Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Rocketeer

"The Rocketeer" (Joe Johnston, 1991) Graphic artist Dave Stevens was handed an assignment for a new comic book*he'd get to create an eight-page second feature of his own devising and do anything he wanted with it. For Stevens, that meant it had to have a pulp-fiction atmosphere, a late 1930's Los Angeles locale, an art-deco look, and characters with which he was familiar enough to draw. He based the hero on himself, his mechanical engineer Peavey on Doug Wildey (who'd created "Jonny Quest") and for the hero's girlfriend, a forgotten pin-up girl of the 40's and 50's, "Bettie" Page.**

That second feature, "The Rocketeer," quickly eclipsed the comic's title character, and moved to its own publication that, due to Stevens' fastidious attention to artistic detail, came out only infrequently. But the elements were there to attract Disney, looking for a comic-book hero that could economically catch the wave of the recent burgeoning comic-book movie and match the box office returns of the "Batman" series.

Even though "The Rocketeer" didn't have the Caped Crusader's cache of cultural iconicism (That's Adam West-speak for recognition by the general public), the cult-status of the comic and the script's deep-dish banquet of 30's flotsam (Rocket-packs, Flying Gee-Bee's, Nazi's, gangsters, ugly goons, Howard Hughes, zeppelins, Erroll Flynn swinishness, and the Griffith observatory) looked like it was going to be 1991's "sure thing" at the box-office.  So confident that it would soar on plumes of flame into the stratosphere that Disney honcho's put out a "memo" saying that this was "the way" they were going to make movies: good properties, well-cast with cheap stars--put all the money up there in the screen.

Good plan if only "The Rocketeer" hadn't flamed out and fallen to Earth.  "The Rocketeer" under-performed badly at the time of its release.

It became popular on the rental circuit, but the damage was done.  No sequels (a trilogy was planned), the other studios chortled about Disney's memo hubris, and went back to paying stars (and their agents) $20 million for a movie.

Too bad.  "The Rocketeer" is not that great of a movie, but if it had inspired similar "value" films, it would have been worth it.  The thing is, its heart is in the right place, it's sweet and affectionate about the period it's in, the romance is chaste and makes no concessions to modern audiences, the players adept—Billy Campbell was born to play "The Rocketeer," he looks just like Dave Stevens and any movie with Alan Arkin and Paul Sorvino, AND Terry O'Quinn, it goes without, Tim Dalton got to bust up his Bond image a bit. 

The movie only takes off, logically enough, when the rocket-pack fires, then things zip, zoom, loop-de-loop and go slightly out-of-control in a giddy display pyrotechnics.  The rest of the time the film stays firmly rooted to Earth, refusing to soar.  Oh, Dalton has fun with his role—he was always better suited playing bad-guys, anyway—And Jennifer Connelly adds some brief spark to her role as "Jennie," Cliff's naive actress girl-friend. 

That's the problem.  Sweet as it is, "The Rocketeer" could use some spice, which Disney was just too timid to provide.  "Jennie" was "Bettie" in the comics, specifically "Bettie" Page, who was far more world-wise and ambitious than the screen incarnation could capture.  There was a bit of the real Page's persona in the original character, all too aware that she was the type of girl "men like," and all too willing to exploit her looks to be exploited.  That was way too hot for Disney, who gussied Connelly up from head to toe, effectively neutering her ambitions.  That the real "Bettie" Page was still alive at the time, and fully capable of contacting lawyers, probably influenced Disney's decision, as well.

And that's too bad.  "The Rocketeer" takes chances, but still feels "safe," something the comic was having too good a time to worry about. 

Dave Stevens, died after a long fight with leukemia, at the too-young age of 52.

Splash page ad from the original "Rocketeer" story, which promised more pulp sensibility than it delivered (at least it had a guest appearance by an unnamed "Doc" Savage character) but still contained the necessary "Bettie" Page figure.

* Mike Grell's "Starslayer" #2 was the first appearance of "The Rocketeer"

** She wouldn't stay forgotten for long.  "The Rocketeer" re-generated interest in her long career as a photographer's model, and "nudie" dancer, and she was able to see some money from the marketting of her image.  "The Notorious Bettie Page" is based on her life.  She didn't like it much, reportedly.


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