Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s….

3 Heroes: Captain Marvel, Superman, Commando Cody
Figure 1: 3 Heroes: Captain Marvel (Alex Ross drawing), Superman (George Reeves), Commando Cody (George Wallace)

When I was a pre-teen, I had three fantasy heroes (Figure 1), all three of whom had the power of flight. They were, from left: Captain Marvel, the comic-book guy; Superman, played with great authority by George Reeves; and Commando Cody, who was played by several different actors (not all of who were playing the same character). I was—at about age 7—so in love with flying characters that I invented my own superhero: I was “Black Hoof”—from the planet Hoofla, who turned into a flying black horse in times of peril. I wore a green towel as a cape and probably jumped off a whole bunch of stuff (I remember jumping off the doghouse) in hopes that the cape would help me fly. (I even drew my own logo—a black horse’s hoof in a green circle.) Go ahead, laugh if you like, but I was serious. These three characters with the power of flight have remained heroes in my mind ever since.

I was able to read the adventures of Captain Marvel (really Billy Batson, who turned into the hero by saying “SHAZAM”—an acronym composed of the first initials of ancient heroes whose powers he gained), drawn by C.C. Beck, in the comics, until my mother banned comics from the house. (She hated superhero comics and my E.C. horror comics.) At the time I didn’t know there had been a Captain Marvel serial*; I only knew him from the comics. Then we got our first black-and-white TV when we lived in Duluth, Minnesota, in about 1954 or so, and that’s where I encountered George Reeves—who was a heck of a lot less wimpy as Clark Kent than any actor so far! And I must have seen Commando Cody in a serial at the movies, because I never forgot him, and when he was shown on TV in the late ‘50s, I watched as avidly as I had when I was seven. The actor shown in Figure 1 was George Wallace (Wallace had stage and film roles other than Commando Cody, but never achieved much success; he’s chiefly remembered now as Commando Cody), who wasn’t exactly the “matinee idol” type either.

In the early ‘50s, the TV show Space Patrol (which spawned a radio show—rather the reverse of many shows) became a smash hit on both coasts; in fact, it was the first West Coast show to be shown on both coasts! (Thanks to Wikipedia for that information.) In fact, the whole US seemed to be going space-happy; it was, in some ways, a Golden Age for space-related stuff, especially kids’ stuff. It became so popular that the movie companies, in order to try to draw some of the kids away from the TV and back to the theatres, started a show with a protagonist whose name was very similar to Commander Corry’s (Commander-in-Chief “Buzz” Corry was the head of the Space Patrol): Commando Cody! In fact, the rocket used in Commando Cody was very similar to the rocket (Figure 2) used in the Space Patrol.

Figure 2 - Space Patrol Rocket Left, Commando Cody Rocket Right
Figure 2 – Space Patrol Rocket Left, Commando Cody Rocket Right

So when I got the chance to obtain a copy of the first Commando Cody serial—Radar Men from the Moon, I jumped at it; considering it would be the first time I’d seen the whole thing in years. It’s a Republic serial, copyright 1951, and it stars the aforementioned George Wallace as Commando Cody. There are 12 chapters and, as is usual for serials, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. And the next chapter explains why you didn’t see the hero killed (or whatever) as you thought in the last chapter. (Each chapter of a serial—except the first one—was usually around 13-15 minutes; the titles and recap usually used up a couple of minutes, so each episode actually had around ten minutes of action, except Chapter 1, which was usually about 20 minutes, so as to set up the characters and situation.) As I mentioned in an earlier column, the Stephen King character Annie Wilkes—in Misery—had been highly offended by the idea that anyone could escape the cliffhanger endings, and really—if you paid attention—you’d notice that things did happen a wee bit differently in the recap, making her accusation of “cheaters!” sort of legitimate.

