Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe, has always posed a classification conundrum for your editor. It isn’t a true chapterplay–being composed of twelve lengthy, cliffhanger-free, basically self-contained episodes instead of shorter overlapping chapters–but it’s closely related enough to the genre that it doesn’t seem right to completely ignore it in an overview of the sound serial form. After years of vacillating on this question, I’ve finally decided to give Cody its own review, encouraged by the new availability of an excellent print of the production–but, since its format is different from that of a true serial, the review will be formatted rather differently than my other pieces. However, I will continue to omit full summations of Cody from my biographies of the serial actors who appeared in it; it’s just not serial-like enough to warrant additional mention there.
Production Background: Commando Cody was originally conceived by Republic Pictures as a television show; the studio was hoping to grab a piece of the action from early sci-fi TV series such as Captain Video, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. However, Republic quickly found out that television production entailed dealing with situations that had never arisen during movie-serial production; clashes with actors’ unions and technicians’ unions over possible residuals stalled work on the series after three episodes were filmed in 1952. Republic resumed production early in 1953, shooting nine more episodes which brought the series up to the standard movie-serial chapter count; the studio then released this quasi-serial to theaters. The series eventually did wind up on television, though; it began airing in syndication in 1955, after the residuals issues were finally worked out.
General Criticisms: From a production standpoint, Republic was definitely better-equipped to tackle science-fiction subject-matter than most other early TV studios were. The Lydecker Brothers’ miniature planets and spaceships, an array of colorful and relatively believable life-size props, and the trademark Republic “rocketman” effect give the Cody series a lot more visual strength than most other early attempts at screen sci-fi. The series’ low budget still hampers it at times, however; as in so many later Republic serials, the cast of characters is almost comically small–the villains rarely manage to put more than two or three henchmen in the field at a time, and the heroes invariably tackle every challenge, no matter how formidable, with a team consisting merely of two men and one woman.
Above left: Cody (Judd Holdren, in uniform) and his small crew (Richard Crane and Aline Towne) aboard their spaceship. Above right: The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) and his assistant (Gloria Pall) in their well-supplied but sparsely-occupied laboratory.
While I still hold that Republic’s best and most interesting version of its iconic flying-suited hero was its first–Tristram Coffin’s Jeff King/Rocketman in King of the Rocketmen–their decision to promote the flying-suited “Commando Cody” character from Radar Men from the Moon instead of Rocketman was entirely understandable. The alliterative name has a marketable ring to it, and the idea of a scientist officially charged by the government with protecting the Earth from extraterrestrial threats makes a solid basis for an ongoing weekly series.
However, Republic’s producers did not bring Radar Men’s Commando Cody, George Wallace, to television; instead, they retained the services of Judd Holdren, who’d already established his sci-fi credentials in Sam Katzman’s movie-serial version of Captain Video. As in his serials, Holdren in Cody does an effective job of snapping out urgent commands and pseudo-scientific jargon with stern assurance, but rarely displays anything in the way of affability or emotion–and is also prevented from ever sounding quite as commanding as he should, due to a pronounced Midwestern drawl which excessively softens the edges of his voice. As a result of his sternness and vocal blandness, Holdren comes off as a serviceable lead, but never a particularly compelling or interesting one. He’s further hampered by a Lone-Ranger-like mask, which is briefly explained (rather unconvincingly) by the statement that Cody’s work is so top-secret that not even his closest aides can be allowed to know what he actually looks like. Supposedly, this masking was prompted by the thought that, if the Cody show became a hit, it would be easy for Republic to replace Holdren in case he asked for a higher salary; on screen, though, the mask merely serves to further depersonalize an actor already lacking in personality.
Cody’s core supporting cast is stronger than its star; Aline Towne, as Cody’s assistant Joan Gilbert (the same character she played in Radar Men from the Moon), turns in a low-key but skilled and very likable performance, and receives more screen time than she did in most of her full-fledged serials. She helps to sell Cody’s science-fictional gimmickry through her calmly down-to-earth manner, while also conveying a quiet but strong cheerfulness that furnishes a much-needed counterweight to Holdren’s generally inflexible seriousness.
