Mae Clarke

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.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 12: Wave of Disaster

The Wave of Disaster does have some great special effects for Rocket Men’s finale. Sure, they’re from an earlier film, but they’re still great. The Rocket Man effects are fine too, they’re just boring.

After yet another tepid cliffhanger resolution–maybe the first to directly contradict the previous chapter’s version of it–and Tristram Coffin letting the bad guys get away (again), the action moves to New York City. Only the bad guys aren’t going to New York City, they’re going to a very large, mountainous island 300 miles from the city. There they plan on firing their weapon of mass destruction at an underwater fault line (because the weapon has a range of 200 miles).

Would you believe Coffin’s weapon-detector has a range of 250 miles? Negative coincidences abound in Wave.

It’s not a great chapter. It’s not the worst, it’s not the best. It’s a low middling. No idea what Mae Clarke’s character is doing in it; she wants to go to New York and then loses all her screen time to Coffin and House Peters Jr.’s bromance.

Still… it could be much worse.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 11: Secret of Dr. Vulcan

About halfway through the chapter–the penultimate Rocket Men chapter–Tristram Coffin and Mae Clarke go over a cliff in a car into a lake.

They’ve already gone over a cliff together as a cliffhanger. And Coffin forced a motorcycle driver to his death over the cliff into a lake. It really felt like The Secret of Dr. Vulcan was just giving up on everything and repeating old cliffhangers.

But no, it’s just the halfway (or a little past halfway) point. There’s still time for Coffin’s big plan to rescue sidekick House Peters Jr. to go all wrong because he’s terrible at rescuing people.

Bad guy tough Don Haggerty gets the best material this chapter. He doesn’t even do much, he just gets the best material. Coffin gets to be a buffoon, albeit a very serious one. Peters get to be a bachelor in distress. Clarke–literally–gets to wait in the car.

And when Dr. Vulcan’s Secret is revealed? Eh. His secret identity is a bore.

But there are a few great Rocket Man shots towards the end of the chapter.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 10: The Deadly Fog

The Deadly Fog is a clip chapter. Sadly, the fog doesn’t refer to the misting effect when Deadly goes into flashback to the moments from the first three chapters.

After another lackluster cliffhanger resolution, Tristram Coffin ignores the weapon of mass destruction in a nearby car–he really doesn’t sweat his invention being captured by the evil Dr. Vulcan at all–and heads back to his cave.

In the cave, House Peters Jr. finally catches him in the Rocket Man garb and Coffin sits down to tell him his superhero origin story. Now, the audience has seen all of these scenes and Peters was present for two-thirds of them, so it’s not clear why there needs to be the flashback and exposition.

Maybe they just ran out of money for chapter ten.

There’s a fresh cliffhanger, however. It does just repeat something else from the first chapter, but at least the footage is new.

Rocket Men can’t wrap up soon enough. The serial’s burning through its stockpiled charm.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 9: Ten Seconds to Live

Ten Seconds to Live is a new low as far as Rocket Men quality goes. It’s bad to the point the badness becomes more engaging than the story, partially because there’s no story, mostly because the good guys are just so dumb.

The cliffhanger resolution is bad. The subsequent setup for the chapter–Tristram Coffin arguing he knows best how to catch the still unknown Dr. Vulcan while he’s working on a super-weapon called “The Decimator.” Coffin’s always doing science off-screen, never on.

Anyway. The mysterious Dr. Vulcan comes up with a plan to get the device away from Coffin, telling henchman Don Haggerty he’ll need a motorcycle. Why will Haggerty need a motorcycle? Maybe because if Coffin and sidekick House Peters Jr. see a motorcycle in the distance, they will chase it down and try to kill the rider. Regardless of if the motorcycle is doing anything to them.

After committing first or second degree murder, Coffin discovers he’s been tricked. Does he freak out? The device can melt through mountains, after all. But no, he’s not freaking out. Instead he calls the cops to track down Haggerty’s truck–which is, inexplicably, a USMC truck. Why doesn’t Coffin suit up as Rocket Man to find it himself?

Because nothing makes sense in Ten Seconds to Live. It’s all just goofy.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 8: Suicide Flight

Maybe I missed Tristram Coffin revealing his Rocket Man identity to Mae Clarke and House Peters Jr. Or maybe they just don’t question only Rocket Man ever coming to their rescue after Coffin has put them in danger.

This chapter is a mild improvement over the previous one, though the cliffhanger resolutions are getting incredibly lazy. Even though the cliffhanger composite shots are decent–it’s a molten lava-related crisis–the resolution is humdrum.