If your main exposure to non-super flying men is Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer (either the graphic novels or the 1991 Disney movie), then you might wonder how Commando Cody—and his various other incarnations, as he (or at least his “flying suit” did) appeared first in a 1949 serial called King of the Rocket Men—actually flies, without being a conventional “superhero.” You know, I watched Radar Men scrupulously, and it was never explained. I read somewhere, maybe on Wikipedia, that it was “atomic powered,” but I will have to wait until my clean copy of Zombies of the Stratosphere comes to see if it’s explained there. The flying suit consisted of a jetpack—a curved plate containing two finned tanks that were the actual flying mechanism with a teardrop-shaped “thingy” between them (I’m assuming that’s the atomic power source); a leather buttocks-length jacket under the tanks with a control on the front; and finally, an air-tight, somewhat conical helmet with two glassed-in eyeholes and a fine mesh-covered mouth-hole, although the whole front of the helmet could flip up. In addition, for emergencies, Cody could stick a revolver in his belt and/or belt on a fairly good-sized radio (no transistors here, folks!). The flight control had three dials: On/Off,  Up/Down and Speed Control, and there were gradations for all three dials. (Up/Down had “Lower” and “Higher,” and I guess there are degrees of “On” and “Off,” as that one was marked from 1 to 11, like the amplifiers in Spinal Tap. Oh, and you apparently got it going by jumping, as it made a kind of “pop” with smoke and then stopped smoking as you flew—unless you were falling to your death, in which case you just turned the dial from “Off” to “On” and the Speed Control dial to “faster”!

Figure 3 - Commando Cody's Flying Suit Control Panel
Figure 3 – Commando Cody’s Flying Suit Control Panel

.Anyway, here’s the storyline: Mysterious explosions are happening on Earth—everything from oil wells to powerlines to office buildings; it’s sabotage! Commando Cody and his merry crew have developed a rocket ship capable of flying to the moon, but the government wants them to keep it a secret. It appears that these mysterious explosions are atomic in nature; not bombs, as no planes have been spotted—but as Commando Cody and the government’s scientists have theorized, some sort of atomic ray has been used. And the government’s astronomers have noticed a lot of “atomic activity” on the moon, so Cody is dispatched to the moon to find out what is going on. (I’m not sure what kind of atomic activity the astronomers noticed. Little mushroom clouds all over the moon? Don’t forget, that in 1951, we still thought of “atomic” stuff as relatively benign. No thought of radiation at all, apparently.)

At this point, we viewers learn more than Commando Cody and the government; we are taken not only to the saboteurs’ cave on Earth, but to the moon people’s rather ancient-Greek-looking city on the moon. On Earth we meet Krog, the “advance” Moon guy and the two bad men (Graber—played, interestingly enough, by Clayton Moore, who would later go on to be the iconic TV Lone Ranger; and Daly) he hired to implement his sabotage program—he’s softening up Earth’s defenses in order to allow Retik, the ruler of the moon, to invade Earth. You see, the atmosphere on the Moon is so thin they can’t grow crops, and they have to wear space suits (the same balloony “Michelin Man” types seen in, for example, Abbot and Costello go to Mars) to go outside. Their city, even though you can see it clearly from above, appears to be a walled, airtight city with no dome over it. (There’s very little consistency about the so-called “science” in this so-called “science fiction” serial.)

So Cody and his two assistants, Ted Richards and Joan Gilbert, hop into their ship (Figure 2) and zoom off to the Moon with Hank, their pilot. As one can see from the chart they helpfully show, the Moon is about 240,000 miles from Earth, and it will take five days to get there. (Joan is brought along to cook for the guys, in case anyone wonders. No Women’s Lib in the fifties!) Although she wears normal clothes on Earth, she has a fetching cap-and-leisure-suit outfit for jaunting around in space. Arriving on the moon, they park away from the Greek city—I mean Moon city—and Cody flies over to explore. When he gets to the city wall, a voice (we’re not sure where it comes from) tells him to use the first door he comes to, which he does, arriving at some sort of airlock. Interestingly enough, though the science is often very bad in this serial, the airlocks are used—and you can hear the air sucking in and out—both on the ship and at the city, without comment; I guess they assume the viewer will be familiar with airlocks! Cody finds that Retik, the Moon’s ruler, is waiting for him with another assistant; Retik already knows Cody’s name and tells him they’ve been observing Earth using radio (!) for many years. Retik then fills Cody in on their evil plan to take Earth over because of the bad air situation on the Moon.

