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Film / King Of The Rocket Men

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Someone is killing the top scientists in the country in suspicious accidents. Believing that the culprit is a member of their own organization Science Associates, Professor Millard fakes his death and enlists the help of fellow scientist Jeff King, equipping him with a Jet Pack he's just invented. Together they seek to foil the plans of the mysterious Dr. Vulcan, and establish his identity before he unleashes a terrible fate on New York City.

This twelve-chapter Film Serial was released by Republic Pictures on June 8, 1949. It's the first of the so-called "Rocket Man" film serials, though this is the only one where the term is used to refer to the hero. For more such adventures see Radar Men from the Moon, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe and Zombies Of The Stratosphere, not to mention the homage comic The Rocketeer and its 1991 film adaptation.

Tropes for the film:

  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: King and surprisingly Professor Millard both do this in a couple of chapters.
  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: After finding the hidden bug, King pretends to make a phone call offering to illicitly sell a secret gadget. After hearing this on his bug Vulcan sends Derkin to steal it, not knowing that the gadget is actually a radio location transmitter. Unfortunately Burt and Glenda overhear the phone call from outside the door and assume King is a Detective Mole, nearly ruining the plan when they try to stop the package from being stolen.
  • Car Chase: A risky proposal when the Big Bad can remotely take control of your car.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The title card of Chapter One establishes the villain from the get-go as "Dr. Vulcan — Traitor".
  • Caps Lock, Num Lock, Missiles Lock: Jeff King has a chest-mounted panel to control the direction and speed of his rocketsuit, but given the restrictive vision of his full-face helmet it's not clear how he could see it, and he hasn't had time to memorize the position of the dials either. A wrist-mounted version would be more practical.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: Chairs are inevitably used whenever Good Old Fisticuffs happen in any place with furniture. King twice gets knocked out by a chair-wielding Derkin to near fatal effect.
  • Cliffhanger:
    • In the first chapter the aerial torpedo (which for some reason is being transported fully fueled on a launching ramp) gets accidently launched towards a nearby city. Rocket Man chases after it and manages to destroy the Misguided Missile with his Ray Gun, but the explosion knocks him out and the chapter ends with him falling to his death! To Be Continued next week in Chapter 2: PLUNGING DEATH! He recovers in time to stabilize his flight.
    • In Chapter 2, Dr. Vulcan takes control of Glenda's car, sending her and the Rocket Man—who's trying to save her—over a cliff where it hits the ground in a fiery explosion. Next week the events are shown Once More With Clarify, and we discover they simply jumped out beforehand.
    • In Chapter 3, Jeff King gets knocked out during the brawl in the chemist's shack, and is left to die by the villains as flames lick at a crate of explosive. Once again our hero recovers in time, fleeing the shack before it explodes.
    • In Chapter 4, Derkin knocks Rocket Man out the window of a high building. Given that he's wearing his rocket suit at the time, it's no spoiler to reveal that he turns it on before he hits the ground.
    • In Chapter 5, Rocket Man struggles to save Glenda who is trapped in an airplane in a fatal dive, only for it to crash into the ground and explode! There's a second parachute which Glenda uses, and King just uses his rocket pack, so they both escape before it hits the ground.
    • In Chapter 6, King is knocked unconscious while driving a truck which then proceeds to smash through a warehouse door, driving off a dock and into the water. King again recovers in time to jump out (but not apply the brakes, for some reason).
    • In Chapter 7, our heroes are trapped in a tunnel when the Sonic Decimator is accidentally activated and starts to melt the rock. We hear Glenda scream as they're enveloped in molten lava! King points out a nearby air shaft they somehow didn't see earlier, and they escape through that. In fairness, its existence was foreshadowed when Derkin goes looking for one to make his own escape.
    • In Chapter 8, Rocket Man is flying to save his friends, but the villains see him approaching and open fire. They miss.
    • In Chapter 9, King is (yes, again) knocked unconscious and left in a truck with a Time Bomb ticking down its final seconds before exploding. He (yes, again) recovers in time to flee to safety.
    • In Chapter 10, King is tricked into entering a cab that turns out to be one of Vulcan's remote-controlled vehicles that's been converted into a Gas Chamber, with the doors only able to be unlocked from the outside. The last thing we see is him collapsing from the Deadly Gas. Fortunately Burt and Glenda saw the fake cab driver jump out of the vehicle and go chasing after him. While Glenda drives alongside, Burt is able to leap over to the cab and bring it to a halt.