Coffin and Peters then concoct a dumb plan to catch the mysterious Dr. Vulcan, who mostly falls for it. Coffin thinks he’s finally going to find him out. Instead, it’s just another fistfight with chief thug Don Haggerty. Haggerty and Coffin’s antagonism gives Suicide Flight some energy. But then it’s just another chase sequence, another Clarke in danger sequence.

I just realized, starting this chapter, Clarke is the only woman anywhere in King of the Rocket Men. They probably didn’t need her, especially as she’s been reduced to offering her hands for binding. Her feistiness apparently only manifests when there aren’t too many men punching each other.

Suicide Flight has a pretty decent cliffhanger, though I’ve lost all confidence in Rocket Men to resolve it well.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 7: Molten Menace

King of the Rocket Men made it to chapter seven before having a stinker. And Molten Menace isn’t even an exciting stinker, it’s just a plodding one.

It’s also frustrating because it requires lead Tristram Coffin to be stupid about something a scene after he was talking about being cautious about the exact same thing. And when he does get his rocket suit on, he’s just using it as a disguise.

So no good action, no character stuff whatsoever–the script skips the scene where Mae Clarke and House Peters Jr. find out Coffin’s been keeping a big secret from them. A lot of it is the thugs driving out to steal scientist James Craven’s destruction beam. For whatever reason, the only thing the scientists in Rocket Men make are weapons. Including Coffin, who apparently has been working on an awesome power source throughout the serial without it ever being seen or mentioned.

Molten Menace’s not terrible, it’s just not in any way engaging or interesting. Even when it’s setting up the cliffhanger, it fails to thrill. Possibly a result of this chapter’s opening cliffhanger resolution not just being a cop-out, but one Rocket Men has already used before.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 6: Secret of Rocket Man

With the opening cliffhanger resolution once again being tepid, it seems like Rocket Men is never going to get out of the bad opening rut. Poor Mae Clarke is simply dismissed from the chapter, not very gracious considering she’s just around to be in danger.

There’s some brief setup for Tristram Coffin’s next scheme to catch the mysterious bad guy, but it turns out the bad guy has a better scheme. Most of the chapter is Coffin being held captive. Sure, he outsmarts thug Don Haggerty once or twice, but Coffin’s friends are pretty bad when it comes to rescues.

First, House Peters Jr. can’t save Coffin from getting kidnapped, then he can’t properly follow the bad guys’ car. A little late, it seems like James Craven is going to come to the rescue, only to botch it as well.

Ostensibly, Coffin is one heck of a pickle for the cliffhanger at the end of Secret of the Rocket Man; I assume it’ll be a quick, obvious resolution next time though.

Still, everyone’s likable, the pace’s speedy, the action’s good–even if director Brannon lets the fisticuffs go on a little long.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 5: Fatal Dive

Not much happens in Fatal Dive before the action–i.e. fisticuffs–starts. Tristram Coffin gets out of the previous chapter’s cliffhanger, inexplicably abandoning the interrupted fight, and heads off to consult with scientist on the lam James Craven.

Meanwhile, House Peters Jr. is hanging around Mae Clarke’s apartment again and they decided it’s got to be Coffin who’s the villain. They go to investigate and get further convinced, just as Coffin is convinced he’s closer to finding the big bad himself.

The story lines collide; there are fisticuffs and Clarke on damsel duty. It’s all prologue to getting Coffin–in his Rocket Man gear–having to chase after a small airplane.

Fatal Dive isn’t a strong chapter, but it’s got a decent amount of charm–the barn location for the fight is something–before it falls back on high flying thrills. Those thrills are what King is all about and it delivers.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon), Chapter 4: High Peril

One of King of the Rocket Men’s unintentional strengths is its brevity. The chapters never go on too long. They’re all just right, even when they’ve got lackluster events.

Most of High Peril is lackluster. The opening cliffhanger resolution is lackluster, the group interrogation scene is lackluster, the car chase is lackluster. The car chase, with Tristram Coffin in full rocket suit gear for the pursuit, reuses a lot of old footage. There are a couple cool Rocket Man shots though, even if it doesn’t make any sense how the pursued knows it’s running from Rocket Man.

The pursued is Ted Adams, the prime suspect for the murderous scientist. Adams does okay with the panic, though director Brannon has a problem with dragging exposition a little too long. When Adams is mentally stumbling, trying to understand his peril (though not necessarily High Peril), Adams is visibly trying to pad out the performance. There’s not enough in the script to get him through.

Mae Clarke and House Peters Jr. have a pointless scene after the first car chase, just setting up Coffin to try to save the day again. Apparently Coffin and Peters just hang out at Clarke’s apartment when they’re bored.

The action-packed finale requires both Coffin and Adams to be idiots, which isn’t good, but baddie Don Haggerty does all right.

Even lackluster, Rocket Men gets by.

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


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