Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953)

 

It is always odd when you see a movie (or book or comic or whatever) which is caught in the middle of a major upheaval.

Think of the early sound films with their awkward too square aspect ratio and everyone huddled around the camera in every shot so they can be near the microphone.

Or the early silent feature The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913), with its odd combination of painted sets and backdrops, Melies-esque trick photograpy, and actual large sets and location photography.

And then there’s Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe, which is somehow trapped between the classic movie serials and the children’s television show.

Now movie serials were a curious development from the early days of the film industry.  In its purest form, it told a continuing story in a series of connected episodes, which would be shown once a week, usually as part of a children’s matinee.

But, by the 50s, the movie serial was fading rapidly as television took over.

Perhaps the surest sign that television was taking over came when one of the most popular television shows of the era, Captain Video, moved to the theaters as a Columbia Serial.

And amazingly enough, despite the fact Columbia made the cheapest serials ever made, it still looked better than the show.

But I digress.

Republic Pictures made the best serials, with production values that looked as good as most feature films.  They decided that they wanted to move into TV and chose a very familiar route to get there.

Well, “familiar” if you were Republic Pictures.

They were in the habit of recycling parts of their old serials (and movies, as well) — particularly the stunts, action scenes, props and special effects — into their new ones, and nowhere was this more obvious than in their science fiction serials: the same spaceships, robots, and costumes appeared over and over again, as did their signature Rocketman character.

Or perhaps I should say “Rocketman suit” as the actual named of the character varied from serial to serial.

By the time this one was made, he’d already appeared in two serials and they were just about to film the third Rocketman serial.  Republic had an extensive collection of action scenes featuring the helmeted hero, not to mention plenty of footage of spaceships, alien planets and various disasters.  It was a solid basis for a low-priced twelve episode TV series featuring The Rocketman and they hoped it would be the wedge that would get them into the television market.

They reused the name, Commando Cody, which was the Rocketman’s name in his latest appearance, Radar Men from the Moon (although this time he was played by serial stalwart Judd Holdren instead of George D. Wallace).  Each episode was twice as long as a typical serial chapter at half an hour long (while the first chapter of a serial was often slightly longer to set up the basic situation, even these were typically only twenty minutes or so long).

However, the children’s show of the era typically were either fifteen minutes for the daily shows like Captain Video, or half an hour for the weekly ones.

An even larger change was that Commando Cody‘s episodes did not end on a cliffhanger.  This was one of the distinctive features of the movie serial, where every week it needed to end on some moment, no matter how contrived, which left one of the heroes in danger of imminent death.  After all, the had to be sure that all the kids out there in the audience would have to go to the theater again next Saturday to find out how he gets away.

Instead, each week, Commando Cody faces a major peril at the end of the show, only to resolve it and have that classic TV moment with all the good guys back in their HQ talking about things.

From what little I’ve seen of the TV shows of the era, the daily shows followed the serials’ cliffhanger convention, while the half hour weekly shows had standalone episodes.

Some critics have claimed that there is no continuity at all in the Commando Cody series and that there is no overarching story, but that isn’t entirely true.

The first two episodes establish the basic storyline: Commando Cody and his two assistants have to fight off a series of attacks on the Earth by the sinister alien leader known as “The Ruler,” while trying to find some way to stop him.  They finally get the upper hand and defeat him in the last two episodes.  There isn’t a lot of development between these two points and the order of the episodes could get juggled a bit without affecting the story too much.

But, if you look at the Republic serials which preceded it, you will see that this is a fairly common plot, where the two sides keep trying new strategies against the other side, with only minimal story progression for most of the serial’s runtime.

However, this all got a bit more complicated because Radar Men from the Moon was so successful that they decided to make a sequel, Zombies of the Stratosphere (which is best remembered for Leonard Nimoy’s bit part as an alien).

So, as strange as this may sound, they set aside the production of their TV series after they’d completed three episodes, and filmed the serial instead.

