Yester-day morning, I watched King of the Rocket Men (1949), the Republic serial whence flowed Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953) (the last being written and filmed as a television series, but released first in theaters). King of the Rocket Men (or one of its sequels) was also the principal influence on the Rocketeer, though Bulletman (who appeared in 1940) is probably another direct influence on the Rocketeer, and was surely a direct influence on King of the Rocket Men. (Republic Pictures, who produced Rocket Men, had earlier produced the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), based upon another Fawcett character, and with the same special effects team.)
It is, frankly, a bit of a surprise that King of the Rocket Men managed to inspire much beyond derision.
The male lead, Tristam Coffin, looks notably older than his 40 years, as if from hard living or merely from a hard life. (Coffin has one of those
pencil mustaches which are more make-up than facial hair.) The female lead, Mae Clark, was 39, but looks even older than does Coffin, perhaps from harder living or from harder life. (Mae Clark is notable as Kitty, the girl who gets a grapefruit in her face, in The Public Enemy (1931), and as Elizabeth, the fiancée of Henry Frankenstein, in Frankenstein (1931).)
But the real problem with King of the the Rocket Men is that the protagonists, including Jeff King (Coffin's character, the Rocket Man), are worse than ineffectual.
A villain named
Dr. Vulcan is trying to get control of the inventions of Science Associates, including King and a Professor Millard. King repeatedly fails to capture criminals, or captures them and then leaves them to escape, and he fails to prevent killings with almost perfect consistency. At one point, King takes a guard's gun, directing the guard to phone the police, and then fails to provide anything like adequate cover-fire for the guard, who is thus gut-shot.
King and Millard have been working on the Decimator for the benefit of mankind. The Decimator is named and consistently described as a weapon — indeed it is described as the most powerful weapon ever designed — which might lead one to ask how King and Millard conceptualize its benefits. King and his side-kick, Burt Winslow, leave the Decimator unguarded, so that they can pursue a suspicious motorcycle. Naturally, the Bad Guys take the Decimator. When King and the side-kick return, King doesn't notice that the Decimator is gone, but the side-kick does. With the aid of a photograph, King is able to tell the police the plate number of the truck being used by the villains. The police locate the truck in a mountain pass. King tells the police to stay back so that Rocket Man can deal with them. The villains try to blow Rocket Man up with a bomb, but he escapes uninjured, and then flies away, not even bothering to follow them as they drive off in a car with the Decimator. The police might have done a better job.
Eventually, King &alii have allowed Dr. Vulcan to fly to the east coast, where he plans to use the Decimator to black-mail New York City. Dr. Vulcan secretly sets-up the Decimator on Fisherman's Island, a little more than 300 miles south-east of New York, and gives the mayor a dead-line of a few hours to agree to paying a ransom of $1 billion. The mayor ignores the dead-line (G_d only knows how a mayor could come up with $1 billion in 1949, let alone in a few hours), and Dr. Vulcan uses the Decimator to trigger the Amsterdam Fault, which lies between New York City and Fisherman's Island. Earthquakes and waves begin to destroy the city. King figures-out where Dr Vulcan must be, and the Rocket Man flies to Fisherman's Island. The city is, for the most part, destroyed. King gets to the island, and blasts the Decimator with his ray-gun (something that he might have considered doing back in that mountain pass). Meanwhile, the mayor has had bombers sent to pulverize Fisherman's Island. King and Dr. Vulcan and Dr. Vulcan's henchman battle. The henchman is accidentally killed by Vulcan. The bombs begin to drop; the Rocket Man gets away just before the house from which Dr Vulcan has been operating is blown-up. Later, the mayor takes credit for saving the ruined city, and promises to rebuild (no Naginesque declarations about restoring the dominance of an ethnic group). Jeff King and his pals think the mayor ridiculous for not giving more credit to the Rocket Man. BTW, did you know that, if you jump out of a speeding car, all that happens to you is that you get a little dusty? Well, neither did I.