REMEMBERING THE ROCKETMEN

By Gary A. Hughes


 
  As a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, my first exposure to cliffhangers came during the serial revival of the early sixties. I would rush home after school, tune in KCRA channel 3 and watch Captain Sacto. Along with standard cartoon fare, the show featured an episode a day from one of the classic Republic chapter plays. For fifteen minutes, I was regaled with all manner of gun battles, fist fights, car chases and, of course, the inevitable cliffhanger ending. Needless to say, I was hooked.

  Of all the masked, costumed and fedora'd heroes trotted out by the Republic Pictures "thrill factory", my favorite has always been the Rocketman / Commando Cody character. There is something inherently cool about a guy who can blast off into the sky at a moment's notice simply by strapping on a rocket-powered black leather jacket and aluminum helmet. What better way to overtake a speeding car, board a runaway airplane or survey the uncharted wasteland of the moon?

  The origins of the Rocketmen date back to 1940 when artist Jon Small created a comic book character known as Bulletman. Police ballistics expert Jim Barr develops a secret formula which endows him with super strength and the ability to fly. As Bulletman, Barr wore an open-faced, bullet shaped helmet. In all likelihood, Republic patterned their helmet after Small's design, adding the full face visor as a means of concealing the identity of their hero, as well as the stunt double, whenever necessary .

  In 1949, Republic Pictures first introduced it's famous flying suit in King of the Rocketmen. The title role of Professor Jeffrey King, two-fisted rocket propulsion expert, was played by veteran serial actor Tristam Coffin. The story revolves around a select group of highly specialized researchers known as Science Associates. One diabolical member who calls himself Dr. Vulcan secretly attempts to undermine the organization by stealing a newly developed super-weapon called the Decimator. When King is selected by the Associates to investigate Vulcan's nefarious activities, he dons the suit to become the mysterious Rocketman, enemy of all things unsavory. For 12 pulse-pounding chapters, jet-propelled King battles and ultimately destroys Vulcan and his gang.

  A series of dramatic, trampoline powered take-offs performed by stunt legend Dave Sharpe combined with footage of a specially wired dummy devised by the studio's innovative special effects team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker convincingly portrayed the swooping and soaring hero. King of the Rocketmen proved to be Republic's last top-notch serial production.

  By the early fifties, science fiction was becoming increasingly popular among matinee moviegoers. To answer the call, Republic released Radar Men from the Moon in 1952. This serial offered a space age spin as well as a new character, dubbed Commando Cody. George Wallace, who would go on to play the bosun's mate in MGM's 1956 classic Forbidden Planet, appeared as Cody. His nemesis was Retik, evil ruler of the Moon, portrayed by stock studio villain Roy Barcroft. Unable to survive in the thin, dry atmosphere of the Moon, Retik sends an agent, Krog, to earth in an attempt to break down global defenses prior to an impending lunar invasion. Aided by n'er do well Graber (Clayton "Lone Ranger" Moore) and his partner Daly, Krog attempts to systematicaly destroy key targets using a truck mounted ray gun. To counter these deadly attacks, the government enlists the services of Cody Laboratories. In addition to his flying suit, the intrepid Commando utilizes a newly developed rocket ship to combat enemy forces locally and on the Moon. Retik's campaign is finally derailed in chapter twelve and he himself destroyed by his own ray gun during a failed return to his home planet.

  Radar Men utilized much of the stock flying footage seen in King of the Rocketmen, with a few new take-offs and airborne close ups thrown in. A miniature rocket, filmed in a similar manner as the wired dummy, provided some memorable images of space travel in broad daylight. The off-world Moon tank chase sequence is not to be missed. All in all, pretty solid stuff despite obvious budget constraints.

  Later that same year, Republic released two more adventures showcasing the well traveled rocket suit. As the serial era began to draw to a close, the studio attempted to break into the low budget, juvenille-oriented television market. Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe, was produced in twelve complete episodes without cliffhanger endings. Although it originally aired theatricaly, most remember seeing it during a 1955 TV run.

  Judd Holdren starred as the masked Sky Marshal, intergalactic guardian of the globe. In this installment, Commando Cody and his assistants battle the Ruler, yet another evil alien bent on world conquest. With the aid of his flying suit and rocket ship, not to mention a cosmic dust cloud, Cody is able to fend off a series of bizarre attacks including deadly storms and broiling heat. Keep an eye out in some of the early episodes for actor William Schallert (who played the father on TV's Patty Duke Show) as Cody's side-kick Ted Richards. However, my favorite supporting role is that of The Ruler's "communications babe", played by Gloria Pall, whose sole purpose in the series seems to have been driving young male movie patrons crazy.

  After the first three Sky Marshal episodes were in the can, the studio shifted gears and began filming the third and final flying suit serial, Zombies of the Stratosphere. Holdren, no longer sporting his mask, played Larry Martin, the name originally selected for the lead in Radar Men. Larry and the gang are pitted against Marex, a Martian malcontent planning to construct and detonate a hydrogen bomb on earth, causing it to spin out of orbit so that Mars can take its place. This is the serial which features a twenty-one year old Leonard Nimoy as Narab, Marex's right hand man. The atmosphere of Mars has given its inhabitants the ability to survive underwater for a time so, logically, Marex's hidden cave / laboratory can only be reached via a secret underwater entrance. Check out the platform footwear used with the Martian costumes. These were probably substituted with weighted boots during the underwater sequences in which the aliens lumbered to and from the lab.

  Both Zombies and Sky Marshal are loaded with stock footage and severly hampered by miniscule budgets. Nevertheless, when compared to other offerings at the time by studios like Columbia, the two films are still fun to watch. Look for a cameo appearance by Republic's jaunty old "water heater" robot as well as special effects snippets from the serial era's golden age.

  With the passage of time, changing movie preferences and more sophisticated audiences, the chapterplays faded into obscurity in the mid-fifties. During the television super hero craze of the sixties however, many serials, including the Rocketman trilogy, reappeared for a short time as re-edited, feature lenght films. More recently, artist Dave Stevens breathed new life into the jet-powered hero with his character, the Rocketeer, a Blackhawk / Rocketman hybrid. Disney's 1991 film (The Rocketeer) adaptation captured much of the flavor of the classic cliffhangers. Finally, Paramount's Star Trek : Voyager series paid homage to the original Rocketman in a two episode send-up of vintage sci-fi serials which featured (the Halo-deck creation) Captain Proton, a Commando Cody-like character sans helmet.

  If you haven't seen the three serials or Commando Cody television series in awhile, good prints of each are available on video as well as a newly released DVD version of Radar Men from the Moon. I regularly receive e-mails from rocket-fans as far away as Rio de Janeiro who still enjoy recounting the exploits of "Ol' Bullethead". As a long time serial fan, there will always be a special place in my heart for Rocketman, king of Saturday afternoon thrills.

The Nostalgia League SF-H-F would like to thank Gary Hughes for his fine contribution to our site.  For more information, photos and anecdotes about the original Rocketman, visit The Rocketpage a web-site dedicated to the exploits of Republic's jet-propelled crime fighters.
  
  
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