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Pinky (Sept. 29, 1949)

Pinky
Pinky (1949)
Directed by Elia Kazan
20th Century-Fox

Elia Kazan directed a lot of great movies. Pinky is not one of them, but there’s a great movie somewhere in there that’s struggling to get out.

The biggest problem with the film is that Jeanne Crain, the actress who plays Patricia “Pinky” Johnson, is wildly miscast.

Pinky is based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s 1947 novel Quality, which is about a light-skinned African-American girl who “passes” as white.

Crain is as white as white can be, and to accept her as the granddaughter of the character played by Ethel Waters requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Crain’s physical appearance is only part of the problem, however. Her performance is never convincing either.

Pinky is a character who was raised by her grandmother, Dicey (played by Waters), in the Deep South, but who passed herself off as white after she went north to study nursing. She has a fiancé, Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who has no idea about her racial background. When he finds out, he’s progressive enough to tell her it shouldn’t matter, but he acknowledges the racist and segregated world they live in. “It’s a tricky business,” he says to her. “You never know what exists deep down inside yourself.”

At no point in the film does Crain seem like she actually grew up in the Deep South community in which Dicey lives. It’s believable enough that she changed the way she spoke when she was “up North,” but at no point does her mannered demeanor crack, no matter how angry, scared, or sad she is.

Waters and Crain

Kazan knew that Crain was the wrong actress for the role, and probably made the best film he could with what he had to work with. The original director of Pinky, John Ford, dropped out of the project because he didn’t get along with Ethel Waters, and Crain was already cast as the lead when Kazan took over.

In the book Kazan on Film, he said, “The only things that were not mine, which are a hell of a lot, were the script and the cast. It was the last time I ever allowed that. Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her face was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is part of what ‘passing’ is.”

Much better choices for the role of Pinky would have been an actress who was actually mixed race, like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge (both pictured below), or Hilda Simms.

Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge

If a white actress absolutely had to be case as Pinky, Linda Darnell would have been a much better choice. Jennifer Jones or Yvonne De Carlo wouldn’t have been terrible choices, either.

Crain, on the other hand, seems like stunt casting done for shock value. For instance, Melba Wooley (Evelyn Varden), one of the most odious characters in the film, exclaims after meeting Pinky, “Why she’s whiter than I am! It just gives me the creeps.”

The only interesting thing about having Crain in the lead is that it draws attention to how inextricable the concept of race was from the social struture of the segregated South. For instance, when two police officers show up after Pinky is arguing with a black man and a black woman, their attitude to her is solicitous and deferential. But as soon as her “true” race is revealed, they manhandle her and throw handcuffs on her.

Later in the film, when Mrs. Wooley is unable to get a store cashier to interrupt her transaction with Pinky to pay attention to her, she raises her voice loud enough for the manager to hear and says, “Since when has it been your policy to wait on nigras before white folks?!”

Like every film directed by Elia Kazan, Pinky is worth seeing at least once. Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters both turn in excellent performances, and films from this era that tackle racism head-on are extremely rare. Still, after watching Pinky I was left considering what might have been.

Late Spring (Sept. 13, 1949)

Late Spring
Late Spring (1949)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shôchiku Eiga

Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Japanese cinema through the films of Akira Kurosawa. I was 11 years old, and my mother took me to see Ran (1985) at our local art house theater. Not long after, we saw Seven Samurai (1954) on the big screen.

I was hooked, and saw Rashomon (1950), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Dreams (1990) before I graduated high school. I also watched Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films about Musashi Miyamoto (1954-1956) that starred Toshiro Mifune.

At some point in my early adulthood, I realized that there was more to Japanese cinema than samurai and swordplay. Kurosawa himself made brilliant human dramas like Ikiru (1952) and contemporary police dramas like High and Low (1963), and he was just one director among many.

It’s become a cliche to say that Kurosawa was the “most Western” of Japanese filmmakers and that Yasujiro Ozu was the “most Japanese” of Japanese filmmakers, but there’s plenty of truth in it. Kurosawa drew inspiration from American westerns and French detective novels, while Ozu depicted Japanese family life without any fireworks or flashiness.

One of the most commonly mentioned aspects of Ozu’s directorial style is that he shot most of his interiors with a camera placed about three feet above the floor, which is the point of view of a person sitting on a tatami mat at home. Ozu framed his shots unpretentiously, and made the viewer of his films an unseen but unremarkable presence in the lives of his characters.