William Schallert, one of the greatest of all television character actors, plays the role of Cody’s other aide Ted Richards (portrayed by William Bakewell in Radar Men) in the series’ first three episodes. Schallert’s underplayed, naturalistic acting style allows him to make his character seem surprisingly real and dimensional despite bland scripting. However, due to the combination of Schallert’s muted acting, Towne’s equally quiet performing style, and Holdren’s colorlessness, the aforesaid first three episodes suffer severely at times from lack of energy. Thus, it proved fortuitous that Republic was unable to bring back Schallert for the nine later episodes of Cody; instead, they replaced him with Richard Crane as “Dick Preston.” Crane’s jovial, occasionally boisterous characterization of this new sidekick makes him a much more effective contrast to Holdren and Towne; in fact, he conveys so much more personality than Holdren does that one wishes he’d been cast as Cody instead.
Gregory Gaye, formerly Republic’s Flying Disc Man from Mars, is quite good as the Cody series’ recurring villain, the Ruler. His Russian accent gives a nicely alien tone to his lines, and his ability to be alternately crafty, urbane, and coldly arrogant makes him very effective as a would-be intergalactic tyrant; he does a particularly good job with the Ruler’s periodic power-mad speeches, making them sound both intense and controlled. The Ruler, like the alien villains in Republic’s serials, employs Earthling intermediaries; most of these don’t survive from episode to episode, save for Lyle Talbot as Baylor, a middle-management henchman who radios lesser heavies’ reports to the Ruler, and who frequently helps to explain the Ruler’s scheme of the week to his cohorts and to the audience. Talbot’s characteristic smug dignity makes his periodic scenes fun to watch, even though he really doesn’t get to do much; he’s particularly amusing when he’s dismissing, with unshakable complacency, the fears of his nervous aide Eddie Foster, who repeatedly (and understandably) worries about the effect that the Ruler’s plans for freezing, burning, or otherwise destroying Earth might have on the Ruler’s Earthling associates.
Craig Kelly portrays Cody’s governmental superior Henderson throughout the series, and perceptibly shifts from playing the character as a coolly dignified type to playing him as a snappish, fretful, and even somewhat self-important figure, more in line with the “pompous space bureaucrats” of the later Star Trek than the unflappable officials of Republic’s serials. Kenneth MacDonald appears in several episodes as the superintendent of the plant that powers Cody’s “cosmic dust blanket,” and stuntman Dale Van Sickel pops up in almost every episode as the security guard who keeps watch on Cody’s rocketship. Van Sickel, of course, also provides the stuntwork in the series, along with Tom Steele, John Daheim, Fred Graham, and other familiar stuntmen. Roy Barcroft’s voice is heard frequently throughout the series–as both villainous and non-villainous broadcasters, guards, etc.
The Episodes: Since Cody differs from a true serial, both in the length of its installments and in their essentially self-contained plotlines, and since those installments are the work of several different writers and directors, it seems appropriate to cover the series’ twelve episodes on an individual rather than a collective basis, unlike the chapters of an actual chapterplay.
Episode 1: Enemies of the Universe.
The first installment of the series sets up the Commando Cody show’s basic plot premise. Cody is a former wartime commando (hence the nickname) and brilliant scientist who serves as Earth’s official “sky marshal,” protecting the planet against threats from outer space. He has developed a “radioactive cosmic dust blanket” which encircles the Earth and keeps out unauthorized spaceships, rogue meteors, and other threats, but the interplanetary dictator known as the Ruler is determined to penetrate this defense and conquer Earth. Cody, with the aid of his new assistants Joan Gilbert and Ted Richards, plans to build a spaceship to investigate the source of recent attacks on Earth, but the Ruler orders his Earthling agents (Peter Brocco, Chick Collins, Zon Murray) to sabotage Cody’s project. Enemies, penned by Republic’s sole post-1950 serial screenwriter, Ronald Davidson, uses a fantastic premise as an excuse to launch a much more mundane set of skirmishes, like so many of Davidson’s other scripts. The action doesn’t leave the Earth, and the pacing is notably slower than it would have been in a serial–since Davidson has to stretch his material to fill a thirty-minute episode instead of one of the thirteen-minute chapters standard in Republic’s post-war serials. Director Fred Brannon stages some serviceable action scenes–an office fistfight, a barnyard shootout, a cave shootout–and someone in the prop department provides an amusing in-joke (a portrait of Roy Barcroft through which the villains spy on the heroes), but the series’ inaugural episode remains pretty dull going overall.
