FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
One of the most memorable creations to evolve during the serial chapterplay’s declining years was Republic Studio’s “Rocketman.” He may be the most recognizable original creation of the sound-era serials, thanks to his metal helmet, personal rocket-pack, and the now-archaic dial with which he controls his flight—all adding up to the very personification of 1930s “Buck Rogers” SF. Yet, because his adventures take place in modern times, he suggests the increasing awareness of 1950s audiences that scientific miracles no longer required the distance of centuries to evolve. Such gimmicks could become the path of the future for law enforcement, as opposed to the eccentric productions of “death rays” arising from assorted mad scientists like the one in THE VANISHING SHADOW.
Clearly in the minds of the Republic writers, the costume, not the character, was the star. In these three serials, the rocket-suit is parceled off to three separate heroes, none of whom are related to one another. Jeff King, inventor of the suit in KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, disappears and “Commando Cody” dons the rocket-pack in RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON. Allegedly ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE was planned as a direct sequel with Commando Cody again as the hero, but for whatever reason the hero became one “Larry Martin.” The Commando did get the most exposure of them all, though, as he later appeared in his own 1950s teleseries. All three serials saw old hand Fred C. Bannen in the director’s chair. Though his direction was never outstanding, the “Rocketman” serials show Bannen at the top of his game, as he and his collaborators devised ingenious ways to work a flying man into the usual gunplay and car chases.
KING follows a by-then familiar pattern: a mystery villain, one Doctor Vulcan, is killing off the world’s scientists. Jeff King, who happens to be one of those scientists, elects to use his newly invented rocket-suit to chase down Vulcan and his thugs. The serial is a good basic romp, but only comes alive when Rocketman’s doing his specialty stunts.
Tristam Coffin, a familiar serial-face usually seen playing heavies, does a competent job as Jeff King, but doesn’t have much heroic charisma. Mae Clarke, best known in genre-circles as the female lead in 1932’s FRANKENSTEIN, was somewhat older than the general run of serial-heroines, and her role—that of yet another female reporter—is largely thankless. Still, Clarke delivers her flat serial-dialogue with aplomb, and during one fight-scene with a male thug, actually bounces a punch off his jaw before he decks her—a rare self-assertion for a female support-character in the rowdy serial-world. The villain is merely seen in shadow to conceal his identity until the last chapters, and so doesn’t take on any iconic stature, as one sees with the villains of MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN and THE WHISPERINGSHADOW. He does, however, have an interesting line of dialogue in the climactic chapter, when he chooses to explain his name to the hero; something about “Vulcan” being a symbol of his desire to “forge” his own destiny. It’s a rare serial-villain who stoops to admit that his chosen cognomen is a little on the weird side.
A new writer is credited on the next two serials: Ronald Davidson, who had previously scripted FLYING DISC MAN OF MARS. Instead of his battling a mundane mad scientist, Commando Cody (George Wallace) is placed in a more cosmic conflict, albeit one that reads like a rewrite of WWII scenarios, no doubt still potent seven years after the close of the war. Acts of sabotage alert Commando Cody to the presence of a truly alien presence on American shores. The saboteurs have recourse to atomic technology that Earth has not yet mastered, so Cody, fearing that this means America will find itself on the wrong end of an arms race, takes a quick hop to the Moon and meets with alien leader Retik (Roy Barcroft). Retik is pleased to reveal his entire plan to Cody: after his agents soften up Earth’s defenses (which seem covalent with those of the United States), the Moonmen will invade Earth with a fleet of ships armed with atomic technology. Retik’s motive is a familiar one: since the Moon has lost so much of its air that its natives can barely traverse the surface without suits, the denizens plan to dispossess the Earthlings of their planet—a science-fictional rewriting of that old excuse, Liebenstraum. Naturally, Cody survives his commando raid and returns to Earth, taking an atomic weapon with him in order to even up the arms race—though Earth’s possession of the weapon never adds up to much in the way of plot-developments.
Instead, the plot follows a path more like that of 1937’s DICK TRACY. Cody figures out that the invasion will be delayed or foiled if he and his allies can keep the saboteurs from fully weakening their target’s defenses. At the same time, the alien assigned to Earth, a fellow named Krog, finds himself short of funds and starts sending out his hired Earth-thugs to bring in more money, usually on such ill-considered schemes as kidnapping Commando Cody to hold him for ransom (!) Once again, the bulk of the serial deals in mundane action-stunts, but the scripter and FX-team put together a better variety of rocket-suit stunts than KING boasted.