    • In Chapter 11, Burt is being held hostage with an electric Death Ray set up to cover the door. Rocket Man enters via the window but gets captured and forced at gunpoint to back into the doorway so the deadly device is activated. Once More, with Clarity again as we see the Bound and Gagged Burt kicked a mook into the path of the Death Ray so he got electrocuted instead.
  • Cliffhanger Copout: The Once More, with Clarity version rather than outright changing what happened last week, despite what Annie Wilkes was complaining about.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Conway is assumed to be Dr. Vulcan after police find his body and a half-written confession, even though he's been stabbed In the Back. Admittedly only the Rocket Man was a witness and the police could have assumed that a co-conspirator murdered him to avoid being named in the confession.
  • The Dragon: Tony Dirken is in charge of the henchmen working for Dr. Vulcan. Who ends up shooting Dirkin in the back while trying to hit Rocket Man.
  • Earthquake Machine: Every cop in New York City is called out to search for Dr. Vulcan, but he's on an island three hundred miles away, outside the effective range of the Sonic Decimator so they won't look for him there. What he does is turn the Death Ray on an underwater fault, creating an earthquake that causes skyscrapers to crumble and a Giant Wall of Watery Doom to inundate the city.
  • Enhance Button: Actually used as a plot-point before it became a trope. The villains get hold of a photo negative of the Rocket Man and seek to enlarge it to find out who he is. King realises that they'll attempt to duplicate the negative on a type of fine grain film that's only stored in the Science Associates lab, so their next move will be to steal it.
  • Evil Plan: Rather than working for a hostile foreign power, Vulcan is planning to hold New York City to ransom with the Sonic Decimator, demanding a billion dollars (this is in 1949). Why this necessitated killing the other scientists is not mentioned, as this only alerted them to his existence. He could have just waited until Millard had finished building the device and then stolen it.
  • Frame-Up: King is holding Derkin at gunpoint when a hand wearing a distinctive signet ring reaches through the door and turns off the lights, enabling Derkin to escape. The same ring is worn by Professor Conway, who doesn't help his case by drawing a gun and fleeing. However he's just a patsy for Dr. Vulcan who's a member of the same fraternity club, hence the ring. Dr. Vulcan has convinced Conway that King is desperate for a scapegoat and sends him to seek shelter with Derkin, who then forces Conway to write out a false confession. Rocket Man turns up to rescue him, but Derkin throws a knife into Conway's back just as he's about to reveal who his false friend is.
  • Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: Averted; our hero has a bullet-shaped full-face helmet that streamlines his head, shields his face when he's flying, and conveniently hides the stuntman playing him.
  • Hot Topic Phlebotinum: The rocket suit is "atomic-powered", getting around the problem of how it has enough fuel. The idea of atomic-powered vehicles had already been suggested in the press in the 1940's, under the belief that the technology would one day get small enough for everyday use.
  • Improperly Placed Firearms: King's Ray Gun is clearly a German Luger pistol with a conical prop placed over the barrel.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: King finds a bug the size of a handheld microphone hidden behind a cabinet (in fairness, it was The '40s).
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: In Chapter 2, Vulcan has to tell Derkin that Glenda is tailing him after picking it up on his camera device, despite her car racing after him on a country road at high speed.
  • Identity Impersonator: In "Mystery of the Rocket Man", Dr. Vulcan suspects that King is the Rocket Man, so has him kidnapped to see if Rocket Man will turn up to rescue him. Fortunately Millard has built another rocket suit and does the required rescuing.
  • In-Series Nickname: After he saves the city from a Misguided Missile, our hero is dubbed The Rocket Man by the press and public.
  • Inside Job: King and Millard quickly realise Dr. Vulcan must be a member of Science Associates due to his access to inside information. Unfortunately King's colleagues openly speculate that he's the Rocket Man, given his association with Millard who was working on the rocket suit, putting King's life in danger.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Glenda Thomas is a science magazine reporter investigating the sabotage, who soon finds herself on the case of the mysterious Rocket Man when she photographs him in flight. She's the only woman in the film, as none of the Science Associates have the usual Sexy Secretary or Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.
  • Is This Thing Still On?: After King is kidnapped, he surreptitiously turns on the car's radio transmitter. Millard intercepts the conversation and overhears the Just Between You and Me conversation he's having with Derkin.
  • Jet Pack: The atomic-powered rocket suit.