Episode 2: Atomic Peril.
The Ruler sends an agent (Stanley Waxman) to Earth in a spaceship that is destroyed by the cosmic dust blanket but which deposits its passenger safely on terra firma. This agent joins forces with the Ruler’s Earthling agent Dr. Varney (Peter Brocco); the two then pose as friendly scientists and win Cody’s confidence by providing him with a valuable new extraterrestrial element. Their goal is to steal Cody’s spaceship–which, unlike the Ruler’s ships, is capable of penetrating the dust blanket. Peril benefits from a good performance by Waxman (also seen in Zombies of the Stratosphere) as the smoothly saturnine guest-star villain, and from several scenes set aboard Cody’s spaceship–nicely realized through a good interior set and through a Lydecker miniature. That said, director Fred Brannon is unable to milk much tension out of a protracted but static sequence in which Cody tries to repair the damaged ship in midair; this sequence, however, does provide nice foreshadowing for the climactic action. All told, the second episode is an improvement over the first, but still rather flat. Ronald Davidson again does scripting duties.
Episode 3: Cosmic Vengeance.
The Ruler’s agents (led this time by I. Stanford Jolley) plot to turn Cody’s cosmic dust blanket against him, by coating his spaceship with chemicals that will cause the blanket to destroy it. Despite their schemes, however, Cody is able to journey to Venus and destroy a Ruler outpost there. An improvement over the two previous episodes, Vengeance features a solid fistfight sequence with Tom Steele, Johnny Daheim, and Zon Murray, and a finale that’s actually somewhat exciting, with Cody and his crew narrowly escaping a Venusian tank. The episode also trots out Republic’s familiar melting-mountain effect as part of the climactic sequence. I. Stanford Jolley, as always, is a welcome presence in the villain’s ranks, and Gregory Gaye gets a good villainous gloating scene later in the episode. Fred Brannon directs, Ronald Davidson writes.
Episode 4: Nightmare Typhoon.
The Ruler’s agents create massive rainstorms on Earth through ultra-scientific cloud-seeding; the Ruler informs Earth that the planet will be destroyed by flood unless the cosmic dust blanket which is keeping out his invasion ships is removed. Cody, Joan, and their new ally Dick Preston take to the skies to eliminate the Ruler ship responsible for the rain. Richard Crane, Lyle Talbot, and blonde knockout Gloria Pall (who plays the Ruler’s secretary/assistant) all join the series in this episode–which is fairly pedestrian, but which does give the Ruler a truly impressive and apocalyptic scheme. This scheme is shown in action by means of stock footage from the RKO feature Deluge (also utilized in Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. and King of the Rocketmen). The climactic fight between Cody’s ship and the Ruler’s ship could have been a lot more effective if Republic had sprung for some miniature work of the battling spacecrafts, but the raygun-turret mockup used during the sequence is at least visually interesting. The mid-episode sequence in which Cody flies to intercept a missile is well-done. Ronald Davidson writes again, but Harry Keller (later an A-western director at Universal and a television director at Disney) takes over the directorial reins from Fred Brannon. William Fawcett pops up as an apple-selling Ruler spy.
Episode 5: War of the Space Giants.
The Ruler develops a raygun that allows him to beam toxins through the dust blanket, and prepares to ravage the Earth with germ warfare. Cody must cut off the source of the element that powers the raygun, in order to save his planet. Although its title is misleading and meaningless, Giants is the series’ best episode thus far; by this point, Ronald Davidson appears to have adjusted to the unique episode runtimes, and he spaces out the action scenes well. Franklin Adreon also directs these scenes handily; they include another spaceship duel, the capture of a Ruler spaceship by means of an early version of the Star Trek “tractor beam,” a running raygun fight, a raygun shootout in a mine, and a nice hairbreadth-escape finale. The episode also continues the commendable practice of allowing the Ruler to menace the very survival of the Earth, instead of merely having him send his minions to steal or sabotage in the fashion of most of Republic’s other extraterrestrial heavies. Rick Vallin and Keith Richards both appear as soldiers of the Ruler.
