Charming, laffy TV/serial hybrid. Olive Films has released COMMANDO
CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE, the 1953 sci-fi TV series/big-screen serial
originally produced by Republic Pictures, and starring Judd Holdren, Aline Towne,
William Schallert, Richard Crane, Gregory Gaye, Craig Kelly, Peter Brocco, Lyle
Talbot, Mauritz Hugo, Joanne Jordan, and Gloria Pall as the hubba hubba “Moon
Girl” (“Now give us a ¾ profile—that’s it, sweetheart!”).
Originally conceived as a 12-episode TV prequel reboot of Republic’s RADAR
MEN OF THE MOON, COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE’s production
was temporarily halted while the suits tried to figure out exactly what to do
with it, before they finally completed and released it first to theaters (in
faux-serial form)...before completing the circle and dumping it onto the tube
a few years later. So-called “controversy” aside as to its proper
genus classification (add my two cents here: “Who cares?”), COMMANDO
CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE is still quite a bit of primitive Cold War
sci-fi fun, with no-nonsense Dick and Jane storylines, cardboard sets and heroes,
and, from our now-distant, nostalgic vantage point, an added atmosphere of seemingly
innocent, unconcerned confidence, obscuring the moviemakers’ original
hardscrabble calculations. No extras, unfortunately; however, the full 30 minute
(each) MPEG-4 AVC Video encoded 1080p 1.33:1 (on an anamorphic platform) black
and white transfers look squarejawed and masculinely solid.
At the top secret Cody Laboratories (which offers convenient curbside parking 5 yards away for the various spies that openly reconnoiter the place 24/7), prospective employees Dick Preston (William Schallert, THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT) and Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne, HIGHWAY 301, CONFIDENCE GIRL) meet with Commissioner Henderson (Craig Kelly, DIRTY HARRY, DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY), the head cheese for all U.S. Space Operations. After a cursory glance at their resumes, Henderson okays hiring them as assistants for “Commando Cody” (Judd Holdren, FRANCIS, THE TALKING MULE, CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATOSPHERE), an alias for the former WWII commando-turned-scientist and adventurer who has been appointed Sky Marshal of the Universe (talk about a big beat for one cop...). The team’s job? To help adapt atomic power for rocket propulsion. Why? Because the big money for the military/industrial complex is in government contracts. Because Henderson needs Cody up in the stratosphere to find out who is attacking the Earth with deadly missiles. Cody, forever masked to protect his identity, needs to build a rocket fast to counter the unknown alien menace, a threat slowed somewhat by Cody’s invention of a cosmic dust “blanket” that envelops the earth, blocking anything that enters the atmosphere (in scientific terms: the fluorocarbon equivalence of 10 trillion spent White Rain hair spray aerosol cans). Soon, Commando Cody discovers The Ruler (Gregory Gaye, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA, HITLER), a super-intelligent being from another world, intent on conquering the universe one heartbeat at a time, has the aid of human traitors Dr. Varney (Peter Brocco, THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT, OUR MAN FLINT) and later, Baylor and Mason (Lyle Talbot, THE STOOGES GO WEST, ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN, and Mauritz Hugo, PISTOL HARVEST, CAPTIVE OF BILLY THE KID). Can Commando Cody, with new age weaponry like a jet pack and ray guns and freeze rays and...um, other types of rays, alongside good ‘ol fashioned red-blooded American fisticuffs, stop this insidious treachery and save the planet?
I have a fairly general background on the subject of old-timey studio serials, so I had to look up the production history of COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE. It’s a tangled one. By 1953, serial production had all but ceased in Hollywood, as their main consumers—kids at Saturday matinees—increasingly began staying home to watch the same kind of programming for free on television. Always struggling Republic had, two years prior, begun selling off TV broadcast rights to their big library of B Westerns, mysteries, and actioners, a move—along with renting out their backlot and studios to TV producers—that kept the financially strapped studio afloat. When the executives realized that ratings were relatively high for these Bs (titles the studio largely thought were already “one and done” in terms of monetizing), they decided to cut out the middleman and craft a new “serial” made specifically for the TV series framework (a central story arc, no cliffhangers, and an expanded half-hour-to-25 minute runtime).
