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Lost Planet Airmen

Entry updated 14 August 2023. Tagged: Film.

US film (1951). Republic Pictures. Directed by Fred C. Brannon. Written by Royal K Cole and William Lively. Cast includes Mae Clarke, Tristram Coffin, James Craven, I. Stanford Jolley and House Peters, Jr. 65 minutes. Black and white. This was an abridged version of the 12-part (167 minutes in total) Republic Pictures Serial Film King of the Rocket Men (1949), though slightly reworked (see below).

Reporter Glenda Thomas (Clarke) is visiting the laboratories of Science Associates, which is engaged in secret Rocket research, and remarks on the number of accidents that have killed some of the Scientists working there, but is told their work was dangerous and her suspicions are groundless. However, the audience has already seen they are the work of a saboteur, who performed the murders by remote control. One of those reported dead is Professor Millard (Craven), who had been working on an atomic powered Flying suit (see Nuclear Energy). Jeff King (Coffin), another of the scientists, reports that Millard had voiced concern that a "Professor Vulcan" was stealing secrets from the project and was responsible for at least one murder. In fact Jeff had saved the life of Millard, who is continuing his research in secret; the pair are working together to identify Vulcan. Having completed the flying suit, Millard gives it to Jeff to use: comprising a backpack, bullet shaped helmet and leather jacket, it has three control dials: labelled on/off, up/down and slow/fast.

When Vulcan's cronies steal an experimental rocket Jeff girds the suit and foils them: he is seen and dubbed "Rocket Man". Jeff and Millard realize that the thieves knowing the experimental rocket's location means Vulcan is one of the other four scientists at the laboratories. Various adventures follow, with Millard dying when another of his Inventions, the metal- and rock-melting Decimater, is stolen. Glenda and Burt Winslow (Peters), Science Associates' publicity director, aid Jeff and the trio eventually identify Professor Bryant (Jolley) as Vulcan. However, Bryant now holds New York to ransom, demanding one billion dollars, otherwise he will use the Decimater. In the city, Jeff's Decimater detecting device fails to locate it, so he believes it must be too far away to effect New York ... but Bryant intends to trigger an earthquake many miles offshore, activating a dormant fault, causing a tidal wave that will flood the city (see Disaster). When New York refuses to pay his ransom Bryant activates the weapon: Jeff, realizing what is happening and that Bryant must be on a nearby island, promptly flies there, crashes through a window and destroys the Decimater. Meanwhile, New York's Civil Defence Committee has ordered the air force to bomb the island, so Jeff has to quickly flee. The bombing arguably makes his efforts redundant, but does mean the film ends with a lot of explosions.

The main change from the serial is that the latter had most of New York destroyed, but in Lost Planet Airmen this is only shown as Bryant's fantasy of what the Decimater will do. These New York scenes were taken from the RKO film Deluge (1933), which Republic Pictures purchased for the special effects footage, also using it in S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939) – wherein dishonest politicians broadcast Deluge on election day, hoping to dissuade voters by convincing them New York has been hit by a tidal wave – and the serial Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.. (1941). The paring down of the serial makes for a more compact tale, avoiding the repetitions of the series' cliffhanger endings and their anticlimactic resolutions (one kept features molten lava pouring down a tunnel towards King, Glenda and Burt ... then they notice a side passage). Though Lost Planet Airmen is not particularly memorable it is a pleasant example of its type; though there is much use of stock footage, the original special effects of rocket man in flight are reasonably impressive for the time.

Despite the title, King is the only rocket man; the use of "planet", perhaps to give a more sf air to proceedings, is also misleading. There were three subsequent rocket man serials, all using the suit (which would retain its three dials). These were Radar Men from the Moon (1952), where Retik, ruler of the Moon, attacks the Earth, planning to invade and move his population here: fortunately scientist Commando Cody, whose Inventions include a rocket man flying suit and a Spaceship, foils Retik and his agents. This 12-part, 167-minute serial was edited into the 100-minute Television film Retik the Moon Menace (1966), which was later released on dvd (reduced to 62 minutes) as Commando Cody vs. the Moon Menace (2014). Next was Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) where Larry Martin of the Inter-Planetary Patrol foils a plan by the Martians to swap the orbits of Mars and Earth using hydrogen bombs, as their planet is dying. This 12-part 167-minute serial was edited into the 70-minute film Satan's Satellites (1958). Finally came Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953) where Cody is a masked scientist who prevents an alien called The Ruler from conquering the Earth. Designed as a television series – where it was shown after a film theatre run – its 12 episodes were circa 28 minutes long. The four Rocket Man serials (and their films) would be the inspiration for The Rocketeer (1991), while Lost Planet Airmen and the hero of two other rocket man serials would inspire for the 1970s country rock band, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. [SP]


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