at his job than he is at being Superman. In the latter position, he prefers looking superior and talking down to people to diffusing problems before they come to a crisis point. That "Superman is a dick" meme fits Golden Age Superman here just as well as it does the Silver Age variation.

Ideologically, Supes and the Mole-Men isn't as unpleasant as one would fear. Most of the film plays out as a slightly silly appeal for not shooting people just because they are different (or furries), which isn't something genre cinema of this (or really any) era is exactly full of. Of course, if you read the film as an allegory of the "race question" in the US of the time as some people like to do, the film's ending can easily be interpreted as approving of the rather less pleasant notion of segregation. Or I might just be over-interpreting what is a cheap little B-movie that aims to entertain its kid audience and teach it a valuable lesson about being nice to each other.

I don't know about the teenage audience of the film's time, but I was entertained enough, if not always in the ways Sholem probably intended. The film's budget was obviously very low, so the unavoidable flight sequences are realized by a camera filming the moving ground (super-groin-cam?) while the rest of our smug hero's effects-heavy superpowers are just ignored. And I already explained about the terrifying mole-men.

There really isn't much exciting to look at on screen. Sholem's direction is of the usual point and shoot style and doesn't show any memorable ideas or any variety, but at least the director keeps the film's pace fast and filler-free and shows as much solid competence as you can hope for in this sort of film.

Superman and the Mole-Men is certainly a disappointing film for an audience expecting the blue Boy Scout in some sort of grand cosmic adventure, or hoping to witness a plot as weird as those in his Silver Age comics, but if you can accept its limitations, it's a perfectly fine little film.


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