No, not Goddard and Von Braun. I’m talking about these guys:
And a few others…
In 1949, there had been flying heroes around for some time: Superman, Captain Marvel (not her, now known as SHAZAM!), etc. But these guys were either aliens or magic. So Republic Pictures decided to make a new serial with the hero wearing a, “flight suit”, powered by – of course – atomic energy. It looked like this:
which I think is super stylish. The Fonz should look so cool.
And fly, instead of jumping over sharks…
The first serial, King Of The Rocket Men, was released in 1949 and was directed by Fred C. Brannon, a veteran serial director who would go on to direct all of the Rocket Man entries. It starred Tristram Coffin as Jeff King, a member of a secret organization fighting against another secret organization. The flying scenes were done by attaching a dummy to a wire and letting it slide down; with the correct perspective, it could look like it was flying up or down. Here’s a taste:
That is one of my favorite flying scenes. This technique was first used in the Adventures of Captain Marvel serials, but I found it rather slow and cumbersome and in several cases, was obviously a dummy.
King Of the Rocket Men was OK, but suffered from a somewhat lackluster villain and a flat story that never really took off. 6/10 for me.
The next entry was Radar Men from the Moon, starring George D. Wallace as Commando Cody and Aline Towne as Joan Gilbert. This series upped the ante with a threat from aliens and gave the heroes a rocket ship!
How cool is that? To a 6 year-old kid on Saturday mornings, it was the coolest thing ever. Nowadays, it’s admittedly pretty lame looking (the take-off and landings were pretty rough). But they had flying suits, a rocket ship and ray guns. This is the stuff I grew up on and I’ve never outgrown it. This was a pretty gripping story, with some great cliff-hangers and better production values than the first serial. And, it has Clayton Moore without a mask! 8/10
Now things get a bit convoluted. Republic decided they wanted to do a TV series, so in 1951, they started filming, but after three episodes they stopped and filmed Zombies Of The Stratosphere.. (I have never been able to figure out why). They then finished the TV series (but lost the wonderful William Schallert and reinstated Richard Crane as Dick Preston.
The TV series was Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (best job title EVAH!). It was completed in 1953 and was shown in theaters first, due to contract stipulations. Judd Holdren replaced George Wallace as Commando Cody, who for some reason wore a mask and had responded to aliens dropping missiles on us by surrounding the Earth with a cloud of radioactive dust. Aline Town returned as Joan Gilbert.
It then aired on TV in 1955 and nothing — fire, earthquake, or robot monster — could drag me away for that twelve episode run. Watch this episode and you’ll see why:
Spaceship battles, ray gun fights, and outflying a cruise missile! And all of this was a quarter of a century before Star Wars! 9/10
The last entry was Zombies Of The Stratosphere, and the less said about this, the better. Judd Holdren and Aline Towne returned, but their characters were renamed for some reason. The story was boring and lacked the energy of the other serials; I speculate they were saving it up for finishing the TV show. However, Leonard Nimoy has a bit role as an alien named Narab. 5/10
Then came comics, such as The Rocketeer by Dave Stevens. These 80’s entries were excellent at capturing the excitement and feel of the serials. And the vastly underrated movie, The Rocketeer by Joe Johnston should not be overlooked.
Sometimes, I miss my childhood, but I still have these memories. The TV show just disappeared from TV after its first showing, but I never forgot it. Then I managed to snag some copies in the late ’90s and I was almost hallucinating in the nostalgia for several days. Now, you can find all of these serials on YouTube and maybe elsewhere. If you watch any of them, let me know what you think.