  • The Little Detecto: Millard says the Sonic Decimator runs on something called thromium, so he needs to build a shield to prevent Dr. Vulcan detecting it (and how about protecting the user from radiation poisoning while you're at it, Professor?). Cut to Dr. Vulcan showing Derkin the "radionic detector" he's created that will detect thromium regardless of how well it's shielded. When our heroes use a similar device to find the stolen Decimator, Dr. Vulcan outsmarts them by hiding on an island well outside the maximum range of the weapon.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: A good guy version with Dr. Millard hiding out in a cave where he's set up a lab. The Title Sequence plays over shots of this laboratory.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: In the opening scene, Spinning Newspapers announce the deaths of scientists in plane crashes and automobile accidents, all arranged by remote control by Dr. Vulcan. When Dr. Millard gets suspicious, Dr. Vulcan arranges for his death in a laboratory fire. Fortunately it's later revealed that Jeff King saved Millard off-screen and he's only Faking the Dead.
  • Meaningful Name: "Yes, Dr. Vulcan. A bizarre name, but it's what I stand for. Power! The power of steel, forged into what I believe is right."
  • Mind Control: King and Burt think they've caught Dr. Vulcan red-handed stealing the plans for the Sonic Decimator from the safe, but realise their prisoner has been given a hypnotic sedative because he kept mumbling the safe combination as a Madness Mantra. However he's also muttering R.F.D. 48, which they realize was the address where he was supposed to drop off the plans. King takes his place to make the delivery.
  • Moral Myopia: King describes the Sonic Decimator as "the most devastating weapon known to Man." Heedless of any irony, another scientist asks what good the invention is to Man when it's just been destroyed. Instead of pointing out that the world is better off without such Weapons of Mass Destruction, King promises to build another Sonic Decimator.
  • Murder by Remote Control Vehicle: In the opening scene a scientist gets into his car, only to find Dr. Vulcan has sabotaged the locks so it won't open. He then uses radio remote control radio waves to send it off the cliff. He tries to do the same with Glenda and later King—fortunately both are able to escape thanks to their friends pulling a Big Damn Heroes.
  • Neutral Female: Averted; Glenda chases after Derkin twice and has to be rescued by Rocket Man when she falls into peril, to his annoyance. On another occasion she's tied up, and on the next occasion the villains and heroes are in a gunfight so she stays out of it as she's unarmed. Even when she can't fight, she has no problem driving the car during a Car Chase.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The villains steal the Sonic Decimator which can do incalculable damage in the wrong hands, as King notes. Fortunately it's destroyed, but then King goes ahead and builds another one instead of waiting till Dr. Vulcan is caught, which is then successfully stolen. Ostensibly this is so Dr. Vulcan can be lured out of hiding, but why not just fake something up? Derkin is not a scientist and wouldn't know the difference until after he delivered it to his boss.
  • No Endor Holocaust: The Mayor of New York ends the film boasting that New York City will be rebuilt. Presumably we're supposed to think that a Citywide Evacuation took place despite the fact that the populace had nowhere near enough time to do so.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Presumably the Decimator doesn't just destroy one time out of ten.
  • No One Sees the Boss: Dr. Vulcan is seen as a voice and a shadow on the wall, with only Derkin interacting with his boss directly. The mystery of his identity is the Driving Question for much of the film.
  • Not Quite Dead: Professor Millard apparently dies in a laboratory fire arranged by Dr. Vulcan. After the audience is introduced to the Science Associates and Jeff King in particular, the latter drives out to a cave where it's revealed that King saved Millard's life, but is pretending otherwise so he can continue his scientific research undisturbed by murder attempts.
  • Obscured Special Effects: There's always a car or some other object in the way to hide the springboard when Rocket Man takes off.
  • Pants-Positive Safety: King shoves his Ray Gun in his belt regardless of the risk of it falling out while he's flying or wrestling with bad guys.
  • Phone Booth Changing Room: Our hero often ducks into an alley or behind a stack of crates so no-one can see him change into his rocket suit.
  • Police Are Useless:
    • Even though Dr. Vulcan is assumed to be committing sabotage or planning to sell his stolen technology to a foreign power, no-one suggests bringing in the FBI.
    • Jeff King gets the police to stay away from an apartment where they think Dr. Vulcan is hiding to avoid tipping him off. The police don't know that King is Rocket Man, so why would they leave it to a civilian scientist to arrest him?
    • A police dragnet is set up to catch Derkin after he steals the Sonic Decimator, with a clear description of the truck and license plate number he's using. They escape just by switching vehicles and Rocket Man locates the truck first anyway—Derkin is so sure of this happening he sets up a Booby Trap to take Rocket Man down for good.
    • The "finest police force in the land" is combing New York City for Dr. Vulcan, who isn't anywhere near the place. To be fair even Jeff King fell for that one.
