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The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer (film)

The Rocketeer is a 1991 superhero adventure film produced by Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures and directed by Joe Johnston, making his third feature film. It is based on the comic book The Rocketeer by Dave Stevens about a young stunt pilot who discovers a mysterious rocket pack that allows him to fly.

Plot

In 1938, stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) takes a trial run in a Gee Bee racing aircraft to prepare for an upcoming air show. During the run, mobsters fleeing from FBI agents in a vehicle chase reach the airfield, one of them shooting at and damaging Secord's aircraft. One of the mobsters finds his partner shot dead during the pursuit and hides a mysterious bundle under the seat of an old biplane in a hangar. He flees from the hangar, only to run into Secord crash-landing his damaged aircraft, which leads to the destruction of the airfield's fuel tank. The mobster, injured in the crash, is arrested by the FBI and taken to the hospital.The FBI mistakes a vacuum cleaner for the jet pack and goes back with that instead. Airfield owner Bigelow (Jon Polito) tells Secord and his friend A. "Peevy" Peabody (Alan Arkin) that they have to pay for the loss of the fuel tank, bankrupting the pair.

In desperation, Secord decides to fly his biplane in the air show at Bigelow's request, but comes across the hidden package which contains a prototype rocket pack. After unsuccessfully experimenting with the rocket pack, Secord and Peabody leave it alone until Peabody can understand its design and fine-tune it. When Secord is late, his elderly friend Malcolm (Eddie Jones) takes the biplane to perform the stunts as Secord. When the biplane suffers a malfunction in the air, Secord dons the rocket pack and a helmet designed by Peabody and rescues his friend in midair.

Having been seen by the audience, Secord becomes a media sensation, dubbed the "Rocketeer" by Bigelow. Keeping his identity secret, Secord visits his girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), an aspiring actress seeking a larger role in a Hollywood film starring actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Secord's arrival leads to a bungled shot, and Secord and Jenny are kicked off the film set. Neville, who had hired the mobsters who stole the rocket pack, overhears Secord's conversation with Jenny about his adventure. After Secord's departure, Neville is able to draw Jenny back onto the set and requests a dinner date with her.

Neville contacts the mob leader Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), and negotiates a new deal to dispatch more mobsters after Secord to retrieve the missing rocket pack. At the same time Neville sends his right-hand man, the seven-foot Lothar (Tiny Ron) after Secord and Peabody as insurance. He breaks into their home and attacks them at night, but is interrupted by the arrival of the FBI. He shoots through the windows at the agents, who return fire, believing that it's Secord and Peabody firing at them, and the house is destroyed in the exchange.

The pair hole up at the local diner until a group of Eddie's men arrive and take the place over, searching for Secord. Even though his rocket pack is damaged by a stray bullet in the fight, Secord is able to escape and the mobsters are overwhelmed by the diner patrons. Peabody patches the hole in the fuel tank with Secord's "Beeman's" chewing gumand Secord leaves to find Jenny, discovering that Neville is part of the scheme to steal the rocket pack. After escaping a shoot-out with the mobsters at the South Seas Club, Jenny is taken hostage by Neville and Secord is arrested by the FBI. He is taken to meet with Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), who explains that the rocket pack is a prototype he created in an arms race with Nazi Germany. In the discussion, the FBI admits tracking a Hollywood star who is a Nazi collaborator; Secord realizes that the collaborator is Neville. Hughes requests the return of the rocket pack, but Secord explains that he needs it one more time to save his girl.

After giving his word that he will return the pack, Secord punches one of the FBI agents and escapes from the hangar, gliding out suspended from a huge wooden model. Hughes orders the FBI agents not to fire their guns at Secord and lets him escape, commenting: "The son of a bitch WILL fly!" referring to Hughes' massive "Spruce Goose" flying boat.

Secord travels to the meeting spot at Griffith Observatory, where Eddie's gang is waiting for him. Secord attempts to have Jenny released, but Neville demands he hand over the rocket pack first. In desperation, Secord divulges to the gang that Neville is a Nazi sympathizer. He admits it, and the gang, who opposes Nazism, turns on Neville. Neville summons Nazi commandos hidden in the nearby observatory, who hold the gang at gunpoint but a firefight ensues when the FBI suddenly show up. The mobsters join forces with the FBI agents while Neville escapes with Jenny in a German Zeppelin which had been hovering overhead.

