Cliffhanger Corner: ‘Rocket Man’ helped inspire love of serials

By Bob Bloom

I have a soft spot for “King of the Rocket Men” (1949, Republic Pictures, 12 chapters).
As a kid growing up on Long Island, the feature version of the film, “Lost Planet Airmen,” was a staple on one of the New York TV stations.
While I could never figure out what the title meant, I enjoyed the movie. king of the rocket menNor, at the time, did I know it was a cut down version of a serial.
What truly fascinated me was the Rocket Man outfit. It was magnificent in its simplicity. Really, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work the dials.
The other draw to the film was the sequence at the finale when New York is nearly destroyed by a massive title wave.
I later learned the sequence — changed from an actual event in the serial to the villain describing what his nefarious Decimator could do in the feature version — was stock footage from a 1933 feature film entitled “Deluge.”
Part of the sequence also was used by Republic in the 1941 serial, “Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.”
But I digress. I was fascinated by the flying scenes in the serial. They were very impressive. Of course, they don’t compare with today’s special effects, but the work done by Howard and Theodore Lydecker working on the small budget Republic allotted to serials sparked the imagination.
The serial also featured one of the last uses of a mystery villain — Doctor Vulcan.
Unlike earlier serials, it was kind of easy to discern which of the group from Science Associates turned out to be the bad doctor, but that does not diminish from the serial’s overall enjoyment.
Like most of the later Republic chapterplays, “King of the Rocket Men” has its drawbacks: repetitious fight scenes and an over reliance on stock footage for cliffhangers as well as chases.
But those are quibbles.
The cast was headed by Tris Coffin who brought a maturity usually lacking in serials. Mae Clarke, unfortunately, was much too old for the stereotypical heroine role, while House Peters Jr. made a reliable sidekick.
“King of the Rocket Men” was one of the serials that sparked my curiosity and had me dig into the genre and helped develop my appreciation and love for these delightful action offerings.

Chapter titles:
1. “Dr. Vulcan — Traitor”
2. “Plunging Death”
3. “Dangerous Evidence”
4. “High Peril”
5. “Fatal Dive”
6. “Mystery of the Rocket Man”
7. “Molten Menace”
8. “Suicide Flight”
9. “Ten Seconds to Live”
10. “The Deadly Fog”
11. “Secret of Dr. Vulcan”
12. “Wave of Disaster”

Share your memories, thoughts and/or opinions about this serial. We’d love to hear from you.