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Thursday, December 26, 2013

King of the Rocket Men

Republic Pictures released a 12 part serial in 1949, titled, King of the Rocket Men (KRM). It starred Tristram Coffin as Jeff King, a tall, dashing scientist who dons an experimental rocket pack and bullet-shaped helmet to fly here and there thwarting evil. KRM was typical of Republic serials of its day, re-using sets, props and landscape with Republic’s westerns, spy and crime dramas. KRM was re-edited in 1951 for release as a feature film, titled Lost Planet Airmen (even though there was no lost planet, and only the one air man). The feature film had the redundancy of the chapters removed, so ran only just a bit over an hour. This repackaging is why it seems there are a dozen car chases, a dozen amazing escapes from certain doom, and more than a dozen fist fights. Each of the 12 chapters had their own. KRM would be the first of several Rocket Man serials.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Chapter 1: Dr. Vulcan, Traitor — Various scientists are dying in mysterious “accidents”. A shadowy figure (Dr. Vulcan) is behind it. The deaths attract the attention of Glenda Thomas, science reporter. She gets no scoop, but becomes familiar with Jeff King (one of the Science Associates scientists) and Burt Winslow, SA’s PR man. One of the scientists, Dr. Millard, fakes his death in a lab fire, to avoid being the next victim. He built a prototype atomic-engined rocket pack. When Dr. Vulcan’s minions hijack at missile prototype, Jeff dons the rocket man suit to stop them. He does, but the missile gets launched at the city. Jeff zooms after it and shoots it with his ray pistol.
Chapter 2: Plunging Death — Jeff recovers from the shock of the explosion and zooms back to Millard’s cave. Glenda took a photo of the rocket man and Vulcan’s minions want it so they can identify and eliminate the rocket man. After some fighting, the minions flee with the negative. Glenda gives chase, but Vulcan takes control of her car (remotely). Rocket man lands on her car, but can’t regain control. It sails over a cliff and bursts into flames.
Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence — Jeff knows Vulcan needs special film to blow up the negative. Vulcan’s minions steal SA’s stash of film. Jeff, as Rocket Man, follows them to a remote cabin. They fight, and when a fire breaks out on a stack of explosives crates (every remote cabin has stacked creates of explosives in those days), the bad guys leave rocket man to be blown up.
Chapter 4: High Peril — Jeff escapes the cabin before it explodes. Jeff suspects Professor Conway of the SA committee. Vulcan’s men try to force Conway to write a confession to all the bad deeds, even though he did not do them. Jeff rockets in, interrupting. Conway is killed and Jeff tossed out a penthouse window.
Chapter 5: Fatal Dive — Jeff recovers, of course, and tries to arrange a fake delivery to trap Vulcan. Glenda and Burt think this means Jeff is in league with Vulcan. At the drop site and many misunderstandings, Glenda is absconded with by Durkin (No. 1 minion) in a small plane. Durkin knocks out Glenda and jumps from the plane (parachute). Rocket man zooms in, but can’t fix the plane. Dive to the rocks and explode!
Chapter 6: Mystery of Rocket Man — Jeff has Glenda put on a parachute and jump. He zooms away. Vulcan suspects Jeff is the Rocket Man, so has Durkin and thugs kidnap him. They want him to help them steal the Sonitron. The deception fails, but in the subsequent fight, Jeff is in the truck that zooms off the wharf into the sea.
Chapter 7: Molten Menace — Jeff jumped out of the truck just in time, of course. Dr. Millard has his Sonic Decimator prototype working. It melts things with sound waves. Vulcan’s men get wind of it, and steal it. In fighting over it in Millard’s cave, the switch gets stuck “on” and starts melting the cave walls into lava.
Chapter 8: Suicide Flight — Jeff spots an air shaft just in time to escape the flood of lava. Vulcan hypnotizes another scientist to steal the Decimator’s plans, but this fails. The minions kidnap the scientist to prevent him remembering. Rocket man flies in to stop them, but is greeted by a hail of bullets.
Chapter 9: Ten Seconds To Live — All the bullets miss, of course. The minions flee. They plot to steal Jeff’s second Decimator prototype and succeed. They lay a trap for Rocket Man, with a bomb in the getaway truck. During the usual fist fight, Rocket Man is knocked out, next to the bomb.
Chapter 10: Deadly Fog — Jeff escapes. He and Burt rehash most of the story thus far with flashbacks. Jeff foolishly accepts an appointment to meet someone. The cab is a trap. Knock out gas incapacitates Jeff. Vulcan plans to drive the cab off a cliff by remote control. But, Burt and Glenda saw the cab driver jump out, so give chase. Burt jumps onto the cab and saves Jeff.
Chapter 11: Secret of Dr. Vulcan — The toxic gas had a rare ingredient. Jeff seeks to trace the sale of it. Vulcan’s men capture Burt and use him as bait. Rocket Man zooms in to save Burt, but the cabin is booby trapped with terrible sparky things. Vulcan turns out to be Dr. Bryant. Gasp! He forces Rocket Man into the sparky trap.
Chapter 12: Wave of Disaster — Burt kicks the minions, spoiling the sparky trap. Vulcan and Durkin fly off with the Decimator 2.0. Their plan is to extort a billion dollars from the City of New York, under threat of destruction. The mayor refuses to pay. Vulcan aims the Decimator at an undersea fault line, causing earthquakes and tidal waves which pretty much level NYC. Rocket Man zooms in to stop them and shut off the Decimator before NYC is totally destroyed. The Air Force bomb the island too, just for good measure. The mayor is plucky and vows to rebuild even better than before. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The old serials were full of action. Never a dull moment. No long talky scenes or cerebral musing about philosophies. Car chases. Fist fights. Cliff hangers. KRM is fun for being the first of the Rocket Man serials. After watching KRM, one can spot the recycled footage used in the following three remakes.