Secord pursues them in his rocket pack. On the Zeppelin, he gets into a fight with Sinclair, during which, Jenny starts a fire in the Zeppelin with a flare gun that she evidently thought was a weapon. Secord reluctantly hands his damaged rocket pack to Neville after pushing aside the chewing gum patch. The actor, not aware of the hole in the fuel tank, takes off from the zeppelin but is killed in the resulting rocket pack explosion.

Secord and Jenny are rescued by Hughes and Peabody in an autogyro before the airship is engulfed in flames. Hughes rewards Secord with a new Gee Bee racer to replace the lost one, and Jenny secretly gives Peabody a set of detailed schematics of the rocket pack that Hughes had originally drawn and the Nazis had stolen. Just before the credits roll, Peabody realizes that with some modifications, he can make an even better new rocket pack.

Quotes

  • Neville Sinclair: "I'll miss Hollywood." (Set up as an ironic statement as the inferno that once was Sinclair crashes into the "Hollywoodland" sign, destroying the last section and leaving it as "Hollywood" the way it is today.)
  • Jenny Blake: "Everything about you is a lie."

Neville Sinclair: "It wasn't lies, Jenny. It was acting." (The character of Neville Sinclair was broadly based on screen idol Errol Flynn who had been widely rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer. Timothy Dalton played up the role in a campy take on Flynn's "swashbuckling" acting style.

  • Jenny Blake: "Neville Sinclair is a-"

Neville Sinclair: A what? Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above."

  • Cliff Secord: (Donning the Rocketeer's helmet) "How do I look?"

"Peevy" Peabody: "Like a hood ornament."

Cast

As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
Actor Role
Bill Campbell Cliff Secord
Jennifer Connelly Jenny Blake
Alan Arkin A. "Peevy" Peabody
Timothy Dalton Neville Sinclair
Paul Sorvino Eddie Valentine
Terry O'Quinn Howard Hughes
Ed Lauter Agent Fitch
James Handy Agent "Wooly" Wolinski
Tiny Ron Lothar
Robert Miranda(as Robert Guy Miranda) Spanish Johnny
John Lavachielli "Rusty," Valentine Hood
Jon Polito Otis Bigelow
Eddie Jones Malcolm the Mechanic
William Sanderson "Skeets"
Clint Howard Mark
Don Pugsley "Goose"

A full cast and production crew list is too lengthy to include, see: IMDb profile.

Production

Steve Miner was the first filmmaker to option the movie rights to Stevens’ comic book in 1983 but he strayed too far from the original concept. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo originally approached Dave Stevens to work on the film Zone Troopers but he had to pass due to other commitments. They were given an option on The Rocketeer’s screen rights in 1985 because Stevens liked that “their ideas for The Rocketeer were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930s serials with all the right dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my character contemporarily, but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs.” They pitched their screenplay to every major studio each one of whom passed because it was seen as an expensive comic book film.

Their script kept the comic book’s basic plot intact but fleshed it out to include a Hollywood setting and a climactic battle against a Nazi zeppelin. They also tweaked Cliff’s girlfriend to avoid comparisons/legal hassles to Bettie Page (Stevens’ original inspiration), changing her name from Betty to Jenny and her profession from nude model to Hollywood extra (a change also made to make the film more family friendly). At one point, the screenwriters talked to Stevens about doing The Rocketeer as a smaller film shot in black and white like the old serials. With Stevens input, Bilson and DeMeo developed their screenplay with director William Dear who proceeded to change the zeppelin to a submarine. Bilson and DeMeo submitted their seven-page outline to Disney in 1986. The studio saw the potential merchandising angle and put their script through an endless series of revisions. The involvement of Disney resulted in a significant increase in budget as DeMeo said, “You can imagine the commitment Disney was making to develop a series of movies around a character. They even called it their Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Stevens and the screenwriters signed on to make a Rocketeer trilogy of films with Touchstone Pictures to distribute them. However, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg switched it back over to Disney release because he felt that they needed a live-action hit. According to Stevens, "immediately, Betty and anything else 'adult' went right out with the bathwater. They really tried to shoehorn it into a kiddie property so they could sell toys. All they really wanted at the end of the day, was the name".

Over five years, Disney fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo explained that “Disney felt that they needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out and we were always brought back on.” They found the studio’s constant tinkering with the screenplay to be a frustrating process as executives would like “excised dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years ago were put back in. What was the point?” DeMeo said. Disney’s biggest problems were with all of the period slang peppered throughout the script. Executives were worried that audiences wouldn’t understand what characters were saying.