Wedding Day

Ozu began making films in the silent era. By the time he directed Late Spring, he’d made close to 40 movies.

Late Spring is based on Kazuo Hirotsu’s short novel Father and Daughter. Ozu wrote the screenplay with his frequent writing partner Kogo Noda.

The luminous actress Setsuko Hara, whom I last saw in the early Kurosawa film No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), plays Noriko Somiya, a 27-year-old who still lives at home with her father.

Her father, Shukichi Somiya, is played by Chishu Ryu. Both Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu appeared in many of Ozu’s films. Ryu worked with Ozu 33 times and Hara appeared in six of his films.

Noriko has a sunny disposition and is devoted to her father. She is charming, and gets along with everyone, but sees no reason why she should marry and leave her aging father to fend for himself (although she does seem to have romantic feelings for her father’s assistant, Shoichi Hattori, who is played by Jun Usami).

Father and Daughter

Her father desires to marry her off, but he is ambivalent. He loves her and doesn’t want to let her go, but children must marry and leave home. It is simply the way of the world.

On one level, Late Spring is a simple story of normal people living in a specific place and time, but on another level it is a timeless and universal story about change, aging, regret, and loneliness.

Unlike most American films, there are no solutions to anyone’s problems. No one is completely right or completely wrong. Late Spring isn’t a cri de coeur against the patriarchy, but it’s not a celebration of it either. The final reel of the film doesn’t feel calamitous or momentous, until the final minute, which is one of the most quietly devastating endings to a film I have ever seen.

Drink Coca Cola

After Late Spring, Setsuko Hara appeared in five more of Ozu’s postwar films. In her next two films for Ozu she also played a character named Noriko — Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) — and Chishu Ryu again played her father in both films. They weren’t meant to be exactly the same characters from film to film, but they were all thematically linked.

Unlike the filthy cesspool Kurosawa depicted in his postwar film Drunken Angel (1948), Ozu’s critique of the American occupation of Japan in Late Spring is much more subtle. But in typical Ozu fashion it’s haunting despite its simplicity. Was he the first filmmaker to use the ubiquitous Coca-Cola symbol to represent American military and social power? If he wasn’t, its use in Late Spring is the first I’ve seen.

Late Spring is a brilliant film. It’s only the second Ozu film I’ve seen (the first was Tokyo Story), but I’m looking forward to seeing many more.

On a personal note, I’ve written this entire review with my four-month-old daughter asleep in a baby carrier on my chest. I have no idea what the future will bring, but someday I will have to let her go. It’s a prospect both wonderful and terrifying.

Under Capricorn (Sept. 9, 1949)

Under Capricorn
Under Capricorn (1949)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

After directing The Paradine Case (1947) and Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock made Under Capricorn, and completed a hat trick of box office disappointments.

It’s not hard to see why Under Capricorn underperformed at the box office. Like nearly all of Hitchcock’s films, it’s a technical marvel, but it’s also a half-baked melodrama.

Under Capricorn is based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, which was adapted from Helen Simpson’s 1937 historical novel. It takes place in Australia in 1831, when Sydney was still a small port city full of ex-convicts. The new governor’s young cousin, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), arrives from Ireland, hoping to make his fortune. He’s quickly embroiled in a land-buying plot with the brusque Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Flusky’s criminal past is whispered about and hinted at, but Adare quickly learns that directly asking about anyone’s criminal past in New South Wales is taboo.

Cotten and Wilding

The loneliness of life in the outback has not been kind to Sam Flusky’s wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and when she first appears onscreen she looks like a ghost. She’s drunk, barefoot, and in her dressing gown. However, her exposure to Charles Adare quickly changes her, and she begins to take care of her appearance and show a renewed interest in life.

Like Rope, Under Capricorn was shot in Technicolor, and it’s a sumptuous film. There are a lot of bravura little touches, like a tracking shot that briskly follows Adare down a long hallway and through two doorways in the governor’s mansion. This is followed by a slower tracking shot of Adare as he slinks outside Flusky’s estate, peeping in open doors. Hitchcock’s camera, operated by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is lissome, and flows through the spaces of Flusky’s home like water, in and out of rooms, following first one character, then another.