  • Pop the Tires: Derkin ends a Car Chase by shooting out a tire on King's vehicle. He of course just grabs the rocket suit from the trunk and continues the chase. Later a mook on a motorbike goes off a cliff into the sea when King shoots out his tire.
  • Previously on…: Done with title cards and cliffhanger recaps.
  • Ray Gun
    • Rocket Man uses a ray gun to shoot down the aerial torpedo, but presumably drops it when he's knocked unconscious because we don't see it again until the final chapter when it's used to destroy the Sonic Decimator.
    • The Sonic Decimator invented by Professor Millard, who demonstrates its ability to melt a bar of manganese steel. At full strength it can turn rock to lava and even destroy a city.
  • Recap Episode: Chapter 10: The Deadly Fog brings the audience up to speed on past events before the final two chapters. The Framing Device is Burt discovering King's Secret Identity, and the latter filling in his friend on everything he did as Rocket Man.
  • The Reveal: Professor Bryant is Dr. Vulcan.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Derkin demands to know how Jeff King was able to track him down.
    King: Haven't you heard? I'm Rocket Man.
    Derkin: Sure, and I'm the King of Siam.
  • Science Hero: Jeffrey King is the "rocket propulsion expert" of Science Associates, making him literally a rocket scientist. When he suggests that the deaths of the other scientists were not accidental, his colleagues propose that he take charge of the investigation instead of bringing in the authorities or hiring a private investigator. One of Dr. Vulcan's goons scoffs at the idea that he's a threat because "these science types are all brain and no brawn", but when King walks in on them riffling his files, he quickly shows himself adept at Good Old Fisticuffs, sending them packing.
  • Sinister Silhouettes: Dr. Vulcan is only shown as a shadow on the wall taunting his victims and instructing his mooks via radio, before his real identity is revealed. Unfortunately, he lacks an appropriately sinister voice to go with his shadow.
  • Stock Footage:
    • The tidal wave that destroys New York City is from the 1933 disaster film Deluge. Republic Pictures had bought the film rights purely for the purpose of this trope.
    • Rocket Man's launching and flying scenes are reused from earlier episodes. Scenes from this film serial would also be reused in later "Rocketmen" film serials.
    • In The '70s J-Men Forever would Gag Dub scenes from this movie for comic effect.
  • Supervillain: Dr. Vulcan's henchmen assume that he wants to steal secret technology to sell to a foreign power. Turns out his ambition is far greater—using a Weapon of Mass Destruction to hold the wealthiest city in the world to ransom.
  • Super Window Jump
    • The villains kidnap Burt as The Bait and set up a Death Ray covering the door. Rocket Man flies through the window instead (they really should have seen that coming, as he's already entered via the window previously).
    • Racing against time to stop Dr. Vulcan destroying New York City, Rocket Man smashes through a closed window instead of landing and opening it as usual.
  • Surveillance as the Plot Demands: Dr. Vulcan has a device that shows him what his potential victims are up to, so he can engage in Evil Gloating or warn his henchmen of pursuit. Why he needs an Incredibly Obvious Bug if he has this ability is not revealed.
  • Tagline: "Watch "Rocket Man" sweep from the clouds to battle America's enemies!"
  • Tap on the Head: Despite wearing a full-face protective helmet, King has an annoying habit of being knocked unconscious only to recover Just in Time to escape death.
  • Technobabble: Used whenever King and Millard are discussing the Sonic Decimator.
  • Train Escape: In Chapter 6, King is kidnapped by Derkin. Burt goes racing after them, only to get blocked off by stock footage of a train when Derkin is able to drive across the crossroads in time.
  • Unfinished, Untested, Used Anyway: When Millard gives King his newly invented atomic rocketsuit, he advises him to test it first while keeping low to the ground. Then mooks steal the aerial torpedo that King is supposed to be guarding, stealing the truck and immobilizing King's car, so he has to take the rocket suit out of the boot and go after them.
  • We Need a Distraction: Derkin deliberately trips the motion sensor in Millard's cave hideout. When King and Millard rush outside, they see one of Derkin's men racing off on a motorcycle and chase after him, leaving Derkin free to sneak in and steal the Sonic Decimator. Our heroes aren't happy about falling for one of The Oldest Tricks in the Book, but fortunately there's a tripwire that activates a camera, getting a photo of the license plate of Derkin's truck.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Some of these are justified, like when a bomb is about to go off and the villains are more interested in running for their lives than finishing off the hero, but on one occasion Derkin captures King and leaves him with a single mook guarding him instead of shooting King dead on the spot. Needless to say, he escapes.