Above left: Villains Eddie Foster (standing) and Lyle Talbot prepare to inoculate themselves against the coming space plague. Above right: Richard Crane and Judd Holdren mount a charge during a raygun battle.
Episode 6: Destroyers of the Sun.
The Ruler decides to wipe out Earth’s entire solar system as an example to any other planets who decide to oppose his power; from a station on a planet just outside that solar system, his agents begin darkening Earth’s sun. As temperatures drop drastically on Earth, Cody plans to fly into space to end the threat to the Sun, but first must find out why his own dust blanket is suddenly blocking him from leaving Earth’s atmosphere. The second genuinely good episode in a row features yet another nicely apocalyptic threat, and cleverly uses the ubiquitous dust blanket to put a new wrinkle in the plot. Ronald Davidson and Franklin Adreon again write and direct; Howard and Theodore Lydecker provide an excellent new miniature for the Ruler’s sun-destroying base (disappointingly, however, we don’t get to see it actually explode). Johnny Daheim, playing a traitorous guard at the dust-blanket power plant, has a brief but good fight with Dale Van Sickel (doubling Judd Holdren); Marshall Reed is another guard. As in Republic’s serials of the period, most of the pieces of allegedly comic banter that close out Cody’s episodes are pretty weak, but the final punchline of this installment (delivered by Richard Crane) actually works, as does some quipping by Aline Towne a little earlier in the episode.
Episode 7: Robot Monster From Mars.
The Ruler sends the familiar Republic robot to steal the papers containing the secret of Cody’s dust blanket; the robbery is thwarted by Cody, but the Ruler’s henchmen manage to capture Dick Preston, who is then zapped with a mind-control ray and forced to steal the desired papers. Cody has to fly to a Ruler-held planet to rescue both the papers and his aide. Although the robot is the title character, it really only figures in the action at the beginning and the end (when Aline Towne’s Joan amusingly sics it onto the Ruler himself); the plot surrounding Dick Preston takes center stage instead. This storyline provides a fine change-of-pace from the usual world-destruction plots, and even furnishes a few embryonic character moments that should have been developed further–Cody’s refusal to believe Dick guilty of treason, despite the blustering Henderson’s insistence, and Cody and Joan’s relief and pride when they realize that Dick has managed to outwit the Ruler and signal his location to them. A better actor than Holdren would have done more with these moments, of course, but they’re still a welcome touch. Davidson and Adreon are again the writing-directing team; stuntmen/actors Sandy Sanders and John Cason play henchmen, and participate in a good chase/fight with Dale Van Sickel (doubling Holdren) early in the episode.
Episode 8: The Hydrogen Hurricane.
The Ruler causes an explosion on the Moon which moves the satellite out of its orbit, causes massive storms on Earth, and makes the protective dust blanket start to buckle under the atmospheric overload. This catastrophic occurrence is only the first of many scheduled lunar explosions, and, as usual, it’s up to Cody to journey into outer space in order to avert the Earth’s imminent doom. Penned by Barry Shipman, one of Republic’s top Golden Age serial writers, and directed by Harry Keller, Hurricane features one of the best opening sequences of the series, in which strong camera work and suitably worried acting by the leads (even Holdren) put across the impending threat to the Earth more thoroughly than any similar threat in any other episode. The balance of the episode is good too; Cody’s emergency repair of the malfunctioning dust-blanket power plant is written, acted, and shot strongly enough to give the sequence some actual suspense, and the showdown on the Moon is well-handled too. The closing gag is weak, but Shipman inserts a surprisingly good exchange of humorous banter into an earlier portion of the episode, during which Holdren manages to effectively deliver a deadpan wisecrack.
Episode 9: Solar Sky Raiders.
The Ruler hatches another “gruesome plan” (to quote Dick Preston) to subdue the Earth, this time by multiplying suns in the sky and causing heat waves on Earth. Writer Barry Shipman gives Gregory Gaye an excellently ominous speech in which the Ruler announces his newest onslaught, and Harry Keller does a nice job of directing a sequence in which Cody shadows henchmen Lane Bradford and Fred Graham through a dust storm; the subsequent warehouse fight is also quite good, and the visual of a sky full of suns is memorable. However, the ease with which Cody and his spaceship destroy the threat at the climax, and the general lack of tension during this climactic sequence, makes Raiders ultimately feel a bit weaker than the four preceding episodes.
