Sunday, July 5, 2009

Matt Dodson . . . err, Make That Tom Corbett, Space Cadet!





The grand master of the golden age of science-fiction, which ran from the late 1930s through the 1950s was undoubtedly Robert A Heinlein


Sure, there were other great writers . . . Asimov, Clarke, Kornblunth, Bradbury, and Pohl . . .to name but a few, but none were as influential as Heinlein.  


Heinlein published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections during his lifetime.


During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Heinlein wrote a number of `juvenile’ books, aimed at a teenage audience, with titles like Starman Jones, Rocket Ship GalileoTunnel In The Sky, and Starship Troopers.


While Heinlein would move on to far more adult themes (Stranger In A Strange Land no doubt contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s!), his juvenile novels are well remembered by my generation today.


In 1948, he published a book called Space Cadet, which would serve to influence a very popular radio and television show of the 1950s,  Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.


Created by Joesph Lawrence Greene, Tom Corbett was an amalgam of Heinlein’s Space Cadet universe and a radio script that Greene had created, that pre-dated the Heinlein book, called  Tom Ranger and the Space Cadets.


By the time the show made it on the air, the names had been changed again.  From Tom Ranger (Greene’s creation) and Matt Dodson (Heinlein’s protagonist) to Tom Corbett.


One of the best websites on the Internet devoted to Tom Corbett is, where you can read dozens of pages of information about the show. 



I won’t try to recreate the wheel here, since my main intent is to provide links to the shows. By all means, check out the site.


The TV series, over its nearly 5 year run, managed to be broadcast by all 4 networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont).  


While some of the science presented is a bit laughable now, for its time, it was surprisingly `scientific’.   Having 50’s science writer Willy Ley as a science advisor no doubt helped.  Sure, Mars had a breathable atmosphere, and Venus was a hot steamy jungle . . . but back in the 1950’s, both scenarios were considered possible.


The cast included:

  • Tom Corbett Frankie Thomas, Jr.
  • Astro Al Markim
  • Roger Manning Jan Merlin
  • Captain Steve Strong Edward Bryce
  • Dr. Joan Dale Margaret Garland
  • Commander Arkwright Carter Blake
  • Cadet Alfie Higgins John Fiedler
  • Cadet Eric Rattison Frank Sutton
  • Cadet T. J. Thistle Jack Grimes

And yes, it was that Frank Sutton, who played Cadet Rattison – who would go on to fame as Sgt Carter on Gomer Pyle, USMC.

The star of the show was Frankie Thomas, who during the early 1930s appeared in a number of Broadway plays (starting at the age of 11), and moved on to appearing in a number of well received movies.


Wednesday's Child (1934) .... Bobby Phillips

A Dog of Flanders (1935) .... Nello Daas

Tim Tyler's Luck (1937) .... Tim Tyler

Boys Town (1938) .... Freddie Fuller

His popularity never really caught on, and his career began to decline while he was still in his teens.  He still worked . . .in `B’ movies, and later (after a stint in the service for WWII) in early TV, but he was barely visible.


In 1950 his luck, and life, would change.  He would become Tom Corbett, and for a generation, represent a bright and exciting future.  He picture was on the front of comic books, dime novels, and even on our lunch pails at school.



The cast for the TV series also appeared on the short-lived radio show.  First broadcast as a 15 minute-3 times a week – kids show, it eventually went to a 1/2 hour format.   It only ran half a year.

We have 30+ episodes from the Internet Archive.


We’ve also 5 episodes from the TV show on the Archive.   Unlike the Rocky Jones Series (see Memories Of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger), which was filmed, the few shows we have were only preserved on Kinescopes.  


The budget was miniscule, the special effects almost non-existent, but they were fun, performed with enthusiasm,and certainly nostalgic for those of us who grew up on this stuff.

'Tom Corbett, Space Cadet'
Episode "Assignment Mercury" - Air Date: Feb. 26, 1955

'Tom Corbett, Space cadet' - Ambush in space (1955)
Episode: Ambush in space - Air Date: May 21, 1955

'Tom Corbett, Space cadet' - Fight for survival (1955)
Tom Corbett, Space cadet Episode: Fight for survival - Air Date: June 4, 1955

'Tom Corbett, Space cadet' - Pursuit of the deep space projectile (1955)
Episode "Pursuit of the deep space projectile" which aired on April 30, 1955 and contains original commercials for 'Kraft Caramels'.

'Tom Corbett, Space cadet' - Runaway rocket (1954)
'Tom Corbett, Space cadet' - Runaway rocket (1954) Episode: The runaway rocket - Air Date: May 22, 1954.

While the end of Tom Corbett pretty much was the end of Frankie Thomas’s  film career, he would go on to make personal appearances as Tom Corbett, and would write for radio and TV shows.


In the 1970s and 1980s he would pen a number of well received Sherlock Holmes novels.  

Thomas passed away in 2006, at the age of 85.  At his request, he was buried in his Tom Corbett uniform.

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