And if that wasn’t strange enough, for some inexplicable reason — and despite the fact that Zombies of the Stratosphere stars Judd Holdren as well– they decided at the last minute to rename their hero “Larry Martin.”

Oh, well, we never do learn Cody’s secret identity, maybe it was Larry Martin under the mask the whole time.

Right.

As a result of this production break, William Schallert wasn’t available, so Commando Cody suddenly acquires a new sidekick with only the briefest of comments about Ted Richards getting transferred.

As I’ve noted before, the portrayal of women in the science fiction films of the Fifties doesn’t fit the standard narrative we have these days.  The hero usually has a female assistant in the Republic serials and this time around it is Aline Towne (another Republic regular) as Joan Gilbert.  They never bothered giving any of the players much characterization in these serials — not even the hero — but Joan is apparently some sort of secret agent, like everyone else in the organization, and she is not merely office help but also acts as Cody’s lab assistant and even flies his Rocketship.

So much for that stereotype.

The effects were the work of Republic Pictures resident SFX experts, Howard and Theodore Lydecker.  They used huge models and shot much of their effects work outside against real backgrounds.  You can’t ever forget that it is a model, but it there’s something special about the look and feel they achieve.  I vastly prefer it to a lot of the “perfect” CGI effects we get these days, because it has a solidity and a naturalness to it that they can never hope to achieve.  There’s nothing like seeing Commando Cody — or a spaceship — flying against real Californian hills, with a little help from one of the Lydecker Brother’s industry changing inventions, the marionette rig.

Another factor that really helps sell Commando Cody’s rocket pack is the incredible athleticism of one of Republic’s greatest stuntmen, David Sharpe (who can be recognized in their serials thanks to his incredible leaps) who did Cody’s rocket assisted takeoffs with the help of an offscreen springboard.

I’ll admit, though, that I am rather puzzled by one of their technical decisions, although I’ll admit it isn’t unique to this serial.  Cody frequently has to land on the Rocketship while it is in flight, and yet it doesn’t have a large entrance hatch, or a special entry port, or even any grabholds.  Cody just slams into the ship at speed, scrabbles over its surface using tiny handholds, and then has to open the small circular porthole-sized hatch on top of the ship.

Every single time.

Let’s face it, it looks painful.

One does have to wonder how much influence those children’s shows had on these serials (although, to be fair, the TV shows borrowed heavily from the serials themselves).  Commando Cody’s name does sound suspiciously similar to that of Space Patrol‘s Commander Corey.

But if you’ve seen the opening credits of Captain Video, with its (painted) image of Video’s giant broadcast tower on the top of a mountain, then the shots of a similar tower on a mountain in the credits of Commando Cody look like a deliberate wink and a nod at the competiton — only this giant aerial is a Lydecker Brothers original with as many attached antennae as a cellphone tower.

And it rotates.

So there.

Perhaps the strangest part of all this is that Commando Cody not only straddles the gap between the serial and TV show, but is actually both.

Republic’s deals with its Union had imposed a set of rules which forced them to release Commando Cody into the theaters before they were allowed to run it on television.  In most theaters, they ran it as a serial, although there was also a version which had been re-edited into a cut-and-paste feature.

I’ve seen quite a few serials, so I’m used to the limits of the form.  We’re not talking about great cinema here.  These films were made for children and you just can’t miss that, even though Republic — unlike their biggest competitor, Columbia — always took their work seriously and tried very hard to make their serials look good no matter how silly they got.  There’s even a bit of science fictional imagination to it all, like the rulers plan to fry the Earth with an array of solar mirrors, reflecting more of the Sun’s power back at us.  If you can find the right mindset, their films can be quite entertaining.

If you can picture yourself in front of that tiny, staticky, black-and-white TV screen on a distant Saturday afternoon.

…Or was that, in a comfortable seat in your favorite local theater?…

For more information on the Rocket Man serials, see here.)

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