“Zombies of the Stratosphere”
Republic’s famed Rocketman flying suit figured prominently in three cliffhangers and one TV series all produced as the ‘40s came to an end and the ‘50s took off. In addition, a trio of different heroes donned the leather-jacketed uniform fitted with a jet pack and a cone-shaped flying helmet, Jeff King, Commando Cody and Larry Martin.
This begs the question, were there three different suits which each man wore when needed or were these traded off from one savior of the world to the next, sort of like rental tuxedos? We know that Professor Millard invented the first suit in “King of the Rocketmen”in ‘49 and gave it to King (Tris Coffin) to use but then what? Suddenly in ‘52’s “Radar Men from the Moon” it’s said to be Cody’s invention. Not a
Speaking of untangling, Larry Martin (Holdren) has his work cut out for him in “Zombies…” where for 12 chapters he tries to figure out what is behind the visit to Earth of two strange looking invaders from Mars, Marex (Lane Bradford) and Narab (Leonard Nimoy – yes, that Leonard Nimoy). Although the title and even some dialog refers to these two as zombies, there is nothing about them resembling the resurrected corpses of folklore and cinema with which audiences have become familiar. But it is a catchy title.
What these two are up to, thanks to screenwriter Ronald Davidson’s script, is nothing less than blowing Earth off its axis with the use of a hydrogen bomb so that Mars can take up the identical cosmic space and be rewarded by the superior and friendlier climate the Earth has so long enjoyed. It’s an audacious plan, to say the least, but these two are up to the challenge and it takes the better part of the serial for Larry Martin to get wise to things.
Marex and Narab have the help of a scientist (Dr. Harding) who they blackmail into assisting them, plus the usual strong-armed, home-grown henchmen perfectly willing to aid conquering space invaders never seeming to give any thought to what’s waiting for them around the corner once the Earth is no more. To complicate matters, the Martians, who can stay underwater for up to half an hour, have a secret hideaway where they keep their H-bomb and this sets in motion too many sluggish scenes of both villains and heroes navigating through the depths.
As with most serials filmed during the dying days of their production, “Zombies…” sports a relatively small cast with lots of old footage from earlier cliffhangers, but it mostly works. Judd Holdren, a veteran of a number of serials, is bland but serviceable as Martin. Aline Towne, always better than most of the films she found herself in, has little to do here but hold down the fort while the heroes are off battling the bad guys (“Can I go with you this time?,” she pleads at one point.) Western heavy Lane Bradford is an odd choice for lead zombie Marex and John Crawford takes up the villainous slack as the head terrestrial criminal. Also on hand are Wilson Wood, Stanley Waxman, Craig Kelly, Ray Boyle (later Dirk London) and the stunt/actor team of Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel. And if you listen closely you will hear Republic’s bad guy of all seasons – who is sorely missed in this effort – Roy Barcroft lending his voice to that of both an unseen radio announcer and a western wrangler in a scene lifted from an old Roy Rogers oater.
The aforementioned water sequences not withstanding, “Zombies of the Stratosphere” moves too quickly and has too many over-the-top elements coming at the viewer to stop for long to consider the incredible far-fetched scenario being viewed. Screenwriter Davidson not only manages to resurrect Republic’s famed water-heater robot from 1940’s “Mysterious Dr. Satan”(with scenes lifted from that serial) but takes advantage of the cold war atmosphere of the times and briefly brings the dreaded Ruskies into the storyline.
Although there had been science-fiction elements in a number of earlier cliffhangers, the post WWII world with its missiles, atomic power and reports of flying saucers provided new thematic blood to the tiring old serial plots. Whatever minimal logic there might have been in the serials of the past was jettisoned in favor of pushing the sci-fi envelope to the max, at least given the limited budgets and juvenile heroics inherent in chapterplays. Director Fred Brannon helms the action here with good pacing and, courtesy of the amazing Lydecker brothers, lots of flying sequences from the earlier Rocketmen efforts. It’s probably the weakest of the three Rocketmen productions but still has many moments of Saturday matinee excitement and thrills.
by Boyd Magers
The two greatest silent serial producers were the “Big U” (Universal) and Pathé. Pathé, who inherited the unique label “The House of Serials”, hovered over other studios with their rooster trademark, crowing that they produced the best quality serials in filmland.
Serial director Spencer Gordon Bennet began his career as a stuntman and day player at Thomas Edison’s studio. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., January 5, 1893, Bennet’s love for the stage came at age 13, passing out program sheets at a Brooklyn theater. He left school to gain fame and fortune and broke into the movie business in 1912, working for Edison in Fordham, N.Y. His first job was to leap from a cliff into the water below—a dive of 60 feet! For this daring stunt, Spence was paid $62.50.
