"The Rocketeer" (1991)

BACKSTORY: The Rocketeer is a 1991 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures and based on the character of the same name created by comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens. Directed by Joe Johnston, the film stars Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, and Timothy Dalton. Set in 1938 Los Angeles, it is the story of stunt pilot Cliff Secord who discovers a jet pack that enables him to fly. His heroic deeds attract the attention of Howard Hughes and the FBI, as well as Nazi operatives.

Development started in 1983 when Stevens sold the film rights. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had creative differences with Disney, which caused the film to languish. Filming for The Rocketeer lasted from September 19, 1990 to January 22, 1991. The visual effects sequences were created and designed by Industrial Light & Magic. The film was released on June 21, 1991 and received generally favorable reviews from critics, although plans for Rocketeer sequels were abandoned after a disappointing box office performance. It has since gained a cult following.


Disney's 1991 cult classic, "The Rocketeer" celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a showing at the El Capitan in Hollywood on June 21, 2011. Labeled a box office "failure" when it was released (despite the fact that it made a modest profit), "The Rocketeer" has gathered an increasing legion of loyal fans over the last 20 years. Set in 1938 Hollywood, the movie was based on the colorful graphic novel by the late Dave Stevens, who played a major part in the film by constantly being on the set and has a cameo as the German test pilot killed when the Nazi's version of a rocket backpack explodes.

I had never seen the film before, and absolutely LOVED it! It did a wonderful job of capturing 1938 Hollywood, filling the senses with colorful imagery and detail. They even recreated the classic Ennis House by Frank Lloyd Wright for the home of villain Neville Sinclair (loosely based on Errol Flynn and expertly played by Timothy Dalton).

The El Capitan was the perfect place to show the movie, since it was the film that this grand movie palace reopened with after a two-year restoration. Naturally, Rob Richards wowed the audience with his playing of the Wurlitzer before the show started. I especially loved hearing him play "For Now For Always" from "The Parent Trap." D23's Steven Clark came out to say a few scripted words about this underrated classic and then introduced the director of "The Rocketeer," Joe Johnston.

Once the movie began, there was thunderous applause for the cast and crew (especially for the late Dave Stevens, who died too young from leukemia). The newly restored film looked amazing, and kept the audience on the edge of its seats as they watched Cliff Secord (played by the ageless Billy Campbell) save the world from the Nazis while romancing the leading lady, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). I loved the cameos in the movie: Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), Clark Gable (Gene Daily), and W.C. Fields (Bob Leeman, who does an AMAZING job of channeling the great comedian). This movie is better than just campy; it is filled with intentional and thoughtfully done wink-wink humor that keeps it from descending into kitsch. The team acknowledged their surprise (and glee) that they were able to get the Mrs. Pye sequence past the censors. Mrs. Pye (Pat Crawford Brown) is the cranky girl's dorm matron who has the following double-entendre exchange with Cliff when he picks up Jenny for their date at the Bulldog Cafe:

Mrs. Pye: You know my rules: no gentlemen allowed inside after 6 PM.

Cliff Secord: But I'm not a gentleman.

Mrs. Pye: You're telling me!

When the lights went up, Kevin Smith hosted a panel on stage with Joe Johnston (director, as well as director of the upcoming "Captain America"), Billy Campbell (lead), Rick Baker (famous Hollywood makeup artist and creator for the menacing Lothar's look in "The Rocketeer"), Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (co-screenwriters of "The Rocketeer"), and William Stout ("Pan's Labyrinth," "The Muppet Wizard of Oz" as well as close friend of Dave Stevens).

Smith was an unfortunate choice to host the evening; his brash personality and never-ending chatter about himself seemed to subdue any real spontaneous conversation that might have occurred. There were a few gems that had the audience laughing though.

In commenting on the chemistry and real-life romance between Connelly & Campbell, Smith asked Johnston, "Were there times that you said 'cut' and they didn't stop?" Johnston replied, "I didn't want them to stop; I wanted to watch!"

At the time the film was being cast, Campbell was working at a Renaissance Fair and had only done TV work. He was sporting a beard and long hair, which he shaved off for the screen test. He described Joe Johnston's double-take when he first laid eyes on Campbell's newly shaven face, as it was a perfect match for Dave Stevens' illustrations of Cliff Secord.

Johnston was quite frank about not wanting to work for Disney again after doing "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (1989): "When I was approached about doing 'The Rocketeer,' I was told "We have good news, and bad news. The bad news is that Disney is doing it; the good news is that they want you.'" Thanks to the great work done by the entire cast & crew, Johnston found his budget for the movie expanding (it ended up costing approximately $40 million, and grossing about $46).

When asked about a sequel, Johnston wittily replied, "There was lots of talk about a sequel on June 20; but absolutely nothing on June 22."

Kevin Smith killed any kind of intelligent conversation with makeup guru Rick Baker by hounding him about whether "The Rocketeer" was one of his top ten jobs. Baker politely responded that there was really only one character to do.

Once the discussion was over, we were treated to the trailer for "Captain America," which looks like it could be a blockbuster. Afterwards, the audience walked across the street to the old Max Factor building which is now The Hollywood Museum. On display were various props and costumes; very fun to see, especially right after having watched the movie. It wouldn't be a Disney event without special merchandise to buy, including a cool miniature of the Bulldog Cafe.

What an evening! Thanks to D23 for putting it all together.