Commando Cody and his assistants defend the Earth from the attacks of evil extraterrestrial The Ruler.
O.k. are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. In the very early days of TV one of the big success stories was a 30 minute science fiction show called ‘Captain Video and His Video Rangers.’ Hot on its heels came ‘Space Patrol’ with a main character called Commander Correy. Columbia Pictures turned ‘Captain Video’ into a movie serial. The Republic studio had been acknowledged for years as the ‘kings of the serials’ and were quick to spot a trend, inventing a character called Commando Cody, giving him the flying suit from ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949) and putting him in a serial called ‘Radar Men From The Moon’ (1952). George Wallace was Cody and Aline Towne played his assistant, Joan Gilbert. At the same time, they started filming a Cody TV show with Towne reprising her role but casting Judd Holdren as Cody. Holdren had played Captain Video in the Columbia serial but not the TV show. Clear so far?
3 episodes in to filming the TV show, Republic realised ‘Radar Men From The Moon’ (1952) was a hit and decided to film a sequel. Initially, they looked at editing together the TV show but instead took the script from episode 4 and expanded it into ‘Zombies of the Stratosphere’ (1952). At the last moment, though, they dropped the Cody name and turned Holdren into Larry Martin and Towne into Sue Davis. Exactly why is not recorded. With the serial finished, they turned back filming the TV show. But, wait! It transpired that union regulations meant that the show had to be released to theatres first, rather than going direct to TV. So it was that ‘Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe’ (1953) had a brief run at your local picture house before coming into your home on in the summer of 1955.There are several results of all this convoluted history, the most obvious being that Richard Crane appears as one of Cody’s sidekicks from Episode 4 onwards, the original actor William Schallert (who appeared in ‘True Blood’ at the age of 89!) being no longer available. Crane went on to front his own show as ‘Rocky Jones – Space Ranger’ (1954), episodes of which were sometimes cut into 90 minute films for theatrical release, such as ‘Crash of Moons’ (1954).
All this has led to serious debate amongst Movie Serial experts as to whether ‘Commando Cody: Sky Marshal’ (1953) can actually be considered a serial at all (yes, people do argue about this sort of stuff apparently). You see, although there is an overarching storyline to the show, there are no cliffhangers at the end of each episode, which is a vital component of any serial. On the other hand, the episodes do have to be shown in a certain order (just about) for the story to make overall sense. Actually, I would say you pretty much just have to get the first and last episodes in the right place!
So, after all that, what’s it actually like? Well, in a word: cheap. All plots are based around Republic’s fearsome library of natural disaster stock footage, with the Ruler attempting to bake the planet with extra suns, move the moon with explosions, start another ice age, tilt the planet on its axis, etc. He has a female sidekick (who hardly ever speaks) and some stupidly dressed henchmen in a rocket. Cody has a rocket and an office. He jumps into the air using the sophisticated special effect of a trampoline just out of shot below the camera line. A trash can robot from the lovely ‘Undersea Kingdom’ (1936) makes a welcome appearance but it’s sadly brief.
But there are compensations. Cody’s flying suit still has the ‘On/Off’, ‘Up/Down’, ‘Slow/Fast’ control system, which I’ve always loved, Holdren wears a mask at all times (apparently producers were afraid he’d quit the show so they wanted to be able to replace him!) and we are repeatedly treated to Cody’s sophisticated method of mid-air rendezvous with his rocket; basically he throws himself at it and tries to cling on.
This is really the pits of cheap 1950s science fiction, making even ‘Rocky Jones’ look impressive. The very ramshackle nature of the enterprise does bring a few grins, of course and I’m sure it has a fond place in the hearts of many an elderly American man looking back on his boyhood. And there’s nothing wrong with that.