21 September 2003 | cariart
Reeves' Debut as Man of Steel Still Timely...
In anticipation of the television series, 'The Adventures of Superman', this third 'live-action' Superman was the first 'feature' film (the previous entries had been serials). Replacing serial 'King' Kirk Alyn as the 'Man of Steel' was George Reeves, a gifted 37-year old actor who had been impressive in such 'A'-list productions as 'Gone With the Wind', 'The Strawberry Blonde', 'Lydia', and 'So Proudly We Hail!' Returning from the war, however, his career, as was the case with so many other young actors, had stalled. Reduced to supporting roles, or leads in 'B' films and serials, 'Superman and the Mole Men' represented yet another minor film, but Reeves hoped the exposure from both film and television might jump-start his flagging career...
He little anticipated what impact Superman was about to have on his life!
A cautionary tale, with elements 'lifted' from 'Frankenstein' and 'The Day The Earth Stood Still', begins as miners drill the world's deepest shaft, and break through to an underground world. Two of it's inhabitants, bald, radioactive midgets, decide to secretly investigate our world. Doing a feature story on the well for the 'Daily Planet', reporters Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates, inheriting the role from the serials' Noel Neill), and Clark Kent (Reeves), finds a town gripped with fear and prejudice, as an old man had suffered a heart attack after seeing the 'visitors'. Despite pleas for tolerance, the residents arm themselves, and plan to 'shoot first and ask questions later', particularly after the ball of a little girl who sees them (and has an innocent encounter), has enough residual radioactivity to glow in the dark. Shots are fired, the aliens bring up their own weapons, and it's up to Superman to 'save the day'!
Reeves' interpretation of 'Clark Kent/Superman' was far less jovial and buoyant than Alyn's; decisive, serious, and nearly combative, this was a 'Superman' you didn't mess with (the characterization would be toned down, for television). Square-jawed and more muscular (aided by a tee shirt with sewn-in shoulder pads, beneath the costume, to make him even more formidable-looking), the greatest variance between his interpretation and the comic books' was in his 'take' on Clark Kent. Reeves gave the reporter courage and integrity, as opposed to the 'meek, mild-mannered' geek that readers were familiar with (and who would be revived by Christopher Reeve, 26 years later). While some critics complained that he made Kent and Superman's personalities too similar, Reeves and the producers wisely realized that as budgetary restraints kept Superman's presence in the movie (with the FX required to show his 'super powers') to a minimum (there aren't ANY flying sequences in 'Superman and the Mole Men, only cast comments..."Look, up in the sky"... and a close-up of his 'catching' a falling alien), Clark Kent would be on-screen more, 'standing in' for the Man of Steel. Kent 'had' to be stronger, to fill the void.
Phyllis Coates was fabulous, as Lois Lane. No longer the serials' air-headed girl reporter who kept getting into trouble, Coates' Lois was strong, smart, and every bit Clark Kent's equal. She redefined the role, and when Noel Neill returned to the part, on TV several years later, she had big shoes to fill!
Aided by an excellent supporting cast (including screen veterans Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, and J. Farrell MacDonald), 'Superman and the Mole Men', despite its small budget, offered excellent performances, and a theme of tolerance that still rings true, today.
With the success of the film, 'Superman' moved on to television...and history was about to be made!