King of the Rocket Men
|King of the Rocket Men|
|Directed by||Fred C. Brannon|
|Produced by||Franklin Adreon|
|Written by||Royal Cole
House Peters, Jr.
I. Stanford Jolley
|Music by||Stanley Wilson|
|Cinematography||Ellis W. Carter|
|Edited by||Cliff Bell, Sr.
|Distributed by||Republic Pictures|
| 8 June 1949 (serial)
United States 16 July 1956 (re-release)
|12 chapters (167 minutes) (serial)
65 minutes (feature)
|Budget||$164,984 (negative cost: $165,592)|
King of the Rocket Men is a 1949 12-chapter black-and-white Republic movie serial, produced by Franklin Adreon, directed Fred C. Brannon, and starring Tristram Coffin, Mae Clarke, Don Haggerty, House Peters, Jr., James Craven, and I. Stanford Jolley.
This serial is notable for introducing the character Rocket Man, who would later appear with different character identities in Republic's rocket-powered hero serials that followed: Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), the latter syndicated to television in 1955 under the same title but as a dozen 25-minute episodes, each containing new space footage and title music.
An evil genius of unknown identity, calling himself "Dr. Vulcan" (heard only as a voice and seen as a shadow on a brightly lit wall), plots to conquer the world, but first needs to eliminate, one by one, the members of the Science Associates, an organization of America's greatest scientists. After narrowly escaping an attempt on his life by Vulcan, one member of Science Associates, Dr. Millard (James Craven) goes into hiding and then outfits another member, Jeff King (Tristram Coffin) with an advanced, sonic-powered rocket backpack and jacket, a bullet-shaped, aerodynamic helmet, and raygun they had been working on together.
Using the flying jacket and helmet and other inventions provided by Dr. Millard and aided by magazine reporter and photographer Glenda Thomas (Mae Clarke), Jeff King, as Rocket Man, battles Dr. Vulcan and his henchmen through a dozen action-packed Republic chapters. Eventually, Vulcan steals Millard's most dangerous invention, a Sonic Decimator, and uses it to flood, then destroy both New York City and the rest of Manhattan Island before finally being unmasked and brought to justice by Jeff King in his Rocket Man persona.
- "Dr. Vulcan - Traitor" (20min)
- "Plunging Death" (13min 20s)
- "Dangerous Evidence" (13min 20s)
- "High Peril" (13min 20s)
- "Fatal Dive" (13min 20s)
- "Mystery of the Rocket Man" (13min 20s)
- "Molten Menace" (13min 20s)
- "Suicide Flight" (13min 20s)
- "Ten Seconds to Live" (13min 20s)
- "The Deadly Fog" (13min 20s) - a re-cap chapter
- "Secret of Dr. Vulcan" (13min 20s)
- "Wave of Disaster" (13min 20s)
- Tristram Coffin as Jeff King/Rocket Man.
- Mae Clarke as Glenda Thomas
- Don Haggerty as Tony Dirken
- House Peters, Jr. as Burt Winslow
- James Craven as Dr. Millard
- I. Stanford Jolley as Professor Bryant/Dr. Vulcan
- Stanley Price as Gunther Von Strum
King of the Rocket Men was budgeted at $164,984, although the final negative cost was $165,592 (a $608, or 0.4%, overspend); it was the most expensive Republic serial of 1949. The serial, Republic production number 1704, was filmed between April 6 and April 27, 1949.
Republic liked naming their heroes "King" in order to use the title "King of ..." The studio had found success with this naming scheme following the adaptation of Zane Grey's King of the Royal Mounted. The main character in this serial was Jeff King, otherwise known as Rocket Man. His flight sequences were inspired by the Buck Rogers comic strip.
Two streamlined, bullet-shaped prop helmets were used with the sonic-powered, rocket-equipped backpack attached to a leather flying jacket. The first was made of lighter-weight materials and worn only during the various stunt action scenes; during filming, the single-hinged visors on both helmets frequently warped and would stick open or closed.
King of the Rocket Men was more cheaply made than previous Republic serials, and the casting is atypical. Tristram Coffin was a typical movie "dress heavy" of the time period, complete with pencil-thin mustache, and it was a bit of stretch for serial audiences of the day to accept him as the hero. Even odder was the casting of nearly 40-year-old Mae Clarke as the typical damsel in distress. The serial also lacks a colorful costumed villain along the lines of Republic's earlier The Crimson Ghost. The final chapter's flooding and destruction footage, though spectacular, had previously been used by the studio as the centerpiece for 1941's Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc..
- David Sharpe as Jeff King/Tony Dirken/Prof Bryant (doubling Tristram Coffin in rocket suit, Don Haggerty & I. Stanford Jolley)
- Tom Steele as Jeff King/Burt Winslow (doubling Tristram Coffin and House Peters, Jr.)
