Science Associates are plagued by a number of accidents, which Jeff King suspects are sabotage. Teaming up with the supposedly deceased Professor Millard, he dons a flying suit and becomes ‘Rocket Man’. His investigations reveal that mysterious supervillain Vulcan is behind it all…
If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because this is the retitled feature version of the Republic Studio’s serial ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949). It’s all set on Earth, which doesn’t seem to be lost, and there’s only one airman, but apart from that it’s a wonderfully accurate new title. The episodic nature of serials – with everyone usually after a new McGuffin each week – means that it is possible to squeeze nearly five hours of footage down to around 60 minutes, and retain some level of coherence in the storyline. It’s not perfect, of course, but it just about gets by. This was common practice for Republic in the early 1950s when the popularity of their serials was waning, and they were beginning to struggle with the balance sheet. Selling to television was the inevitable next step.
But there is some fun to be had here, all the same. The pace never lets up, of course, which isn’t surprising in the circumstances, and there’s a pleasingly absurd amount of fisticuffs, explosions, and last minute narrow escapes. We still have the rocket suit’s wonderful control system — ‘Off/On, Up/Down, Fast/Slow’ — and a stuntman jumping on a trampoline just out of shot before flinging himself into the air.
Tristram Coffin usually played henchmen in movie serials, but he makes a good show as King and holds his own with newspaperwoman Mae Clarke. She was an excellent actress, particularly at comedy, who somewhat ironically will always be remembered for two straight roles; being menaced by Karloff as Colin Clive’s bride in ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and having a grapefruit pushed in her face by Cagney in ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931). Her career would have probably maintained such a high level, but for ill health and an automobile accident in the mid-1930’s.
This is all good, undemanding fun, especially as it was one of the studio’s best later serials. Sure, this ‘new’ release was a rip-off and some young filmgoers might have felt cheated, but this is Hollywood baby, and the bottom line takes priority.
Watching this film in a rundown motel in the late 1960s, musician George Frayne thought this feature was one of the Commando Cody’s outings. He was another Republic hero who donned the Rocket suit. Frayne may have got slightly confused, both with the character and the spelling, but ‘Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen’ have released approximately 20 albums over the past 45 years.