One of Bilson and DeMeo’s significant revisions to the script over the years was to make Cliff and Jenny’s “attraction more believable . . . how do we bring Jenny into the story and revolve it around her, and not just create someone who’s kidnapped and has to be saved?” DeMeo recalled. The numerous project delays forced Dear to leave the production and Joe Johnston signed on. Johnston was a fan of the comic book and when he inquired about its movie rights was told that Disney already had it in development. He approached the studio and was quickly hired to direct. The filmmaker said in an interview, “One of the great appeals of Stevens’ work was his attention to detail, which really placed the reader in the period. I’ve tried to do the same thing cinematically.”

In 1990s, Bilson and DeMeo’s third major rewrite finally got the greenlight from the studio. However, Disney also acquired the rights to the Dick Tracy film from Universal and this worried DeMeo who was afraid that the studio would dump The Rocketeer in favor of a much more high-profile project. However, when Dick Tracy failed to perform as well at the box office as Disney had hoped, his fears subsided. Pre-production started in early 1990 with producer Larry Franco in charge of securing locations for the film. He found an abandoned World War II landing strip in Santa Maria which they used to build the mythical Chaplin Air Field with additional scenes at Bakersfield. The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi zeppelin was filmed near the Magic Mountain amusement park in the Indian Dunes.

Stevens gave the film's production designer Jim Bissell and his two art directors his entire reference library pertaining to the Rocketeer at that time period, including blueprints for hangers and bleachers, schematics for building the autogyro, photos and drawings of the Bulldog Café, field uniforms for the air circus staff, and contacts for the vintage planes that were to be used. Stevens remembers that they "literally just took the reference and built the sets". Disney wanted to change the Rocketeer's trademark helmet completely. Disney executive Michael Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet but Johnston said that if the helmet was changed at all that he would quit the production. The studio relented but still tried a couple of their own prototype designs that no one liked. Stevens told Johnston to give him a week and he would produce a helmet that looked good and that they could use. He proceeded to work with a sculptor he knew, made a cast of the film's main stuntman's head and brainstormed ideas with the help of his sketches. They produced a helmet that worked and looked good from all angles.

During casting, Bilson and DeMeo had Kevin Costner and Matthew Modine in mind to play the title character. When they proved to be unavailable, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioned for the part. Johnny Depp was the studio’s favorite choice for the part, but an unknown actor, Bill Campbell, was eventually cast in his first feature role. According to Stevens, Johnston had to fight the studio for Campbell, because they wanted a "name" actor. Campbell was not familiar with the comic book when he got the part but quickly read it in addition to books on aviation and listened to period music. The actor had a fear of flying but overcame it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator Craig Hosking. To ensure his safety, Campbell was doubled for almost all of the Rocketeer’s flying sequences. For the female lead, Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane and Elizabeth McGovern were considered before Jennifer Connelly was eventually cast. The part of Neville Sinclair was offered to Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance before Timothy Dalton came on board the project. For the role of Secord’s sidekick, Peevy, Dave Stevens hoped that Lloyd Bridges would play the part, but Bridges turned the part down. Lastly, the part of Eddie Valentine was written with Joe Pesci in mind, but he too, turned down the part.

Based on a revised screenplay dated 13 June 1990 by Bilson, De Mato and Dear, the original production would have a number of changes. Jenny's name throughout was "Sally" who is present at the test flight of the Gee Bee. The rocket pack was the same design as the original design of the comic book version. Other notable difference included Neville Sinclair's movie was based on a millionaire playboy adopting a little girl and the filmed scene was set in a courtroom. "Miss Mabel," the biplane used for the clown act, was named "Jenny" while the Howard Hughes' autogyro was named "Mabel."

An elaborate scene was set at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where a celebration was held for actress Ginger Rogers. As The Rocketeer flew past the theater, a searchlight man lost his balance and fell of the top of the theater. Cliff manages to rescue him and the attention is drawn on him instead of the actress. This was later further revised and changed to Bettie Davis placing her hand prints and foot prints into cement into the sidewalk. The Rocketeer then accidentally landed in the cement leaving his foot and hand prints. Someone then asked Davis to step aside to write "The Rocketeer"'s name in the cement. This was cut from the final filmed version of the film with only a clip of The Rocketeer flying past the theater.

