“The Rocketeer”: Disney’s underrated retro-rocketing adventure, 30 years later…


In the summer of 1991, I went to the famed El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood; a gloriously gilded movie palace hailing from a different era (originally built in 1926), beautifully restored and refurbished. This old glamour of the venue was a perfect way to see “The Rocketeer”; a retro-styled, period piece-adventure set in Los Angeles of 1938. Based upon an independent graphic novel series by the late Dave Stevens (1955-2008), I later learned the movie was a bit Disneyfied from its source material. However, being unfamiliar with Stevens’ books at the time, the Disney sugar-coating was lost on me; all I knew was what I saw on the screen, and I enjoyed what I saw. Very much, in fact.

No, that’s not Tony Stark…

While “The Rocketeer” had many successful elements in its DNA, it would yield a curiously dismal haul at the US box office ($47 million). While I can’t say the film is perfect, it certainly deserved a better fate. Recently re-watching the movie again at home on a large collapsible screen (via a digital projector), I was easily able to lose myself in its earthy but earnest magic once again…

“The Rocketeer.”

The film opens in 1930 Southern California, with our hero Clifford Secord (Bill Campbell) and his partner Peevy (Alan Arkin) testing out their newest Gee Bee racer plane, which they hope will be their ticket to winning the Nationals someday. Pouring their last nickels into the eye-catching canary yellow aircraft, the two partners hope to break out of the crop-dusting, air show circuit and do some serious civilian test flying. Superstitious Cliff insists on putting a freshly chewed piece of Beeman’s gum on the tail for good luck. Hearing but not listening to a patient Peevy’s tips for controlling the new plane, Cliff is raring to go, as the bubble canopy is fitted just over his head in the tiny cockpit. Well, as you may have guessed, the gum doesn’t help…

Hoover’s boys are hot on the trail of a rocket stolen by the mob from no less than Howard Hughes. The film toes the line between reality and fantasy with a wonderful deftness.

The test flight is going fine, and Peevy’s hopes for entering in the Nationals soar… that is until Cliff happens upon a car chase between Hoover-era FBI G-men and a pair of thieves from the gang of mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino). Thief Wilmer (Max Grodenchik) and his partner have just stolen a mysterious, bulky package from none other than aviation pioneer/visionary Howard Hughes himself (Terry O’Quinn). The squirrelly driver Wilmer is fired upon by the Feds, and the gallant Cliff swoops in to try and stop their car. For his act of reckless bravery, Cliff’s plane is shot up by machine gun fire. Later, in a last ditch effort to stop Wilmer, Cliff taps the roof of the car with his already damaged plane, forcing the car into off the road before it hits a fuel truck. Cliff’s crippled plane is spewing oil onto the canopy, blinding its pilot. Punching a hole in his canopy Cliff barely manages to land his now burning, totaled plane…dooming any chance of ever competing in the Nationals. His partner in crime dead, a badly injured Wilmer is taken to a hospital, but not before he can laugh in the Feds’ faces…

Note: Lots of Star Trek connections; Bill Campbell would play “the outrageous Okana” in the same-titled Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Max Grodenchik, who plays mobster-thief Wilmer, also played moron-engineering genius Ferengi “Rom” on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In another Star Trek connection, 1970s character actor Paul Sorvino (father of Mira Sorvino) would play Worf’s adopted brother Nikolai on TNG’s “Homeward.” Terry O’Quinn would also play Admiral Pressman in TNG’s “Pegasus.” There are other actors in the film who’ve appeared on various Star Treks, but the faces are more familiar than the names, I’m afraid.

Peevy and Cliff see their shot at the Nationals go up in smoke.

We see Howard Hughes taking a call from the FBI that his rocket pack is presumed destroyed in the car crash at the airfield. Hughes is sorry he ever dreamt up the damn thing. Asked whether he wants to make more of the devices for the government, he tosses the plans for the rocket pack into the fire, exclaiming, “The dream is over–tell them Howard Hughes said so.” After the disastrous landing at the airstrip, a still-filthy Cliff and Peevy meet with Mr. Bigelow (John Polito) the owner of the airfield. Without malice, the strictly-business Bigelow demands compensation for the destroyed fuel truck as well as overdue rent for the hangar. With no other options, Bigelow suggests the two go back to their more profitable flying-clown stunt show, a suggestion that the proud Peevy rejects, until a desperate Cliff convinces him otherwise. Agreeing the split the ticket sales with Bigelow, the two are allowed to stay and work off their debt with the flying clown act.

