This abridgement of Universal’s 12-episode serial Buck Rogers stars Buster Crabbe as Dick Calkins’ famed comic-strip space adventurer. Buck and Buddy (Jackie Moran) and are recruited to battle against modernistic gangster Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), by Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) and Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw). The duo travels to Saturn to get help in their mission, and after Buck and Buddy quell the internal struggles of the Saturnians, Buck triumphs over Killer Kane and his cosmic thugs.
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Link to all 12 Serial Episodes:
Starring Buster Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, Jack Mulhall, Anthony Warde, C. Montague Shaw, Guy Usher, William Gould, Philson Ahn. Directed by Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind.
Buck Rogers and Buddy Wade are in the middle of a trans-polar dirigible flight when they are caught in a blizzard and crash. Buddy then releases a special gas to keep them in suspended animation until a rescue party can arrive. However, an avalanche covers the craft and the two are in suspended animation for 500 years. When they are found, they awake to find out that the world has been taken over by the outlaw army of Killer Kane. Along with Lieutenant Wilma Deering, Buck and Buddy join in the fight to overthrow Kane and with the help of Prince Tallen of Saturn and his forces, they eventually do and Earth is free of Kane’s grip.
This is actually a pretty enjoyable serial, but it seems doomed to be forever overshadowed by the much superior Flash Gordon trilogy. Universal brought BUCK ROGERS out in 1939, in between their own chapterplays FLASH GORDON’S TRIP TO MARS and FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE; it also starred Buster Crabbe (but with his natural dark hair instead of Flash’s golden curls) and although it is filled with space ships and weird gadgets, BUCK ROGERS lacks most of the elements that gave the Flash serials their intense emotional draw.
For one thing, there is none of the strong sexual charge that the Flash series had. Instead of nubile Dale Arden and sultry Princess Aura both competing for the hero’s attention while the villain openly lusted for the heroine, Buck’s epic featured Constance Moore as Col. Wilma Deering. Now, Moore is perfectly fine in her role, but she is after all a soldier in the resistance army and not a fair damsel in distress. She has a nice moment when she wrests a ray gun away from a guard and blasts her way out of her cell, but she and Buck seem to be merely chums on the same side.
Also, although BUCK ROGERS has plenty of futuristic gadgets (rayguns and buzzing spaceships which shoot sparks from their backs, teleportation tubes and invisibility rays), there are no grotesque monsters or nonhuman alien races on view. Prisoners have remarkably goofy metal helmets strapped on which turn them into docile zombies, and there are these homely goons called Zuggs moping around, but that’s hardly as fascinating as Lion Men and Clay People and horned apes (that Orangapoid critter).
What’s ironic about all this is that the comic strip BUCK ROGERS by Philip Nolan and Richard Calkins started in 1929, was immensely popular for many years and it success inspired the creation of Flash. Yet the Flash strip benefitted from the genius of Alex Raymond, one of the all-time great cartoon artists, and it produced stunning visual images (from the samples of Buck’s strip I’ve seen, it was imaginative enough but pretty crude and drab). This contrast carried over to the serials.
Buck Rogers and his sidekick Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran) are pilots who crash in the Arctic in1938 and survive for 500 years because the ‘Nirvano’ gas they were carrying put them in a state of suspended animation. They both seem to adapt to waking up in the year 2424 pretty well, where I would think most people would be so traumatized it would take a while to adjust. In this dystopic future, the Earth is ruled by a mega-gangster called Killer Kane (another setback; Anthony Warde would be okay as a crimelord but he just doesn’t have the imposing presence to convince me this guy can dominate an entire planet).
Luckily, Buck and Buddy have been found by the small resistance movement hopelessly trying to overthrow Kane from their hidden city. Here is Dr Huer (C. Montague Shaw, who I just saw in the UNDERSEA KINGDOM doing the same gig with his wild inventions) and Wilma Deering leading the good fight. For some reason I missed, everyone immediately puts all their trust in Buck and he pretty much takes over. (Maybe he’s just one of those charismatic alpha males or something.) Most of the serial involves desperate trips back and forth to Saturn to enlist the aid of the isolationist Saturnians, and this means running the blockade of Kane’s ships. The usual fistfights and explosions and captures and escapes normal for this sort of situation ensue. It’s a lot of fun if you take it on its own terms, with a strong linear plot and likeable heroes, but it really never kicks into high gear and seems a bit drab.
It’s interesting that some (but not all) of the Saturnians are played by Asian actors. Prince Tallen, who gets caught up in most of the fun, was portrayed by a very young Philson Ahn, and I thought for years this was the same guy who in 1972 impressed us as the head of the Shaolin Temple in TV’s KUNG FU (he taught all the styles, really amazing if you think about it). Turns out that was Phiip Ahn, Philson’s brother.
Dir: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind – 12 Chapters
BUCK ROGERS (1939): Director Ford Beebe, who also worked on Flash Gordon (1938), came straight from The Phantom Creeps (1939) and then went back to finish Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940). Buck Rogers stars Buster Crabbe or, as his family knew him, Lawrence. Now, Lawrence ‘Larry’ ‘Buster’ Crabbe had previously starred in two Flash Gordon serials, a couple of Tarzan movies and a long string of westerns, so it was only natural for Universal to decide he was perfect as the heroic Buck Rogers, aka that blonde guy who saves the universe but isn’t Flash Gordon. Actually, Buster Crabbe wasn’t the first actor to play Buck Rogers in-the-flesh, so to speak.