In 1920 Bennet made his directorial debut with second unit work on “The Phantom Foe” serial for Pathé. He co-directed (w/George B. Seitz) “Galloping Hoofs” w/Allene Ray at Pathé. When Seitz left Pathé, Spence directed a string of serials on his own at that studio from 1925-1928 including such classic cliffhangers as “House Without A Key”, “Man Without a Face”, “Green Archer” and “Queen of the Northwoods”. He gained the reputation of bringing his films in on time and saving considerable money for Pathé. The studio heads rewarded him by paying Bennet $750 a week—top wages in those daring years. He was instrumental in developing new camera techniques and managed to obtain the best efforts from his stars and crew.
When sound came, Bennet directed many westerns as well as RKO’s only serial, “The Last Frontier”, in ‘32. Several for Columbia followed in the late ‘30s before he aligned himself with Republic in the early ‘40s. A true craftsman, he worked well with the talented Lydecker brothers (who supervised all their miniatures and special effects) and the great lineup of Republic stuntmen, especially Tom Steele, Dale Van Sickel and Dave Sharpe. He helmed (or co-helmed) “Tiger Woman”, “Secret Service in Darkest Africa”, “Masked Marvel”, “Haunted Harbor”, “Federal Operator 99”, “Purple Monster Strikes” and “Black Widow” among others.
Bennet was lured to Columbia in ‘47 to direct serials for Sam Katzman—“Brick Bradford”, “Superman”, “Congo Bill”, “Bruce Gentry”, “Batman and Robin”, “Atom Man Vs. Superman”, “Pirates of the High Seas”, “Roar of the Iron Horse”, “Capt. Video” and others—right to the last serial made, “Blazing the Overland Trail” in ‘56.
Bennet continued to work—with Jungle Jim features for Katzman then wound up a 50-plus year career with two westerns for producer Alex Gordon, “Bounty Killer” and “Requiem for a Gunfighter” (both ‘65). Bennet died in 1987 at 94.
They remember Spencer Gordon Bennet…The late GREGG BARTON (“Riding with Buffalo Bill”, “Blazing the Overland Trail”, “Gunfighters of the Northwest”): “He was a big…about 6'2"…quiet, gentle man who got what he wanted by just being nice. You couldn’t possibly let him down, because he was so quiet and gentle and knew what he wanted. As long as you knew what you were doing…knew your part…knew your words…he was just as gentle as a lamb. His pace was even. He wasn’t hysterical at all and he was very affable after hours when we went in to have a couple of drinks before dinner…he would mingle with the people…he was just one of ‘em. When he worked, he’d bring you up to where he wanted you to be without you even knowing it. He planned things out…he knew where he was going. I never heard the man raise his voice. I got the feeling he was content where he was (on serials and B films). He didn’t want all the hubbub of somebody looking over his shoulder all the time. He knew what he wanted and knew his gentleness would get it for him.”
Producer ALEX GORDON: “Spence started as an assistant director to George B. Seitz. Then worked on silent serials…worked a lot with Allene Ray, Walter Miller and Frank Lackteen, which made it easy for me to get Frank Lackteen into most of my pictures because Spence already knew him from those days. Spence was very much a physical specimen. He used to do everything possible to have the best possible figure. Healthwise, he never did anything to hurt his good physical appearance. He was a big health nut. In his early life he did a lot of exercising and athletics. One of the early things he did in the business was to ride a motorcycle into the water off a pier. He did a lot of stunts in those days—and showed actors how to do stunts. He was more interested in bringing a picture in on time and on budget and staging the action sequences rather than directing the actors.
“On my pictures, ‘Bounty Killer’ and ‘Requiem For a Gunfighter’, there were scenes where it could have gone on for a while…especially with experienced people like Dan Duryea and Audrey Dalton who could handle quite a bit of dialogue and the camera could move around with them as they did the scene. But Spence wanted to do everything in short cuts. My wife, Ruth, who’d written the script, was very upset about that. She said, ‘Look, we would save a lot of time if you shot this thing continuously. They can handle it. They’re the type of actors who don’t fluff.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but if they do, we have to set it up again and we’d be a couple of hours behind.’ After Ruth said Alex will be responsible if we fall behind, Spence did it her way and they didn’t fluff, so we were way ahead and brought the picture in in 10 days, on time and on budget. Anyway, he didn’t like to direct the actors, he just wanted to stage the action and scenes. He felt more at home with that kind of stuff, so he was ideal for serials and westerns. One of his best and most actionful was ‘Calling Wild Bill Elliott’.”
