Saturday, February 27, 2021

Superman and the Mole Men/The Unknown People

It was the very first full-length [just barely] Superman theatrical film and it also served as a back-door pilot for The Adventures of Superman TV series. Obviously, there was sufficient interest to proceed. Eventually, Lee “Roll ‘Em” Sholem’s Superman and the Mole Men was edited into the only 2-part episodes of The Adventures of Superman, retitled “Superman and the Unknown People.” In its two formats, it paved the way for the classic Christopher Reeve movies and the popular TV shows, like the recently premiered Superman & Lois. Fans can go back where it all started when the “Unknown People” episodes (which omit mention of the “Mole Men”) air on Heroes & Icons this Sunday morning (whereas this review is based on the Mole Men cut).

It is right there at the beginning and it sounds so refreshing: “truth, justice, and the American way.” From there, we pick-up with Lois Lane and Clark Kent, on assignment in the sticks, to do a piece on the deepest oil well every drilled. However, they awkwardly learn it has been shut down as soon as they arrive. Lane just wants to complain back at the hotel, but Kent suspects there is a bigger story to sleuth out. Honestly, he displays much sharper reporter’s instincts throughout
Mole Men.

Kent soon wins over a source, who tells him the well started pumping up glowing phosphorescent material the company fears might be radioactive. That is not all that came up. A pair of slightly shorter-than-average men with big foreheads follow the long narrow shaft that came boring into their subterranean world up to the surface, where they find a rude reception. That’s right,
Superman is all in for the hollow Earth theory.

The Mole Men mean no harm, but the townspeople of Silsby freak out anyway, leaving them receptive to the lynch mob demagoguery of thuggish Luke Benson. You would think they would listen to someone invulnerable to bullets, but no, they are too caught up in the group frenzy.

Mole Men is surprisingly moody for a 1950s Superman story. Thematically, it is somewhat like the “Monsters are Due on Main Street” episode of the Twilight Zone. However, there is nothing revisionist about George Reeves’ Superman. Weirdly, the old eye glasses disguise works better for him than any of his successors, maybe because his Kent also wears a hat. Weirdly, he also looks more dashing as Kent than he does in the Super jammies, maybe because of shoulder pads.

The prolific “Roll ‘Em” Sholem still keeps things pretty snappy. Of course, the effects are crude by contemporary standards, but they have their retro charm. The
Mole Men feature has a long memorable sequence of the lynch mob hunting the Mole Men (shaved down for TV) that still looks nicely edited together. Even though Benson is a mere mortal, Jeff Corey plays him with such grim intensity, he is almost a worthy adversary for the Man of Steel. However, this is not a great showcase for Phyllis Coates as Lane and series favorite Jimmy Olsen (played by Jack Larson) was not on this Daily Planet assignment.

The Adventures of Superman
is vintage, but if you call it corny, bear in mind Prince was a fan. Think you’re cooler than Prince? Mole Man also offers a corrective to our current embrace of the mob mentality. Pop culture has embraced the “Wisdom of Crowds,” but it has forgotten the “Madness of Crowds” so well documented by Charles Mackay. Recent history should tell us mob rule is not healthy for society. Superman warned us nearly seventy years ago. Recommended as good, old-fashioned fun, both episodes of “Superman and the Unknown People” air Sunday morning (2/28) on H&I or check out the original Superman and the Mole People.