Hail to Commando Cody! Or Whatever Name You Have This Week...
This image is of actor Tristram Coffin (or most likely a stuntman wearing the suit) as Jeffrey King aka Rocket Man (not Commando Cody YET) in King of the Rocket Men, a fun serial released by Republic Pictures in 1949. The clear (and acknowledged) inspiration for Dave Stevens' sublime comic character, The Rocketeer, the history involving this "Rocket Man" suit is pretty convoluted, as it was used to represent three different characters in three otherwise unconnected serials by Republic. And a TV series. And two feature films edited from the serials. And then the tributes to the character(s) muddled things up even further...
At the beginning, there was simply King of the Rocket Men. In 1952's Radar Men from the Moon, another actor named George Wallace (not the racist politician George Wallace nor the comedian who still carries the name) employed the suit as Commando Cody (mostly through the use of edited footage from the first serial). That same year, just six months later, Republic released the first chapter of Zombies of the Stratosphere, which saw Judd Holdren play a new rocket suit-wearing hero named Larry Martin (once again through edited footage from King), who used his flying powers to deal with an alien invasion (including a very young, pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy).
During 1952, Republic filmed the first 3 episodes of an early TV series (meant for syndication) titled Commando Cody – Sky Marshall of the Universe, this time with Holdren continuing in the hero role but picking up the Commando Cody mantle from Radar Men. The script for the fourth episode suddenly became the plotline for the serial known as Zombies of the Stratosphere. Production on the TV series halted until Zombies was completed, and then the final 9 episodes of Commando Cody were filmed. The TV series, with 12 25-minute episodes, was actually released to theatres first in 1953, where it just seemed to be another Commando Cody serial, and then was finally syndicated as a series on NBC in 1955. Got all that?
I hope so, because then there were the feature films cut from the serials. King of the Rocket Men was edited down into Lost Planet Airmen, and released to theatres as a "B" feature in 1951. Judd Holdren's work in Zombies of the Stratosphere was once again released to theatres in the cut-down version titled Satan's Satellites in 1958.
When I was a teenager, my youthful and burgeoning interest in rock 'n' roll full-time brought to me an awareness of a band named Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. They had a huge Top 10 hit song in 1971 named Hot Rod Lincoln, that I would hear played frequently on the rock stations at the time (in just a few short years, they would be known as "classic" rock stations, but they were pretty current when I was a kid). I had never seen any of the "Rocket Man" serials (or the TV show) as of yet. I had no idea there had been a Commando Cody in the movies, and so I just thought this band had a really clever, appealing name. It certainly brought the band to my attention. (I also had no idea that there had been older versions of Hot Rod Lincoln... Ah! the innocence of youth...)
In the middle to late '80s, when I stocked (and eventually took over the ordering) of VHS cassettes for the Book Cache stores, we carried about a dozen releases of serials from Republic Pictures (though not the first time they had been released on tape). Amongst these titles were the 3 "Rocket Man" serials: King, Radar, and Zombies. I soon became very well-acquainted with the adventures of these exasperatingly similar heroes with different names (all using the same flying suit footage). For roughly a year or so, I would watch a chapter from a Republic serial every morning as I ate my Raisin Bran before I headed out the door to work. I would go to work with images of Commando Cody floating through my brain. Around the same time, Night Flight on the USA Network had started airing regular showings of the Firesign Theatre's mind-blowing, feature film spoof of old time serials, J-Men Forever, which incorporated footage from the "Rocket Man" serials, but renamed the hero as "Rocket Jock".
It didn't take long upon seeing the name Commando Cody on the description on the back of the Radar Men tape for me to start wondering if the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had actually gotten their name from something else, though it would be years before I found out that the "Lost Planet Airmen" part was a reference to the edited feature film that starred roughly the same character as Commando Cody but with a different name. I have never found confirmation if George Frayne IV (the lead singer for the group who goes by the name Commander Cody) or someone else in the group devised the name from either a misremembering of Commando Cody's name, or if it was a clever revising of the name in tribute.
Or even if one of them saw Lost Planet Airmen as a kid but also saw the other serials, and then just mixed everything up in their heads in a mishmash. It would be easy to do. Even after seeing all of the serials, I have referred instantly to the character as Commando Cody when scenes of the flying suit pop up on TV commercials or documentaries. When Disney's film version of The Rocketeer was being released in 1992, I clearly remember some promotional interviews and reviews where footage of the old "Rocket Man" suit were used in a mocking way in conjunction with the vastly more impressive flying scenes from The Rocketeer to show how far effects had come in 40-some years.
Regardless of how his influence hits each of us individually, the image of this "Rocket Man" character has kept our imaginations engaged for almost 70 years. Hell, most people that I know, myself included, still long for our own jetpacks. At least with Rocket Man, or Commando Cody, or even Larry Martin, you knew that suit was going to be used for good, and good only. I don't think that I could say that about some of us...