“KING OF THE ROCKET MEN”
One of the earliest memories I have of watching our family’s first TV (a 1953 Packard-Bell, for the record) was of a helmeted man sporting an odd looking flying suit suddenly toppling out of a high story window and, instead of plummeting to what would be certain death, fiddling with some controls on his chest and soaring off to safety. To this day, I’m still not certain which of Republic’s various rocket suit owners I was observing…Jeff King, Commando Cody or Larry Martin, only that I was totally captivated by his amazing air-borne exploits.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to catch up with my hero until a few years later when Republic edited the serial, “King Of The Rocket Men”, into a full-length feature titled (for some inexplicable reason) “Lost Planet Airmen”. Seeing the original serial took me a few more years where by then I had become acquainted with the cinematic history of this character I idolized almost as much as my favorite Republic lead, The Copperhead (“Mysterious Doctor Satan”).
One of my great youthful fantasies, in fact (other than one involving a cute little pigtailed brunette up the street named Laura Joan Knuckles), was having a rocket suit hidden in my desk at school so to the envy of everyone I could fly home for jelly sandwiches and Bosco at lunch.
Rocket Man (not Men, as promised in the title) was Republic’s last great serial creation; a good thing, too, because the serial itself, although well intentioned and directed with zesty panache by veteran Fred Brannon, was starting to reveal what would all too soon reflect Republic’s on-going economic belt tightening (fewer villains, stock footage, unimaginative cliffhangers) that eventually characterized the majority of Republic’s post war product.
Still, “King Of The Rocket Men” is a great deal of fun. If nothing else, the work of special effects wizards, the Lydecker brothers, in getting the title character aloft is alone well worth the price of admission. Even today, given all the extremely lifelike computerized special effects which have come to over-dominate movies, the shots of Rocket Man soaring over the virginal canyons of 1940s L.A. are a joy to behold. Essentially, the creative brothers employed the same technique, a dummy dragged along wires, as they had earlier in “Adventures Of Captain Marvel”, but since Rocket Man’s face is covered with his bullet-like helmet, unlike the Captain’s carved countenance, the effects seem more believable.
The plot of “King” has the mysterious Dr. Vulcan (shown only in shadow until the conclusion) out to steal a group of potentially deadly weapons created by an outfit called Science Associates which includes Jeff King (Tristram Coffin), secretly Rocket Man. For 12 death defying chapters, Jeff, aided by bland sidekick Burt (House Peters Jr.) and newspaper woman Glenda (Mae Clarke), fights to prevent Vulcan from capitalizing on these remarkable creations; my favorite being a ray which can melt everything from steel to rock. The scene in which the three flee from a wave of splashing lava (taken from “Captain Marvel”) has always delighted me even though the escape method is rather disappointing. Another moment I never tire of watching, though for totally different reasons, is the conclusion of Ch. 5 (“Fatal Dive”) in which Rocket Man, trying to save Glenda who is trapped in an airplane set to crash, slams brutally—and obviously none too accurately—into the side of the plane.
Annoying for me, however, are those scenes when Coffin stops his car (always in broad daylight too) and lifts the flying suit out of the trunk but doesn’t remove his suit jacket before obviously struggling with some difficulty into the tight leather suit. “Take off that damn coat first,” I invariably scream at the TV set. But he never listens.
As to the cast, there’s the aforementioned Tris Coffin (his voice dubbed when Rocket Man), for most of his career cast in villainous roles but here playing hero Jeff King. I personally like Coffin in the part and find him a better actor and more interesting than a lot of the more conventional serial heroes. Mae Clarke is a bit over the hill for a serial heroine, certainly no Linda Stirling or Adrian Booth in the looks department, but, I must say, is pretty spunky and animated in the part and seems to be having fun with it. House Peters Jr. is likable enough, but seems to be on Valium throughout, while James Craven, as the rocket suit’s inventor Professor Millard, is always a welcome addition to any serial. Meanwhile, husky Don Haggerty is forced to carry almost all the weight of villainy with old pros such as Tom Steele, Dave Sharpe and Dale Van Sickel on hand (when not occupied with their stunt work) only when needed to help out with the assorted fistfights, gun battles and action sequences.
The conclusion of the serial has Vulcan turn his death ray on New York City, with deadly results. In footage taken from the RKO feature “Deluge”, the Big Apple is nearly destroyed by a monstrous tidal wave before Rocket Man can put a halt to things. Despite his city being reduced to rubble and untold thousands of people dead and dying amidst the ruins, the blowhard mayor treats the catastrophic events in a frivolous fashion, vowing to immediately rebuild New York City. It’s the sort of scene you could only get away with in a cliffhanger.
