|Hello, reader! This issue is all about the ROCKETMAN movie serials in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If Rocketman looks strangely familiar, it may be because you're only familiar with the Dave Stevens character Rocketeer, which was based on Rocketman. Marvel Comics Iron Man also bears more than a passing resemblance to Rocketman. Originally, there were three cliffhanger serials starring Rocketman:
King of the Rocketmen (1949)
Jeff King (Tristam Coffin) is the mysterious Rocketman, who flies with the aid of his atomic-powered rocket suit. The rocket's highly-advanced controls, located on a small panel over Rocketman's chest, are three dials that read "Up," "Down, and "Speed." In 12 cliffhanging chapters, Rocketman and his associates prevent the evil Dr. Vulcan from taking over the world.
Radar Men from the Moon (1952)
Three years later, there was a new Rocketman named Commando Cody (George Wallace). Cody becomes aware of some suspicious atomic activity taking place on the moon. Rocketman stops an evil alien named Retik from launching an invasion of earth. Clayton Moore, TV's Lone Ranger, appears briefly as a henchmen working for the aliens.
Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
Rocketman, now Larry Martin (Judd Holdren), thwarts another alien attempt at destroying the earth. In the final chapter, Rocketman defuses a hydrogen bomb in the nick of time to save mankind. Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock, appears briefly as one of the evil martians.
Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953)
Originally developed for TV, Republic Pictures first released this film in the theaters in 1953 and later to television in 1955. Each of the twelve 26-minute TV episodes tells a complete story. In them, Commando Cody a.k.a. Rocketman tangles with an alien megalomaniac known as the Ruler. In the final episode, Rocketman captures the Ruler and ends his plot. The show contains stock footage from the three original serials, as well as new footage shot just for the TV show.
(In 1991 Disney made a theatrical movie featuring Dave Steven's comic book hero, "The Rocketeer." The closing credits of this movie pay tribute to both the Rocketman and Commando Cody characters.)
Behind the Scenes of the Rocketman Series
The first Rocketman serial, "King of the Rocketmen," began its 22-day shooting schedule on April 6, 1949 with a budget of around $165,000. Tristam Coffin, an actor who usually portrayed villains, was cast as Professor Jeff King / Rocketman.
The flying scenes in the serial were done by suspending wires in the desert, then sending a lifelike Rocketman dummy (pictured below) "flying" along those wires. The film was sometimes reversed to make it look as if Rocketman was flying from the ground up, over the city. This simplistic gimmick proved remarkably effective -- especially for less-demanding audiences of this era.
Using a plot stolen from "The Crimson Ghost" (Republic, 1946), the serial's story revolves around a group of researchers. One of them, Dr. Vulcan, is out to kill the group's members one by one to gain control of the Sonic Decimator, an advanced weapon. The researchers appoint Jeff King to stop the threat of Dr. Vulcan, which he does.
"King of the Rocketmen" was a hit, and its sequel, "Radar Men from the Moon," began filming in October, 1951. The budget was just $173,000. Actor George Wallace, who originally auditioned as a heavy, was cast as Rocketman. The story revolves around an impending invasion of Earth by an evil alien named Retik.
Retik sends his henchman Krog to Earth, in order to soften up our defenses. Krog enlists the services of criminals Graber and Daly who, using a large, truck-mounted ray gun, begin blasting key targets. Commando Cody gets wind of their activities and the action begins.
Many of Cody's flying scenes were taken from "King of the Rocketmen," and some footage of Retik's rocket was lifted from "The Purple Monster Strikes." In fact, Barcroft wore the same Purple Monster cowl, allowing his character to match up with footage from the earlier serial used in the final chapter of "Radar Men." The serial proved popular, and Republic re-edited and released it as a feature film in 1966, titled "Retik, The Moon Menace."
For the TV show "Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe," Judd Holdren, who earlier starred as Captain Video in a 1951 Columbia serial, was cast as Cody. His arch-enemy, the Ruler, was played by Gregory Gay. The Ruler, an evil, power- mad alien, tried everything from killer storms to extinguishing the sun in order to terrorize Earthers. Each time, the intrepid Commando Cody foils his plans.
After completing the first three episodes of the television series, Republic began work on the next Rocketman theatrical serial, "Zombies of the Stratosphere," in the spring of 1952. Judd Holdren was cast as lead Larry Martin, the name originally selected for the hero in "Radar Men," but later rejected. The part of the heavy went to Lane Bradford, who was assisted by a young Leonard Nimoy as Narab.
The serial was full of stock footage from several earlier efforts. A cameo by the "water heater" robot first seen in "Undersea Kingdom" and "The Mysterious Dr. Satan" (pictured above left) prompted the budget-conscious writers to steal an entire sequence of the mechanical monster robbing a bank from chapter seven of "Dr. Satan."
The infamous "water-heater robot" was also featured in the "Star Trek: Voyager" TV series. Voyager's "Captain Proton" holodeck sequences, inspired in part by the Rocketman serials, were played out by crew members in various episodes throughout the show's fifth season, culminating in an "all-Proton" episode. Pictured above right is the robot, with Seven of Nine amused by the robot's groovy retro-technology, and Tom Paris as Captain Proton wearing a jacket modeled after the original Rocketman flight jacket -- complete with the three dials that read "Up," "Down, and "Speed." Go Rocketman go!