Republic, 12 Chapters, 1949. Starring Tristram Coffin, Mae Clarke, Don Haggerty, House Peters Jr., James Craven, I. Stanford Jolley, Stanley Price, Ted Adams, Marshall Bradford.
A research foundation known as “Science Associates” becomes the target of one “Dr. Vulcan,” a mysterious criminal who’s bent on stealing the atomic-powered weapons that are being developed by the foundation’s scientists. Vulcan hopes to make a fortune by selling these valuable devices to foreign powers, and is quite willing to murder any scientist who tries to stand in his way; he succeeds in killing several members of Science Associates, but unknowingly fails in his attempt on the life of Dr. Millard (James Craven), who pretends to be dead and continues his scientific work in a hidden lab. There, with the help of his trusted colleague Jeff King (Tristram Coffin), Millard perfects a flying “rocket suit”–which the daring King then uses as a means of battling Dr. Vulcan, trying to keep his fellow-scientists’ inventions from falling into the hands of Vulcan’s gang, while also trying to discover the master villain’s identity; it soon becomes apparent that Vulcan must be one of the four other surviving members of Science Associates.
King of the Rocket Men marked the debut of Republic’s last really imaginative and iconic creation: the flying hero–here called Rocket Man—who would figure in three later Republic productions (two serials and a serial/television hybrid) under various names. This first flight of the rocket-suited crimefighter is also the freshest and the best; later treatments would not only rely heavily on stock footage from King of the Rocket Men but also place the hero in science-fiction adventures a little too fantastic for Republic’s ever-shrinking budgets. King, however, manages to be an exciting sci-fi adventure while staying within the bounds of late-Republic believability.
While most of Republic’s post-war science-fiction serials (The Invisible Monster, Radar Men from the Moon) relied on would-be conquerors for villainy, King’s writers (Royal Cole, Sol Shor, and William Lively) make their heavy more practical; Dr. Vulcan is only interested in using his (and others’) scientific know-how to become wealthy–not in ruling the nation or the world. This treatment of the villain happily saves King’s screenplay from the absurdities that crept into both of the above-mentioned serials—in which power-mad heavies with super-scientific pretensions embarrassingly tried to finance their ambitious schemes by robbing banks or committing other mundane crimes; Vulcan’s scientific schemes are threatening enough to make him a worthwhile villain, but not so grandiose that they can’t be believably carried off on a serial budget.
The script also avoids turning into a repetitive tug-of-war over one or more coveted scientific MacGuffins; the first half of the serial does feature a few gadget thefts by the villains, but the narrative remains firmly focused on King’s attempts to trap Dr. Vulcan–and the villains’ attempts to discover Rocket Man’s secret identity. Even after the lethal weapon known as the Decimator is introduced as a new bone of contention at the halfway point, the narrative still alternates between the heavies’ efforts to steal it and the heroes’ ongoing unraveling of the Vulcan riddle. King was the last Republic serial to give its “mystery villain” angle such prominence, and its writers handle the device with above-average finesse, coming up with effective but logical ways to cast suspicion on innocent parties and adding the novel twist of having the heroine and the sidekick briefly suspect the hero of being the villain, which leads to some interesting plot complications in one chapter.
Above: Tristram Coffin (standing) questions the board of suspects at Science Associates; the red herrings, from left to right, are Stanley Price, I. Stanford Jolley, Ted Adams, and Marshall Bradford; House Peters Jr.’s hands are visible on the far right.
King’s fight scenes are smoothly handled by director Fred Brannon, with Tom Steele doubling hero Tristram Coffin and Dale Van Sickel doubling action heavy Don Haggerty; many of the fights receive an additional lift from the presence of David Sharpe, who plays a recurring henchman and adds a few gymnastics to the more grounded brawling of Steele and Van Sickel. Among the standouts are the Chapter One conference-room fight, the fistfight/gunfight in the same room (darkened this time) in Chapter Three, the Chapter Six sidewalk brawl, and the climactic farmhouse fight in the final chapter. Carey Loftin doubles sidekick House Peters Jr., with Bud Wolfe, Bert LeBaron, and Eddie Parker also in attendance. While Steele handles the hero’s fight scenes, it’s Sharpe who doubles Coffin at the beginning and end of each of the flying sequences, using his energetic leaps to make Rocket Man’s takeoffs and landings very convincing; his tumble through a window to begin the aforementioned farmhouse fight is particularly good.
Above left: Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel battle in the background, while Dave Sharpe (taking Van Sickel’s place as Don Haggerty’s double in this scene) leaps on Carey Loftin in the foreground. Above right: Sharpe, doubling Rocket Man, makes a head-first window entrance.
When Rocket Man is actually in flight, the Lydecker Brothers take over from Sharpe, using the same simple but wonderfully effective dummy-on-wires technique they first utilized in Adventures of Captain Marvel; as in Marvel, the audience can immediately see that Rocket Man is physically present in the air above Iverson’s Ranch and the serial’s other outdoor locations—not artificially superimposed onto a background via animation, process-screen photography, or modern CGI. The Rocket Man is, in fact, even more convincing than Captain Marvel, due to his face-concealing helmet; the barefaced Captain Marvel had to keep his papier-mâché countenance a certain distance from the camera, but Rocket Man can zoom directly and dramatically into the lens without looking phony in the slightest (as in his attack on the villains’ escaping truck in the first chapter).