George Wallace plays Cody with even less charisma than did Tristam Coffin in KING. Aline Towne puts forth a spirited girl-helper type, but modern audiences will perhaps groan when she’s only allowed to go on the trip to the moon because she’s a good cook. Barcroft is as always a fine larger-than-life villain, but he stays out of the action except in the early and late chapters. Clayton Moore compensates quite a bit as Krog’s number-one henchman Graden, as Moore’s resonant voice alone makes his scenes pleasurable.
Though the title of the next serial-- ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE—doesn’t make much sense, it may have come about from scripter Davidson’s penchant for odd word-associations. There are of course no zombies in any of the Rocketman serials, but in RADAR Cody, just returned from the Moon, tells his allies: “Retik plans to invade the Earth with the zombie from the moon.” Retik’s aides on the Moon—all two of them—do have a sunken-eyed zombie-look to them, as does Krog. One may assume that Cody used the term “zombie” as a general comment on the appearance of the Moonmen—though I have no idea why Cody would use the singular form. As for “stratosphere,” the word is tossed out in one of RADAR’s chapter-titles, so one assumes that Davidson needed a catchy title for the next serial and jammed the two together.
The final Rocketman serial provides no more explanation for the use of “zombie” than did the previous entry, and apart from the title the word’s only used three times by my count. This time the villains are Martians, wearing roughly the kind of bodysuits seen in RADAR but lacking the hollow-eyed look. The aliens’ leader Marex (Lane Bradford) thinks on an even bigger scale than Retik. Because Mars can’t sustain life any more, Marex—more adventurous than the rather retiring Retik—lands on Earth with just one Martian helper, Narab (Leonard Nimoy). Marex recruits a crew of thugs and one renegade American scientist named Harding, a traitor who’s already in contact wth America’s foreign enemies. The grand plan: detonate a hydrogen bomb on Earth that will hurl Earth out of orbit, so that Mars can take its place.
“It may sound ridiculous, but it’s theoretically possible,” claims hero Larry Martin (Judd Holdrin) in the final chapter’s wrap-up scene. I tend to doubt that anyone in 1952 would have believed that, beyond just playing along with the cosmic imagery for the sake of a slam-bang story. Still, at least ZOMBIES doesn’t suggest an impending large-scale alien invasion and then wimp out, as did RADAR. Because Davidson’s script never implies a level of alien activity above that of lowly saboteurs, the serial doesn’t promise more than its budget can deliver.
That said, ZOMBIES feels less expansive than RADAR with its frequent use of outdoor location shots. Granted, RADAR could never convince anyone that its characters had walked on the moon. But in ZOMBIES the greater concentration on indoor sets removes a lot of the Rocketman’s raison d’etre. Rocketman just doesn’t “rocket” as much this time. The villains have less personality than in either of the previous entries, though Nimoy’s scenes are rendered more interesting purely by virtue of the actor’s later SF-icon status.
The stunts are decent but not overly memorable, with the exception of two cliffhangers. In one scene, the hero’s gal-pal Sue (Aline Towne) gets dragged into the briny deep by an anchor. Ironically, she doesn’t make a sound, though this would have been a perfectly justified occasion for a scream. The other cliffhanger pits Larry the Rocket Guy against the Martians’ slow-moving tin-can robot—a robot-suit recycled from Republic’s MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN. Firesign Theater’s serial-parody J-MEN FOREVER best described the robot as an “enraged water heater.” Still, the sight of Rocketman clashing with the robot displays a good superhero vibe, though the scene gets a little wonky when the robot tries to kill Larry Martin with a mundane axe.
Despite the limitations on “rocket-action,” Judd Holdrin comes off as having the greatest heroic charisma of the three Rocketmen. No one asks Aline Towne to cook this time. She helps out a bit more, firing a pistol at the attacking robot (to no effect, of course) and helping the guy-heroes short out the mechanical man’s circuits. In a late chapter Bannen and Davidson bring the robot back into the fight under the control of the good guys. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately for patrons of “so bad it’s good” flicks—in the robot’s last big scene, it simply scares a bad guy into jumping off a cliff by wielding a handheld sparkler at the thug.
My rating of the three thus boils down to:
KING= most interesting villain
RADAR= most exciting stunts and sets
ZOMBIES= most charismatic hero