Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Consider the Source: Pulp Fiction, Rocketmen and Betty Paige

In 1991, the Walt Disney Company had very high hopes for The Rocketeer.  It was envisioned as a potential movie trilogy that could in turn spawn a synergistic franchise encompassing merchandising, television and theme park tie-ins.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The movie-going public failed to embrace the concept and thus, the Disney interpretation of the Rocketeer remains limited to the live action feature film that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Similarly, the Dave Stevens comic book stories that inspired the film are rather slight in actual content.  The entire Rocketeer saga is comprised of just eight chapters totaling 112 pages.  But over the years it has in some ways grown greater than the sum of its parts; it is considered by many to be among the greatest of comic book publications, and Stevens, one of the true masters of the illustrated page.

The Rocketeer stories were born from the then emerging independent comics publishers of the 1980s.  Stevens' very first two Rocketeer chapters debuted in 1982 as backup features in Mike Grell's Starslayer series, published by Pacific Comics.  Chapters three and four migrated to a new anthology title called Pacific Presents which was published in late 1982 and 1983.  Chapter five went to press in 1984 with a wholly different publisher, Eclipse Comics.  Eclipse would later collect all five installments into one over-sized graphic novel collection.  Comico launched a new Rocketeer storyline, Cliff's New York Adventure, in 1988 with the publication of the Rocketeer Adventure MagazineCliff's New York Adventure was continued in a second issue released in 1989, but then the series stalled.  Dark Horse Comics finally published the third issue and concluding chapter of the comic in 1995, some four years after the release of The Rocketeer movie.

Stevens drew inspiration for the Rocketeer primarily from movie serials and pulp magazine characters.  Visually, the Rocketeer outfit and helmet is wholly derivative of designs created for a series of Republic Pictures "Rocket Men" serials released throughout the 1940s and early 1950s.  The two Rocketeer storylines, (The Rocketeer and Cliff's New York Adventure), are very direct homages to 1930s pulp.  The Rocketeer indirectly featured characters from the popular Doc Savage stories, while Cliff's New York Adventure guest starred a thinly disguised version of the Shadow.  Due to potential copyright issues, those elements could not be carried over into Disney's feature film.

Stevens' Rocketeer stories are visually striking, fun and frequently very clever, but the storytelling is at times rushed and occasionally disjointed.  Likely this was due to Stevens falling victim to a run of bad luck in regard to publishers.  In an interview conducted a year prior to his untimely death in 2008, Stevens noted, "The whole experience of jumping from one, two, three, four publishers in a span of a handful of years, it just drummed all the enthusiasm out of me.  I loved the character and I loved creating scenarios in which the cast could play and grow, but it just wasn't meant to be.  If not for the disastrous financial end of it, it might have been a good gig to have for ten years or whatever."

The Rocketeer movie originated when screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo contacted Stevens in 1985.  DeMeo remembers. "Dave met with us and saw we were 'kindred souls.'  [He] knew that we understood and respected the pulp genre.  So we really met at the beginning of the road that led to the film--years before pre-production would begin."  Bilson recalls, "We had a story pitch we had developed with Dave that we presented to a number of studios before Disney bought it.  Dave would bring copies of the comic and some of his original art, which was always impressive.  But we didn't write a script until we had a deal.  Then there were several years of revisions and new drafts before the film was finally green-lighted."

Working closely with Stevens, Bilson and DeMeo created a more cohesive storyline from Stevens' first five Rocketeer chapters.  They focused on the central premise of the stolen rocket pack falling into the hands of pilot Cliff Secord and his mechanic friend Peevy, who are then hounded and pursued by a combination of gangsters, Nazis and federal agents.  Forced to jettison the Doc Savage references, they incorporated billionaire and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes into the plot and created a new central antagonist in the form of flamboyant movie star Neville Sinclair.  The Sinclair character, a secret Nazi agent, was inspired by a largely fabricated version of actor Errol Flynn attributed to biographer Charles Higham.  According to Stevens, " . . . from the get-go there was never any great villain.  All there was was the rivalry between Cliff and this--and what do you call it?--a Svengali photographer, and that doesn't make for a big adventure.  So we had to come up with a really suitable villain, and that was where Neville Sinclair came from."

The filmmakers transformed Cliff Secord's Bettie Paige-inspired nude model girlfriend into the more sexually-benign Jenny, in keeping with Disney's more family-friendly sensibilities.  The trio also added the climactic final showdown at the Griffith Observatory, culminating with an intense battle between Cliff and the Nazi agents on board a German zeppelin high in the skies over Hollywood.

Despite objections by some Disney executives, Rockeeter director Joe Johnston insisted on remaining faithful to Stevens' designs, especially in the case of the iconic helmet of the title character.  The Bulldog Cafe, based on an actual 1930s southern California eatery, was also deftly translated from comic to screen.  In an interesting collaborative twist, Stevens, Bilson and De Meo created the film's Lothar character, Sinclair's giant-sized henchman, and then later featured him in the final two chapters of Cliff's New York Adventure.  Bilson and De Meo co-wrote those last two comic installments with Stevens.  Lothar was directly inspired by vintage B-movie actor Rondo Hatton, whose brutish facial features were the result of acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder.  The persona was recreated for The Rocketeer film by actor Tiny Ron Taylor working with veteran makeup artist Rick Baker.

Stevens was active in the making of the film.  He carried a co-producer credit and worked extensively on production design.  Bilson recalls, "Dave spent a lot of time on the set.  I think most of his energy was in the art of the film."  DeMeo adds, "What I remember was Dave's enthusiasm.  He was really into it, really enjoyed seeing his creation come to life as a film."

While The Rocketeer movie did not live up to Disney's exceptionally high expectations, it was distinctly not the box-office bomb many pundits claim.  And it is fondly remembered by fans and filmmakers alike.  Danny Bilson notes, "The Rocketeer may be the highlight of my long career.  I only wish it had more initial success for all the creative people involved--in particular, Dave Stevens."

Special acknowledgment to interviews with Dave Stevens and Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, published in Back Issue magazine, issue #47. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for drawing a little more attention to this great movie. I absolutely love it.

I saw the film in the theater when it came out, but only recently read the source material when I found a copy of the comics bundled in a single hardback.

The comics are interesting, but I like the movie so much better. It makes me smile every time I watch it.