It’s so…deco.

After Bigelow leaves, Cliff and Peevy check out the old plane they used for the stunt show; it’s in shabby shape, and needs a lot of work. Cliff settles into the cockpit, and is poked by something sticking out from under the seat. He pulls out a large sack, which was hurriedly stowed there by Wilmer earlier. Inside the sack, they find a conjoined pair of rockets in a solid metallic housing; Cliff wonders if it’s a bomb, until he notices the straps in the front of the unit, which allow it to be worn like a backpack. Peevy is suspicious, but Cliff begins to see dollar signs; if they were to “borrow” this rocket pack for their air show, they could make a fortune. Peevy reminds his young partner that borrowing without asking permission is stealing, and that whomever built that advanced contraption will no doubt want it back. Cliff persuades the reluctant Peevy only after he promises to return the device, once they make a little enough cash from it to get them back on their feet. Later, the partners steal a local statue and use it as a test dummy for the rocket pack, which is operated by a single on/off button. The test flight goes very haphazardly, and the statue loses a head, but otherwise the rocket pack works. They just need to figure out how to control the damn thing.

Note: The chemistry between Cliff and Peevy is terrific; both Bill Campbell and Alan Arkin have an instant father-son vibe, somewhat similar to Doc and Marty from the “Back to the Future” movies—the headstrong hero and the wiser, older genius whose magic makes everything work. The two actors speak the corny-but-era-appropriate 1930s dialogue with complete sincerity. The headstrong young hero and wise magician is a story as old as King Arthur and Merlin. Speaking of “Back to the Future,” “The Rocketeer” is edited by Arthur Schmidt, who also edited the “Back to the Future” trilogy (1985-1990).

Paul Sorvino plays mob boss Eddie, a gangster working for Neville. While Eddie may not make an honest buck, he’s still a patriot.

Mob boss Eddie Valentine and several of his boys pay a visit to his ‘client,’ movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton); a fictitious (in more ways than one) movie star, and “number three box office star in America,” as he’s apt to remind people. Valentine tells Sinclair that some of his boys are dead, and one of them is in the hospital over his contraption that he wants so badly. Neville dismisses Eddie’s concerns, insisting that the rocket is the only priority. Threats are exchanged between Neville’s rapier and Eddie’s goons. Valentine is incensed by Sinclair’s cavalier attitude regarding his men, and the mob boss insists on tripling their agreed-upon fee. As Valentine leaves, Sinclair seethes “bloody amateurs” under his breath, and calls on his brutish associate Lothar (the late “Tiny” Ron Taylor) to pay Eddie’s hospitalized Wilmer “a condolence call.” At the hospital, Lothar learns the rocket was hidden at an airfield hangar. To avoid being ratted out, the hulking Lothar kills Wilmer and slips out the hospital room window, escaping onto a narrow ledge with surprising dexterity…

Note: The interior of Neville’s palatial estate is a real-life house in Los Angeles known as the Ennis Estate, which was designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The home’s exterior and interior (which have similar texturing) have been used in countless film and TV productions, including “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959), “Blade Runner” (1982) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994’s “Blood Oath”).

Also of note: Lothar’s appearance is based closely on real-life journalist Rondo Hatton, whose acromegaly left him disfigured with an elongated, mask-like face. Hatton used his disfigurement to carve out a second career as a B-movie villain. Actor Tiny Ron Taylor wore facial prosthetics to simulate Hatton’s condition.

Aspiring actress Jenny takes in a picture show with her clumsy but well-meaning beau Cliff, who’s a mite jealous of her adoration for Neville Sinclair.

Making time for his aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (a bombshell Jennifer Connelly), Cliff lets her pick the movie that night, and she picks the movie “Wings of Honor,” starring her favorite actor Neville Sinclair. A slightly jealous Cliff isn’t impressed. Later, he takes her to their usual diner, the Bulldog Cafe, a whimsical dog-shaped eatery near the airfield, where the other pilots hang out. Jenny dreams of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, whereas Cliff has no love for such pretentiousness. Aged veteran war pilot Malcolm (Eddie Jones) lets slip that Cliff crashed his prized plane, leaving Jenny more upset that Cliff failed to mention it to her himself. Making matters worse, Jenny’s clothes are accidentally spattered with tomato soup. In a huff, the humiliated Jenny thanks Millie for the soup and takes a taxi home. Sympathetic owner Millie (Margo Martindale) urges a sulking Cliff to “Well, go after her, ya dope!” He rushes out, but is too late. Back home, he commiserates with Peevy, who is deconstructing their newfound mechanical marvel, for which he’s building a bug-eyed helmet that doubles as an aerodynamic rudder. Peevy also learns the rocket runs on simple alcohol.

