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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953) – Review

With Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe Republic Pictures decided to go with a television program instead of their standard theatrical serial episodes, but due to contractual obligations with unions employees who worked on the show it had to be released theatrically before it could be broadcast on television. Thus it was released in serialized form in 1953 to the theatre going public, and then finally on syndicated television for NBC in 1955. Many fans of movie serials do not consider this Republic Pictures entry to be a true serial as it does not have the classic cliffhanger ending, instead each episode (which weren’t even listed as chapters) wraps up with Commando Cody and friends thwarting whatever diabolical plan the villains had hatched that particular week. Yet unlike most television show of the period you couldn’t just plop down in the middle of the run to catch an episode as the story was serialized with a beginning, middle, and an end. This is a format more familiar to television viewers today.


Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is also an odd duck as it is a prequel to the Republic serial Radar Men from the Moon (1952) as it is here that we are introduced to the team that will help Commando Cody defeat the threat from the Radar Men. So in this prequel we meet Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne) and Ted Richards (William Schallert) as they are hired by Mr. Henderson (Craig Kelly), who is in charge of all outer space operations, to assist Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) in developing an atomic powered rocket ship. What they don’t know is that they’ve also signed on to be sidekicks in a knock-down drag-out fight against an evil warlord from outer space. The real head scratcher here is that Sky Marshal of the Universe is not just a hyperbolic title for the series but is Cody's actual job description and title yet he doesn’t even have a rocket at the start of the serial. How exactly can you call yourself Sky Marshal of the Universe when you haven’t even managed to get off your own planet yet? The project that Cody is working on is so top secret that the government insist he wear a mask at all times for his protection as well as those he works with.  A mask that looks about as effective as Robin the Boy Wonder's mask would have been.


Note: It also insures that if the lead actor quits he can be more easily replaced without many people noticing.

Joan and Ted are then informed that the Earth is in the middle of a war with a powerful enemy from outer space, and that what the public believed to be random meteor strikes were actually missile attacks from this enemy. Lucky for planet Earth the amazing Commando Cody is on par with Doc Savage in the brains department, he’s not only an atomic rocket expert but he’s also one of those movie scientists that are good in pretty much every field of science and he manages to devise a cloud of radioactive cosmic dust that completely encircles the Earth that lets nothing pass through it. Thus the bulk of the 12 episode run deals with this mysterious enemy, and their attempts to find a way through the cosmic dust so as to strike at the Earth, and Cody and his pals stopping them at every turn. We later learn that the architect of these attacks is a man known simple as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) and is from some unknown planetary origin. The Ruler is also a scientific genius and he uses his brilliance to form an array of devastating attacks on Earth, but he doesn’t want to destroy Earth he wants it to submit to his rule so that he can use its resources and location as a staging ground for his campaign to conquer the universe. Lucky for us his brilliance does not extend to his screening practice when it comes to hiring space agents and fifth columnists on Earth as they all kind of suck at their jobs.


The Ruler does have a unique fashion sense though.

As Republic serials go this one had a bit of a lower budget than earlier entries such as the Adventures of Captain Marvel, and to stretch a buck further it included lots of stock footage from the previous serials King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men From the Moon.  That aside the overall the production value of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is still pretty solid with the reused footage mostly consisting of shots of Commando Cody streaking through the sky with his rocket pack.


An effect achieved by running a full scale dummy down a cable from a high location to a lower one.


Then interspersed with closes ups of Cody in front of rear screen projections of the sky.

Each week audiences would be thrilled as our heroes had to figure out what diabolical plot The Ruler was orchestrating that particular day in his bid to conquer the Earth; such as dropping bombs into the atmosphere to seed the clouds thus causing massive storms across the globe, creating multiple suns to turn the Earth into a desert, pushing the moon on a collision course with Earth (though that would leave little left of the Earth for The Ruler to actually rule), and he even manages to link Saturn’s gravity field to the Earth’s so as to shift the axis of the planet to cause an ice age. To say that the science behind most of these plots was a little sketchy would be a vast understatement but they are all pretty damn theatrical and you have to give the writers credit for creativity.