A decision was made to reboot their unrelated “Rocketman” titles (KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON) for television with a direct prequel to RADAR, featuring that serial’s hero, Commando Cody. Since a sequel to RADAR was already being readied to shoot (ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE), Republic executives thought a last-minute name change for ZOMBIES’s Cody character was necessary, so as not to compete at the same time with the TV pilot and cause possible confusion with audiences (CODY had Cody meeting Joan Gilbert and Dick Preston for the first time). ZOMBIES was put on hold, and the first three episodes of COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE were shot, before production was suddenly halted. Reports vary, but several factors seemed to have weighed in on the stoppage, including a decision by Republic to cut their loses with the dying serial form and edit together those first three episodes as a feature release, as well as a potential problem with the cast and crew union members being asked to shoot a TV series (at this time, TV was still considered the mortal enemy of Hollywood moviemaking, and a threat to union employment). ZOMBIES was thus put into production (it was released in the summer of 1952), before shooting on the last nine episodes of COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE was resumed (the extended delay saw an unavailable William Schallert replaced by Richard Crane). Threat of union action against the series (as well as some entangled contractual obligations) forced Republic to release COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE first to theaters, where it failed with exhibitors and the remaining serial fans, in part because it was structured less like a traditional cliffhanging serial, and more like 12 loosely-connected long-form short subjects. COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE did eventually wind up on television two years later on NBC’s 1955 summer schedule, were it made no more impact than it had in theaters (NBC certainly didn’t ask for any more episodes).
In my research, I also found
out there’s a bit of heated controversy over whether or not COMMANDO CODY:
SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE should be classified as a true serial...which of
course beggars the question: who the hell today is arguing about serials, for
god’s sake? My eyes glaze over at that kind of pointless noodling. My
younger kids didn’t even know what a serial was when they watched some
of COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE. They just responded to it...with
a surprising, if short-lived, bit of interest. Perhaps it was the remarkable
primitiveness of it. Everything is so rock bottom and cheap, that it takes on
this wonderfully surreal tone. When they saw the “control panel”
for Cody’s rocket suit (three knobs for “On/Off” “Up/Down”
and “Slow/Fast”), they laughed, but in an appreciative way—it
was like they really were watching something from another planet.
So I suppose that anything from sixtysome-odd years ago that can get an appreciative nod from a bunch of jaded kids brought up on CGI and HD gaming, can be classified as “successful” in its long-forgotten aims (they even thought the flying scenes, with the dummies on the wires, were well done). I’m always fascinated when I hear others assert—or when I catch myself stating—that there were “more innocent times,” when something like COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE, for instance, was being shown in theaters. Certainly, the mainstream popular culture may have been more innocuous (by rigorous design), but the times were no more innocent than today’s (as an example, CODY was released just as the bloody, grinding Korean “conflict” was winding down). Even between the lines of this inoffensive little chapter play can be heard grown-up references to all-too familiar modern, or more accurately “timeless,” problems (Cody nods, “Of course,” when his boss matter-of-factly tells him the government has been lying to the public about the source of missiles hitting the planet’s atmosphere). The guys making COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE sure didn’t see this serial as some sort of good-will gesture aimed at upholding the morals of 1950s youths. It was a job for them, a cheaply-budgeted product that had to be ground out like hamburger in a ridiculously short time, or they wouldn’t get their paychecks.
But in that haste born out of cramped, penny-pinching budgeting...quite a few amusing moments crop up. Just to keep things moving, you can count on a fistfight every ten minutes or so in COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE. Gunfights here don’t require reloading at any time. If Cody needs to “moonwalk” outside his rocket, weightlessness doesn’t exist as he loudly scrabbles across the plywood (good thing he’s holding onto that horse rope). And if the cutting-edge atomic rocket engines overheat...why just unplug those vents by jamming a sawed-off broom handle over and over again into a hole. My kids didn’t stick around for most of that—repetition is the biggest killer with these later serials—but what they watched, they enjoyed, with surprisingly innocent pleasure.
All 12 episodes of COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE run 30 minutes and change; in other words, these are the original theatrical releases, not the later shortened TV versions. The MPEG-4 AVC Video encoded 1080p 1.33:1 black and white transfers look very sharp and clean, with a creamy grayscale, decent blacks, fairly tight grain, improved image fine detail, and a reasonably bright picture (it looks miles and miles above anything we saw as kids on the tube). The DTS-HD master audio split mono English track is serviceable and neat, with little or no hiss and crisp dialogue. English subtitles are available. No extras...pity, that. (Paul Mavis)
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