Figure 4 - Retik Frantically Reloads Ray-Gun
Figure 4 – Retik Frantically Reloads Ray-Gun

Despite appearing to be blown up at the end of Chapter 1 by Retik with his atomic ray gun, which apparently needed to be reloaded after each shot (Figure 4), Cody escapes, they go back to Earth and the whole schmeer continues for a total of 12 chapters. There are many explosions (some by large-scale raygun, carried in a truck) and lots of fist fights, in which everyone—including Joan!—is knocked out at least once, but after about 30 seconds manages to come to and continue the fight. Of course, to the modern movie-goer, this all has an air of unreality, but to the average movie-goer of the early ‘50s, it seems that almost anything went. One could ask embarrassing questions, like—well, in Chapter 2, Cody and Ted manage to carry off one of the big ray guns—apparently everything on the Moon weighs the same as on Earth, so it took two to carry it—and when pursued and shot at by one of the mini-tanks (wonderful little conveyances) that served as cars on the Moon, they abandoned it rather than shooting back at the car. And various other…um, small, niggling matters.

Finally, Retik and the Moon men are vanquished and Cody and crew are thanked in secret by a grateful government (because the government didn’t want to panic anyone, all of the above—with the exception of various things being blown up and appearing in the newspapers—was kept top secret. Unfortunately for them, Graber (The Lone… er, Moore, remember?) and Daly are in a truck that falls off a cliff and blows up, and there’s no next chapter to revise their ending. Despite having no CGI, Commando Cody manages to do a reasonable job with special effects. The flying sequences are done in two ways: the whole-body shots are a Cody-shaped dummy pulled along a piano wire; it looks just about as real as anyone could want; the closeups are done the usual way, with Cody lying on an unseen plank, from which he can tilt his head to look around or down. Apparently you steer this flying suit by holding both hands out in front of you and kind of leaning in the direction you want to go. It’s never really explained, but as I say the flying sequences are very real-looking. (Unlike the Kirk Alyn Superman serial, where all the flying sequences are animated… cartoon style!)

Figure 5 - Lunar Car, or Tank, pursuing Cody
Figure 5 – Lunar Car, or Tank, pursuing Cody

My wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, declines to watch a whole serial with me, as the constant repetition of the last minute of each chapter as the first minute of the next chapter got on her nerves. But, dear readers, I have learned a certain amount of patience over the years, and managed—with the help of a little device called a “remote control” with “fast forward”—to get through the whole thing quite handily. I really do find these charming, and plan to sit through each and every one of the approximately fifty serials I have, which include jungle tales (several Tarzan serials), Westerns, crime and spy serials, Rin-Tin-Tin serials and so on. There was a second Cody movie made which, according to Wikipedia, was released without the name “Cody” in it; I refer, of course, to Zombies of the Stratosphere. There was also a Commando Cody made-for-TV serial, which I haven’t seen (or ordered) yet, called Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. If, when I get it, I find it as much fun as this one was, I might review it for your reading pleasure and/or edification. (The pre-Cody serial I mentioned before which used the exact same flying suit and helmet, was King of the Rocket Men, which I will also attempt to get a copy of. If you are interested in these, I find eBay to be a terrific source of public domain films and serials at a reasonable price. You can also search Wikipedia for a list of all the serials made, which is helpful. I find the Australian and British sellers often sell them more cheaply than the American ones.

If what I’ve written interests you in any way, you can comment either here on the Amazing Stories website—if you’re registered—or on Facebook, where I also post a link to this blog entry in several fan groups. Remember: my opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories. It’s MY opinion! Next week, I’ll have more stuff. Maybe fanzine or book or movie reviews! Thanks for reading!

*the Captain Marvel serial – all 12 parts – can be seen at Archive.org.  Here is a link to the first chapter.

Many episodes of the Adventures of Superman are viewable on Youtube

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  1. Mr. Fahnestalk — You might have better luck getting your wife to sit through Republic’s colorized VHS version of “Zombies of the Stratosphere,” which is digitally remastered and condensed to 93 minutes, minimizing the repetitious scenes. It also features a truly clever, tongue-in-cheek introduction that really sets the tone for viewing this classic serial. The tape was issued in 1991, and an eBay check just now shows copies for sale priced from $20-40. I bought my copy new several years ago, but can’t remember where. I also wrote the studio to ask if they had similar plans for the other two serials, or for the TV series that spun off from it, but never received a reply. You might also be interested in the recent reissue of all three serials from serialsquadron.com — it’s excellent.

    1. Please, Bill–my dad was “Mr. Fahnestalk.” Call me Steve. The only issue with your suggestion might be the VHS portion; I have a player, but I have no way to hook it up to our HDMI Smart TV. But thanks for the suggestion!

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