Episode 10: SOS Ice Age.
A Ruler agent (Bill Henry) is safely dropped through the dust blanket, and implements a plan called “Phase 3”–which entails using a super-magnet to tilt the Earth off its axis and towards Saturn; as a result, half of the displaced planet begins to burn, the other half to freeze. This time, instead of rocketing into space, Cody and his aides fly to a frozen portion of Earth to destroy the magnet responsible for the current catastrophe. Ice Age is a solid effort by the Keller/Shipman team, featuring a well-done sequence in which Cody’s previously untouchable spaceship gets neutralized by the magnetic beam and crashes, a fine fight between Cody and Bill Henry’s character, and a good final race to escape the area of the magnet before it’s destroyed by a time-delayed explosion. Arctic stock footage from the feature film Call of the Yukon, also seen in the serial Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders, comes into play at several points here.
Episode 11: Lost in Outer Space.
The Ruler plots to steal Cody’s spaceship–which is specially equipped with technology that allows it to pass in and out of the cosmic dust blanket; by building duplicate ships with the same technology, the Ruler should finally be able to invade and conquer Earth. To this end, he has an agent (Maurtiz Hugo) poses as a defector from the Ruler-occupied planet of Mercury; this agent wins the trust of Cody and his crew–who set off to Mercury with their treacherous new “ally” in tow. Lost is the weakest episode since the third installment of Cody; too much of the action takes place within the confines of Cody’s ship, and the fairly blatant double-crossing efforts by Mauritz Hugo don’t provide nearly as much suspense as the imminent threats to the Earth in most of the preceding episodes. The sequence in which Hugo surreptitiously cuts a safety rope while Cody is making repairs outside the rocket falls more or less flat; the final fistfight inside the out-of-control spaceship is not bad, however. Lee Roberts and John Crawford play other Ruler henchmen; Harry Keller directs again, but Ronald Davidson takes over the writing from Barry Shipman.
Episode 12: Captives of the Zero Hour.
The final episode of the Cody series picks up right where the last one left off, with Cody forcing a captured Ruler officer (John Crawford) to summon the Ruler to Mercury, using Cody’s spaceship as bait. A Mercurian resistance group first hinders, then helps, Cody, as he tries and (ultimately) succeeds in capturing his arch-nemesis. This climactic episode is sadly unexciting throughout, centering as it does around a protracted stand-off between Cody’s forces and the Ruler’s on Mercury. This stand-off is punctuated by some spaceship bombings, fights, rocketsuit flights, and chases that keep things from getting too dull, but these sequences–though handily staged by Harry Keller–can’t save Ronald Davidson’s disappointing script. One can’t blame Davidson for failing to kill off the Ruler–since Republic producers were presumably still holding out hopes of an ongoing series–but he should have done something to make the villain’s Waterloo a little more dramatic. Joanne Jordan is the Queen of Mercury, and Denver Pyle is one of the Ruler’s men.
Concluding Thoughts: The Commando Cody series definitely represents a missed opportunity, overall; it’s unsurprising that Republic failed to turn it into a successful TV show. Two of the chief weaknesses of all later Republic serials–thin characterizations and painfully undernourished casts–dog it throughout its run. Had it continued longer, it would also have been hampered by over-reliance on stock footage; King of the Rocketmen and Radar Men from the Moon provided Cody’s twelve episodes with more than enough shots of Cody’s spaceship and the rocketsuit in action, but these shots would have worn out their welcome well before the end of a thirty-episode full season.
Still, there are enough interesting ideas and effects scattered throughout the Cody series–particularly in episodes five through eight–to make it at least worth a watch for a Republic buff or a sci-fi devotee. The series also has enough good moments to make one wish that Republic had done more with it. Had its leading man been stronger, its budget a little higher, or its characters a little more developed, Cody might even have proved a television success, instead of becoming a failed experiment.
Acknowledgements: The production information about the Commando Cody series was derived from Jack Mathis’ book Republic Confidential, Volume 1: The Studio.