Budget restrictions, some odd casting, a few weak cliffhangers, purloined material from other serials and features aside, “King Of The Rocket Men” is filled with great action, fine stunt work and that fantastically satisfying flying suit from which, even four decades after originally seeing it, I still get enormous pleasure out of watching in action and which, I must admit, I still wouldn’t mind having in my desk at work.
“HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE”
Serial buffs don’t seem to think much of “Holt of the Secret Service” (Columbia ‘41). When mentioned at all, it’s usually negatively. Jim Stringham lists it among his “10 Worst”. Still, I think it deserves another look.
In its favor, it has a solid cast of veterans like Jack Holt, Evelyn Brent, C. Montague Shaw and Ted Adams, among others. It has a no-nonsense screenplay that rarely lacks credibility (a rarity in serials), and amusing performances. Holt and Brent establish good rapport and are given some juicy scenes and snappy lines which they deliver with obvious relish. Joe McGuinn, as gangster Crimp Evans, is particularly convincing, and there are the usual band of regulars like Stanley Blystone, Ed Hearne and George Chesebro, as well as the unbilled Stanley Price.
The story centers on a set of engraving plates for U.S. dollar bills, made by the Treasury Department’s best engraver, who has been held prisoner and forced to produce them for a gang led by an unknown (to them) boss who gives instructions by radio or through underlings. The counterfeit bills are so good they’re virtually undetectable. Jack Holt, Secret Service agent, assumes the identity of racketeer Nick Farrell, in an effort to penetrate the gang and recover the plates. Kay Drew (Brent), another agent assigned to the case, acts as his hard-boiled wife who helps him and gang member Crimp Evans escape from prison.
The boss, Lucky Arnold (John Ward), operates from a luxury yacht which serves as a high-class gambling casino for well-heeled patrons who think he’s merely a friendly, usually-drunk gambler with a cabin on the ship. He uses his many illegal activities as outlets for the phony money. Arnold is aided and abetted by his two right-hand men, Valden (Tristram Coffin) and Quist (Ted Adams). Arnold’s gang hides out in a small forested valley, where they have several cabins set up for comfortable living; reachable only by climbing up and down a cliff on a rope ladder which is always under guard. Valden manages the valley headquarters while Quist serves as Arnold’s front man on the yacht. There’s also Crimp Evans, who thinks Jack is a renegade Secret Service man trying to steal the engraving plates. Crimp is determined to cut himself in.
The quest for the plates leads everyone to the island of Capas, “three days off the coast” of Central America owned by “one of the warring nations,” where they meet Garrity (Stanley Blystone), a loud-mouthed bully who’s judge, jury, postal officer and everything else on the island. He quickly cuts himself in on the plates. That’s pretty much the set up.
I will concede that “Holt” fails as a suspenseful cliffhanger, although a couple of endings, one with Jack falling from a rope ladder into a tunnel full of acid fumes, another with him facing a firing squad, are exciting exceptions. But I can’t imagine kids liking the serial. It’s too “talky” and in some case too subtle. But, taken as an adventure yarn, it holds up pretty well. There are also enough absurdities to keep a viewer amused. For example: having just escaped from prison (with Kay’s help), Nick and Evans undertake a dangerous whitewater canoe trip to get to the valley hideout. Surreptitiously, Kay tries to follow them on foot, keeping to the river bank. The men paddle furiously and expertly (each man dressed in a double-breasted suit) around rocks and fallen trees. The canoe goes over a waterfall, Crimp is supposedly drowned (he’ll show up later), and when Nick (Jack) drags himself to shore, Kay is right there to help him. Why the men bothered with the dangerous canoe trip is never explored.
When Nick and Kay eventually find the gang’s valley headquarters and are reluctantly taken in (“The boss don’t like women,” says one thug fearfully. “Yeah? What kind of guy is he?,” Kay wisecracks), they immediately start acting up, becoming a serial version of the Bickersons. Upon arriving at the hideout, Kay wails, “If I’d’a known you were taking me to a place like this I’d’ve let you stay in jail. You promised me swell clothes and nice digs and look what I get!” “If you don’t shut that trap of yours,” growls Nick, “I’ll shut it for you.” Later (and always with gang members watching), Nick tells her to “Keep that lip of yours buttoned up or I’ll knock your silly block off.” Kay gives as good as she gets, and, using sex appeal, causes her share of pandemonium.