Note: Viewed with modern sensibilities, Cliff and Jenny’s relationship is off to a terrible start, with neither one of them being ideal dating material. Jenny, at first, seems vain and materialistic, while Cliff seems petty, jealous and insensitive. That said, this movie isn’t meant to evoke modern sensibilities, but the sensibilities of the 1930s (heavy use of 1930s cinematic lingo, such as ‘chowderhead,’ ‘dame,’ etc). When I was younger, I thought the 1930s lingo of the film was exaggerated, but looking back on language evolution within my own lifetime, it’s like I’m living in a different universe today. That same logic also explains the movie’s lack of diverse casting and other nagging issues for a modern audience; this is a movie made in the 1990s but with all the sensibilities of the 1930s. Despite being color and widescreen, it’s almost uncompromisingly 1930s in its outlook.

“My name is Indigo Montoya…”

The next day, Cliff foolishly agrees to visit Jenny on the closed set of her movie she’s currently filming with none other than Neville Sinclair called “The Laughing Bandit” (a riff on Errol Flynn’s 1938 “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). Jenny is an extra in the film. As Cliff wanders onto the set to make amends, he knocks down part of the balsa-wood castle’s interior, bringing the entire structure to collapse around the actors. As cast and crew narrowly avoid the collapsing set, the expensive shoot stops cold. Making matters worse, Cliff nervously asks for “Ms. Jenny Blake.” When the befuddled director learns of Jenny’s identity, he promptly has her fired for disrupting his closed set. As a teary-eyed Jenny is consoled by her clumsy boyfriend as a sulking Neville sits unseen nearby; a set flat between them. With Neville accidentally eavesdropping on their conversation, Cliff tells Jenny about a remarkable “engine” that he and Peevy found—and Neville’s ears perk up! After Jenny asks for Cliff to leave, the opportunistic Neville swoops in to offer Jenny her job back, and maybe even a bigger role in the film…something they can discuss over dinner at his ‘usual table’ at the South Seas Club. Still angry at Cliff for nearly ruining her career and smitten by Neville, Jenny accepts the smarmy Neville’s offer of dinner.

Note: There’s a bit during the faux production of “The Laughing Bandit” that I never quite understood; Neville “accidentally” stabs his costar during the shoot, and seems to show genuine sympathy for nearly killing the man, contritely offering his own car and driver to take him to City of Angels hospital. I could never figure out if this scene was meant to foreshadow Neville’s true villainous nature, or was it meant to show that he was just wildly mercurial in temperament? He appears genuinely sympathetic to his stabbed costar, and taken at face value, the scene does nothing to inform us of Neville’s true nature. It’s an ill-fitting moment that almost feels like it could’ve been a deleted scene on the Blu Ray bonus features.

“It’s all part of the show!” A tardy Cliff races to the rescue when an old pilot pal of his loses control during an air show.

Cliff returns late to the airfield, seemingly forgetting about the scheduled flying clown air show he was to participate. With time running short, former World War 1 pilot turned ticket taker Malcolm foolishly takes Cliff’s place, having not flown for 25 years. He dons the clown wig and makeup and takes to the air. Cliff, seeing the plane take off, goes to see Peevy and Bigelow, wondering who went up in his place. Realizing it’s the frail Malcolm, who doesn’t know the flight routine, Cliff is off to get the rocket pack. Between the dilapidated plane and its equally out-of-shape pilot, Malcolm quickly loses control. As a panicked crowd worries, a nervous Bigelow tries to repeatedly reassure them that “it’s all part of the show!” At the hangar, Peevy helps Cliff with the new helmet and gear, telling him that he “looks like a hood ornament.” With no time to lose, Cliff takes to the air as….the Rocketeer! Struggling to gain control of the fiery twin thrusters at his back, Cliff races up to Malcolm’s biplane, rescuing the pilot just before the old plane crashes. The crowd cheers at their newfound hero, as Cliff begins to get the feel for the rocket pack. Feeling like Superman, Cliff flies alongside a passenger aircraft. Turning to salute the pilot, Cliff forgets that his helmet is also a rudder, and he takes a nosedive. Skipping like a stone along a pond to a halt, he is found by Peevy. Taking off the helmet, a wide-eyed Cliff beams, “I like it!” The police see the Rocketeer’s landing and are in hot pursuit. Peevy tries to start his pickup, but it won’t turn over. With seconds left before the cops arrive, Cliff tells Peevy to put the truck in neutral, and he uses the rocket pack as propulsion to push the truck! With the truck zooming out of sight of police, the pair are safe for the moment. Meanwhile, news of the mysterious “Rocketeer” begins to spread all over Los Angeles.