- Dale Van Sickel as Jeff King/Tony Dirken (doubling Tristram Coffin in the helmet/rocket backpack and Don Haggerty)
- Carey Loftin as Burt Winslow (doubling House Peters Jr)
- Eddie Parker
- Bud Wolfe
Rocket Man in action was played by three different Republic stuntmen. Dave Sharpe performed the leaps into the air and acrobatics necessary to simulate flight. Tom Steele was the second stuntman in the rocket pack and helmet, and Dale Van Sickel took the role when Steele and Sharpe were unavailable or were being used in the same stunt shot. The first appearance of Rocket Man (Dave Sharpe) has him flying directly into the back of a fast-moving, tarp-covered truck, driven by stuntman Tom Steele, then getting into a fist-fight with Vulcan's henchmen; in that same fight sequence Tom Steele is also the stuntman in the Rocket Man costume.
Several shots in the serial feature the Rocket Man character flying across broad vistas of barren landscape, an effect achieved by Howard and Theodore Lydecker running a full-size dummy on internal pulleys along a very long, taut wire tilted at an downward angle to the horizontal. The same strategy had produced remarkable flying sequences in the earlier Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Dave Sharpe's take-offs were accomplished with concealed springboards, and his landings by simply jumping down from some raised position into the film frame.
The shots of King as Rocket Man taking off, flying, and landing were reused in three subsequent Republic productions featuring flying heroes: Radar Men from the Moon, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe, and Zombies of the Stratosphere. Rocket Man's raygun "appeared to be a German Luger (acceptable in this post-wartime serial) with a silvery cone propped over the barrel."
The tidal wave in the serial's final chapter is actually stock footage taken from RKO's once-thought-lost science fiction feature film, Deluge (1933). Stock footage was being used for most of the chapters' cliffhanger endings, showing the "downward trend of late 1940s Republic serials."
King of the Rocket Men's official release date was June 8, 1949, although this was actually the date the sixth chapter was made available to film exchanges.
A 65-minute feature film version, created by editing the serial footage together, was released on July 25, 1951; it was one of 14 feature films Republic made from their serials. The title was changed to Lost Planet Airmen after using the working titles The Lost Planet and Lost Planetmen. The ending was changed for the feature film version. Instead of New York City being reduced to rubble by a deluge, as in the serial, those events are dismissed as just the "dream of a mad man" and did not really happen. (A similar change was made in the feature version of Drums of Fu Manchu.) 
King of the Rocket Men was re-released on July 16, 1956 between the similar re-releases of Adventures of Frank and Jesse James and Federal Operator 99. The last original Republic serial release was King of the Carnival in 1955.
Cline describes this serial as "one of Republic's last cliff-hangers with any originality to it." He singles out Clarke's performance, noting she is "a refreshing note in an otherwise routine proceeding."
- Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
- List of film serials by year
- List of film serials by studio
- The Rocketeer
- Mathis 1995, pp. 3, 10, 112–113.
- Weiss and Goodgold 1973, p. 291.
- Weaver, Tom and Paul Parla, "Call Him Commando Cody," Comics Scene, #20, August 1991, Starlog Communications International, Inc., pp. 29-30 (interview with George D. Wallace).
- Cline 1984, p. 249.
- Harmon and Glut 1973, p. 217.
- Harmon and Glut 1973, p. 283.
- Cline 1984, p. 23.
- Harmon and Glut 1973, pp. 282–283, 285–288.
- Harmon and Glut 1973, p. 180.
- Cline 1984, p. 91.
- Cline, William C. "2. In Search of Ammunition"; "5. A Cheer for the Champions (The Heroes and Heroines)"; "11. New Masks for New Heroes "Get That Masked Trouble Maker"; "Filmography". In the Nick of Time. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-7864-0471-X.
- Harmon, Jim and Donald F. Glut. "8. The Detectives "Gangbusters!"; "9. The Superheroes "Could Superman Knock Out Captain Marvel"; "11. New Masks for New Heroes "Get That Masked Trouble Maker". The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. London: Routledge Publishing, 1973. ISBN 978-0-7130-0097-9.
- Mathis, Jack. Valley of the Cliffhangers Supplement. South Barrington, Illinois: Jack Mathis Advertising, 1995. ISBN 0-9632878-1-8.
- Weiss, Ken and Ed Goodgold. To be Continued ...: A Complete Guide to Motion Picture Serials. New York: Bonanza Books, 1973. ISBN 0-517-166259.
- King of the Rocket Men at the Internet Movie Database
- King of the Rocket Men at AllMovie
- Detailed Review of King of the Rocket Men
- A discussion of the Rocket Man character in the context of the decline of the movie serial
- A tribute page for all the Rocket Man serials
- on YouTube
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