The Rocketeer was created by Dave Stevens for Pacific Comics in 1982, a homage to the Saturday matinee series, like King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, and Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe, from 1949 to 1955. I have clear memories of seeing and loving the Rocketeer from my childhood, so I must have seen at least one of those serials on TV. The story was later carried by Eclipse and Dark Horse Comics. IDW published a prose anthology featuring historical figures like Howard Hughes, Johnny Weissmuller, and Zane Grey. Also, acromegalic horror-movie actor Rondo Hatton. The hero, Cliff Secord, had a girlfriend patterned after pinup queen Bettie Page.
In 1983, Dave Stevens sold the rights to moviemaker Steve Miner, but the ideas strayed too far from the original context and the rights returned to Stevens. Liking the ideas of Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo on a tribute to the Commando Cody serials, he gave them the rights. The villain was to be Errol Flynn as a closet Nazi, and Howard Hughes would appear as a mentor to the hero. Billy Campbell, cast as the hero, had a fear of flying, which he quickly overcame. Jennifer Connelly was cast as the girlfriend and seemed perfect for the period. Timothy Dalton, James Bond at the time, was perfect as Errol Flynn. Tiny Ron Taylor was made up to look like period bad guy Rondo Hatton. The movie was nominated for a Hugo and a Saturn but lost to Terminator 2. In 2019 and 2020, after the film, there was a TV show about a girl who receives a rocket pack on her birthday and becomes the Rocketeer.
In Los Angeles, 1938, Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gang steals a rocket-pack from Howard Hughes. In a car-chase to escape the Feds, they end up on an airfield. One gang-member is killed, and the driver hides the rocket-pack in a hangar. During the chase, stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is accidentally shot down in his Gee Bee Racer. The plane is wrecked and his whole career is in jeopardy. But mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) finds the rocket-pack. Movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) was behind the theft, and he sends his huge henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron Tailer) to question the driver, who tells him where the object was stashed.
Cliff’s girlfriend, hopeful actress Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) has a small part in Sinclair’s swashbuckler. He overhears Cliff and Jenny discussing the rocket-pack, so he invites her to dinner at the classy South Seas Club. In a local airshow, Cliff uses the rocket-pack and a snazzy helmet designed by Peevy to rescue his friend Malcolm (Eddie Jones) in his rickety biplane. The news reels capture it all, though the helmet hides Cliff’s face, and the unknown Rocketeer becomes a sensation. Sinclair, the gangsters, and the FBI all want to track him down.
Lothar is sent to Cliff and Peevy’s home to find the object. The FBI arrives as well. Cliff and Peevy escape, but Lothar gets away with the schematics. Later, at a dog-shaped diner, Cliff and Peevy are trapped by the mobsters, and they learn about Sinclair’s involvement. They also learn about Jenny’s date with Sinclair. The gangsters are overrun at the Bulldog Diner and a bullet punctures the rocket-pack. Peevy patches it up with chewing gum. Cliff heads to the South Seas Club, where he tells Jenny that he is the Rocketeer. The gangsters arrive, there is a battle, and Jenny is kidnapped by Sinclair.
In his fabulous home, Jenny discovers that Sinclair is a Nazi agent and knocks him out, but she is captured and forced to leave a message telling Cliff to bring the pack to the Griffiths Observatory. Cliff manages to hide the rocket-pack just before he is captured by the FBI and taken to Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), who explains that the device is his prototype, like the one the Nazis are trying to create. He conjures up images of an army of Nazi soldiers flying to the attack. Cliff needs the rocket-pack to rescue Jenny, so he escapes the FBI in the Spruce Goose, but leaves a clue that he is heading to meet Sinclair.
At the rendezvous, Sinclair demands the pack, but Cliff tells the gangsters that Sinclair is a Nazi spy, and they turn on Sinclair. He calls in his Nazis and there is a pitched battle. The Nazi airship Luxembourg appears overhead to save Sinclair. The FBI arrives and joins the gangsters in fighting the Nazis. Sinclair and Lothar escape on the airship, taking Jenny with them.
Cliff secures the rocket-pack, flies to the ship, and confronts Sinclair, whereupon Jenny sets the ship on fire with a flare gun. Sinclair has Cliff hand over the rocket-pack in exchange for Jenny, but Cliff removes the chewing gum. Sinclair flies off in the rocket pack, but it catches fire, and he crashes into the Hollywoodland sign and is killed as the last four letters collapse about him. The airship explodes, killing Lothar, but Cliff and Jenny are rescued by Howard Hughes in an autogyro. Later, Hughes gives Cliff a new Gee Bee Racer. But Peevy still has the plans to the rocket-pack.
Director Joe Johnson impressed the studios so much that he was given Captain America: The First Avenger. There was supposed to be a Rocketeer trilogy, but it didn’t happen. There is still talk, however, about a sequel with a black female Rocketeer. With Disney in charge, any similarity between Cliff’s girlfriend, who was supposed to be a model named Betty, to Bettie Page disappeared. Disney actually suggested the movie be set in current times, destroying half the fun. Over five years, writers Bilson and De Meo were fired and re-hired three times. Scenes were removed from the script and put back in. But Joe Johnson was a fan of the comic book and held his ground.
Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez were looked at for Cliff, but the studio really wanted Johnny Depp. Kelly Preston and Elizabeth McGovern were considered before Jennifer Connelly got the role of Jenny. One reason she was so believable in the period piece is that she looked so much like the ingenue Elizabeth Taylor. The movie got bigger. The air circus used 700 extras and 25 vintage aircraft. The Rondo Hatton look for Lothar was created by Rick Baker. Industrial Light and Magic created much of the special effects. The Zeppelin explosion cost $400,000. The music was written by James Horner, who used much of it in Titanic. By and large, critics thought it charming and loved the Art Deco production values.
The Gee Bee Racer Model 2, from 1931, was one of the fastest land-planes in the world, little more than a cockpit, wings, and a tail around an 800 HP Pratt and Whitney engine. The plane was called the Widow-maker and the Flying Coffin because it was so prone to crack-ups, but it was so fast and maneuverable that it was still popular for racing. James Doolittle won the 1932 Thompson Trophy flying one at 252.686 MPH. The reproduction used in the movie is in the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Dave Stevens gave the production his entire library on the Rocketeer, including blueprints for hangars, the autogyro, and the Bulldog Café. The real building was built in 1923 but was destroyed by weather in the mid-Seventies. The Sinclair Mansion was played by the Ennis House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923. It has appeared in many movies, from Blade Runner to Predator 2.
The real Bettie Page, still alive, would not let her name be used. Beeman’s Gum was popular among Chuck Yeager and the Astronauts. The rocket-pack, according to the comics, was originally invented by the pulp hero Doc Savage, but the copyright holder, Conde Nash, would not let the production use Savage’s name, so it was credited to Howard Hughes. We know both Tiny Ron and Max Grodenchik from Deep Space Nine. The Hollywoodland sign was built to promote a housing project of that name. It was donated to the City of Los Angeles, who tore down the last four letters so it would name the district instead of the development.