Note: The air show rescue is my favorite sequence in the film. The Rocketeer’s heroic reveal is much like Superman’s big reveal over Metropolis in “Superman: The Movie” (1978), Tony Stark’s night-flight test of the Mark II suit in “Iron Man” (2008), or Diana Prince taking on the German army singlehandedly in “Wonder Woman” (2017). It’s the moment where the person transforms into the superhero; that moment of self-discovery. Cliff’s derring-do rescue of Malcolm’s sputtering biplane and his later pushing of Peevy’s old truck to sub-warp speed are pure giddy comic book fun. Watching even today, I still get caught up in it. If I had one complaint, it’s that the sequence comes fairly late in the movie, and that Cliff doesn’t fly the rocket pack again until sometime later in the film. If the film had a greater budget, or access to the relative ease of modern CGI visual effects, this might’ve been amended. As it is, the middle act of “The Rocketeer” lags a bit before this amazing sequence gets the heart pumping again.

Cliff comes face-to-face with Lothar, a villain modeled on real-life journalist and B-movie ‘brute’ Rondo Hatton.

Later that evening, Cliff and Peevy are paid a ‘visit’ by leg-breaker Lothar, who takes a beating as Peevy tosses various objects at the monstrous mammoth of a man, trying to knock him out, but to no avail. Lothar grabs Cliff and smashes the pilot’s hard head repeatedly into the ceiling as their battle is stopped by the presence of the Feds. The incongruously stealthy Lothar flees (along with Peevy’s notes on the rocket pack), as do Cliff and Peevy. Later, at the Bulldog Cafe, fugitives Cliff and Peevy are interrogated by Valentine’s mobsters, who shoot up the joint. Finding Jenny’s phone number on the wall, the mobsters learn that Cliff’s girlfriend is currently out for a night on the town with Neville Sinclair. The mobsters are dealt with, and Cliff, operating from a place of worry for Jenny and jealousy, straps on the rocket pack to rescue her. Before Cliff lifts off, Peevy realizes that a ricocheted bullet from one of the goon’s pistols sprang a hole in the fuel tank. Taking a tip from Cliff’s own superstitions, Peevy quickly patches the hole up with Beeman’s gum, and Cliff is off to the rescue.

Note: I’m curious just how much alcohol fuel leaked after the tank was pierced. Did Cliff stop at a liquor store along the way to the South Seas Club to refuel? And given alcohol’s relatively short (but intense) duration for combustibility, that rocket pack sure makes the most out of a single tank of fuel…wish my old Honda got that kind of mileage.

James Bon–er, Neville Sinclair, attempts to seduce Jenny for the location of the rocket, but Jenny is not so easily swayed.

At the South Seas Club, Neville makes a grand entrance with a drop-dead gorgeous Jenny at his side. He takes her to his usual table, and his attempted seduction begins in earnest, as he inquires about Jenny’s life and does all of the little ‘attentive boyfriend’ things that Cliff too often ignores. Jenny is flattered by the attention. Real-life comic actor W.C. Fields (Bob Leeman) stops by their table, and his infamously lustful vision is immediately drawn to Jenny’s um, ample ‘charms’ (“doubly charmed,” he smirks). Briefly leaving Jenny for a moment, Neville learns of the Rocketeer and is convinced that it must be Jenny’s beau Cliff, though he’s not yet seen the man’s face for a positive ID. He’s hoping Jenny will act as a lure to draw the Rocketeer out. Returning to their table, Neville invites a despondent Jenny to dance.

Note: Connelly looks absolutely radiant in Old Hollywood glamor, and could easily pass for a star of that era. My then-twentysomething crush on her makes perfect sense today. What’s not-so-cool is the way both W.C. Fields and the camera ogles her cleavage in that white satin dress…it’s a mite creepy for a G-rated Disney film. Just saying.

“There’s a fly in my soup!” Klutzy Cliff crashes the South Seas Club, an explosion of 1930s Art Deco.