Holt and Brent work well together and seem to be having a field day with the material. (How often do you see this in a serial!?) She, with her loud plaid outfit and tough-as-nails talk—and he? Well, let me tell you that Jack/Nick is one tough customer. I must admit, I can’t resist any film in which 53-year-old Jack Holt takes on four thugs at a time and beats their brains out. He doesn’t do it just once, but regularly, knocking bad guys senseless with roundhouse rights far more devastating than any punches ever landed by Dempsey or Liston. At one point he picks a fight with five heavies and kayos them all. Later, he takes on seven of them and is giving them all a thrashing when he’s felled from behind. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.
The serial switches locations frequently. From the streets of an unnamed city to the posh surroundings of the yacht’s casino, to the gang’s hideout in a forest valley and to the tropical island of Capas (complete with gullible native tribe), location changes help keep things moving along at a reasonably brisk pace.
In addition to innumerable fist fights and shoot outs, Jack/Nick will find himself in out-of-control cars heading for a cliff, in buildings with bombs about to go off, facing a firing squad, about to be pierced under the blades of a tiger trap and either falling or being pushed from high places, among other perils. Kay is nearly incinerated and both find themselves in a cabin about to be bombed. While all that is enjoyable, it’s really the acting, plot and dialogue that keep this serial afloat for me. If my brief description sounds appealing, I assure you, you’ll enjoy the serial even more. “Holt of the Secret Service” is worth a look.
Smooth, dapper, thin-mustached Kenneth MacDonald dates his acting career back to 1909 when he was a child actor at eight on the legitimate stage.
Born Kenneth Royce Dollins September 8, 1901, in Portland, Indiana, where his father was an auctioneer and his mother was a teacher, he grew up in Richmond, Indiana, where he earned seven letters at Richmond High School as a member of its football, basketball and track squads. He was the first president of the Richmond Athletic Association. His last appearance in Richmond was in 1970 when he returned for the 50th anniversary of his high school graduating class.
He discovered the name MacDonald in his family background and changed his name accordingly (making it legal in 1930). Possessed of a fine singing voice, he often performed solos at various churches in the area. Upon graduation, his interest turned to acting and music.
MacDonald went on the stage in the early ‘20s, appearing in some 3,000 performances before American and Canadian audiences. Finding entrance into films tough, he wrote and published a pamphlet “The Case for Kenneth MacDonald”. This self promoting booklet was distributed to all the studios and finally landed him a part in “Slow as Lightning” in ‘23 followed by others including a series of two reelers (co-starring Milburn Morante) under the “Fortune Hunter” designation. By the mid ‘30s on into the ‘40s, MacDonald was the suave crook with black manicured mustache menacing western stars Charles Starrett and Bill Elliott at Columbia.
Serials were a big part of MacDonald’s work in the late ‘30s and ‘40s as he menaced Robert Stevens in “Perils of the Royal Mounted” (‘42 Columbia), Bill Elliott in “Valley of Vanishing Men” (‘42 Columbia), Tom Tyler in “The Phantom” (43 Columbia), Gilbert Roland in “The Desert Hawk” (‘44 Columbia) and Robert Scott in “Black Arrow” (‘44 Columbia). He also had roles in Columbia’s “Mandrake the Magician” (‘39), “Overland With Kit Carson” (‘39) and “Monster and the Ape” (‘45). After an 11 year serial hiatus, MacDonald returned to the genre for Columbia’s next to last, “Perils of the Wilderness” (‘56), matching some of his stock from “Perils of the Royal Mounted”.
According to another veteran heavy, Pierce Lyden, MacDonald refused to do fights or stunts saying, “Make them double you. They’ll have respect for you then as an actor.” Pierce said Mac always carried a VIP attaché case. “It attracts attention. People ask questions. They notice you.” Pierce remembered Mac always wanted to be a director for stage or movies but never attained that goal, “He was an intelligent, serious-minded actor, though.”
Maturing by the mid ‘40s on into the ‘50s, MacDonald became more of a character player, turning up as cops, doctors, military officers and as quite a few sheriffs in westerns.
MacDonald also gained great notoriety in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as a comic foil in several Three Stooges Columbia shorts including westerns like “Shot In the Frontier” (‘54) and “Punchy Cowpunchers” (‘50). In fact, it was his work with the Stooges that landed him the recurring role as a Superior Court judge for 32 appearances on TV’s popular “Perry Mason” (‘57-‘66). It seems Sam White, whose brother Jules was in charge of many of the Three Stooges comedies, was a member of the Mason Production team. Sam remembered MacDonald and suggested him for the role of the judge.
MacDonald’s last role is an uncredited bit in “Which Way To the Front” (‘70).
The father of two sons and a daughter, he was married to La Mee Nave MacDonald. His parents were John Wesley Dollins of Kentucky and Mary Tate of Indiana.
MacDonald died at 70 of a brain tumor and a tumor in his left lung at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, on May 5, 1972. The suave badman is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, California.