There are also some lovely visual metaphors. When Henrietta happily reminisces with Adare about their youth together, the film cuts to Flusky, his face perfectly framed by a double candle holder, which resembles horns, the traditional symbol of the cuckold.

Bergman and Wilding

But all the stunning camerawork, beautiful Technicolor, and perfectly framed shots in the world can’t make a dull movie interesting, and Under Capricorn is an awfully dull movie. Its origins as a stage play are painfully obvious. Michael Wilding turns in a one-note performance, Joseph Cotten seems to be phoning it in (he apparently referred to this film as “Under Corny Crap”), and only Ingrid Bergman and Margaret Leighton (in a small but juicy role) are any fun to watch.

However, any Alfred Hitchcock film is worth seeing at least once, and Under Capricorn is no exception. Not everyone finds it dull, either. The film has plenty of proponents, most notably Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film magazine. In 1958, they named Under Capricorn one of the 10 best films ever made.

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (May 26-Sept. 1, 1949)

Batman and Robin
Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Columbia Pictures

Batman and Robin was the second live-action Batman movie to hit the big screen.

The first, simply titled Batman, was also a 15-episode Columbia serial. It starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, and was directed by Lambert Hillyer, the man who made Dracula’s Daughter (1936), one of my favorite Universal horror movies.

The 1943 version had a slightly darker and more sinister tone than the 1949 version. I believe it featured the first appearance of “The Bat Cave,” and emphasized the Gothic elements of the Batman mythos. The title card and music were far superior to the 1949 version, and Wayne Manor looked a lot better.

Batman 1943

On the other hand, the 1943 version had slightly less impressive stunts than the 1949 version, and was made during World War II, so the 1949 version is probably a better choice to watch with your kids, unless you want to have a conversation with them to explain lines like “a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”

The 1949 version was made by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet, the same creative team behind the serial Superman (1948), which starred Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Batman and Robin stars Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader and Johnny Duncan as the Boy Wonder.

Katzman and Bennet’s version starts out less impressively than the first Columbia serial. Batman and Robin leap onscreen, ready for action, and then stand there looking around as the music plays and the credits roll, as if they’ve lost something and can’t find it.

Maybe they’ve lost the keys to their 1949 Mercury convertible, which they drive in lieu of a Batmobile.

Batman 1949

Both serials have their good points and their bad points. Unfortunately, neither is a comic-book masterpiece like Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), but both are essential viewing if you’re a serious Batman fan.

Katzman’s Batman and Robin is campy fun if you like chapterplays, and I think it works a little better than Katzman’s Superman, if for no other reason than Batman looks great in black & white, whereas with Superman it seems as if something’s missing without those bright blues and reds.

Unlike the 1943 serial, the 1949 version features Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot). He has a little portable Bat Signal in his office that he can turn on and wheel over to the window to beam the sign of the bat onto clouds. It’s ridiculously tiny and looks like an overhead projector, and Commissioner Gordon refers to it as “the Batman Signal.”

Gotham Central

Batman and Robin also features Jane Adams as reporter Vicki Vale and Eric Wilton as butler Alfred Pennyworth (the only supporting character from the comics who also appeared in the 1943 version).

Unlike the dimly glimpsed and imposing Wayne Manor of the 1943 version, in the 1949 version Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson, live in what appears to be a four-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home in the suburbs. (Incidentally, this version of “Wayne Manor” is the same movie-studio house that Danny Glover and his family occupied in all four of the Lethal Weapon movies.) When Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson relax at home with Alfred serving them drinks and Vicki Vale stops by, there’s barely enough space for all four of them in the living room.

Oddly enough, the antagonist of Batman and Robin lives in a mansion that looks tailor-made to be Wayne Manor. He’s Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), who’s confined to a wheelchair but can turn himself into a lean, mean, walking machine by sitting in something that looks like an electric chair and zapping himself. This pulp lunacy seems to allow him to don the guise of “The Wizard,” a fearsome black-hooded criminal mastermind. The MacGuffin of the serial is a powerful ray that can remotely control any vehicle.

While I enjoyed Batman and Robin, its flaws are legion. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan are the two most disreputable-looking versions of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson you may ever see on film. Lowery looks kind of like Victor Mature and Johnny Duncan was about 25 years old when this serial was filmed, which makes him hardly a “Boy” Wonder anymore.

