Little did anyone know in 1933 that a creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster would still be the subject of comics, television series, DVD releases and a theatrical summer blockbuster. I also doubt that even those at Detective Comics, Inc. really knew what they bought in 1938, the same year they released Action Comics #1. Yet, as the years followed, a string of radio programs and chapter serials filled the hearts of young boys and girls from coast-to-coast with great joy and stretched their imagination to the limits. Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane…yes, today is our first stop on the Krypton Kountdown!
Having already become a successful comic book series, in both Action Comics and his own title, our iconic hero Superman hit the radio airwaves in 1940 in the form of an exciting 15-minute serial. But first, in the event you’ve been living under some Kryptonite, here’s the 10-second background version. Superman is really Kal-El, survivor from the doomed planet Krypton. Saved by his father Jor-El and sent to Earth, he was raised as Clark Kent by his Earth parents. Due to the Earth’s red sun, he has great strength, speed and vision. His breath can generate great winds and heat vision can melt mountains. At first, he could leap tall buildings, which then expanded to flying, even in outer space. His one weakness is green Kryptonite, meteoric pieces from his doomed home planet. Now, over the years, his origin, strengths and weaknesses have altered from time-to-time. But he has (almost always) wore the same outfit with the iconic red “S” on his chest and, until recently, he’s always worked as a reporter for the Daily Planet (and yes, I know he worked as a TV reporter at one point, but being general here for the beginner).
Now, the comic book was a huge hit and soon gave life to a run in the newspapers. The next media to conquer was radio. Bud Collyer played Superman aka Clark Kent on radio from 1940 until 1951, for a grand total of 2068 episodes (minus the occasional vacation or missed episode). He also voiced Superman in a series of 17 animated shorts, released between 1941 and 1943 by Fleischer Studios. In 1948, Superman hit the big screen again and, for the first time, the adventure was live action. Kirk Alyn played the lead role in a chapter serial. He matched wits with the evil Spider Lady and, in 1950, was back for Atom Man Vs. Superman.
In 1951, after the animated shorts and chapter serials, it was time for Superman to have his own full-feature film. George Reeves assumed the lead role in Superman and the Mole Men, pitting our Kryptonion hero against mysterious creatures from miles beneath the Earth’s surface. The creatures came up through an oil well shaft to terrorize the small town of Silsby. Luckily, news reporters Clark Kent and the ever-inquisitive Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), came to check out the oil well, only to be drawn into the frenzy to follow. After a night watchman is scared to death, and it’s determined the creatures are radioactive, the townspeople break out the torches and pitchforks with plans to string up the creatures. Superman does his best to calm the town down, his most notable adversary being Luke Benson (Jeff Corey).
The Mole Men are, in reality, small actors wearing skull caps to simulate baldness and fur suits to give the impression of mole-like bodies. No, it’s not convincing at all but fun none-the-less. George Reeves is quite serious here, as is the whole tone of the 58-minute movie. It served as a testing ground for the eventual television series. It proved successful enough to warrant a television series, which eventually ran from 1952 until 1958. Early seasons were in black and white and played much more serious. However, once the show began to be produced in color, the tone lightened up significantly. The movie was adapted in to a two-part story, titled “The Unknown People”, with some changes to music and some of the chase scenes cut down. The chase scenes actually slowed down the movie, so their removal here improves the overall pace of the adventure.
Hardly a big budget movie, it serves as a taste of what the television series was to become. No super villains or Lex Luthor to thwart our hero. In fact, the series usually concentrated on more earthly bad guys. The movie is a fun hour escape and worth checking out. It had its’ own VHS release but has only been part of other sets on DVD. It’s an extra on the first season set of the 1950s TV series (usually found for around $10) as well as the Superman Motion Picture Anthology Blu-ray set. It can also be found on YouTube from various sources.
In the years that followed, there was a stage play and various Saturday morning cartoons, including the ever-popular Super Friends. But in 1978, we were told that we would believe a man could fly. Superman The Movie was coming and we’ll cover that tomorrow!