This is the fifth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
One year after the final Superman serial at Columbia Pictures, interest had begun to spark in producing a Superman series for the relatively new medium called television. Not wanting to take the financial risk of a series commitment without knowing that there was interest, and that the studio could do a better job than what had been done with the serials, the decision was made to make a low budget B feature. That feature film would become “Superman and the Mole Men.”
Originally, Kirk Alyn was approached to reprise his role as Superman, but he declined. Without Alyn in the lead, the studio looked to another serial actor, George Reeves. Reeves was reluctant, but he needed the money so he agreed to the series after his agent assured him it would never get picked up anyway. With a new Superman, a new Lois Lane was required as well so the studio looked to the actress originally wanted by Universal Pictures for the serials, Phyllis Coates.
The film featured Clark Kent and Lois Lane away from Metropolis on a assignment to the “largest oil well ever drilled” and didn’t feature Daily Planet editor Perry White or cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. Superman’s supporting characters wouldn’t be seen until the series.
While reporting on what should have been a routine story about the world’s deepest oil well, things soon get less than routine when a group of half man/half mole creatures climb up the well from the center of the Earth, where they have their own civilization. To make matters worse, these creatures might be radioactive. Townspeople soon begin to make sightings of the creatures and the entire village is soon in a panic, leaving Superman to calm the mob and solve the mystery of the mole men.
Unlike the previous serials, “Superman and the Mole Men” was aimed as much at adults as it was at children, and dealt with many adult themes. Among the film’s themes were prejudice and xenophobia, as well as the fear of nuclear fallout that was rampant post-WWII and well into the 1950s. Reeves played Superman as a serious dramatic role, and not as just a superhero for the kiddies. The film took itself more seriously than any superhero production before it had ever done.
Determined to do better than the animated flying effects, new wire stunts were developed that would conceal the wires better than the serials were able to. A single day of shooting was done with the flying effects, and several usable shots were filmed. During one flying sequence, however, a wire broke and George Reeves fell several feet to the stage below. While Reeves wasn’t hurt, his body and his ego were bruised and he refused to ever get on the wires again. Instead, a new system of flying was developed for the television series.
The film was quite well received and the green light was given to begin production on the first season of the television series. The film itself, in a trimmed down version, was cut into a two-parter for air as part of the television series. Notable changes made for the television version include trimming down a lengthy chase sequence and removing all mention of the term “mole men.” The music was also changed from the original score written for the film to stock music from the series.
The theatrical cut of “Superman and the Mole Men” was included as a special feature on the complete first season DVD of “The Adventures of Superman” as well as a special feature on the Superman: Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD set and the Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology blu-ray set. The television edit, re-titled “The Tomorrow People,” was included as part of the series’ first season as the season finale.
Superman: Serial to Cereal, by Gary Grossman, 1976