Posts Tagged ‘King of the Rocket Men’

Cliffhanger Serials of the 1940s

March 1, 2013

They came to life twice in the early 20th century with “The Perils of Pauline” (1914, 1933). They zoomed from there into the stratosphere during the Great Depression with “Flash Gordon” (1936).  Then they took off with all the power of  comic books with “Batman” (1943, 1949) and “Superman” (1948) in the 1940s.

The immediate post-war years (1945-1949) were the halcyon days of the 12-15 week movie serials that drew the kids to movie theatres across America every Saturday to see how the storyline’s heroes escaped their latest almost certainly fatal brush with death in the previous chapter. They continued into the 1950’s, of course, but were soon enough put to bed for all time by the role of television coming into the picture and offering virtually the same fare at home for free.

George Reeves as Superman on TV, for example, had a staying power that KIrk Alyn as the movie Superman from 1949 could not have and hold. Alyn was done in 12 chapters. Reeves could keep it up as long as the kids wanted him – and, unlike Alyn, as we said earlier, he was free.

Everyone has their own serial favorites from the old days. Here are my three favorites from the 1940’s:

Circa 1945

Circa 1945

(1) “The Purple Monster Strikes” (1945, 15 chapters): Arch movie serial “bad guy” Roy Barcroft played the title role as solo visitor to Earth from Mars as the advance guard explorer of a planned invasion. For some reason, Mars had perfected a one-man rocket plane that could fly to Earth, but they lacked the technology to start it up again for a flight home to Mars. It’s a little hard to start a flying machine that explodes within ten seconds of its only occupant’s quick landing departure from the flight capsule. As the “purple monster,” Barcroft had come to earth to get that return flight know-how, fly back to Mars, and then lead the planned invasion back to Earth.

Described by the serial’s narrator as a “strange, weird visitor” from another planet, Barcroft wears a late 1940’s version of a purple spandex-like suit and something that looks like a purple shower cap as his everyday attire. We see his attire in shades of grey, of course, due the black and white film they used for these adventures.

The Purple Monster also has the ability to stand near a dead human body and explode a little smoky capsule that allows him to enter the deceased in ephemeral form and disguise himself as Dr. Cyrus Leighton, a prominent American scientist. The Martian also carries with him a little black box called the “distance eliminator” that allows him to both speak and understand any language. In the last chapter, the monster almost gets away. He crawls inside the “going home” rocket with all of the plans inscribed on paper in detail. He pushes the rocket’s lever from its “stop” to to the “take off” position. Before he can exit the Earth’s atmosphere, however, he is blasted to smithereens by an atomic rocket missile that has been set up by the US Army to defeat his getaway and save the world.

All’s well that ends well. And Roy Barcroft goes on to play the sheriff in the movies version of “Oklahoma”  in 1956. Those of us who grew up watching Barcroft in serials and Grade B westerns are as proud of him as we were of former Houston Buffs who later made it to the big leagues. A kids, we knew him as the Purple Monster, a bad guy, but one of our actors nonetheless.

Circa 1946

Circa 1946

(2) “The Crimson Ghost” (1946, 12 Chapters): A college science professor leads a double life as “The Crimson Ghost” and he spends all his time trying to steal a colleague’s plans for building a Cyclotrode device that will have the power to short-circuit all-electric power on the planet. Whoever controls it will possess the power to take over the entire world. Megalomania was a common affliction among the movie serial villains. Must have been a writer’s disease, one that contemporary writers of the TV series “Revolution” may have copied from The Crimson Ghost.

What makes this movie so ironically attractive, however, is the presence of Clayton Moore as the Crimson Ghost’s top henchman, Louis Ashe. Moore is much better remembered today as the actor who played The Lone Ranger on the TV series of the same name.

One continuity problem with a Crimson Ghost scene that violated the laws of physics, even as I understood them at age 8: Hero Duncan Richards is about to drive off a cliff at 80 mph, but he is unconscious in the driver’s seat as the chapter concludes with the car going off into the abyss. The next week, the same scene plays out differently. This time, at the last minute, the hero wakes up in time to jump out of the car. From there, he runs on the highway to a slowing halt without either falling down or losing his hat as he also stops in time to watch the car going off the cliff without him.

What??? – Even at 8, I’m saying, “no way!” Even we kids can’t do that! He doesn’t even need a bandaid!

Like the Purple Monster before him, the Crimson Ghost is finally detected and stopped. This time the villain survives to go the penitentiary.

Circa 1949

Circa 1949

(3) “King of The Rocket Men” (1949, 12 Chapters): This one starred the only guy beyond the great Tris Speaker I ever heard of whose full first name was “Tristram.” Tristram Coffin played the Rocket Man who took on the challenges of the evil Dr. Vulcan for (what? you guessed it!) world domination. The Rocket Man wins to preserve the heroic record of good guys and the American Way against bad guys and evil at a perfect whatever figure for wins it is for America against zippo for the alien baddies.

Our science challenge with the Rocket Man had to do with the flame that burst out of his backpack rocket that enabled his flight. We could not figure out he was able to sit down anywhere after even a short flight. In fact, we would even ask ourselves: “Could the Rocket Man even fly from our neighborhood to the Avalon Theater and still be able to sit down once he bought his movie ticket?” We decided that he must have worn asbestos underwear that they just didn’t talk about back in the day.

Those were the days, my friend.