The Rocketeer 20th Anniversary

Published on June 24th, 2011

In 1982, I discovered the wonderful and exciting adventures of Cliff Secord, a young pilot who stumbled across a jet pack and with the help of his mechanic friend Peavey,became “The Rocketeer.” Lovingly written and exquisitely illustrated by Dave Stevens, the book was a throwback to 1930’s pulp magazines, radio programs, and movie serials, with artwork reminiscent of the detailed line work of comics legend Russ Heath. I followed the Rocketeer’s exploits from their original run as a backup to Mike Grell’s “Starslayer” from Pacific Comics through the character’s subsequent stints with Eclipse Comics and then Comico. Stevens’ artwork, particularly his renderings of Cliff’s girlfriend who happened to be a dead ringer for pinup model Bettie Page, was the principal reason for the popularity of these books. Indeed, Stevens can be credited with jumpstarting interest in Ms. Page and it is doubtful that so many rockabilly fans,pinup aficionados, and hipsters would even know who Bettie Page is had it not been for Stevens.

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In 1991, Walt Disney Pictures released the film adaptation of “The Rocketeer,” starring an unknown Bill (now Billy) Campbell as Cliff Secord and former James Bond TimothyDalton as the dashing Neville Sinclair, loosely based on Errol Flynn. This being a Disney film, there was no way that Cliff’s girlfriend could be Bettie Page, nor didthe director even try. Instead,

Jennifer Connelly, who had previously starred in Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” was cast and the character was renamed, “Jenny.” (Many a wag joked that the character was renamed because Ms. Connelly might not have known to answer to the name “Bettie” on set.) The film featured a hulking villainous henchmen made up to look like 1940’s horror movie actor Rondo Hatton, who suffered from a glandular condition known as acromegaly. The film was shot by Joe Johnston on a $42 million budget and opened on June 21, 1991 to generally good reviews. The El Capitan theater on Hollywood Boulevard had been purchased by Walt Disney Corporation and refurbished and upgraded, and its grand opening was the premiere of “The Rocketeer.” I went to see the movie in that theatre during its initial run, and I was thoroughly entertained by the picture. Yes, Jenny wasn’t Bettie –but she was Jennifer Connelly, who looked far better in her form fitting white satin gown than I think Bettie Page ever could have. No, the jet pack’s inventor was not 1930’s pulp magazine hero Doc Savage, as Stevens intimated in his comics – instead, we got a pre- “Lost” Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes! Stevens was very involved in the production, even playing a bit role as an ill-fated German test pilot.

Flash forward 20 years. D23 and Creature Features sponsored a 20th anniversary celebration of the release of “The Rocketeer,” bringing a brand new digital print of the film to its “birthplace” at the El Capitan. After an unfortunate 45 minute delay in getting people seated (owing to what I’m told is typical lack of planning and foresight on the part of the D23 people), the ticket holders streamed inside to their reserved seats while an organist played a huge vintage Wurlitzer organ on stage. Present for the screening were star Bill Campbell, director Joe Johnston, co-star Tiny Ron (who played “Lothar,” the Rondo Hatton lookalike), and the mother and sister of the late Dave Stevens, who passed away from hairy cell leukemia in 2008. As the familiar cast and crew names appeared on screen during the credits, cheers and applause filled the packed house.

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Following the screening, writer/director/sometimes actor Kevin Smith took the stage in his trademark jean jorts and hockey jersey to host and moderate a panel discussion of the film with Johnston, Campbell, makeup artist Rick Baker, writers Danny Bilson and Paul Dimeo, and artist extraordinaire William Stout, a close friend of Dave Stevens. Smith gushed over Johnston’s “George Lucas” pedigree (“Remember the snow-walkers from ‘Empire Strikes Back’? This guy created the AT-AT!”), and introduced Campbell as “the guy who beat up Jennifer Lopez” (they were in her revenge movie “Enough” together). Director Johnston admitted that he had not seen the film in 20 years. Writers Bilson and Dimeo seemed the most knowledgeable about how the movie did financially and whether a sequel was ever considered (the movie’s box office receipts helped the studio to decide “no sequel”).

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The audience was then directed from the El Capitan to the Hollywood Museum onHighland Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, where the fourth floor of the museum contained costumes and props from “The Rocketeer.” Several of the jet pack props were on display, along with models of the airplanes flown in the film, Cliff’s Rocketeer costume and Jenny’s white satin gown from the South Seas club scene. A little seen “behind the scenes” special on the making of the movie was being shown on closed circuit monitors throughout the crowded exhibition room. Actor and comic book writer Thomas Jane (“The Punisher,” “Hung”) was at the exhibition, wearing a “Rocketeer” costume t-shirt and marveling at the costumes and props along witheveryone else.

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The creation of a digital print, along with the videotaping of the panel discussion, leads one to hope that a 20th anniversary edition of “The Rocketeer” will be released. The movie, while available on DVD, has not yet been released in the Blu-Ray format.

Brett Hampton
Brett@ComicImpact.com