DC’s First Movie Ever Featured Superman In His Purest Form


Summary

  • Superman and the Mole Men marks the debut of George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, setting the standard for the iconic character.
  • The film serves as a metaphorical morality tale about tolerance and paranoia during the Red Scare era, reflecting societal fears.
  • Despite its low budget and cheesy elements, the film focuses on the core principles of heroism, making a lasting impact on Superman’s legacy.



In November 1951, the very first DC Comics movie made its debut in theaters, with far less fanfare than today’s movie fans might expect. Superman and the Mole Men was a low-budget, black-and-white feature that has been largely forgotten among today’s CGI superhero epics. The film, however, is notable for featuring the first appearance of George Reeves in the role of Clark Kent/Superman, and a story that captures the essence of the Man of Steel better than any film that followed.


The plot involves Clark Kent and Lois Lane (played by Phyllis Coates) traveling to a small town to cover the construction of the deepest oil well ever. The drill, however, has pierced the underground lair of The Mole Men, a diminutive race of creatures that climb up the well to the surface and inadvertently kill a man. The townspeople form an angry mob to hunt down and kill the Mole Men, and it’s up to Superman to save the day.


Superman’s Journey from Comic Book to the Big Screen

George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane confront an angry mob in a scene from Superman and the Mole Men
Lippert Pictures

Technically, Superman and the Mole Men wasn’t the character’s first appearance on the silver screen. In response to the popularity of the comic book that had premiered just a decade earlier, Columbia Pictures released two multi-chapter serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), with actor Kirk Alyn in the lead role. While the serials were box office hits, Hollywood considered comic book heroes strictly pre-feature entertainment. The movie wasn’t actually an attempt to change that thinking, as the film producers were instead hoping to score big on television.


Producers Whitney Ellsworth, Robert J. Maxwell, and Bernard Luber made the film independently as a “back-door pilot” to generate interest from possible sponsors for a Superman TV series. Maxwell was a writer and producer on the Superman radio series and believed the popularity of the Columbia serials proved the character could find an audience on television. The pilot was released in theaters to help recoup production costs and was a surprise hit.

The independent film was produced on a miniscule budget, with some reports saying it was as little as $50,000, well below the 1948 serial’s reported $350,000 budget. To cut costs, the film was shot in black and white on the RKO backlot, on the same set later used for the town of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show and some episodes of the original Star Trek. To avoid costly special effects, Reeves doesn’t actually appear as Superman until nearly halfway into the hour-long film, and the flying effects are kept to a minimum.


George Reeves: The Perfect Superman

George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane watch an agry mob approach in Superman and the Mole Men
Lippert Pictures

Actor Kirk Alyn, who portrayed Superman/Clark Kent in the two Columbia serials, was set to portray the character once more in the film but asked for too much money. With a bare-bones budget, producers went looking for a cheaper option and found actor George Reeves, who at the time was best known for a small role in Gone With the Wind as a Southern gentleman who tries to woo Scarlett O’Hara.

In 1951, Reeves was a 37-year-old actor struggling to find substantial roles. He found the role of a lifetime as Superman, bringing a jovial quality to the character and projecting strength with timeless authenticity. Reeves’ approach was not unlike the portrayal seen in the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the early 1940s, where the character was an affable personality whose sly, wink-at-the-camera comments reminded the viewer that we were all in on his secret.


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To this day, Reeves still defines how many view Superman. Even when modern takes on the character are darker and more mature. While actors Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill have gifted fans their own iconic versions of the Man of Steel, George Reeves stands apart as the quintessential Superman. His legacy will always carry a shadow, however, with the reality that the role he embraced eventually limited his career, and led to his death in 1959 by a reported suicide.

A Superhero Morality Tale

George Reeves as Superman carries an injured Mole Man in Superman and the Mole Men
Lippert Pictures


While the low budget and hour-long running time undermined the overall quality of the film, the story itself was an effective morality tale not unlike many of the Superman comic stories of the era. This is likely thanks to Whitney “Whit” Ellsworth, the editorial director at DC Comics who oversaw the Batman and Superman comic books for the publisher. Ellsworth was also DC’s contact who handled all of their Hollywood productions, and he co-wrote the Mole Men script with producer Robert Maxwell. He brought a deep understanding of the character and a relatable story that reflected the times.

Despite the cheesiness of the film’s B-movie subject matter, at the heart of the film lies a cautionary tale about paranoia and the need for tolerance. When the Mole Men first emerge from the earth, the local townspeople form an armed mob to hunt them down, believing they are murderous creatures. Not even Superman can reason with them, demanding that they lay down their guns and “stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers.” The mob responds by opening fire on him, leading to a satisfying scene in which Superman tells them they can no longer be trusted with guns, and he manhandles them out of their hands.


The Red Scare was in full swing in 1951, and the film’s warnings against paranoia and mob mentality are clearly inspired by the political situation of the time. It’s also a reflection of the earliest Superman stories, which were more personal and relatable. There were supervillains and global threats to be sure, but the classic Superman was at his best as a champion of the little guy, involving himself in local crime over epic battles with the fate of the world in the balance. That was the hero America fell in love with in 1938.

From the very start, the purest form of Superman’s heroics was personal. In Action Comics #1, Kal-El wasn’t battling evil Kryptonians or Lex Luthor (he wouldn’t come along until 1940). He was fighting to exonerate a woman on death row, exposing a corrupt senator, and bringing an abusive husband to justice. In issue #3, he confronts the owner of a mine endangering the lives of his workers. In issue #12, Clark’s friend is killed by a reckless driver, leading Superman to declare war on dangerous drivers, promising that they will all answer to him.


Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster described Superman as a “Champion of the Oppressed.” That resonated with Americans in 1938, as the nation emerged from the Great Depression. By 1951, he had become the embodiment of America’s postwar values: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Whit Ellsworth carries those themes here but with a bit of a twist. The Mole Men are the oppressed, and the enemy are overzealous people motivated by fear, ignorance, and violence. It’s surprisingly insightful for a 1950s kid’s movie.

Superman and the Mole Men’s Legacy


Superman and the Mole Men will never rank among the best Superman films ever, but fans of the character could not ask for a better depiction of the early era of The Man of Steel. Rather than focus on his powers and abilities or a conflict with a popular DC Comics supervillain, the film instead focuses on principles. It is a story about the qualities that make a hero, rather than the trials and tribulations that a hero endures. The choice to tell that story may have been motivated by a lack of money, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, thanks to a breakthrough performance by George Reeves.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Reeves taking up the mantle of Superman, and what it meant for the genre and pop culture in general. His influence is still felt today. The late DC Comics artist and writer Darwyn Cooke oversaw a number of highly successful Superman comics and stories in the 1990s and 2000s, featuring a classic style influenced by Reeves and the comics of the era.


The producers’ plans to use the film as a pilot for a TV show succeeded. Kellogg’s signed on as a sponsor after seeing the film, and The Adventures of Superman series became a cultural phenomenon. The superhero TV and movie genres that we enjoy today were made possible by the success of Reeves and the series. The low-budget, nearly-forgotten film that started it all not only deserves more credit, it deserves more appreciation for giving us a Superman worth looking up to.

A public domain version of
Superman and the Mole Men
is currently available to stream on the
Dark Matter TV streaming app
, available on platforms including Roku.



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