Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953)

Commando_Cody_Sky_Marshal_of_the Universe (1951)‘Remember the formula for figuring the frequency densiter arrangers in electromagnetic transmissions of power?’

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.

Commando Cody Sky Marshal of the Universe (1951)

‘What are we supposed to be looking at?’

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.

Buy ‘Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe’ here but read the reviews of the DVD first!

Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)‘As a scientist, I need not remind you that there are 3 known dimensions. I have deprived you of 2 of them. You are in the 3rd: Death!’

Captain Video and his Video Rangers fight for truth and justice from his laboratory in the mountains. Alien despot Vultura threatens Earth with conquest and Video finds himself facing human traitors who are paving the way for the invasion…

‘Captain Video and his Video Rangers’ was a popular 30 minute TV series that ran from 1949 to 1955. It was broadcast live. Episodes usually included about 7 minutes of footage from old cowboy movies, described as ‘the undercover Video Rangers adventures on Earth’. In 1951, the Captain hit the big screen in his own movie serial for Columbia studios. Not surprisingly, given the short period of popularity of both media, it is the only instance of a serial being based on a TV show. Instead of Al Hodge in the lead role, the studio went with Judd Holdren for the serial and his teenage sidekick (only ever named as ‘The Ranger’) was played by Larry Stewart. Nasty villain Vultura was subtly depicted by Gene Roth.

This is an entertaining, but undeniably cheap, chapter play with familiar Columbia expertise behind it (writer George H Plympton, producer Sam Katzman, director Spencer Gordon Bennet). The plot is completely familiar too, with most episodes centring on Vultura’s agent on Earth, the evil genius Dr Tobor, and his attempts to grab whatever scientific thingamajig will further the alien dictator’s plans this week. A completely unrelated character called Tobor actually appeared on the TV show. This was a mechanical man, who was originally going to be called ‘Robot 1’ until someone mistakenly put the stencil on to the costume backwards! The only robots in the serial are actually the ‘cowboy’ ones featured 16 years earlier in the Gene Autry classic ‘The Phantom Empire’ (1935). Pleasingly, they still look like they’re made of silver cardboard and have cowboy hats firmly in place.

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

‘That’s the last time I let you bring that metal detector on holiday.’

There is some interplanetary action too, both on Atoma and its sister world Theros (although both bare the inevitable resemblance to good old Vasquez Rocks in California). Action on Theros is tinted entirely green and on Atoma entirely red. It is pleasing to think that low budget auteur Al Adamson may have simply cribbed this idea for his brilliantly wretched ‘Horror of the Blood Monsters’ (1970). Both Holdren and Roth (along with a lot of the props and costumes) turned up in Columbia’s last interplanetary serial ‘The Lost Planet’ (1953).

Highlights include the low budget uniforms (army surplus for Captain Video and his Rangers, complete with suits, ties and motorcycle helmets with big googles), crudely animated spacecraft drawn by an 8 year old and hilarious over-explanatory dialogue. Vultura dresses like some kind of cheap viking. Tobor’s assistant is played by the wonderful Skelton Knaggs. Vultura spies on Earth from a space platform in the clouds where one of his minions has a hand held telescope. Fire on Atoma has no effect on Captain Video because of its ‘different chemical properties’. Captain Video’s life is often saved when he falls out of aircraft because his top scientist can reduce the power of Earth’s gravitational pull so he floats gently to the ground. His jet mobile goes really fast and often crashes and explodes but he always jumps clear in time and has an inexhaustible supply of replacements. No one ever has any good ideas apart from Captain Video.

It’s reassuring to think that the future of Earth will be in the hands of such men as Captain Video and his wonderful science type stuff.

Buy ‘Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere’ here

Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)

Zombies of the Stratosphere

“It may sound ridiculous but it’s theoretically possible!”

Martians plan to detonate an H-bomb so powerful it will knock the Earth out of orbit, allowing Mars to move in & enjoy better weather. But there’s no need to worry – Earth’s entire defence is in the hands of 4 very wooden secret agents (who work for the government or something). And one of them has a rocket powered flying suit!

‘Zombies of the Stratosphere’ (1952) was the 60th movie serial from Republic Studios who’d been at it since the mid-1930s. Sadly, not much had changed since then – each week the villains still go after various thingummys and doodads that they need to build their WMD and our heroes thwart them at every turn but are often left in life threatening situations. These are always resolved in the next episode, of course, when we see that they actually jumped from the moving car/boat/go kart as it goes over the cliff/into the water/off the mountain road, etc. Actually, some of those crashing vehicles looked strangely familiar… and the rocket ships still resemble the spitting fireworks from ‘Flash Gordon’ days!

The flying suit has three knobs – ‘on/off’, ‘slow/fast’ & ‘up/down’. And why not? What else would you need!? After all, it had already seen active service in ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949) and the adventures of Commander Cody – in fact this was supposed to be a ‘Cody’ serial but was changed at the last minute, although our ‘new’ hero retains Cody’s lab and even his assistant (Aline Towne). To confuse things even more lead actor Judd Holdren actually went on to play Cody in the TV series.

Not Commander CodyThe whole enterprise is distinctly second hand; from the generous amount of re-used footage from older serials to the trash can robot exhumed from the ‘Undersea Kingdom’ (1936), (although it’s never actually explained how he has finally made it to the surface world). Our heroes’ lab consistently fails Health & Safety inspections with equipment exploding at the slightest provocation and when they sprint toward a plane in the desert, their footsteps sound suspiciously like two guys running across a studio floor.

Of course this enterprise is mostly remembered now for an early appearance by Leonard Nimoy as one of the three Martians. He’s quite hard to recognise, apart from his voice. These extra terrestrials aren’t much cop actually; needing to recruit a turncoat scientist and a nasty couple of gangster types to help. On the side of the angels, boss man Mr Steel goes through our Rocket Man’s job description in the opening scenes – just in case he’d forgotten what he was supposed to be doing.

I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers actually knew what a Zombie was? Still I suppose it’s a good title. But it’s all very tired, outdated even for the early 50s. Republic only made another half dozen serials before they finally called it a day.

‘Those Zombies must have been crazier than they looked.’ If only…