Arriving at the back entrance to the South Seas Club, Cliff finds the club’s laundry room and puts on a waiter’s jacket over his flight jacket. Spotting Jenny and Neville, he makes his way to their table, pretending to be a waiter who’s pouring complementary tomato soup, carefully slipping Jenny a note to meet him later. An embarrassed Jenny excuses herself, and soon after, Neville finds the note in her bowl. Meeting Jenny alone, Cliff humble-brag confesses to her that he’s “the Rocketeer.” An oblivious Jenny replies, “The Rocka-who?” Before he can fully explain to her, the s#!t hits the fan. Mobsters and Feds arrive. Cliff tells Jenny to take a cab and flee to her mother’s house in Redlands for safety. Soon, Cliff rips off the waiter’s jacket and dons his flight helmet. It’s on.

Neville, for want of a good fly swatter, settles for a machine gun. Timothy Dalton was an under-appreciated James Bond.

The club is total chaos as Feds, mobster and Neville himself all target the Rocketeer, who (almost literally) brings down the house. Cliff, still trying to get the hang of using the rocket pack, barely manages to flee the melee with his life (and the rocket pack); he assumes that Jenny managed to get a cab. Unfortunately Jenny is cornered by Neville, and is chloroformed into unconsciousness.

Note: In the wake of Bill Cosby’s multiple rape convictions, the notion of a celebrity chloroforming or otherwise drugging their victims into compliance feels even worse today than it did in 1991 (if that’s possible), making Neville (who’s already a closet Nazi) even more despicable. Given the fact that Neville had the chloroform with him at the club, you assume that kidnapping Jenny (and possibly having his way with her) was his plan all along. Clearly he wasn’t counting on his acting skills alone to seduce Jenny. Mind you, this was a G-rated movie…

Jenny steals back Peevy’s plans for upgrading the rocket pack. Jennifer Connelly made my heart skip a few dozen beats when I first saw this film, I won’t lie.

Jenny awakens at Neville’s home; she gets up and peers around a corner, watching as Neville uses a book on a shelf to activate a secret trap door. Realizing he’s coming to look in on her, Jenny quickly runs back to bed and feigns unconsciousness. Neville strides in and awakens her with smelling salts. Slipping back into actor mode, he tries to convince he sought only to rescue her from the pandemonium at the club. Not falling for it, Jenny asks bluntly if he chloroforms all of his dates (my question as well), and he slickly dodges her question. Realizing she has an opportunity to learn the truth about Neville, she plays along, teasingly allowing him to get close—even taking a sheer nightgown that he offers her. Pretending to struggle with a stuck zipper, she calls him over… and clubs him on the head with a vase. Going to his bookshelf, she pulls a book (on seduction, no less) and the bookcase turns around, revealing a shortwave radio station tied directly to the Nazis. She tries to call for help, but is met my confused German operators on the other end. Before long, Neville awakens and Jenny is captured once again.

Note: Watching through modernist goggles, Jenny comes off as a bit underwritten today. I was hopeful when she clubbed Neville over the head with a vase, but sadly, she doesn’t get much further than that (though at least she learns the truth of Neville for herself) All the same, it’s too bad Jenny didn’t do a Princess Leia and play a more active role in her own rescue. I would’ve liked to have seen her perhaps find a way out of the house on her own. But once again, the movie is trying to evoke the flavor of 1930s films, where women were too often helpless damsels in distress, so I suppose I get why the writers didn’t go that route.

“Tell ’em Howard Hughes said so!” “Lost” costar and longtime character actor Terry O’Quinn plays a more heroic (if less accurate) version of Hughes than later depictions, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004) starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

With no choices left, Cliff and Peevy decide to work with the Feds and with Howard Hughes— though they stop short of returning his rocket pack. Hughes sympathizes with the young pilot and his plight, but wants his property returned. Cliff promises to return the device after one more mission; he wants to use it to free his girlfriend from Neville’s clutches.

Note: The cinematography uses color to subtly inform the characters; Cliff and Peevy’s world is warm and earthy. The villainous Neville’s world is cool and urbane. Hughes’ office is a mix of cool grays and warm wood paneling; this blending of warm and cool suggests the character has a foot in both worlds, which is fitting, considering that the complicated Hughes was an infamously self-interested man, as well as a gifted pilot and aviation genius.

“Nazis…I hate these guys.” Hitler’s vision for an army of flying fascists.