Lowery and Duncan

Also, apparently Kirk Alyn — who played Superman — was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, so the costume was designed for his measurements. Lowery was slightly smaller, which means that he’s constantly leaning his head back to see out of the eye holes in his cowl, which is too big for him.

Lowery’s stunt double is fine, but Duncan’s stunt double looks absolutely nothing like him. Unlike Duncan’s full head of dark, curly hair, his stunt double has straight, thinning, light hair, and appears to have a bald spot.

Batman and Robin lacks the technical sophistication of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the colorful pop sensibilities of Tim Burton’s 1989 version, but it’s a lot of fun. I think if you’re a Batman fan you have to accept all the iterations of the character — from the excessively dark, grotesque, and violent comic-book adventures of the ’80s and ’90s to the most ludicrously campy and brightly colored adventures of the ’50s and ’60s. Batman and Robin leans farther toward the campy end, but its black & white cinematography and closeness to the era of the pulps make it a little less silly than the ’60s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. It’s definitely not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a Batman fan you should make the time to watch both the 1943 serial and the 1949 serial.

The Third Man (Aug. 31, 1949)

The Third Man
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions

OK. True confessions time.

I don’t really like the music in The Third Man.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy as hell and does a good job of establishing the post-war Vienna setting, but I find it wildly at odds with the mood of some of the dramatic scenes. After the first couple of reels I was sick of it. Not because it’s a bad tune, but because of the way it was used in the film.

I know I’m in the minority with this opinion. The music is one of the most commonly praised aspects of the film. The simple zither melodies in The Third Man made the previously unknown Viennese musician Anton Karas internationally famous. After the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” — which recurs throughout the picture — sold half a million copies and worldwide sales of zithers reportedly skyrocketed (from their previous sales position of “next to nothing,” one presumes).

I first saw The Third Man about a decade ago. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.

Recently, I’ve seen more films by the director, Carol Reed, and better come to appreciate his talent. Three years ago I reviewed Odd Man Out (1947) and said that I thought it was better than The Third Man. I wrote, “[James] Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.”

Last year I reviewed The Fallen Idol (1948). With that review I didn’t take another swipe at The Third Man, and simply said that Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man are “as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.”

I stand by that statement, and I liked The Third Man a lot more this time than the first time I watched it. I don’t like it quite as much as The Fallen Idol, which had more personal resonance for me, but it’s a brilliant film.

Three films in a row that are as good as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man is an extremely rare feat, and only the greatest of directors have ever pulled it off (like Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick).

Cotten on the stairs

Like The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is a collaboration between Reed and writer Graham Greene. It stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer of popular western novels. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna, looking for his old friend Harry Lime, only to find out that Harry Lime was hit by a car and died a few days before his arrival.

At Harry’s funeral, Holly Martins meets a pair of British Army Police, the stiff-upper-lipped Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and the more rough-and-tumble Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). (Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a James Bond film from the ’60s or ’70s, you’ll recognize Lee as Bond’s superior, “M.”)

Holly Martins also meets Harry Lime’s girlfriend, the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt, who is played by Alida Valli — she’s listed in the credits as simply “Valli,” as she was in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and the Frank Sinatra shmaltz-fest The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

Eyewitness reports of Harry Lime’s death don’t add up — did only two men spirit his body away from the scene of the accident, or was there a “third man”? Holly Martins begins to suspect that there is more to the story than he’s been told.

Cotten at the fairgrounds

Joseph Cotten has the most screen time in The Third Man, but the presence of the mysterious Harry Lime and the character of postwar Vienna both dominate the film.

Like Germany and Berlin, Austria and Vienna were broken into zones after World War II — British, American, French, and Russian. And just like in Berlin, the black market was booming.

Harry Lime was deeply involved in the black market, and in the worst way possible. He sold penicillin, which was desperately needed, but he diluted it to make more money, and many children and adults died as a result.

Orson Welles shows up late in the film to explicate Harry Lime’s philosophy to Holly Martins, and it’s these lines that are some of the film’s most enduring.

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Welles is a magnetic presence, and his nihilistic philosophy in The Third Man is seductive. I’ve even heard his words quoted as a celebration of death and destruction. (I suppose that like all great art, his speech is what you make of it.)

Third Man sewers

You know what? I take back what I said about the music. I started writing this review last night, and woke up with “The Harry Lime Theme” in my head. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all morning while finishing this review.

