THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM – PART 1
SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN – 1951
In the age we now live in, where year upon year, the big hitters at the cinema box offices are always well represented by films based on DC and Marvel comic book properties, it can be hard to imagine a time where such releases were few and far between. Until the dawn of this millennium, comic book films were put out relatively scarcely and were far from the pop culture juggernauts that sweep all before them as they do today. Over the next several weeks, we are going to take a look over the evolution of DC Comics on the big screen, from the 1950s right up to the present day. Starting off this retrospective is the very first cinematic representation of the flagship character for DC, one that has just celebrated his 80th birthday, the iconic Man of Steel himself, Superman!
It has been sometimes argued that Superman and The Mole Men, released in 1951, is not the first cinematic release based on a DC Comics character, as just a few years earlier, a live action serial had been released in weekly instalments theatrically, starring Kirk Alyn as Superman and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. A Batman theatrical serial had also been released. However, this was unquestionably the first feature length standalone release, making it officially number one on our list! Shot in a mere 12 days for approximately $250,000 with a running time of just 58 minutes, it is a far cry from the 2-3 hour epics released today, with shoots lasting up to a year at a time. Directed by Lee Sholem and starring George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, the film can often be dismissed as a quaint, dated piece of film, but as we will look at now, it actually is a great reflection of the political climate in America at the time and also foreshadowed events to come…
Intrepid reporters Lois and Clark arrive in Silsby, Texas to report on the world’s deepest oil drill, which has reached depths level with the “centre of the earth”. Unfortunately, the drill shaft has penetrated through into the home of a race of beings, the titular Mole Men. Small, bald humanoid men, they travel to the surface world merely out of curiosity, meaning no harm to mankind. Regretfully, the elderly night watchman of the drill site is “scared to death” by their strange appearance when they first climb out of the well. They are met with fear and violence by the local townsfolk, who blame them for the death. The fear is heightened by the fact that they glow in the dark, along with everything they touch. Led by racist ringleader Luke Benson, a mob is promptly formed to trap and kill them. Thankfully Superman is on hand to prevent needless tragedy.
Seeing that they are far from threatening, Superman intervenes to help save them from the baying hordes, providing a shot Mole Man with sanctuary at the local hospital, and removing all the weapons from the locals. After returning the injured Mole Man to his colleagues, they retreat and destroy the drill shaft, meaning they will never again be disturbed.
The film follows a fairly straight linear path on the face of it, with a pretty unremarkable, formulaic plot. But what makes it a lot more important and relevant, is how it fits in with the world at the time of its release. Post World War II, America was going through the “Red Scare”, at height of McCarthyism. The country was gripped with anti-communist paranoia, and citizens were fearful of people and actions deemed Un-American. Multiple Hollywood players were blacklisted for use of alleged communist propaganda and influence in the film industry. This film has been considered by many to be a reaction to these events, as the local resident’s extreme reaction of fear is a representation of the mood of the people at that time, as they had been influence to be paranoid and distrustful of anybody that could even remotely be considered a threat to them. The Mole Men are also portrayed very sympathetically, clearly posing no threat to anybody around them. I think that the filmmakers had a liberal viewpoint that they were trying to get across, as the message of the film is very much live and let live. Indeed, the final line of dialogue in the film, spoken by Lois Lane as the Mole Men destroy the well and go home, is “It’s almost as if they were saying, you live your life….and we’ll live ours…”
To me, George Reeves was an excellent Superman. Physically, he had the square-jawed, heroic look that is required to play the part. Natural charisma, with an easy charm, he is every inch the Last Son of Krypton. His Clark persona doesn’t massively deviate from his Superman; instead he acts the same but with a different costume on, clearly adhering to the hiding in plain sight method of performance, rather than the next cinematic portrayal by Christopher Reeve, where Clark and Superman could not be more different personalities. Phyllis Coates is a great Lois, as she is portrayed as an outspoken, strong woman that literally stands on the front line alongside Superman to repel the mob. This is a true reflection of the character, and Coates is a great frontrunner to what came after her.
Jeff Corey is excellent as the film’s de facto villain, Luke Benson. He has just the right amount of menace, coupled with a manic sense of fear, as he rightly comes across as a worried, xenophobic small-minded man. Interestingly, Benson himself was blacklisted by Hollywood shortly after the film’s release, as he was implicated in the McCarthy witch hunts that were previously mentioned in this article. In what was his final role before an enforced sabbatical from acting, the actor fell victim to the same attitudes that his character was trying to enforce.
Despite its brief running time and dated special effects and style, this film is one that should always be enjoyed and revered by any DC fan. As the first of its kind, it will always be preserved as the very first time that comic book fans got to see their hero on the cinema screen, which back in 1951 would have been a treat for everyone. In order to understand where you are going, you have to know where you have been, and this is definitely where the DC Cinematic Universe had been. They got there first, ahead of Marvel, meaning this film is THE cinematic trailblazer!
In the next History of DC Comics on Film – Batman 1966!!!!