“Personally, he was a real gentleman, and he took care of himself. He was always properly dressed. Often with a jacket and tie on the set. Always neatly turned out…usually with a hat ‘cause he was out in the sun. He was only married one time. I talked to so many who worked with him in the silent days and found Spence would never get drunk or raucous, never used a four letter word, he’d always go home to his wife every evening. He was conscientious as a family man. He had a daughter (Harriet Bennet) who was a leading lady in one Ed Finney Tex Ritter picture (“Rollin’ Plains”). Spence bought a little house in Hollywood when he first started and was still living in that house at the end of his life.”
“He continued to use a lot of actors from the old days. One of the actors he liked most was Buster Crabbe (whom he directed in ‘Pirates of the High Seas’ and ‘King of the Congo’ serials)…who was also in my ‘Bounty Killer’. He said Buster always knew his lines. He never fluffed. Unlike Eddie Cahn (1907-1963), who did direct actors and tried to help actors as much as possible, Spence concentrated on the scenes and getting around to the next set and so on. I think that was the main difference between him and other directors of B pictures who tried to do a little more directing of the actors.”
“Bart Carré was our production manager on the two westerns—he went way back to the silent days not only as a production manager and assistant director, but also a stuntman and actor…he was in all those Willis Kent westerns; a man of all trades.” [Bartlett A. Carré (1897-1971) was an actor as far back as Jack Hoxie’s “Flying Hoofs” (‘25) and stayed active as Alex explained in one phase of the business or the other into the ‘60s. As an actor he worked in Willis Kent’s Reb Russell and Lane Chandler films as well as many Victor Adamson cheapies in the ‘30s. He worked on hundreds of films in a production capacity or as assistant director, even as associate producer on the Jim Bannon Red Ryder B-westerns in the late ‘40s.—ed.]
“Carré had been friendly with Spence for many, many years. He suggested Spence when Jim Nicholson at American International needed another director when Edward Cahn left to join Edward Small (for the pictures Robert Kent was producing). As soon as AIP brought in Spence, I latched onto him first and he did ‘Submarine Seahawk’ (‘58) there and ‘Atomic Submarine’ (‘59) at Allied Artists. I wanted him also for ‘Underwater City’ (‘62) at Columbia but Columbia wouldn’t approve him because they said he was just a serial director; so I used Frank McDonald.”
“Then in ‘65 I got back with Spence again on ‘Bounty Killer’ and ‘Requiem For a Gunfighter’. Those were the last two pictures he directed, and it was a little bit too much for him, he was getting a little bit old and tired. Doing two pictures back to back with no time in-between was getting a little tough for him. (He was now 72.) He couldn’t stage some of the stuff that we’d seen him do so many times, especially some of the stunts, riding shots, fights and so on; and I thought he could do that stuff in his sleep, but he couldn’t anymore. Still, I think he did a remarkable job considering the budget.”
HOUSE PETERS JR. (“Batman and Robin”): “A real gentleman with a hat, a trenchcoat and a tie. Very quiet and a pretty darned good director. He’d even get in on the rehearsal…we did a little rehearsing with him. I found he spent some time with actors. We shot ‘Batman and Robin’ downtown in a big warehouse. We utilized all the outdoor fire escapes…even some of the rooms…the whole building was closed up, deserted. There was never any yelling or screaming from him.”
JOHN HART (“Brick Bradford”, “Batman and Robin”, “Atom Man Vs. Superman”, “Pirates of the High Seas”, “Great Adv. of Capt. Kidd”, “Gunfighters of the Northwest”, “Adv. of Capt. Africa”. “Perils of the Wilderness’): “I got to know him very well at Columbia. If he got ahead on a shooting schedule, he got really excited…pushing like hell, you know. But if he was behind or just going along, he (took it in stride). Really a nice guy. Very friendly… and competent! He played squash… so we played a lot together at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Everybody liked him. Even when we had to do ‘Capt. Africa’ all over again he stayed even tempered. I don’t even know if he came back for the re-shoots…maybe Lenny Katzman did it. I came back for 7 days to do dialogue. I talked all day long. Quite an accomplishment, I thought. I don’t recall Spence…I do remember Sam’s son, Lenny being there for that.”
ADRIAN BOOTH (“Daughter of Don Q”, “Federal Operator 99”): “He was a great man of action. In ‘Daughter of Don Q’ he was very clever in having the stunt-men show me how to work with them especially doing jujitsu. They didn’t just do the stunts; they also had me partake in them. My double in that was Helen Thurston. She was wonderful. But Spence was so careful and considerate with me in showing me what to do. He worked very fast…he knew how he was gonna cut it. He could see the serial cut (in his mind). And that’s very difficult.”