I still find it at odds with the mood of the film, but perhaps a delicious sense of irony was Reed’s intention.

The Third Man is a brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted, and wonderfully involving film.

After three amazing films in a row, I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol Reed’s next picture, Outcast of the Islands (1951), which no one ever talks about.

King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) June 7-Aug. 23, 1949

King of the Rocket Men
King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Republic Pictures

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens. The protagonist, Cliff Secord, was a stunt pilot who strapped on an experimental jet pack and fought criminals and Nazi saboteurs. As a child of the ’80s who was obsessed with old radio shows and the pop culture of the past, The Rocketeer was amazing. It was a loving homage to the pulp entertainments of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

As a budding adolescent, the thing I loved best about the series was Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly modeled after pinup queen Bettie Page.

Betty

But pretty much everything about The Rocketeer was great. I especially liked how up-front Stevens was about his homages. Cliff Secord’s jet pack and streamlined metal helmet were taken straight from Republic’s “Rocket Man” serials — King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), as well as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), which was originally filmed as a TV series but ended up being released theatrically as a week-to-week serial.

King of the Rocket Men is the chapterplay that started it all. It was released by Republic Pictures and directed by Fred C. Brannon, who co-directed (with William Witney) one of my favorite serials of all time, The Crimson Ghost (1946).

King of the Rocket Men shares some similarities with The Crimson Ghost. Both are about a scientific consortium with one member who is secretly a criminal mastermind, and both feature the actor I. Stanford Jolley in similar roles. Instead of the Crimson Ghost, however, the evil genius in King of the Rocket Men is called “Dr. Vulcan,” and he’s the alter ego of one of the members of “Science Associates.”

King of the Rocket Men lobby card

In the first chapter of the serial, Dr. Vulcan — Traitor, noted “cyclotron expert” Prof. Drake, who was working on wild, unpublicized experiments on “flying suits” is killed after his car goes off a cliff (driven by remote control operated by some unseen evildoer, natch).

Our hero, Jeff King, springs into action with one of the flying suits, and blasts, zooms, and punches his way through 12 action-packed weeks of Saturday-afternoon entertainment.

King is played by Republic Pictures mainstay Tristram Coffin, who’s older and more distinguished looking than the average serial protagonist. He was only 39 or 40 when King of the Rocket Men was filmed, but his gray hair and stiffness give him a patrician air.

Rocket Man Title Cards

Every kid has dreamed of strapping on a jet pack and taking to the skies. Part of the appeal of King of the Rocket Men is that the controls of King’s flying suit are so simple even a child could operate them. There are only three controls — ON/OFF, UP/DOWN, and FAST/SLOW — and they all have numbered dials, even the ON/OFF switch, which really doesn’t make sense.

The serial also features Mae Clarke, who starred in much higher-profile films in the ’30s, like Frankenstein (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), in which she famously received a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

In King of the Rocket Men, Clarke plays an intrepid reporter named Glenda Thomas. While Jeff King never shoves anything in her face, his treatment of her is occasionally less than gallant. For instance, in Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence, he tells her to jump out of a speeding car. Miraculously, she doesn’t die or receive any injuries. He jumps too, and flies away, then they reunite while dusting themselves off. She says, “Thanks, Rocket Man! You know, at first I thought you were an invader from some other planet, but it’s plain to see you’re human and you’ve made a great scientific discovery. I’d like to write an article about you for my magazine.” He responds, “I’m sorry, that’s impossible.” He wants to put an end to the mysterious activities of Dr. Vulcan, and he doesn’t want her to publicize his actions. And then, like a true gentleman, he tells her to wait for the bus and he flies away.

King of the Rocket Men Chapter 8

Weird little moments like that aside, King of the Rocket Men is well-made, fast-paced entertainment, and highly recommended for any cliffhanger fans who haven’t seen it yet. It has plenty of stock footage of car crashes and explosions taken from earlier Republic serials, but the Rocket Man himself is unique. The jet pack technology might be pure hokum, but it’s still thrilling for kids and the young-at-heart when he takes to the skies.

The reason for this is the brilliant special effects work of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, who ran Republic’s special effects and miniatures department. As they proved in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), simple techniques like a dummy on a wire and running the film in reverse are only as good as the technicians who employ them. The Lydecker brothers were magicians. Prior to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), I think the effects in Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men were the best flying-human effects achieved on film.

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