Opinons about when the golden age of serials ended vary. Some believe it was in 1943 with "The Masked Marvel". Others are convinced it was after "The Purple Monster Strikes" in 1945. While many contend the it lasted until 1949 and the release of "King of the Rocket Men". Regardless of these opinions, most fans agree that serials in the late forties were starting to get worn out due to a repetition of plot elements, lowering budgets, and excessive stock footage. "King of the Rocketmen" was an obvious attempt to reignite the old magic at Republic, and proved to be one of their best serials from the post war years.
A mysterious criminal known only as Dr. Vulcan has been stealing secrets and inventions from Science Associates to sell to foreign powers, and killing the inventors while making the deaths look like accidents. His latest victim, Professor Millard (James Craven) barely survives when a control panel explodes, showering him with electricity. With the help of fellow scientist Jeff King (Tristram Coffin), Millard sets up shop out of town in an abandoned cave. He lets the world believe he is dead so that he can finish his new atomic rocket suit as well as discover the identity of Dr. Vulcan.
Jeff meets with the other members of Science Associates; Bryant (I. Stanford Jolley), Chairman ( Douglas Evans), Conway (Ted Adams), and Von Strum (Stanley Price). They are all concerned about Millard's death and want Jeff to look into it. He agrees, making mention that Millard had been investigating the other deaths and was convinced that they were not accidents, but the work of Dr. Vulcan.
Dr. Vulcan is in fact one of the Science Associate board members. After the meeting he calls his number one flunky Dirken (Don Hagerty) and tells him to search Jeff's office and lab to see if Jeff has any real evidence to show who he really is. Dirken and Blears (David Sharpe) break into Jeff's lab, and aren't too concerned about running into anyone, after all these brainy types don't know how to handle themselves in a tough spot. Both men are in for a rude awakening when Jeff King walks in and beats the stuffing out of both men before they are able to get away.
Jeff goes to Millard's hidden lab and tells him about the break in. Millard is convinced that Jeff is now a target for Dr. Vulcan, but Jeff isn't too concerned. Millard has finished his rocket suit and gives it to Jeff to make a test flight at his first opportunity. Jeff is also give a sonic ray gun that the professor has invented.
Jeff has more important work at the moment, overseeing the transportation of an atomic powered aerial torpedo (missile not having become the accepted term yet). Dr. Vulcan also has plans for the new missile. While Jeff is at the warehouse getting the missile put aboard a truck, Dirken and Blears attack. They knock out Jeff and the guard, while a third cohort disables Jeff's car. Jeff comes to just as they are pulling away.
Finding his car sabotaged, Jeff decides this is the perfect time to test the new flying suit. Putting on the leather jacket with the rocket tubes on the back, the shiny bullet shaped helmet, and sticking his new ray gun into his belt, Jeff sets the controls and blasts off. As he is flying away, Jeff's friend, and PR man for Science Associates, Burt Winslow (House Peters, Jr.) and Glenda Thomas (Mae Clark), corespondent for "Scientific Data Magazine", pull up and are awed witnesses to Jeff's maiden flight. Glenda manages to snap a picture of the flying man before he zooms out of sight.
Jeff flies straight into the back of the escaping truck, scaring and bewildering Dirken and Blears, but not enough to keep them from attacking the strangly suited man. During the fight, Dirken is knocked back against the missile's firing switch and the destructive weapon is launched. Wasting no time, Jeff blasts off after the missile and manages to explode it with his ray gun before it can reach the city.
The force of the explosion knocks out Jeff's rocket engines and he starts to plumment toward the ground. Luckily he manages to get his rockets restarted and flies away to safety.
Later Jeff and the rest of the SA board learn through Burt that Glenda has a negative for a picture of the person she has dubbed Rocket Man. This concerns Jeff and MIllard. Though the actual picture is small, and Jeff's face is covered by the helmet, Millard is afraid that if the photo were enlarged enough it would show that the suit's construction follows the plans that Millard had made, which would point straight to Jeff, since the two men were known to have worked together on it. Jeff has Burt contact Glenda to set up an appointment to see the negative.
Dr. Vulcan is interested in the negative as well and sends Dirken to steal it. The thug searches Glenda's apartment but can't find it. Hearing someone coming, he hides. Glenda and Burt enter the apartment to wait for Jeff's arrival. Dirken uses an extension to call the operator and trick her into ringing the phone, then when Glenda picks up the phone, Dirken pretends to be Jeff and asks her to bring the negative to his lab.
After Glenda gets the negative from it's hiding place, Dirken pops out, gun drawn, and demands the piece of film. Burt knocks Dirken's gun away and they engage in a furious fight. Dirken manages to subdue Burt and make off with the film. He gets away in a car, with Glenda pursuing close behind. Burt sees Jeff arrive and tells him what happened. Jeff jumps into his car and heads after them, but quickly pulls over, runs into an alley with his rocket suit, and blasts off after the escaping Dirken as Rocket Man.
Dr. Vulcan uses one of his stolen inventions, a view screen, to check on Dirken's progress and sees Glenda chasing him. Using another stolen invention, the evil master mind takes remote control of Glenda's car and sends it toward a cliff. Rocket Man breaks off his pursuit to drop down on Glenda's car and help her leap to safety before the car crashes. This has given Dirken enough time to get away.
Things may look bleek for the heroes, but this is not so. Jeff learns that the type of camera Glenda uses is a special kind that can only print pictures on Microfilm 247. He quickly puts a hold on anyone being able to buy that type of picture printing material, knowing that Dirken will have to try and steal the supply kept at Science Associates.
