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Tag Archives: Fred C. Brannon

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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G-Men Never Forget (12 chapters) (Nov. 13, 1947-Jan. 29, 1948)

Republic serials were always solidly entertaining Saturday-afternoon time wasters for the kiddies, and G-Men Never Forget is no exception. It never soars to the heights reached by The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) or thrills with the same combination of intrigue and action as Spy Smasher (1942), but then again, neither has any other serial I’ve seen that was made after World War II.

G-Men Never Forget was co-directed by dependable chapterplay workhorse Fred C. Brannon and legendary stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. It stars Clayton Moore (who would go on to play the Lone Ranger on TV starting in 1949) as FBI agent Ted O’Hara. (It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m pretty sure O’Hara has an excellent memory.)

O’Hara is paired with the beautiful Ramsay Ames, who plays police officer Detective Sergeant Frances Blake. O’Hara and Blake start out pretending to be husband and wife criminals so O’Hara can infiltrate a gang run by the beefy criminal mastermind Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft).

Murkland himself goes undercover in the FBI after getting plastic surgery to look like FBI Commissioner Angus Cameron, and operates from that position for most of the serial. O’Hara, on the other hand, is found out in the first chapter of G-Men Never Forget, slugs it out with one of the baddies, and is back to committing feats of derring-do as an FBI agent in no time.

I couldn’t help thinking this serial would have been more interesting if Murkland had been undercover with the FBI while O’Hara was undercover with the crooks, but we’d have to wait until Infernal Affairs and The Departed for that kind of action.

I’ve had a crush on Ramsay Ames since seeing her in The Mummy’s Ghost. I liked her in G-Men Never Forget, but she’d lost a bit of weight by this point, which made her more “glamorous” and “angular,” but less appealing, at least in my opinion.

I wouldn’t recommend G-Men Never Forget to someone unfamiliar with serials, but if you’re a fan of serials and have already seen all of the best ones, it’s a strong second-tier offering. It features car chases, shootouts, explosive cliffhangers, and furniture-destroying fist fights. I was hoping for something a little more over-the-top considering Yakima Canutt was one of the directors, but I was never less than entertained by the proceedings.

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”

Jesse James Rides Again (13 chapters) (June 2-Aug. 25, 1947)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.

Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.

Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.

Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.

The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.

Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).

So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).

Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.

If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.

But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard ( Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.

As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.

The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.

Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.

Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.

Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)

The Crimson Ghost (12 chapters) (Sept. 21-Dec. 7, 1946)

The Republic serial The Crimson Ghost, directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon, features one of the most iconic cliffhanger villains of all time. His grinning skull mask was appropriated by the band The Misfits, and may be how the character is best known today, since his face appears on nearly all of their T-shirts and album covers.

The Crimson Ghost’s mask is also the most memorable and sinister part of him in the serial itself. He gets involved with the action — gunplay, car chases, and fistfights — too often to be mysterious or ominous, and his hideouts are generally rustic or quaintly subterranean, but damn that mask is cool!

By 1946, most of Republic’s finest serials were behind them, but the studio still made the best cliffhangers in Hollywood, and The Crimson Ghost stands up as solid entertainment. It’s also one of the earliest examples of post-war, Atomic Age, pulp lunacy. Granted, the storytelling isn’t that different from pre-war Republic serials, but The Crimson Ghost does contain a number of science-fiction elements, and some of the fear and paranoia that came from living in a world with atomic weapons was beginning to creep in.

Charles Quigley plays scientific criminologist and “outstanding physicist” Duncan Richards and Linda Stirling plays his lovely and plucky assistant, Diana Farnsworth. In the first chapter of the serial, “Atomic Peril,” Prof. Chambers (played by Republic mainstay Kenne Duncan, his hair dyed gray and playing against type as a good guy) demonstrates his invention, the “cyclotrode.” The cyclotrode is roughly the size of a bread box, with a rotating cylindrical metal coil on top. It can “repel any atomic bomb attack” by shorting out electric systems, a stunning display of which is shown when Dr. Richards pilots a little model of a B-29 and Prof. Chambers locates it somehow with the cyclotrode and shoots it out of the sky. After the demonstration is over, one of the observing scientists says, “I haven’t felt so safe since before the bomb fell on Hiroshima.”

Prof. Chambers says that he plans to hand the cyclotrode over to the government and begin work on a larger model, but one of his fellow scientists is secretly masquerading as the Crimson Ghost (voiced by I. Stanford Jolley) and commanding a small army of henchmen in his spare time. One of the Ghost’s henchmen — disguised as a janitor — gets the drop on Prof. Chambers with the old “revolver in a feather duster” trick, but Prof. Chambers manages to destroy the prototype, and a small-scale, ridiculous little arms race is on.

Republic Pictures always had the best fight stuntmen in the business, and the brawls in The Crimson Ghost are all really well-done. The first one is a doozy, with Quigley’s stunt double leaping over a conference table, later sliding down its length, and of course breaking lots of furniture along the way. The second fight features the most memorable stunt in the serial, when Quigley’s stunt double leaps up and kicks off of a wall to take down two assailants.

Over the course of The Crimson Ghost, Dr. Richards and Diana constantly cross paths and mix it up with the black-robed baddie and his right-hand man, the suit and fedora-wearing Ash (played by Clayton Moore, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the Lone Ranger). Like all serials, the plot is massaged, kneaded, and stretched out to fill 12 chapters. There are plenty of fistfights and car chases — the bread and butter of chapter plays — but there are also plenty of nutty pseudoscientific contraptions like the Crimson Ghost’s “slave collars,” which are outfitted with small diaphragm radio receivers that allow the Ghost to order the wearer around like his own personal zombie; the collars also explode when removed, killing the unlucky victim.

It quickly becomes clear that the Ghost is really one of the professors with whom Dr. Richards regularly meets, so why he keeps telling them his plans is beyond me, but it makes for plenty of action when Ash and his henchmen show up every time Dr. Richards and Diana attempt to secure an “X-7 transformer tube” (which Richards explains is “a special radium vapor tube we’ve been developing for a death ray machine”) or procure the heavy water necessary to supply the cyclotrode’s tubes.

There are plenty of cool gadgets, like a transcription disc sent to Dr. Richards that carries a message from the Crimson Ghost that ends with a release of poisonous gas, radioactive tracking devices, dissolving sprays, and a cigarette case that releases a tiny puff of knockout gas.

The Crimson Ghost was one of three serials I watched repeatedly in high school (The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher were the other two). I loved Linda Stirling as Diana, whom Dr. Richards treats like a secretary even though she can pilot a plane, mix it up with Ash, and even throw her little body out of a speeding car and remarkably not have any scratches or bruises on her face. Watching it again made me realize that she’s a really bad actress, even by the standards of Republic Pictures, but her ineptitude as a thespian didn’t change the way I feel about her, or about The Crimson Ghost, which is a top-notch serial with plenty of rewatchability.