You already know whether or not you love the old movie serials. And if you do, then chances are the words COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE should already have you salivating like a geek incarnation of Pavlov's Dog.
I know that's how I reacted when I scarfed an eyeload of this new 2-disc DVD from Olive Films, which contains all 12 episodes of the 1953 serial. That cool cover pic of Cody in his gadget-bedecked leather jacket, quasi-military cap, and Lone Ranger mask just seems to say "You know you love me."
I call them "episodes" instead of "chapters" because this isn't your usual serial. In fact, many fans would argue that it isn't a serial at all, being that it consists of 12 half-hour adventures which, while being parts of an overall story arc, each have a beginning, middle, and end without the usual cliffhanger.
Without going into the technical reasons for this, suffice it to say that the series was first shown in theaters in 1953 as a serial, and then showed up two years later as the television series it was intended to be all along. And while I do miss the nail-biting cliffhanger endings, I got used to the self-contained stories after awhile.
At any rate, this has all the elements I love in serials--a cool hero with both capable and comical sidekicks, a hokey villain with an evil master plan and plenty of goofy, inept henchmen to carry it out, lots of fantasy sci-fi that doesn't make much sense and consistently defies the laws of physics, cheap production values, and a general air of hokiness with plenty of corn.
The main gist of the story concerns the efforts of a secret government organization to thwart an evil madman who calls himself The Ruler, who wants to conquer Earth so he can use it as a base to take over all the other planets in the solar system. (The Ruler is played by Gregory Gaye, who can be seen in CASABLANCA as the irate customer whom Rick won't allow into the back room of the casino.)
Our hero, Commando Cody (Judd Holdren), wears a mask to protect his identity and flies around by means of a cool rocket pack on his back. Not only is he one of those rigidly upstanding paragons of virtue, but with his ever-present mask he even resembles Clayton Moore in both looks and voice. Which, as a big "Lone Ranger" fan, I found to be a definite plus.
His boss, Commissioner Henderson (Craig Kelly, who appeared in the first two DIRTY HARRY movies), gives him two assistants--loyal but comical Ted Richards (the great character actor William Schallert) and the lovely and capable Joan Gilbert (winsome Aline Towne), who eventually becomes Cody's spaceship co-pilot. Ted will be replaced after a few episodes by equally comical Dick Preston (Richard Crane, who would go on to star as "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger" the following year.)
Over the course of the show's 12 episodes The Ruler pulls all manner of devious schemes to either enslave the Earth or wipe it out--he never can seem to decide which--and each of these results in as much widespread calamity and destruction that the copious amounts of stock footage can depict. In his employ are traitorous humans such as Lyle Talbot, Fred Graham, and Lane Bradford, and various aliens played by the likes of Denver Pyle, John Crawford, and Rick Vallin.
Time after time, Earth comes close to destruction via tidal waves, shifting of its axis, blocking out the sun, duplicate suns roasting the planet, deadly storms, a near-miss with our own moon, and meteor attacks. The latter are repelled by Cody's creation of a cosmic dust barrier around the Earth which makes any foreign object from the sky explode, including enemy space ships not equipped with a special "dispersal beam."
Cody's own spaceship, while primitive by modern SPFX standards, is still very cool. An impressive full-size mockup was constructed on the Republic Pictures backlot which is seen in conjunction with a fairly large working model suspended by wires. It's a real step above the wobbly, rinky-dink spaceships of the old "Flash Gordon" serials and is almost always used to good effect.
Sets range from the usual 50s backdrops to sometimes impressive otherworldly settings where The Ruler carries out his dastardly plans on various planets such as Saturn and Mercury. The costumes are gloriously tacky (The Ruler seems to be wearing his mom's kimono) and the dialogue is both arch and delightfully corny. Ray guns sound like car horns. Each episode offers a couple of furious fistfights and several appearances by our main man in flight.
This is accomplished using the same remarkable technique seen in perhaps the greatest serial of all time, 1941's "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" (also from Republic Pictures), with a realistic mannequin suspended on wires combined with nice springboard take-off and landing shots with actor Holdren. The effect is stunningly good and well worth waiting for in each episode.
The 2-disc DVD from Olive Films is in the original full-screen ratio with mono sound and English subtitles. No extras. Picture quality is very good.
Just as much fun as the title sounds, COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE is one of the most consistently entertaining and well-produced serials I've seen. It easily transcends the "so bad it's good" quality of many cheaply-produced serials, especially if viewed with the same giddy, childlike enthusiasm with which both kids and adults greeted these films on theater and TV screens back in the 50s.
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