On Killer Serials, we showcase the pulpy short films that were popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, we're blasting off into the stratosphere with Republic Films' King of the Rocket Men.
What you need to know about King of the Rocket Men
Originally released in 1949, King of the Rocket Men is a twelve chapter serial that introduced us to the "Rocketman."
The plot itself is rather pulpy. An evil genius of unknown identity, calling himself "Dr Vulcan," plans to conquer the world, but he needs to eliminate the Earth's greatest scientists first. After narrowly escaping an attempt on his life by Vulcan, Dr. Millard (played by James Craven) outfits his team mate, Jeff King (played by Tristram Coffin) with an atomic powered rocket flying suit.
With the help of the suit, and other inventions of Dr. Millard, King battles the minions of Dr. Vulcan
Why we chose King of the Rocket Men for Killer Serials
King of the Rocket Men introduces us to the "Rocketman" character, who reappeared under a variety of names in later serials, such as: Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and the semi-serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. And even though it contains a large amount of stock footage, as do most of Republic's releases by this time, the serial doesn't have the feel of being just a rehash of past plot elements to tie all of the old footage together. This is due in the most part to the character of Rocket Man and the special effects used to make him fly. The character is something new to serials. While most heroes are usually government agents, news reporters, or an amatuer criminalogist; Jeff King is a scientist. Scientists were always relagated to supporting characters, usually being kidnapped by the villain for their latest invention. Having the hero be a scientist was a canny move by Republic, clearly paving the way for the scientist heroes that would populate the low budget sci-fi films that defined the horror genre for the fifties.
The special effects really added to the believability of the character. While Columbia used animation to make Superman fly, Republic went back to the process they had used in Darkest Africa (1936) and Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), shooting a man sized paper mache dummy down a wire stretched between two points. While the Captain Marvel serial has some of the most complcated shots of a flying man in a serial; having life actors running from the dummy, and showing the dummy chase cars; I think King of the Rocket Men has the better effects. This is due to the advantage of Rocket Man wearing a helmet. Whereas Captain Marvel couldn't be shown in close up flying because the face would clearly be chown to be fake, Rocket Man can zip right past the camera and look totally real. The flying effect is also helped by the sound of a motor propelling Rocket Man, which helps lend some credence that he is actually zooming through the skies. Captain Marvel was always silent, not even the sound of rushing wind accompanied his flight.
Though King of the Rocket Men probably couldn't stand up in overall comparison with such classic serials as Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939) and Adventures of Captain Marvel, it was a good solid effort by Republic, and one of their last truly shining efforts before the genre ended seven years later.
Watch King of the Rocket Men
Chapter 1 - Part 1
Chapter 1 - Part 2