The hero’s pursuit of said truck is the first Rocket Man sequence in the serial–and one of the most memorable, with the hero jetting cross-country to astound the fleeing henchmen and swooping down to fight them in the back of their moving truck; Rocket Man’s subsequent chase after a lethal runaway missile is equally exciting. The hero’s attempt to rescue the heroine from an out-of-control plane in Chapter Five is also good, as is his flight to confront the heavies at her apartment building in Chapter Eight (this sequence features a great downward shot from Rocket Man’s point-of-view, as he flies into the villains’ pistol fire). Other flying scenes—like the airborne chase after a car in Chapter Two—are less spectacular but no less entertaining; in fact, thanks to the superlative effects, it’s interesting to watch the hero in action even when he’s doing something as relatively mundane as flying out to reconnoiter the villains’ hideout.
The above-mentioned Chapter Eight scene, with Rocket Man flying head-on into the heavies’ guns, is the serial’s most outstanding chapter ending, although its resolution is fairly uninspired. The hero’s gassing inside his car—as Dr. Vulcan’s voice taunts him—is just as well-shot, almost as memorable, and is resolved more imaginatively. Rocket Man’s fall from the sky after knocking out the missile at the end of Chapter One is good, but it’s rather lazy of the writers to use a variation on it (his fall from a window) only a few episodes later (to close Chapter Four). Most of the other endings are largely made up of well-integrated stock footage, the best of the batch being the Chapter Seven molting-rock sequence—which features some first-rate new shots of the protagonists trapped by flowing lava (originally hailing from SOS Coast Guard and Captain Marvel). Other cliffhangers rely more heavily on borrowed footage—but the only flawed use of stock occurs in the final chapter, which has Dr. Vulcan using the Decimator in an attempted annihilation of New York City; although the frightening shots of floods and collapsing buildings (originally from the RKO feature Deluge) are skillfully blended with the new scenes, the destruction shown is so catastrophic that it’s hard to accept that the city has been saved and has only suffered partial damage, as the script would have us believe.
Usual villain Tristram Coffin is an offbeat but excellent leading man; his graying hair and shrewdly intelligent face make him extremely believable as a brilliant and experienced scientist, but he’s still physically sturdy enough to be convincing in the action scenes. Suave but authoritative in manner and voice, he’s also very credible when investigating potential Vulcan suspects or slyly concealing his own identity as Rocket Man; he even manages to overcome his naturally aloof screen personality enough to be cheerful (if still urbane) when interacting with his character’s friends. James Craven, like Coffin, does a excellent job of playing against type as the heroic Professor Millard; his confident explanations of pseudo-scientific principles are masterful, and he also does a great job of conveying both a grim determination to track down Vulcan and a brooding frustration with his forcibly sequestered existence.
Mae Clarke, who plays reporter Glenda Thomas, is even more oddly cast than Coffin; she had been a prominent (and attractive) player in 1930s A-films like Frankenstein and The Public Enemy, but had reached middle age by the time of King’s release. However, what she lacks in youthful good looks she makes up in acting skill, rattling off her go-getting character’s dialogue with an energy and assurance beyond the capabilities of many serial ingénues. House Peters Jr., as Science Associates’ public-relations man, serves as both her partner-in-sleuthing and Coffin’s at different times; in stark contrast to Clarke, he’s so laid-back as to sound decidedly soporific at times—particularly during his long chunk of expository dialogue in the first chapter. He manages to summon up a little more enthusiasm in other scenes, but is generally under-energized throughout; his is easily the weakest of the serial’s performances.
Stocky, craggy-faced Don Haggerty–later a first-rate television character actor–is perfect as action heavy Tony Dirken, his cynical smirk and cold voice giving a menacing turn even to non-threatening dialogue. John Holland uses his smooth stage-trained delivery to sound both refined and sinister as the voice of Dr. Vulcan—particularly when taunting two scientist victims in Chapter One or during his similar baiting of the trapped hero in Chapter Ten. The villain is not given a concrete visual appearance to go along with Holland’s excellent vocals, but the shadow on the wall that accompanies his appearances lends the character a touch of panache; overall, he ranks as Republic’s last actually memorable mystery villain.
The Vulcan suspects are memorable too—the mild-mannered but furtive Ted Adams, the owlishly grouchy Marshall Bradford, the slick and mellifluous-sounding I. Stanford Jolley, and the glowering and rather deranged-looking Stanley Price. Douglas Evans plays the blustering, self-important “Civil Defense Chairman” of New York City in the final chapter; Mathis’ Valley of the Cliffhangers states that this the character was originally designated as the Mayor, but changed to a non-existent functionary, presumably to avoid stepping on any real-life toes—although his boastful references to “this administration” still make him sound decidedly mayoral. The stunt team members play assorted thugs, with Van Sickel also getting a good non-villainous bit as a murdered professor. Dave Sharpe—as mentioned above—reappears almost often enough to qualify as a secondary action heavy, and delivers his few lines quite handily.
Without its flying scenes, King of the Rocket Men would have been a few cuts above the average late Republic serial, but still not terribly memorable. On the other hand, a serial filled with flying scenes but featuring a less well-balanced screenplay might have been memorable, but would also have come off as decidedly silly at times–like most of the Rocket Man’s later screen adventures. However, thanks to the happy combination of those flying scenes and that balanced screenplay—and the efforts of the director, stuntmen, and actors—King of the Rocket Men emerges as a definite winner, easily the best-produced of Republic’s space-age thrillers.