There are actually a couple of geek milestones being observed today. Getting more notice among my friends and colleagues is the 58th anniversary of the initial airing of “An Unearthly Child,” the first-ever episode of the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who, broadcast on November 23, 1963 and starring William Hartnell as the first of what is now thirteen (and counting!) “official” incarnations of the venerable time-travelling Doctor…plus one more if you count John Hurt’s self-exiled “War Doctor,” and another one if we consider Jo Martin’s “Fugitive Doctor.” Oh, and plus yet another one if you count Peter Cushing’s outings in a pair of theatrical releases).
And I do count all of those.
Meanwhile, I’m going to back you up several more years to this day in 1951, which brought with it the premiere in theaters of Superman and the Mole Men. Already a staple of comics and radio by this point as well as the movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, this “full-length” feature film introduced audiences to actor George Reeves as the Man of Steel and paved the way for a whole new era of Superman stories.
Though serving as something of a trial run for the weekly Adventures of Superman television series which would premiere the following year, Superman and the Mole Men features very few of the trappings which ultimately would become commonplace on the show. George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman and Phyllis Coates as reporter Lois Lane are the only familiar characters.
The iconic series opening sequence is absent, of course, as is anything resembling the equally memorable theme music. A brief bit at the beginning introduces us to Superman, including a shot of Reeves in costume and standing before a waving American flag which would end up being used in the TV show’s opening. That’s all the exposition we get, though, before we’re hip deep into the “action” as the story unfolds, taking place at an oil field on the outskirts of a small town called Silby. There, the “world’s deepest oil well” has broken through to the subterranean world of the “Mole Men,” who naturally come up to have a look around and see who’s been partying with the music cranked up too loud.
Kent and Lane, sent by the Daily Planet to cover the event of the well having reached its milestone depth, get caught up in the craziness as the local townspeople freak out over the presence of the Mole Men in their midst. They’re organizing with torches and pitchforks to hunt down the little guys, and only Superman can stand in their way. Duhn duhn DUH!!!!!
(Trivia: some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on from this movie and even some filming sequences were recreated in 2006’s Hollywoodland, the pseudo-historical retelling of the investigation into George Reeves’ death in 1959.)
As a standalone film, Superman and the Mole Men really isn’t all that great. It was produced on a very low budget, which is pretty evident in just about everything from the obvious back-lot exteriors to very little in the way of flying or other “super stunts.” Still, its nostalgic value comes from being Reeves’ first turn in the cape and tights, a role which he would make his own in the years to come. However, there’s still a bit to enjoy here. First, I love, love, love black and white TV and movies, and this flick does look pretty darned good.
Next, this movie, like the first two seasons of the ensuing television series (also filmed in B&W), was played straight and aimed at an adult audience, rather than harboring any of the near-camp/kid-friendly tone which would become more prevalent beginning with the series’ third season. Despite the story’s subject matter, there’s still a feel of great old-school mystery/crime drama at work here. The focus is more on Clark Kent (with Lois Lane’s able assistance) delving into the mystery, only to switch to his Superman persona when circumstances require it. That approach would continue into the first year of the series, only to have the balance shift a little more toward “tights and flights” with each successive season.
Phyllis Coates, the actress who portrays Lois Lane in the film, would reprise the role in the TV series’ first season. When she was unavailable to continue with the second season, Noel Neill replaced her, returning to the role she had first performed in the Kirk Alyn Superman serials. Though Neill is the Lois Lane people think of most often when considering George Reeves’ Superman, I’ve always preferred Coates’ take on the character. Of course, it would’ve been nice if they’d given either actress more to do than be the damsel in distress for Superman to rescue.
Superman and the Mole Men would be cut in half to serve as the two-part episode “The Unknown People” to finish out the TV show’s first season, though the original version is included as a special feature on the first-season DVD set. I’d only ever seen the story in its two-part format before picking up the set, so being able to watch the theatrical version was something of a treat.
Although Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the Man of Steel is the definitive screen Superman for me, George Reeves and the Adventures of Superman series are a couple of those fondly remembered bits from my childhood, as the show ran regularly in syndication when I was growing up. After all, he’s the one I portrayed when I tied a towel around my neck and took a leap
over a tall building down the stairs in my house.
Happy Anniversary, Superman and the Mole Men!