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The Rocket Man
(1954)
 

Director: Oscar Ruldolph                
Cast:
Charles Coburn, Spring Byington, Anne Francis


It's hard to review a movie like The Rocket Man, though not for reasons you might suspect. The difficulty lies in writing a review that will grab someone's attention when they are already greatly familiar with the elements the movie has. It's not just the fact that you have to try to make these familiarities interesting for the reader, but also that these particular I don't think I need to write a goofy caption for this still familiarities have never been interesting in other movies to the people who are reading. These familiarities in The Rocket Man come out of the typical juvenile approach in making kiddie movies in the 1950s. Among them includes the little kid who wears a shirt with stripes, the bad guy who is more goofy than actually threatening, a young man and woman that fall in love within hours, though something bad soon happens that makes the man struggle to reclaim his love and... wake up, please. I watched the whole movie, so at least you can read this review. This movie is one of "those" that you can smell even before you see it. In fact, I wasn't planning to watch this movie, until I found out an interesting fact about it.

The movie takes place in Carlisle, "The Friendly Town" according to the sign at the edge of town. Amelia Brown, the town's Justice Of The Peace, has just managed to get from the local orphanage a little boy named Timmy - or is it Jimmy? For some reason, he's referred to with both names throughout the movie, without there being any sign of it being a joke. Anyway, at the same time, hot-shot politician Big Bill Watkins (a member of "The Honest Party") gets caught while driving drunk in Carlisle, and Brown sentences him in an immediate five minute trial, while he's still boozed up and without a lawyer.

Considering that he's only sentenced to ten days in jail under these circumstances, I wouldn't think he'd be complaining when he later sobers up. But Watkins is angry Grieved by being in such a feeble movie, one of the young cast members attempts suicide all the same, so he plots revenge - the lease for the Carlisle orphanage is up, so he decides to bid for it, planning to later close it down after the upcoming election, and ship those brats to the already crowded state orphanage. Who cares if this is indirect revenge and possibly suicidal to his future in politics if word gets out - it's the principle that counts, right? Well, I admit that Watkins' plan does immediately put Ms. Brown in a tizzy, and now has to attempt to raise the outrageous amount of $4000 to outbid Watkins.

I know, I know - you are thinking right now, "What the hell does all of this hokum have to do with a rocket man?" Well, I'll explain. At the beginning of the movie, the orphans were being handed out toys, and Timmy (or is it Jimmy?) got a ray gun. But this ray gun is no toy - a mysterious guy in a space suit, who only has about two minutes of footage in the entire movie, had beamed down from nowhere and secretly put a real ray gun in the box. This ray gun at first has the power to freeze objects and people, but the script suddenly changes the gun's power halfway through the movie so that it subsequently has the power to get people to tell the truth. How amazing! How convenient! How wonderful that we can guess what the gun is ultimately used for, so that there is no surprise ending!

The Rocket Man is a tiresome and lame movie, even more so than the above description makes it sound. The worst thing about it isn't the fact that it takes forever to get to each plot turn that we've predicted will happen long before it happens. No, the worst thing about it is that In case you don't believe me, here's the proof although it approaches the subject material in a light-hearted fashion, it's not the least bit amusing. Even looking at this movie through the perspective of a child viewer - in modern times or in 1954 - it's boring and dumb. This attitude won't just be coming from the audience, because even kids will notice that none of the actors seem to be having any fun. What's then surprising to subsequently find out about the movie is that one of the two screenwriters was controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. Of course, he was limited by not working alone, as well as having to make the movie family-friendly, but it's shocking all the same at how unimaginative and unfunny all the attempts at humor are.

The only way one might have a clue Lenny Bruce had anything to do with writing the screenplay is in the movie's cynical attitude, particularly towards authority. There is, of course, Big Bill Watkins, a politician who is not only greedy, but a drunkard with a cold heart - yet still has a huge amount of popularity with the public. But there is also the preacher in Carlisle, who unsubtly asks for contributions at the end of his sermon...bank managers and loan officers who are only willing to help if there is a definite profit in the future for them...a man who romances Brown's daughter to hide his ulterior motives...and the Carlisle mayor, a somewhat goofy guy, also works as a plumber and loves to gamble. The world of this movie is one where evil has the upper hand from the start, where you can't trust even your closest friends. Even our hero Timmy/Jimmy has a troubled past, and we see him steal money and do some actions that are questionable, even if it is intended for good to prevail.

The only positive thing to be seen in this world - and this movie - is its attitude towards children and their imagination. Timmy/Jimmy is a very imaginative boy, and his fantasizing of space action is in no way put down by adults - in fact, Brown actually encourages him to imagine, sometimes even playing along with him. Brown "How did you know I was heading to school, ma'am?" and the other grown-ups in her circle treat Timmy/Jimmy more like an adult, not talking down to him, and even letting him join their activities. And even though Timmy/Jimmy has not been on his best behavior in the past, Brown is willing not to pay attention to that, and when she catches Timmy/Jimmy doing something bad, she encourages him to "make right" instead of actually punishing him. This is interesting and pleasant stuff to watch, and I wish there had been more of it. However, since this The Rocket Man is a movie and not a child, I'm going to banish it into its room without supper, and suggest to you that you'd be better off encouraging your child's imagination by getting them to read a book instead of watching this movie.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check Amazon for Lenny Bruce recordings (CD)

See also: Earthbound, The Force On Thunder Mountain, Star Kid

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