I suppose I was in the vast minority in 1978 when I still preferred George Reeves as Superman, and especially as Clark Kent, as opposed to Christopher Reeve.
One could argue this was, perhaps, merely nostalgia since I grew up watching repeats of the Adventures of Superman every Saturday as a young child, but it was more than that.
The Superman I recalled pre-1978 was more derived from film noir, rather than science fiction, although there was always latent and simplistic sci-fi elements. The art deco Fleischer cartoons were a resplendent example of this. Superman/Kent might tackle a local mad scientist or robots run amok, but he still had to predominantly deal with diamond stealing gangsters, a feisty Lois Lane, and a cigar chomping news editor boss. In the classic Superman comics he did occasionally have a colorful villain, such as the impish prankster whose name no one can pronounce, Braniac, and Bizarro, but he was not blessed with Batman’s rogue gallery of nemeses, and usually was content battling wits with the dull Lex Luthor.
Since the Richard Donner film, the Superman character has completely forsaken its golden age and radio origins, and Superman is a pimply faced superboy, not long past puberty. George Reeves’ Superman was already pushing forty when he made his debut. Reeves remained in the monkey suit (as he called it) until his death at forty five. Reeves personified the classic age Superman in that he was every adolescent boy’s idea of a super father figure. Sure, he wore a padded suit, clearly “flew” on a glass table and ducked when bad guys threw their emptied guns at him, but he was still the real deal and he seemed to actually mean it when he promised “truth, justice, and the American way.”
As edifying as Reeves’ Superman was, his Clark Kent was even more so. The Metropolis gangsters were even more afraid of Kent, and the power of his lethal typewriter, than they were of the red and blue alter ego. Kent’s partnership with a police inspector made him even more dangerous, in gangster eyes, but we knew all would be right when Reeves assuringly winked to the camera.
In the later episodes, Reeves’ Kent certainly had to muster super-like patience with the increasingly silly antics of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, along with even sillier plots, but Superman mantled a trooper-like attitude that “the show must go on.”
The first season of the Adventures of Superman is, by consensus, the best. The shows were gritty, dark, and clearly sprang from the radio shows, serials, and comic book magazines (in one memorable episode, Superman allows a couple to fall to their deaths from a mountain top, rather than having them expose his secret identity). Phyllis Coates’ Lois Lane was the ultimate in spunky, sexy, classy cool and no actress since has matched her. Superman’s perennial attraction to her was completely understandable. In later seasons, under Kellogg’s influential sponsorship, the tone was considerably more lightened and Coates’ brassy, provocative Lois was replaced with Noel Neill’s June Cleaver-like portrayal.
Before the television show, there was Superman’s first feature, Superman and the Mole Men (1951, Dir. Lee Sholem). The movie was intended as a introduction to the adventures that followed. Superman and the Mole Men has a strange, rudimentary feel. Superman is never actually seen flying, there is no obligatory origin story, and the dated plot is an excuse for a strangely impassioned plea of tolerance delivered with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles.
Superman may be a strange visitor from another planet, but he is not the only strange visitor. The mole men emerge from a Jules Verne-like center of the Earth when an oil well digs deeper than God intended.
The mole men are simply dwarfs, dressed in black with bald wigs and phosphorescent paint who go a-wandering through this strange, new world. Enter Clark and Lois, sent to cover the story on the oil well. The two reporters discover the night watchman dead from a heart attack caused by fright. It is not long before the two reporters discover what caused that fatal fright. The mole men are RADIOACTIVE, and leave everything they touch aglow.
Superman and the Mole Men borrows quite liberally from numerous sources, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). A scene with a girl and a rubber ball was inspired by Frankenstein (1931). Still, Superman is basically tackling the witch hunters, here ironically lead by Jeff Corey, who was soon to fall prey to the McCarthy scare blacklist when fellow actor Marc Lawrence named him as a commie. Unfortunately, Lawrence and the HUAC did far more damage to Corey than the mole men’s ray gun (which looks like a fancy vacuum). Of course, Corey did not have Superman to deflect the harmful rays of Senator Joe and gang.
Reeves’ Kent is no mild-mannered reporter who trips over his shoelace and walks into walls. He is decisive, yet genteel, making him even more formidable. It was these qualities, in his portrayal of Kent, that endeared Reeves to an entire generation. Like Coates’ Lois Lane, Reeves’ Superman is no slouch either, especially when he calls out the witch hunters as a gang of Nazi storm troopers. Despite its age, there’s one scene, which still promises to provoke AND explode redneck GOP heads when our red, white and blue papa enforces gun control!
Superman and the Mole Men was shot on the quick, with a low budget, and it shows, but the cast and odd milieu carry the programmer, making it a film delightfully of its time.