The Rocketeer (1991) || From Back Page to Big Screen
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The Rocketeer (1991) || From Back Page to Big Screen

August 12, 2019


Today we’re gonna see how a character created to fill a couple of pages in the back of a comic book became a multi-million dollar Disney film. We’re talking about The Rocketeer, today on Hello, I’m Levi the Garage Movie Guy if you’re new here, I’d appreciate it if you’d subscribe down below What I do is talk about all the movies in my collection and at the rate that I go releasing these videos It’ll take me about 20 or 30 years. So let’s get right to it The 1990s was an interesting time for comic book films. Prior to 1989, it could be argued that the only successful comic book films in the modern age had been the Superman films but with the release and subsequent success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film The world opened up to adaptations of all kinds. The decade kicked off with the release of Warren Beatty’s lovingly amazing take on Dick Tracy The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film as well as the original Captain America movie and this trend of hits and misses continued throughout the decade. Among those adaptations that graced the big screen were The Crow, Tank Girl, Spawn, The Mask and Judge Dredd. One of those movies that hit right in my sweet spot was I was kind of conditioned to like movies that were set in the 1930s because of the Indiana Jones films and seeing Dick Tracy just the year before And this movie had it all it had a high-flying hero it had his beautiful girl and it was imbued with the spirit of the aviation era and it also shares the spirit of pulp heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage And the character has a lot more in common with Indiana Jones and not just their taste in leather jackets and iconic head wear. Both characters were inspired by the Saturday afternoon serials of the early 20th century These were episodic adventures that were shown in the theater and every week, they would have a new adventure that usually ended on a cliffhanger The Rocketeer stars Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord A barnstorming stunt pilot who’s interested in flying and his girl Jenny. When Cliff and his friend Peavy discover a rocket pack of dubious origin They find himself surrounded by g-men, gangsters, and Nazis Secord has to learn to pilot the rocket pack and become The Rocketeer in order to save his girl and possibly world In 1982 artist Dave Stevens joined Pacific Comics and was asked to create a story for the back pages of their new series, Starslayer. Stevens was born in Southern California and had an affinity for Los Angeles and the aesthetics of the 1930s He also enjoyed filling in the detailed lines of cars and airplanes He developed a character called The Rocketeer which was based on serials from the 1940s and 50s Specifically he had based the character on Commando Cody who appeared in 1950s Republic serials like Radar Men from the Moon Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe. Out of necessity Stevens used his own image for the pilot who would become the Rocketeer, Cliff Secord His stalwart friend Peavy was based on someone that Stebens had worked with at Hanna-Barbera, Doug Wildey, who is probably best known for his creation of Johnny Quest in 1964. Cliff’s girlfriend Betty was based on her namesake Bettie Page Stevens had a fascination for Page and liked to draw what is known as “good girl” pin-up art this art style includes depictions of women usually in skimpy clothes on the covers of Pulp magazines and comics Because he enjoyed drawing this art style He made Betty’s occupation a model In the 1970s Stevens had worked as a storyboard artist on television commercials and at Hanna-Barbera Both on Super Friends and the Godzilla Power Hour. In 1979, he was one of the first artists hired by Steven Spielberg to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and after seeing his portfolio Michael Jackson chose him to do the storyboards for his theatrical music video Stevens might never have revisited his character of The Rocketeer after that initial run but Pacific comics immediately began receiving fan mail directed toward The Rocketeer. With his character gaining popularity and a lifelong love of movies It’s no wonder that Stevens soon wanted The Rocketeer to make the jump to film. In 1983, he optioned the film to Steve Miner who had just finished directing the first two Friday the 13th sequels Unfortunately, Miner’s vision did not align with Steven’s Miner wanted to make the character more contemporary, but Stevens felt that the period setting was an important part of the story. In 1985, Stevens saw a low-budget film called and gave the creators a free option on The Rocketeer This writing duo made a habit of bringing comic book characters to the screen. Later in 1990, a year before The Rocketeer would be released in theatres, The duo created the live-action TV series The Flash ‘It’s not guns that kill people… …it’s these little HARD things!’ [MANIACAL LAUGHTER] Fortunately for Stevens, these men shared an affection for the serial origins of The Rocketeer and had a love for the 1930s setting of the story. In the beginning the trio set out to make a low-budget black-and-white film Sort of an homage to the Commando Cody serials that inspired the character. A little later, writer and director William Dear became interested in the project and because he shared the same vision as the other men He joined the team. Currently deer had been working on his own project Harry and the Hendersons Which is one of my childhood favorites as well. Dear contributed a lot to the script, suggesting that the setting should be adjusted to 1930s Hollywood and taking the finale from a submarine to a Zeppelin. Now that the group had Dear on their side as a director and co-writer They decided to shop out a higher quality product In fact when they went to studios, they found that anything they brought them that was budgeted for less than five million They just didn’t look at. And in general they had trouble selling this idea of a comic book film because remember, This is the mid 1980s This was before Batman. This was before Dick Tracy. So really comic book properties hadn’t proved to be a success. and it Stevens’ own words: “We got there about three years too early for our own good” The last studio they spoke to was Disney and Disney immediately saw dollar signs in the form of merchandising. The men signed a three movie deal with Touchstone Pictures which is a division of Disney that deals with more adult material As soon as Disney had the property Disney chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg moved the project from Touchstone Pictures to Walt Disney Studios He felt that Walt Disney Studios needed a live-action family-friendly product. According to Stevens This is the moment where the more adult portions of The Rocketeer story were stripped away Cliff’s girlfriend went from being a nude model to an aspiring Hollywood actress and her likeness was shifted from that of Bettie Page. The Disney executives also felt that the story would fare better in a modern setting but the writers pointed to the success of Indiana Jones to say that people would watch an action movie that was set in the 1930s This marked the beginning of a lengthy and arduous scripting process Through five years of rewrites Bilson and DeMaio were fired and hired Three separate times. Often pieces of dialogue and entire scenes would be removed from the script only to be added months or even years later During this time William Dear left the project. He retains a writing credit on the film Fortunately for the project, Joe Johnston stepped in to fill Dear’s shoes as director. Johnson had a pedigree in visual effects and art direction. For ten years he had worked at Industrial Light & Magic having some hand in either the art or visual effects in all three Star Wars films and the first two Indiana Jones movies in fact He was even a part of the team that won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and he had just finished directing his first film another Disney movie that was a BIG part of my childhood Honey, I Shrunk the Kids A fan of the comic, Johnston became an advocate for Stevens and allowed him to become a part of the entire production process Another major change that Disney wanted to make specifically then President Michael Eisner was to create a more streamlined look for the Rocketeer smoothing out the tail fin on his helmet ‘He’s got to be kidding’ Johnston flat-out refused and said if this was done the project would no longer be The Rocketeer and he’d be gone Disney worked on numerous prototype designs all of which Johnston rejected. Eventually Disney relented But they were a week from shooting and they didn’t have a viable helmet to shoot with Dave Stevens went to work recruiting his friend Kent Milton who had earlier created a bronze sculpture of The Rocketeer He also got a cast of the stunt man’s head and just before filming He presented Johnston with a viable prototype that could be filmed from every angle Stevens also contributed greatly to the set design of the film. He had detailed notes of period buildings and vehicles Blueprints, schematics. He handed all this over to Jim Bissell the production designer He even had information on whom to contact to secure the vintage aircraft for production The clash between filmmakers and studio continued through the casting process Disney wanted a big name in the role of Cliff Secord. Some of the names thrown about were Kevin Costner Matthew Modine Kurt Russell and Emilio Estevez Bill Paxton claimed that he was very close to getting the part and Vincent D’Onofrio has said that he is glad he turned down the part Disney’s ultimate choice was Johnny Depp But then came Billy Campbell a television actor who had previously had recurring roles on Dynasty and Crime Story Disney was still unsure of having a lesser-known actor in the title role but the filmmakers fought for Campbell and eventually won out Cliff’s girlfriend now named Jenny in the script was played by a young Jennifer Connelly She was only 19 when she got the part Alan Arkin took on the part of Peavy Bringing a much-needed lightness and sarcasm to the character ‘We ain’t got a house, Clifford, we got a gazebo.’ Paul Sorvino played the gangster Eddie Valentine and Timothy Dalton then-current James Bond played the part of the villainous Neville Sinclair Sinclair was based on 1930 swashbuckling star Errol Flynn and was influenced heavily by the 1980 biography by Charles Higham Which claimed that Flynn among other things had been a spy for Germany during World War II And Dave Stevens himself had a cameo in the film As this ill-fated German test pilot. In the comics, Stevens hinted that the creator of the rocket pack was famed Pulp character Doc Savage. In the film the writers played into the aviation angle and the time period and made Howard Hughes the inventor of the rocket pack. He was played by Terry O’Quinn Most people know him as Locke on Lost. Some other actors you might recognize in the film are William Sanderson, Larry from Newhart Jon Polito plays Mr. Bigelow the man that gives The Rocketeer his name ‘It’s all part of the show…’ You might also recognize him as Mr. Gideon from The Crow or as a brother Seamus in The Big Lebowski And the owner of the Bulldog Cafe, Millie, is played Millie is played by Margo Martindale ‘Go after her, ya dope.’ Who was in the FX series Justified as well as the Americans She can currently be seen in the Amazon Original which was created by David Shore and Bryan Cranston One character that always stood out to me was the bad guy tough, Lothar. He was a mountain of a man played by Ron was a basketball player in the 1970s and his first gig was Al, the faceless man in the television series Police Squad and later in the Naked Gun movies ‘No, no, no, the other side.’ Just before appearing in the Rocketeer he played a character named Mountain in the masterpiece of machismo RoadHouse He’s the guy that gets punched in the junk by Sam Elliot But back to the Rocketeer, Lothar has a very distinctive face He also has an MO that involves folding men in half Stevens had based Lothar on a character called The Creeper who had appeared in a series of 1940s Universal Films Lothar is the spitting image of The Creeper The makeup was a creation of the legendary Rick Baker But in the 1940s this look wasn’t achieved by makeup The Creeper, also known as the Brute Man, was played by Rondo Hatton whose nickname was the monster without makeup Hatton had developed a condition called acromegaly A pituitary disease that caused the soft tissues in his face to continue growing Giving him his distinctive appearance His character dispatched those who had wronged him by you guessed it breaking their backs Tiny Ron also has a brief cameo in The Rocketeer out of makeup ‘Big gopher’ Special effects in the film were handled by ILM Ken Ralston acted as visual effects supervisor as well as second unit director he had previously worked on Star Wars, Back to the Future, and was part of the Oscar-winning visual effects team from Who Framed Roger Rabbit Yet another childhood favorite of mine No wonder I love this movie so much Johnston wanted a realistic flying man in the movie So a combination of stop-motion techniques were used including go-motion Which involves moving the figure as the film is exposed to add motion blur This was a technique that was pioneered back in the 1920s But it hadn’t really been seen until Phil Tippett and ILM used it in the Empire Strikes Back to animate the tauntauns and AT-ATs on Hoth. The animation supervisor was Wes Takahashi who has a very impressive resume Including the Goonies, Top Gun, The Abyss, and he’s responsible for all the time-travel sequences in the Back to the Future films. The film received a twenty five million dollar budget But Disney was so impressed with the dailies that multiple budget increases were approved. And the cost soon rose to almost 40 million dollars. One percent of the budget, $400,000, was used on one effect And that’s the destruction of the Zeppelin at the end of the movie The music for the film is a beautiful, lush Hollywood score. The composer is James Horner whose work includes Braveheart, Commando, The Land Before Time, and Titanic the main theme of The Rocketeer is especially impactful for me because it was on the first CD that I ever bought. It was called The Rocketeer had its world premiere on June 19, 1991 at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood Five decades earlier, the theater had hosted the world premiere of a young auteur’s controversial film, Citizen Kane Disney had been renovating the theater since 1989 and used the premiere of The Rocketeer to christen it. The film opened up to lukewarm reviews and opened up against blockbuster films like It only made 46 million dollars and Disney decided to scrap any idea of a sequel Thus the on-screen life of The Rocketeer was cut short. In the end, Stevens said that he was happy with about 70% of the film which for a meticulous artist like him that’s pretty good. But over the years the Rocketeer has grown in popularity On its 20th anniversary it opened to much fanfare apparently Thomas Jane was there dressed as The Rocketeer Joe Johnston was in attendance and he would soon see the world premiere of Another film that deals with an early 20th century hero Captain America the First Avenger The Rocketeer’s life as a comic-book character would continue as well Unfortunately, Dave Stevens passed away in 2008 But IDW has since picked up the character and you can enjoy many new adventures of everyone’s favorite rocket man. I I enjoyed the Rocketeer from the moment I saw it and it seems like there were a lot of movies that were released in the late 80s early 90s That sort of dealt with this period As I said earlier, I was a huge fan of Indiana Jones And then of course we have Dick Tracy that movie I remember seeing in theaters and it just blew my mind but after that we have the Rocketeer and The Rocketeer spoke to me in a different way it sort of combined the rough-and-tumble aspect of Dick Tracy with the high-flying adventure of Indiana Jones It just culminated in this gem of a movie that I have so much affection for and there was some marketing for this movie it kind of fizzled out and Stevens said that a lot of the stuff ended up in the Midwest in dollar stores when the movie kind of tanked But one thing that I did pick up I have an actual cup from Pizza Hut That is the Rocketeer helmet it even has