Which is what Dirken does. Jeff gets the drop on Dirken, but then spies a mysterious hand, wearing a distintive ring, reach into the room and turn off the lights, which allows Dirken to get away. Switching to Rocket Man, Jeff follows Dirken to an old cabin out of town. Stashing the rocket suit, Jeff attempts to sneak up upon the cabin but is caught. He quickly turns the tables on his captors and engages in a terrific fight. During the fight some chemicals are spilled which mix together and cause an explosion that destroys the cabin, and the negative. Luckily Jeff managed to get out of the cabin just in the nick of time.
Later Jeff shows Burt a key he had found at the cabin. It is a key to their building. This proves that someone on the board is Dr. Vulcan. He tells Burt of his plan to prove which scientist it is. Unkown to both men is that a dictograph is hidden in the room, and Dr. Vulcan hears everything.
At the next board meeting Jeff has all of the board members put their hands flat on the table. Conway is wearing the ring that Jeff saw the other night. He accuses Conway of being Dr. Vulcan. The scientist whips out a gun and forces everyone back, then flees. Jeff gives chase but loses him. Later Conway phones another of the board members, he is scared that Jeff is trying to frame him for Dr. Vulcan's crimes, and wants the other man to help him. What Conway is unaware of is that the man his is talking to is really Dr. Vulcan, who sends Conway to a man who can help him, Dirken.
Dirken starts to force Conway to write a false confession to Dr. Vulcan's crimes. Police spot Conways's car and notify Jeff. Switching to Rocket Man he flies over to the apartment building and finds Conway and Dirken together. Conway says he is innocent, his ring is a symbol of a secret scientist organization he and another board member belong to, but is killed by Dirken with a knife before he can reveal who that person is. Rocket Man tries to capture Dirken but is knocked out the window. Rocket Man manages to get his rockets fired and zooms back up to the room, but Dirken is gone.
The police are notified. When the unfinished confession is discovered, the police take it at face value and conclude Conway was Dr. Vulcan and decided to kill himself . Glenda isn't convinced. She doesn't believe a man would commit suicide before finishing his confession. Glenda is starting to suspect that Jeff King is really Dr. Vulcan and the whole demonstration about the ring was just to cover his own tracks. She confides her suspicions to Burt, who skoffs at first, but is eventually won over by her logical break down of the facts.
Ironically, Jeff is voicing some concerns about Burt to Millard. Burt was the only person Jeff told about the ring being Dr. Vulcan's. Both groups decide to investigate the other.
Though "King of the Rocket Men" 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 Man" 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.
The stunt work is pretty standard, with your basic no frills fist fights running through out, exciting but nothing special. This is surprising considering Dave Sharpe is playing one of the main henchmen, yet he doesn't do any of the flips and leaps that characterized his work in the pre war years. There is one exception. In the last chapter Rocket Man crashes through a window, lands on the floor head first, and rolls forward onto his feet. It is vintage Sharpe and thrilling to see.
The plot is much better than most of the serials that were coming out at the time. Apparently the screenwriters were inspired by the newness of the character as they construct an intriguing mystery with some intersting twists and turns. One of the most interesting is the brief time when all of the heroes are suspecting each other of being Dr. Vulcan, usually the list of suspects is clearly decided on by the second chapter and the heroes work diligently toward exposing one of those people.
One of the most startling aspects of the plot is that one of the heroes dies after the half way point. This is practically unheard of in a serial. If one of the major characters who is not a suspect makes it past Chapter Three it is a foregone conclusion that they will be around to be part of the self-congratulatory coda at the end of the last chapter.
The only part of the plot that doesn't work is when King is worried that if anyone sees the picture of Rocket Man they might be able to tell that Millard was the one who designed the suit. This doesn't really make sense. It was stated in Chapter One that Millard was working on a rocket suit with Jeff, so when he shows up in the suit, it should have been obvious to everyone that Jeff is Rocket Man.
The casting is really different. A lot has been made of the fact that Tristram Coffin, an actor who specialized in playing villains in serials, was cast as the heroic lead. He does a great job in the role and added a certain amount of suaveness to a mostly colorless character. He showed that scientists could be brilliant, tough, and sophisticated. Mae Clarke, who was a long way from having James Cagney smash a grapefruit into her face in "Public Enemey" (1931), is given little to do. She tries hard to make an impression but she is made to look so unglamorous and plain that she fades into the background.
Don Haggerty has to be the only person ever to be cast as a thug in a Republic serial and actually look like one. There is no growling or snearing in his performance, because he doesn't need to. When he makes a threat, he looks fully capable of carrying it out with little thought or emotion involved. House Peters, Jr. is given almost as little to do as Clarke is, and he makes even less of an impression than she does. Although I have to admit he does look pretty jaunty during one scene where he is smoking a pipe while talking with Coffin.
One of the most interesting casting choices never gets mentioned in reference books, James Craven's kindly scientist. An actor who for years toiled in serials playing scheming, sniveling villains. Even when he started out as a good guy in "Purple Monster Strikes" he wasn't on screen ten minutes before he became evil. Yet here he is playing not only a good guy, but a heroic one. When it looks like Jeff is going to be exposed as Rocket Man in Chapter Six, Millard doesn't hesitate to put on the rocket suit and fly to the rescue. Craven does a great job in the part, almost as if he relished playing a hero for a change.
This is Fred C. Brannon's best work in the genre. The flying sequences must have really fired his imagination as he sets up some interesting camera angles to show the man in flight. Besides the previously mentioned scenes where the character flies right past the camera, there is a great sequence that sets up the cliffhanger for Chapter Eight. Rocket Man is shown from the point of view of the villains to be flying straight at them. The camera then switches to Rocket Man's point of view as we see the thugs whip out guns and start blasting away as we get closer to the window they are in. That scene must have really made the audience jump when the serial was first shown in theaters.
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.