TOMMY FARRELL (“Pirates of the High Seas”, “Atom Man Vs. Superman”, “Son of Geronimo”, “Gunfighters of the Northwest”, “Roar of the Iron Horse”): “The King of the serial directors! His attitude—by example: My first serial was ‘Pirates of the High Seas’ with Buster Crabbe. We started out shooting at the isthmus at Santa Catalina, on a path on the side of this little hill or mountain. Spence says, ‘Run down to where that rock is, look right and then react.’ I said to Buster, ‘React to what?’ He says, ‘Just look right and then look surprised!’ We did it and Spence says, ‘Cut. Very good. Now come up from the bottom and look left and react!’ I said, ‘What am I reacting to?’ He says, ‘Doesn’t make any difference. Just look surprised.’ So we ran up, stopped, looked surprised; and then cut. That was my introduction to Spence.”
“Now we move out on the big sailing ship. Spence says, ‘We need a line here.’ Buster and I had just been in a big fight. ‘Tommy, you run over to the rail, look down and say—‘They’re bending their oars to get away.’ I chuckled and Spence says, ‘What’s funny?’ I said, ‘People don’t talk like that.’ ‘Why sure, that means they’re going very hard.’ I said, ‘I know what it means, but it doesn’t sound very good.’ Buster says, ‘Why don’t we just say—They’re getting away.’ but Spence contended, ‘They’re bending their oars… nothing wrong with that.’ So that’s lesson two!”
“Spence was another one like Roll’em Sholem (director Lee Sholem) who’d draw a line in the dirt and say, ‘Now you bring the four horses; carrying the mail—coming in real fast—and all stop right at that line.’ (Laughs) There’s no way in hell you’d get four horses to stop like that. (Laughs) So what do we do? He says, ‘The best you can.’ So we’d come screaming in, sliding to a stop, get the horses turned around two of three times and we blotted out the line…but Spencer says, ‘That’s fine.’ (Laughs) That’s the way he was. He wrote the most stilted dialogue…because he’d written captions for silents! (Laughs) When they’d put us in place in the tavern, Spence would always say, ‘Tommy, take two steps forward because I can’t see you behind Buster’s chest!’ (Laughs) He and Buster were both in fine physical shape.”
VIRGINIA HERRICK (“Roar of the Iron Horse”): “He always seemed to have his shots ready for the day’s shoot. We got along fine because I was reliable. I showed up on time, knew my lines, and was able to absorb dialog changes when they occurred. He worked
LOUISE CURRIE (“Masked Marvel”): “I liked working with him…he was nice; I liked him personally and we had a good time doing it. It was too speedy for him to give me any direction, so I cannot compare him to other directors in that way. Spencer was fun.”
FRED GRAHAM: “Spence Bennet was the kindest person I ever worked with. He was always concerned about us and would go to any lengths to make sure we would not get injured.”
Director HARRY FRASER, writing in his autobiography I WENT THAT-A-WAY (Scarecrow ‘90): “Spencer once lamented that his skill as a cost cutter (never once going over schedule or over budget) actually worked against him, in that he found himself being assigned fewer shooting days and lower budgets on each successive project in his later years.”
PEGGY STEWART: (“Son of Zorro”, “Cody of the Pony Express”, “Phantom Rider”): “I adored Spence. He was so focused on what he was doing all the time, he knew exactly what he wanted. The biggest kick we all got out of it was when he was working with the stunt guys. Spence would go through it all himself. I remember Fred Graham, Dale Van Sickel and Tommy Steele…inside a saloon in a fight. Spence wanted one of them with an axe hacking at the hero as the guy would roll away down the bar. He’d roll down the bar and the axe would miss him each time. Spence went through all of this. He’d hack then he’d roll himself. He got down to the end of the bar and he wanted the guy to crawl into a barrel that was there. So here’s Spence, he falls into the barrel and he’s yelling directions from out of the barrel which is now so muffled nobody knows what the hell he’s saying! (Laughs)”
“He was a sweetheart of a man; charming, loving man. He helped to break Fred Brannon in as a director on serials. Freddy had been a prop man. Spence was a family man and loved his gym work. He had a good sense of humor. We’d catch him into his own seriousness—and we’d tease and he’d laugh at himself. He was in on the joke on ‘Son of Zorro’ when they left me tied up in the well and went to lunch. (Laughs) He was definitely an action director, perfect for serials.”