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Tag Archives: Tristram Coffin

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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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.)

Trail to San Antone (Jan. 25, 1947)

Have you ever wanted to see Gene Autry rope a stallion from the air? I hadn’t until I saw the climactic few minutes of John English’s Trail to San Antone, but as soon as Gene leaned out of the passenger side of the airplane piloted by feisty Kit Barlow (Peggy Stewart) and dropped a lariat, I said to myself, “Yee haw, Gene! Git ‘er done.”

It’s not as dangerous for the horse as it might sound. Kit doesn’t bring the plane in for a landing while Gene continues to control the horse or anything like that. As soon as the lariat is around the stallion’s neck, Gene drops the rope, which has a spare tire attached to the other end. One more good ropin’ job, and that stallion ain’t goin’ nowhere fast, pardner.

Trail to San Antone is solid entertainment for fans of Gene Autry. He’s backed up by the Cass County Boys (Fred S. Martin, Jerry Scoggins, and Bert Dodson), who do double duty as ranch hands and Autry’s back-up band. Dependable Republic Pictures heavy Tristram Coffin plays the bad guy, Cal Young, who’s attempting to derail the career of a young jockey named Ted Malloy (Johnny Duncan), whom Gene has taken under his wing. And the horrible comic relief is provided by the rubber-faced Sterling Holloway, as the cowardly and pencil-necked Droopy Stearns.

The film is bookended by performances of “Down the Trail to San Antone,” by Deuce Spriggins. Over the course of the picture, Autry and the Cass County Boys belt out plenty of pleasant country & western tunes, including Autry and Cindy Walker’s “The Cowboy Blues,” Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You,” Sid Robin’s “That’s My Home,” and Marty Symes and Joseph Burke’s “By the River of the Roses.”

Sioux City Sue (Nov. 21, 1946)

Frank McDonald’s Sioux City Sue repurposes the script from the 1939 comedy She Married a Cop and takes its title from one of the most popular songs of 1946. It was Gene Autry’s first film after he completed his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

More comedy than western, Sioux City Sue is lightweight fluff, but if you like Autry’s music, there’s plenty of it. (Although, if you’re like me, you’ll be a little sick of the title song by the end of the picture.)

In a plot that makes no sense if you stop to think about it for longer than half a second, a pretty blond Hollywood talent scout named Sue Warner (Lynne Roberts) casts Autry in an upcoming movie without telling him that he’ll never actually appear onscreen and is in fact voicing a singing donkey in an animated feature.

Things have changed a lot. Now, Hollywood stars regularly lend their voices to animated features. It’s nice work if you can get it; no time in the makeup chair, no difficult location shooting, and you can take your toddlers to the premiere. But in 1946, no star would ever dream of being in a cartoon. It’s hard, though, not to be delighted and amused by the premiere of the cartoon feature in Sioux City Sue. The little donkey with Autry’s voice, singing to his sweetheart on horseback, both of them wearing western duds, is pretty gosh-darned cute.

But Autry’s been lied to, and that rightly doesn’t sit well with the man. Of course, during the making of the film, Sue fell in love with him, so the big question for the second half of the picture is whether or not she’ll be able to convince him she’s sorry. She does her darnedest, quitting her job and coming to work on his ranch as a cook and general menial laborer.

This being a Republic western programmer, there’s an action-packed climax, and it’s up to Autry and his wonder horse Champion to save the day. The last few minutes of the picture, which involve a dynamited dam, a flood, and a cattle stampede, are exciting. But for the most part, Sioux City Sue is a laid-back and easygoing good time.

The Gay Cavalier (March 30, 1946)

With this film, handsome 40-year-old actor Gilbert Roland stepped into the role of the Cisco Kid, a Mexican bandit created by O. Henry in his 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.” Roland was the fifth man to play the role, after Warner Baxter (in four films, 1928-1939), Cesar Romero (in five films, 1939-1941), Duncan Renaldo (in three films made in 1945), and William R. Dunn, who was the first man to play the Cisco Kid, in the silent short The Caballero’s Way (1914). Roland would go on to play the Cisco Kid in a total of six films released by Monogram Pictures in 1946 and 1947.