Hughes wishes to illustrate exactly what’s at stake with the loss of his rocket pack. He dims the lights and turns on a projector to show the boys a film that was smuggled out of Germany at the cost of a spy’s life. The film shows various unsuccessful attempts by Nazi rocket scientists to create a portable rocket pack. The final images show an animated squadron of human Lufwaffes set to Wagnerian fanfare. Closet Nazi Neville wants to steal this rocket pack to help Hitler create his flying army to conquer the world. The film ends. Cliff agrees to cooperate, but Jenny’s rescue must be paramount. Hughes, Cliff and the Feds agree to work together. A meeting is arranged between Cliff and Neville at Griffith Observatory, overlooking the hills of Los Angeles. That is there that Cliff will surrender the rocket pack for Jenny.

Note: The animated short is very much in the vein of both Nazi propaganda films, and even (to a lesser degree) of American propaganda films made in the early days of the US Space Program, which promised prosperous moon bases, flotillas of manned vessels to Mars and huge orbiting torus-design military space stations. Interestingly, former Nazi (and later NASA) rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, creator of both Germany’s V-2 and the American Saturn-V moon rocket, had a hand in both visions.

If you want to make a British or American actor suddenly appear German? Just have them yell, “shnell!”

The meeting is kept. Neville holds Jenny hostage as bait for Cliff, with Eddie’s men acting as unwitting Nazi stooges. A bitterly recalcitrant Cliff flies in, taking off his helmet. Before he surrenders to Neville, he makes a last-minute appeal to Eddie’s men, asking if they realize they’re selling out their country to Nazis. A surprised Eddie turns to Neville, who dismisses the claim, asking Eddie if it really matters where the mobster gets his money. Valentine turns on Neville, humbly admitting that he “may not make an honest buck, but (he’s) still an American.” His goons turn their guns on Neville instead. The tense standoff comically escalates, as Eddie’s men are then surrounded by a squad of Nazis hiding in the bushes surrounding the observatory. Smugly, Neville chuckles, still holding all the cards. That is, until floodlights come on, and the Nazis find themselves surrounded by American G-men with machine guns! Before long, weapons are fired, and a precursor to the Second World War begins on the hills over Los Angeles.

A year after the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, another giant German airship appears over American skies.

Neville escapes the deadly firefight as a giant German zeppelin (post-Hindenburg) emerges from behind the observatory as well! Lothar grabs hostage Jenny and takes her up a dropped ladder leading to the hovering airship’s underbelly. Neville follows. Gunfire is halted for fear of igniting the giant ship and killing those climbing aboard it, namely Jenny. For the time being, it appears that Neville has found escape. Cliff dons the rocket pack and soars upward to the menacing gray airship blotting out a sizable portion of the night sky.

Note: Griffith Observatory has been used in a variety of movies and TV shows, perhaps most famously in 1955’s “Rebel Without A Cause”, starring the late legendary movie star James Dean. It was also seen in Star Trek: Voyager two-parter “Future’s End” (1996), as well as the infamously bad sci-fi TV spinoff Galactica: 1980 (“The Night The Cylons Landed, Part 1”).

Jenny and Cliff face off against Neville on a zeppelin about to go boom, as Peevy races to the rescue in a prototype helicopter.

Cliff boards the beast, and after a series of fisticuffs, makes his way into the belly of the beast, and to Neville–who’s dropped his faux British accent, reverting to his native German. Neville still holds Jenny hostage, and demands the rocket pack. Neville hands Jenny over to one of his officers, and Cliff agrees to slide the pack over to him, carefully removing the piece of Beeman’s covering the bullet hole in the fuel tank (!). A greedy Neville grabs the rocket pack, failing to notice the slow dripping of alcohol. Before leaving, the spirited Jenny stomps her high heel on her Nazi guard’s foot, and the odds are evened. Shots are fired and the airship is about to go up in flames, once again recalling the deadly Hindenburg disaster over New Jersey a year before.

Note: The exiting, tense final standoff on the burning zeppelin feels very much like something that’d fit right into an Indiana Jones movie. Once again, I fail to understand why this movie, which had so many elements going for it, mysteriously failed to make a stronger impact at the box office.

A crashing and burning Neville leaves his mark upon Hollywood…

With flames from gunfire in the vessel’s passenger compartments about to ignite the hydrogen fuel, Cliff makes a last minute appeal to Neville, asking him to help them put the flames out. Smirking, Neville bids them adieu, telling an angered Jenny it was just “acting.” He straps into the rocket pack, once again failing to notice the leak. The dastardly Nazi flies a short distance away from the airship before going up in a fireball, his flaming corpse falling to Earth over the Hollywood Hills. Neville and the rocket pack take out the last few letters of the famed “Hollywood-land” sign, leaving it with its currently shortened “Hollywood.” In a final battle to escape the rapidly burning airship, Cliff sends the brutal Lothar falling to his death. With no way to flee, Jenny and Cliff are preparing to say goodbye until Peevy shows up in a prototypical Hughes helicopter to rescue them! Howard Hughes comes through (once again, the eccentric Hughes is a lot more heroic and charitable in this film than he’d be in subsequent bios). The bad guys are dead. The rocket pack is safely destroyed. Jenny, Cliff and Peevy are all safe.

