The failure of The Rocketeer to become the monster summer hit Disney had hoped for might seem easy to figure: no stars, blah title, cryptic poster art. But in other ways, it should have been a cinch. Even before a nameless Greek bard concocted the myth of Icarus, people yearned to fly. To bullet through the clouds, the earth tiny and cartographic below: The prospect is irresistible, in childhood and, later, in dreams. Not for nothing do kids follow flying superheroes with primal fervor. Not for nothing does the beleaguered urbanite played by Kevin Kline in the current Grand Canyon soar above nighttime L.A. in his sleep.
In real life, though, the closest you get to free flight is an airplane (no good; you’re stuffed in a tin can of boredom and bad food) and skydiving (okay if your idea of flying is straight down). Then there are movies, a form of communal dreaming, but even they rarely get it right. If you doubt that, rent The Rocketeer on a double bill with King of the Rocketmen, an enjoyably hokey 12-chapter serial that Rocketeer clearly uses as one of its stylistic touchstones. The two have a lot in common. Unfortunately, what they share isn’t all good.
Like many pop-culture artifacts of this period, King of the Rocketmen puts its faith in Big Science, particularly the brainiacs at the Science Associates think tank where hero Jeff King (Tristram Coffin) works. King doesn’t resemble the standard Hollywood scientist — he dresses like a cop, actually — and that’s fine, because he has to punch a lot of face as he runs around foiling the plans of evil nemesis Dr. Vulcan.
Early on, King gets hold of a rocket pack created by one of his associates, and it’s this gizmo that allows him to zip from place to place — rescuing snoopy female reporters from going over cliffs in cars, that sort of thing. But even the 1949 kiddie audience must have felt let down by the patent falseness of the flying scenes. When Rocketman zooms over a canyon — the same damn canyon in scene after scene — he’s clearly a dummy on an invisible wire. It’s worse in the close-ups, where you can actually see ghostly white lines where wires were matted out. King of the Rocketmen does have hilarious bogus-scientific dialogue (”You mean the Decimator actually operates without an X-20 relay tube?”), but because the budget and the technology just ain’t there, neither is the awe. C-