Other changes included a scene where Cliff flew through the skylight at the South Seas Club, where one of Valentine's men manages to hit Cliff's helmet, sending him crashing through a cigarette billboard and into an alley. The rendezvous at Griffith Observatory originally had Cliff send down the Lindbergh statue, wearing a brass bucket on its head with three Roman candles attached to its back, down on Sinclair. While Sinclair and Valentine's gang came in for a closer look at the statue embedded into Sinclair's car, Cliff grabbed Valentine and helds him up in the air while hovering above the ground, offering to trade Valentine for Sally, but Sinclair reacts by shooting Valentine. In the climactic zeppelin encounter, as Cliff approached the zeppelin, the rocket pack runs out of fuel and sends him crashing into the rudder of the zeppelin.

Bilson and DeMeo approved of everything that was put in the movie and enlisted Stevens’ help designing the Central City Police badges and initial revisions to the Rocketeer suit. For the Air Circus scene at Chaplin Air Field, 700 extras and 25 vintage planes were employed. Hosking remarked in an interview, “What makes The Rocketeer so unique was having several one-of-a-kind planes that hadn’t flown in years,” including a 1916 Standard biplane and a Gee Bee racer with a radial engine and stubby wings. The film ended up going 50 days over schedule due to weather and mechanical problems. Production wrapped on 10 January 1991 after five months of filming.

The Rocketeer received Disney's biggest TV campaign, at that time, with the studio spending more than the USD $10 million they spent on TV advertising for Dick Tracy. Both Campbell and Connelly signed up for sequels, he for two and she for only one.

Reception

The Rocketeer had its world premiere on 19 June 1991 in Hollywood at the 1,100 seat El Capitan Theater which had been reopened after a two-year restoration project. Promotion just prior to its release included comparisons to the Indiana Jones Series. The recent success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only fueled expectations that the general public would be equally receptive to another movie of that genre. However, following its release on 21 June 1991 in 1,616 theaters, The Rocketeer grossed only $9.6 million on its opening weekend and would go on to make $46.7 million in North America, just recouping its estimated $40 million budget. Disney executives were disappointed in the box office take (and sales of related merchandise) and very early hopes for a sequel were quietly squashed.

Although contemporary reviews were mixed, The Rocketeer currently has a 64% "fresh" rating based on all polled critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Joe Brown, of the Washington Post praised the film and wrote that it "benefits from an unusually smart script, with snappy lines in even the smallest scenes... The Disney designers have given it a stylish, richly detailed look". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Only the period costumes (by Marilyn Vance-Straker) and production design (by Jim Bissell) of The Rocketeer, which are ostensibly the least original things about it, have any real flair". David Ansen, in Newsweek magazine, wrote, "The movie has a determinedly sweet, innocuous spirit, some nifty sets . . . But the screenplay (by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) could use a bit more sophisticated sparkle, and neither Campbell nor Connelly has enough star wattage to turn their blandly virtuous characters into memorable ones". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and called it a "satisfying adventure".

When The Rocketeer was released in all other markets outside of the USA and Canada, it was through Touchstone as opposed to Disney in an attempt to attract a teenage audience that was not done in North America. The Disney tag was seen to have turned off people who assumed that the film was for children. The film's original Art Deco poster was changed because it failed to draw attention to the cast including the then-current James Bond, Timothy Dalton, and gave little indication of the film's content. The Disney name also gave some the impression that the film was an animated feature. The new poster featured Dalton, Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly prominently. However, the film performed disappointingly in Britain, grossing just over £1 million in its first two weeks at just under 250 screens. The new ad campaign was being designed while the British promotional campaign for the film was already under way and some theaters still had the stylized U.S. movie poster.

Awards

The Rocketeer was nominated for Best Science Fiction film, Best Special Effects and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly) at the 1992 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA, where Marilyn Vance ultimately won a Saturn Award for Best Costumes in 1991. The film was also nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation at the 1992 Hugo Awards.

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • David, Peter. The Rocketeer (Novelization of the film). New York: Bantam Books, 1991. ISBN 0-55329-322-2.
  • David, Peter. The Rocketeer: The Official Movie Adaptation. Burbank, California: W D Publications Inc., 1991. ISBN 1-5685-190-4.
  • The Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air (documentary). Burbank, California: The Wrightwood Group, Walt Disney Television, 1991.

External links

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