blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon)

King of the Rocket Men isn’t a long serial. It’s only twelve chapters and almost one of them is a recap of the first three chapters. The final chapter spends most of its time setting up a big showdown, with the grand action finale–at least the grand action finale not recycling disaster footage from another, older film (Deluge)–less than four minutes. The grand action finale, the one shot for Rocket Men, is just some more fisticuffs. The serial has a lot of fisticuffs.

Incidentally, there are no Rocket Men. There’s a single Rocket Man. The title is a play on the name of his alter ego–Jeff King (Tristram Coffin). Until one of the bad guys makes a wisecrack in the latter half of the serials, “King of the Rocket Men” is the serial’s best joke. Screenwriters Royal Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor aren’t much for humor. They’re also not much for character development. Or logic. Or realism. Rocket Men isn’t about the script, it’s about the Rocket Man. And–for a while–the serial does deliver itself some Rocket Man.

So long as there’s enough Rocket Man action, everything’s fine. The formula’s simple–Coffin observes some trouble, goes to his car, gets the Rocket Man outfit out of the truck, flies off the save the day. Director Brannon and editors Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr build to the “Rocket Man to the rescue” sequences pretty darn well. It’s exciting. At least until it becomes clear Coffin’s a lousy superhero as Rocket Man and a terrible investigator at his day job.

Coffin works at a place called Science Associates, somewhere in Southern California. The location is never mentioned but the filming locations are obvious. The scientists of Science Associates are the finest ever assembled, working diligently to make the world a better place. Sure, they only produce weapons of mass destruction but… well, no. Rocket Men never explains how weapons of mass destruction are going to make the world a better place.

The serial starts with evil scientist Dr. Vulcan killing Science Associates staff; he wants their work for his own evil purposes. The serial doesn’t reveal Dr. Vulcan until the very end, which is way too long a wait. There’s no dramatic impact at the reveal. Until then he’s always shown in silhouette, just a man in a fedora in an office building with two radio towers, controlling his attacks on Coffin, Science Associates, and Rocket Man.

Coffin’s a scientist–who never does science onscreen–and the jack-of-all-trades at Science Associates. It’s his job to get to the bottom of the Dr. Vulcan threat. Coffin’s got a sidekick, House Peters Jr. Peters seems to have less scientific knowledge than Coffin, but he’s in charge of handling public relations. Except the only reporter who cares is Mae Clarke. She’s the only woman in the serial. She occasionally gets to be damsel in distress. It’s infrequent as she’s Peter’s sidekick, not Coffin’s love interest. Coffin’s too busy trying to save the world through weapons of mass destruction.

With Dr. Vulcan a mystery until the end, the serial uses chief henchman Don Haggerty as the main villain. He carries out Dr. Vulcan’s plans, getting in constant fist fights and shoot-outs with Coffin. He usually overpowers or outsmarts Coffin. It’s rare Coffin succeeds in a rescue or attempt to foil the evil scientist madman’s schemes. He’s really, really bad at his jobs. Except making power sources (offscreen) for weapons of mass destruction. He excels at that task.

Even though his character ought to be a complete rube, Coffin’s pretty good in the lead. He’s got no real acting to do–he doesn’t even get to express surprise or distress when Dr. Vulcan pulls one over on him–but Coffin’s sturdy. He makes it all seem a little less absurd.

Most of the serial is Science Associates staff getting picked off and Coffin becoming more and more suspicious one of his colleagues might be Dr. Vulcan. It takes him a while. Like I said, he’s not bright. Then it’s just about him failing to save colleagues from getting picked off. It doesn’t really matter, the most personable one is Ted Adams, who’s only personable because he gets to be a jerk. The rest of the scientists are extremely bland. When Stanley Price gets more material–he’s about the only one–it’s only temporary. He gets a few scenes then it’s back to being a piece of furniture.

At least he’s not second-billed furniture like Clarke. Clarke’s reporter works at a science magazine. And her apartment quickly becomes a hangout for Coffin and Peters in their quest to foil Dr. Vulcan. Oddly, it does not become a hangout for Coffin and James Craven, who are also out to foil Dr. Vulcan, because Coffin keeps his two partnerships separate. Clarke, for example, has no idea Coffin is Rocket Man, while Craven is the one who made the suit. Peters is sort of a bridge, sort of not.

Besides the general competence of the production, Rocket Men is all about the Rocket Man. There are some great flying effects, some exciting cliffhangers (no exciting cliffhanger resolutions, however), and a lot of thrilling action. The Rocket Man flight effects–sure, there’s composite shots, but the Rocket Men effects team also swooshed a life-size Rocket Man dummy around the Southern California foothills on wires. The result is superb. It’s so good it doesn’t even matter when they start recycling the same shots over and over again.

For the first third of the serial, Rocket Men keeps building up good momentum. Then it starts having bad chapters (there are at least two pointless ones in addition to the recap chapter), Coffin’s blaise stupidity gets worse, Clarke stops even getting to be a damsel in distress–she’s just along for the ride–and the picking off of Dr. Vulcan suspects turns tedious instead of suspenseful. The competent production, sturdy (if underwhelming) performances, Rocket Man effects, and Don Haggerty keep it going.

The last chapter is pretty dumb. Maybe if it weren’t so dumb, King of the Rocket Men would have a more royal stature. Instead, it manages to adequately thrill. Some of the time.

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