And Los Angeles got one helluva fireworks show over the Hollywood hills…

Note: The famed “Hollywood” sign over the Hollywood hills was first erected back in 1923, and, as the film depicts, it did indeed read as “Hollywoodland.” In 1949, it was finally shortened to its current “Hollywood” (without a trace of charred Neville Sinclair or Hughes’ rocket pack, either…). This shortening actually occurred some 11 years after “The Rocketeer” takes place. Now, if any history buff nitpicker has trouble swallowing a little anachronism like that, then I can’t imagine how they’d process an exploding Nazi airship over 1938 Los Angeles that never occurred. As Mr. Bigelow would no doubt remind us, “It’s all part of the show.” Relax and enjoy the popcorn.

Cliff is rewarded for his heroism with a new plane, while Jenny has a little something for Peevy.

The final scene takes place one morning at the Bulldog Cafe, as Jenny, Peevy and Cliff are celebrating… well, being alive and such. Over breakfast, they are startled by the sudden arrival of Howard Hughes himself, who has a gift for Cliff… a reward for his heroism in keeping Hughes’ rocket pack out of Nazi hands; a brand-new, Hughes’ custom built Gee Bee racer plane, fit for the Nationals! All Hughes wants to know from Cliff is what it felt like to fly the rocket pack. Cliff, stumped for words, says “It was the closest I’ll ever come to heaven.” Glancing over at his beloved Jenny, he then adds, “Or maybe not.” Hughes leaves before the boys get a chance to properly thank him (Hughes was an infamously private man, after all). Jenny then remembers that she has a gift for Peevy as well—his own notes on the rocket pack’s reverse-engineering, which were stolen by Lothar, and later recovered by Jenny (who stuffed them into her dress). Peevy wrestles with himself over constructing another rocket pack…

Note: That ending (Peevy, reunited with his notes on the rocket pack) was a perfect setup for a sequel that, sadly, never happened. Hell, in a perfect world there should’ve been a Rocketeer trilogy. You just know Peevy would’ve made another rocket pack as soon as possible.

The End.

Retro-Rockets Firing.

Director Joe Johnston, who was heavily involved in the creation of the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) as a storyboard artist and designer, would later go on to direct such crowd pleasers as “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” (1989), “Jumanji” (1995) and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). When I first saw “Captain America” nearly 10 years ago, I was struck by how closely it mirrored Johnston’s work in “The Rocketeer.” Once again, two heavily stylized period pieces based on comic books; both featuring earnest, patriotic heroes who somehow acquire super-heroic abilities (biological or mechanical) which they use to fight Nazis while falling in love. While the story beats of “The Rocketeer” and “Captain America” are very different, their overall mood and tone are very similar. “Captain America” could easily fit in the same universe as “The Rocketeer,” if rights and other legal clearances weren’t obstacles.

Warm lighting and earth tones (avoiding the sepia cliche) are used to depict the film’s more rural 1938 California.

Composer James Horner (1953-2015) created a score for “The Rocketeer” which evokes Bill Conti’s music for the exploits of real-life aeronautical hero Chuck Yeager (1923-2020) in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”. There’s a certain innocence to Horner’s music which nicely fits the film’s deliberately quaint, homespun heroism. Director of photography Hiro Narita (“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”, “James and the Giant Peach”) uses a warm, earth-tone-rich color palette for Cliff Secord’s life in dusty, rural Southern California (back when it mostly farmland and orange groves). That warm palette is contrasted with cooler, seductive hues for villainous Neville Sinclair’s more urbane world. Narita’s cinematography creates a vibrant, living California of 1938— avoiding the usual cliches of drowning “the past” in sepia tones, heavy-grain or soft-focus. Narita’s camerawork is on a par with Douglas Slocombe’s sumptuous visuals for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the “Indiana Jones” movies.

My own pic of Johnston, taken at a panel during the San Diego Comic Con of 2014.