The remote control killer robot is about the most believable thing on this show.

What is bit off putting is that the world at large is kept completely in the dark about this “secret war” with an alien super power, so the people of Earth are constantly going nuts when stuff like the moon heading on a collision course with Earth or multiple suns popping into existence with no rhyme or reason. They have no idea why all of sudden the world is rocked by catastrophic occurrences on almost a daily basis.  I’m betting the world’s religions would have been doing gangbuster business during this secret war. And clever and heroic as Commando Cody and his sidekicks were there is still a lot of death in destruction happening, for instance in the episode “Nightmare Typhoon” we see New York City basically getting wiped off the map.


How exactly do you spin this into a happy ending?

The show wants us to let slide the fact that billions of dollars of damage is being done across the globe, and that countless innocent lives are being lost, I guess we can chock it all up to the cost of intergalactic freedom, and instead focus on the battle of wits between Commando Cody and The Ruler. I mentioned earlier that much of the plots are foiled because The Ruler’s minions are of less than stellar calibre, Cody can take on three of them single handledly in a fist fight, but Cody himself isn’t surrounded by the best help. The two guards stationed outside their headquarters are knocked out by henchman on an almost daily basis, and Cody himself doesn’t seem to notice that bad guys are constantly parked right outside his office so they can overhear the plans are heroes coming up with. And poor Dick Preston (Richard Crane), who replaced Ted Richards as Cody’s male sidekick in the fourth episode, gets turned into a brainwashed zombie after being kidnapped and Cody doesn’t even notice anything odd. I mustn’t fail to mention that Commando Cody constantly enters rooms, ones where he knows the villains are occupying, with his gun arm outstretched so that it can be quickly knocked out of his hand.


“I hope nobody is hiding behind this door?”

Now this of course leads to the staple of movie serials; the furniture smashing, lamp tossing, ever present fist fight. Sixty percent of the action in a movie serial consists of fist fights with the hero battling an array of henchmen that the chief villain has sent to accomplish some plan, and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is no exception. What’s nice is that the fight scenes themselves are fairly well choreographed in such a way that they don’t look choreographed. The fisticuffs look about as chaotic as a real fight would be, with opponents throwing fists as well as furniture at each other. My particular favorite moment is when Cody is having a punch up with one of The Ruler’s goons in a burning warehouse, the henchmen notices the fire is nearing a bunch of acetylene tanks so he breaks off the fight and tries to flee, but Cody tackles him and knock the guy unconscious. Our hero then flees the building just before it blows up, clearly leaving the knocked out goon to die in the resulting explosion.


Commando Cody is a guy with a nice flexible moral center.

Of course the show isn’t all weapons of mass destruction and fistfights it’s also got your customary space opera stuff.  Commando Cody and his team relentlessly pursue The Ruler and his minions even into the depths of space…well once he gets the rocket of his built that is, and this takes them into many dangerous situations.


Where in space a bucket helm and some coveralls is all you need.

And if you are a fan of science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s you may have noticed that most interplanetary landscapes look a lot alike. Whether it’s the moon, or a distant planet, things tend to look a lot like the Southern California desert (Note: Surprisingly Valdez Rock does not make an appearance in this serial) or any other nearby driving location for the cast and crew.


You can tell this is Venus because of the Space Tank.


Here we see a surprisingly lush forest on Mercury.

As serials go Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is a fairly decent one, the cast are all fairly good if a little wooden at times and the borrowed footage is blended in rather well, the action is top notch and the “special effects” are as good some of the stuff you’d find in science fiction movies with bigger budgets. So if you like rocket packets, space ships, robots and Ming the Merciless knock-offs you will most likely have a blast watching the adventures Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.


But seriously, did any of the other planets get a say in Cody being named Sky Marshal of the Universe?

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