Cultural Connection
Do No Harm — Most of the serials were aimed at the youth market, to keep them coming back to the theater next week. With that youth market in mind, violence was carefully avoided, or minimized. Despite the many gun fights, people were seldom shot. Several times, the hero shoots the gun out of the bad guy's hand. Despite the many many fist fights, no one was ever seriously hurt (or left any lasting marks). Despite the many certain-doom perils, everyone manages to escape just in the nick of time. Lots of stuff blows up, but no one is hurt. Despite the propensity for cars to go sailing off tall cliffs, no one was ever inside them. The few times someone is killed, it happens out of view, so it was a “clean” death. These were the “good old days” of youth entertainment, before graphic gore and violence became presumed necessities.

Papa Rocket — KRM was not Republic’s first “sci-fi” serial, but it was the first “rocket man” serial. Apparently, KRM was a good seller, as Republic went on to do three more. KRM was already a very low-budget production, as were all of Republic’s serials. After KRM, came Radar Men from the Moon in ’52, featuring Commando Cody as the rocket man. Next came Zombies of the Stratosphere later in ’52, this time with the rocket man named Larry Martin. In ’53 came the fourth rocket man serial, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. All three of the subsequent rocket man serials recycled footage from KRM. The jumping takeoffs, the zooming flyovers and other shots in which the rocket man’s face is handily covered by the bullet helmet. Other bits of footage would be recycled too, such as the small plane escape and crash.

King of Serial — Republic liked the title formula: “King of…(whatever)”, and used it on several of their theatrical chapter plays. In 1942, they had King of the Mounties, with Dave King being the Royal Mounted hero. In 1946, they released King of the Forest Rangers with Steve King as the prime ranger. So, in 1949, the title King of the Rocket Men already had some franchise history. The last would be King of the Carnival in 1955.

Recycled Disaster — The climactic scene in Chapter 12, where New York City is devastated by Dr. Vulcan’s earthquakes and tidal waves, was footage recycled from a 1933 film, Deluge. That film was about a global cataclysm that wipes out almost all 20th century civilization (in the first third of the film), leaving a remnant of survivors, thrown back into a tribal environment in which men were men and women were property to be fought over. Deluge was a budget-buster film by a small indie studio. It put them out of business after just a year in business. Republic bought the rights to Deluge, mostly to re-use the disaster footage. They used the flooding of New York in Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941), then again in KRM. Deluge was one of the first genre disaster films, but for various reasons, was never shown after its first release. This may be because RKO, who bought the film for distribution, thought it would be too expensive to edit it to fit the new self-censorship rules of the Hayes Code. (scanty underwear and woman’s bare navel, implied “having” of women without benefit of marriage, etc.) This unmarketablility could be why RKO sold the film to Republic.

Plane Crazy — One of those pointless film detail obsessions was the make of the small airplane that Dr. Vulcan’s henchman Durkin flew. Even though this plane crashes at the end of Chapter 5, it’s flying again for Chapter 12, to get the bad guys to Fisherman’s Island. For soundstage work with the actors, they had a mockup of something generic (note the absence of a windshield and left wing). In Chapter 5, there are two different aircraft for the same scene. A Model 108-2 is what taxis away. Note the single pinstripe. The same Stinson 108-2 (curved rudder) does the takeoff. The 108-3 (vertical rudder and two pinstripes) is used for the long shots in the air. Some obscure movie trivia, just in case. The aerial footage would get reused often.

Bottom line? KRM is not deep or thoughtful. The acting isn’t impressive. The sets and props are low rent. But, KRM is old fashioned, low budget fun. It’s matinee fodder that would later inspire the 1991 film, The Rocketeer. Let your inner 7-year-old enjoy it.

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