I had the chance to meet director Joe Johnston at San Diego Comic Con 2014, for a panel on the release of “Star-Wars Storyboards: Original-Trilogy” (a collection of Johnston’s original storyboards for Star Wars, edited by J.W. Rinzler). Johnston’s storyboards for Star Wars, along with the work of concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, Colin Cantwell and a myriad of others, helped establish the defining look of Star Wars. During the panel’s Q & A, I asked Johnston if he’d used storyboards to help plot and visualize the action sequences of “The Rocketeer.” Johnston said he hadn’t. As director of the film, Johnston already had the look and stylings he was aiming for set in his mind’s eye, and his creative team intuitively understood his vision. The original graphic novel artist/writer Dave Stevens (1955-2008) was also consulted for the film’s look. In fact, Stevens is listed in the film’s credits as a producer.

An original Dave Stevens illustration for “The Rocketeer” from 1985. Comics’ Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty is a bit more risqué than the movie’s more wholesome “Jenny Blake.”

First appearing in 1982, Dave Stevens’ original comic books of “The Rocketeer” (some of which I’ve read) were clearly inspired by matinee serials of the 1930s and 1940s; particularly the ‘Rocketman’ hero “Commando Cody” (Judd Holdren), whose costume is an obvious predecessor to the one worn by Cliff Secord. Stevens’ original version of Cliff’s girlfriend, named “Betty,” based on real-life pinup model Bettie Page (1923-2008), underwent the most dramatic reimagining for the film. Betty, like her namesake, was a worldly pinup model who wasn’t above taking her clothes off for the camera. Unlike Betty, the film’s Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) is an aspiring actress who grew up on a farm in Redlands. Both women are depicted as sultry brunettes (perhaps their only commonality), though Jenny’s sexiness is merely glimpsed whereas Betty’s is more explicit. Jenny is closer to the wholesome heroines you’d see in 1940s serials. The movie’s villain “Lothar” (Tiny Ron Taylor) is based on real-life journalist Rondo Hatton, whose acromegalic disfigurement gave him a side-career of playing thuggish brutes in Hollywood B-horror movies. Lothar was featured in some of Stevens’ comic books as well (“Cliff’s New York Adventure”). Despite the Disneyfication of the comics for a broader movie audience, the movie nicely captures the Art Deco look and roaring adventure of Stevens’ work. The movie’s screenplay is credited to Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and William Dear.

Summing It Up.

“The Rocketeer” could’ve easily spun a trilogy of movies if not for its mysteriously tepid box office response. The vibrant 1930s period flavor, combined with its earnest heroics and charm compensate for an admittedly meandering middle act, where the title character’s power of flight is too rarely used; that is perhaps my strongest criticism in what should’ve been a huge crowd pleaser with all it had going for it.

The Rocketeer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, a location made famous in many movies and TV shows, including 1955’s “Rebel Without A Cause.” This is an image right out of the Rocketeer graphic novels.

Bill Campbell’s Cliff Secord is a well-meaning, lovably bumbling hero, while straight man Alan Arkin is perfect as his wiser, older, engineer-partner Peevy. Jennifer Connelly is luminous, if a bit underwritten. Timothy Dalton trades his expired license to kill for some scene-chewing villainy. The flying action and analog visual effects, done at the very dawn of the digital age, could still give some of Tony Stark’s airborne antics a run for their money. Director Joe Johnston would tackle much of the same material 20 years later with “Captain America” (2011) but with greater box office success. So what should’ve been an aeronautical ‘Iron Man meets Indiana Jones‘-style blockbuster has instead become a cult curiosity, only now finding appreciation some 30 years later.

I wonder if there’s an alternate universe where a “Rocketeer” trilogy is as fondly remembered as “Back to the Future,” with movie geeks like myself debating on whether they should make a fourth one or not? Whatever the reasons for its less-than-soaring box office in this universe, “The Rocketeer” deserved better.

COVID-19 Safe Viewing.

Be a hero to others; mask up!

“The Rocketeer” is available for streaming on DisneyPlus for safe, at-home viewing. It is also available for purchase on Blu Ray or DVD via Amazon.com with contact-free shipping. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 375,000 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, at least two vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it may take months for mass distribution throughout the population.  Even with the vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can one be vaccinated and still carry it, for example).  So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.  Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.

Take care and be safe!

Images: Disney, Dave Stevens, Author

8 Comments Add yours

  1. I enjoyed this a lot when I saw it in the theater. Definitely a great, underrated movie.

    1. Me, too. Should’ve been a lot more successful; why it wasn’t still baffles me.

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