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Up, up and away!
on 24 June 2011
Although King of the Rocket Men has the reputation of being one of the best Republic serials, it really doesn't have that much going for it to raise it above the average. Its chief assets are some great car and truck crashes off cliffs and piers and the genuinely impressive flying sequences - the surprisingly convincing long shots of the Rocket Man flying across hills or towards and over the camera on truly invisible wires will have you wondering just how they managed it. Small wonder Republic would recycle them (and the rocket suit) a few years later for Radar Men from the Moon. The plot is the standard-issue serial number with a mysterious villain trying to get his hands on secret inventions and constantly thwarted by the anonymous Rocket Man, though for novelty value there's more than one person in the rocket suit in one episode: Superman could have saved a lot of running around if he had a buddy who could stand in for him to avoid suspicion like that.
Tristram Coffin is an unlikely hero, looking more like a bank manager than an amateur detective-cum-superhero, while Mae Clarke, a long way and a lot of miles from her encounter with James Cagney and that grapefruit, is an equally unlikely leading lady. There's not a lot of ingenuity in the plotting and most of the situations are well-used stock ones, but at little more than 13 minutes an episode it never outstays its welcome. It has a lot of the problems that plagued most serials, not least cliffhangers that are invariably solved the following chapter by a previously unseen shot of our hero jumping from the crashing car/exploding truck/etc at the last minute (this is the serial - sorry, chapter play - that Annie Wilkes complains about in Misery) while it takes recycling footage to extremes in Chapter Ten, which is almost completely made up of flashback highlights from Chapters One and Two. It's certainly not as much fun as The Rocketeer, which it clearly inspired, but it does break with tradition in the final chapter by having the villain successfully destroy most of New York in a surprisingly lavish and spectacular finale that looks like it ate up most of the serial's budget but is actually stock footage from long-lost 1933 disaster movie Deluge (an American film, it now only exists in a dubbed Italian version).
Cheesy Flicks' DVD offers good prints of all twelve chapters, although there is a curious bit of unintentionally repeated footage in episode two as if they'd used two separate prints for the master and spliced them together at the wrong point. It's not the only error on the disc: the chapter titles on the menu are wrong, but the episodes themselves are in the right order. Extras are limited to appropriately cheesy 50s intermission ads, a brief promo for the MPAA's rating system introduced by Julie Andrews (assuring us of a decent and responsible motion picture industry) and some less than pristine trailers for The Headless Ghost, Robot Monster and Jesse James Rides Again.