the fin on the back There was also a Rocketeer video game on NES that I really wanted, but I never got to play Apparently it’s not that good. There was a different version that was developed for PC later. And that version of the game was ported to Super Nintendo from what I understand this game is not much better It’s kind of a collection of minigames and flying games I don’t think you actually get to fly as a Rocketeer very much but I will say the box art for the SNES version is really beautiful and It sort of calls back to the original art deco design that they had for the poster The Rocketeer has always been a special movie for me. And I know it didn’t do that well when it opened, but I think it was just a combination of being drowned out by more popular big huge movies And I’m glad that the character has sort of come back into his own and he’s popular again especially in the comic books Around that 20th anniversary Johnston had expressed interest in creating a sequel but nothing really came of that but there was talk of a sequel called “Rocketeers” in 2016 and I don’t know how far it got in development but the storyline took place a few years after the original film and Cliff had disappeared while fighting the Nazis and a young black female pilot finds the rocket pack and takes on the mantle of The Rocketeer so that seems like an interesting idea and I kind of hope that eventually materializes because it allows The Rocketeer to continue forward it stays sort of in that same setting but it gets to explore some more relevant maybe social issues then The Rocketeer would have in its original form The exciting thing is Disney is actually going forward with a new animated show called The Rocketeer It’s gonna be 3d animated and it’s targeted to their two to five year old Disney Jr audience the series follows a young girl named Kit who discovers the rocket pack and She’s joined with her friends Tesh and Ambrose on these crazy adventures. It might not be exactly what some people expect It’s also going to be I believe in the modern day So it’ll be interesting to see how that adjustment is made But you know, my kids are perfect for that age range So maybe this is a way for them to get introduced to this character that they will enjoy and a new generation Can enjoy the character that way I am really looking forward to if this other sequel ever gets off the ground I think it’s a really interesting concept and I think with that sort of treatment It’s a great way to bring in the nostalgia crowd, but also make it a little bit different for newer audiences So let’s keep our fingers crossed for that. What do you think about this? Would you be interested in seeing a Rocketeer sequel? Let me know down below in the comments And it’s at this portion of the video where I usually Say who should watch this film And for this one, I’ll say if you’re a fan of dieselpunk or steampunk either of those sort of aesthetics Then you’re gonna like this movie. I know there are a lot of really great cosplayers Who create Rocketeer suits and that’s one of my favorite things to see when I go to conventions Also, if like Stevens you’re interested in that 1930s or aviation, I think it’s an interesting movie to check out There’s also a podcast I haven’t listened to it yet But they look at The Rocketeer from minute to minute and I believe the guys are both pilots. You might look it up It’s called The Rocketeer minute podcast and last if you’re just a little overwhelmed by the superhero movies of late that are very full of pathos and anger and/or gloom Then the Rocketeer is a really good throwback film and not just to throw back to the 90s when it was made But it’s a throwback to the beginning of the 20th century It’s got that sort of high adventure that you would get in serials and the bad guys are Nazis and it’s just a very easy movie to digest but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re a fellow fan of The Rocketeer, please comment down below and let me know I’d also like to hear from anyone out there who has created any sort of Costume elements from The Rocketeer because I am fascinated by cosplayers and like I said, especially The Rocketeer, this is one that I’ve always been interested in But until next time I’m Levi t — I almost said The Rocketeer — until next time I’m Levi the Garage Movie Guy saying ‘see ya’ we’re talking about The Rocketeer on Garage…Movie Reviews 37…what? ma-CHEES-mo, ma-CHEES-mo Oh, it IS ma-chees-mo fun camo….camo? at El Capitan Theatre in theat– in theatre…what? [ROCKET PACK SOUND]

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  1. Great review Levi, definitely worth the wait!! I always loved The Rocketeer ever since I first saw it in theaters in 1991. I certainly hope they do a sequel one day.

  2. Levi, you really do your research. I daresay there's no better way to learn all the interesting background on movies I love than watching a garage movie review!

  3. great review!! Lots of information I wasnt even aware of. It is sorely forgotten all too much among all the other super hero saturation that is out there🙌🏻

  4. I feel like we grew up with the same interests. I loved this movie ever since I saw it for the first time at the Drive in movies. and equally loved some of the other movies you mentioned like Harry and the Hendersons and Honey I shrunk the kids. I would like to see a sequel of the Rocketeer, but only if it was still set in or around the 1930s I really think that helps with the charm of the movie. Great review!

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