In O. Henry’s short story, the Cisco Kid was a vicious and slippery bandit, but by the time Warner Baxter was playing the role, the character had metamorphosed into a noble caballero; a sort of Mexican Robin Hood.

Baby boomers will remember that on TV, the Cisco Kid had a sidekick named Pancho. The first iteration of this character appeared in the 1939 film Return of the Cisco Kid, and he was named “Gordito” (Spanish for “Fatty”). In The Gay Cavalier he’s called “Baby,” and is played by the Mexican actor Nacho Galindo.

Baby gets the first lines of the picture. While Cisco kneels beside a grave, Baby explains to one of his fellow outlaws (presumably one who has just joined the gang and, like the audience, has no idea what’s going on) that Cisco’s father was a notorious bandit. To make up for his father’s exploits, Cisco now robs from the rich and gives to the poor. It’s a clumsy bit of exposition, but no clumsier than most of the rest of the dialogue in the picture. When Baby decides that they’ve spent enough time at the gravesite and he wants to get going, Cisco tells him, “Time is a wonderful thing. It ages wine and mellows women.” Roland is the main reason to see the picture, especially for women who get all hot and bothered for the Latin Lover type. He can really sell lines like this, and not sound too ridiculous.

What Roland is mostly selling, of course, is S-E-X. But not so much that it might offend audiences, or disrupt traditional morality too much. In one scene, Cisco climbs up onto a lovely young señora’s balcony while Baby plays a little music down below. Eventually she reveals that she has a husband who is away on a fishing trip. Cisco responds, “Sometime, when I see your husband, I will tell him the fishing is much better here on land. Adios, beautiful.” He kisses her hand, leaps from the balcony onto his horse, and rides off with his crew and Baby, whose serenade is no longer required.

The Gay Cavalier takes place in California in 1850. The nice thing about old Hollywood westerns that take place in California is that the scenery is authentic, if nothing else. Martin Garralaga, the actor who played “Pancho” in the three 1945 Cisco Kid films with Duncan Renaldo, here plays Don Felipe Geralda, a man who has fallen on hard times. His youngest daughter, Angela (Helen Gerald), is engaged to marry a wealthy American named Lawton (Tristram Coffin), whose money will allow the Geralda hacienda to stay in the family.

Unbeknownst to the Geraldas, Lawton and his partner Lewis (John Merton) are up to no good. In the beginning of the picture, they ambush a wagon carrying a shipment of silver collected from poor people to build a mission in Monterey. They leave one man wounded but alive, and say loudly within earshot of the man, “All right, Cisco, we got what we want. Now we go.”

All of this plays out about as predictably as you’d expect. The enjoyment comes from the particulars. The sultry and beautiful actress Ramsay Ames plays Don Geralda’s eldest daughter, Pepita, and she sings a few numbers that Ames herself is credited with writing. Also, the action is well staged, especially the final showdown between Cisco and Lawton. As he demonstrated in a film I watched last year, Captain Kidd (1945), Roland is a hell of a sword fighter. He and Coffin go at it with no stunt doubles in evidence, although the film is sped up very slightly.

Also, unlike most of the actors who played the Cisco Kidd, Roland was actually Mexican. He was born “Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso” in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1905. He took his stage name from his two favorite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He’s a very credible swashbuckler, and a lot of fun to watch, even though The Gay Cavalier is strictly a programmer.

One odd note, the DVD from VCI Entertainment I watched uses a print with a strange ADR issue. It didn’t take long before I noticed that every time someone said “Cisco Kid” it was looped in, and not well. I did some research, but couldn’t find exactly why this was the case. This was originally released as a Cisco Kid feature, and there would have been no restriction on using the name, so the prevailing theory seems to be that the film was dubbed for television release in the ’50s, and the character’s name was changed so as not to cause confusion with the Cisco Kid TV show, and one of those prints was the only one they could find, so they dubbed the original character’s name back in. Whatever the reason, it was weird and distracting.