That honour goes to an unknown man who played Buck in a Virginia department store, instead of their regular Santa Claus. Santa was off conquering Martians at the time, I think it was an exchange program of sorts. It strikes me that Buck Rogers is not unlike a male fantasy come to life. Just think of it – Buck gets to take a nice five-hundred-year-long sleep-in. With my busy schedule, I’m ecstatic if I can get twenty minutes nap on the weekend. Then, when he wakes up, Buck is the smartest, most dynamic guy around. In reality he’d be treated like something that’s escaped from the zoo. And finally, everyone needs Buck to go on exciting missions, fight the bad guys, test exotic equipment and crash rocket ships – out of the half-dozen flights Buck makes, he only lands successfully once. It’s easy to see the bullet cars used in the movie are the same ones from Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938), and even the script is rather suspect.
This film is actually a compilation of the Buck Rogers serials that ran originally in 1939. The cliffhanger endings and recap beginnings have been edited out to make it flow better — with partial success. Some new footage was shot for the introduction and summary. At the opening, there are some newspaper headlines about jets chasing flying discs, and the obligatory checkered V2 launch, etc. to add a modern segue. After that, it’s pure 1939.
Sci-fi movie technology had come a long way in the 14 years since Buck’s debut. Audiences had grown accustomed to sleek and pointy rockets, flying saucers, strange aliens, etc. The Buck Rogers style world-of-the-future must have looked oddly quaint. (if not laughable) Just why Universal Pictures thought re-releasing Buck Rogers was a good idea is a bit of a mystery. Kids who were 8 or so back in 1939 would be young adults in ’53. Perhaps Universal was banking on those young adults would buy tickets for a trip down memory lane.
After a bit of modern (’53) footage about the wonders of modern progress and "flying disks," the old serial begins. Rogers and Buddy crashed in the arctic while on a transpolar flight. They were in suspended animation due to the cold and a vague gas. A patrol finds them in the year 2500 and revives them. In the world of 2500, a despot named Killer Kane is trying to take over the world. The forces of good are holed up in the "hidden city." Buck arranges a decoy maneuver to elude Kane’s patrol ships. They fly to the planet Saturn in hopes of finding help. On Saturn, the Council sees Rogers and party as the rebels, and Kane as the rule of law. Rogers et al, escape Saturn, return to earth and seek to disrupt Kane’s bamboozling of Prince Tallen, the Saturnian representative. Rogers sneaks into Kane’s city, interrupts the treaty signing and convinces Tallen of Kane’s evil by revealing Kane’s "robot battalion" (slaves wearing mind-control helmets). Rogers and Tallen get to Saturn and the treaty is signed. Rogers escapes Kane’s patrols via the Dissolvo Ray which rendered them invisible. Rogers and the war council plan for war. Rogers enlists the Saturnians to help. Meanwhile, Rogers sneaks into Kane’s city and de-zombies Minister Krenco to lead an uprising of freed robot-slave-prisoners. Rogers storms Kane’s palace and puts one of the robo-slave helmets on Kane. The End
The industrial vision of the future is delightful to watch. The heavily mechanical look of everything is so radically different from the sleek rockets and glowing acrylic audiences were growing accustomed to. The space ships look like they were built at locomotive factories or steamship yards. They spew roman-candle sparks and smoke and buzz as they fly. There are no computers, no radar or electronics. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what pre-electronic-age people thought the future would be like.
When originally released in 1939, the Killer Kane character was a thinly disguised allusion to Hitler. In 1953, Kane was intended to represent a communist despot. It wasn’t as tidy a fit. The narrator sums it up voicing a hope that scientists will develop the means for men to stand up to today’s dictators and make the world safe for democracy. In the early 50s, there’s little question of who they meant.
Simple Colors — One endearing trait of Buck Rogers is the simplicity of the characterizations. The good guys do nothing but good. The bad guys are pure bad. The good guys are crack pilots and sharp shooters and tough as nails. The bad guys do nothing but bad, have trouble hitting a flying barn and are easily knocked out with one punch.
Industrial Baroque — Somewhat like the baroque era’s compulsion to decorate every square inch with swirls and filigree, Industrial Baroque sought to fill every space with heavy-duty hardware. The sets, and especially the rocket interiors are like flying boiler rooms. Valves, pipes, levers, dials, wheels, large flashing light bulbs. To look more "high tech" in the 30s meant cramming in more industrial hardware. Buck Rogers’ ships show more affinity for Captain Nemo "steampunk" than the proto-space-age of the 50s.
Family Resemblance — There is a noticeable similarity in the sets and costumes of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers. Even serials of the early 50s, like Captain Video and the various Rocketman serials, look more like Flash and Buck than George Pal. The industrial baroque look and costuming are distinctive, making them almost a sub-genre of their own. In that regard, Buck has a timelessness.
Another take on the story and additional background info.
A round-the-world dirigible flight commanded by US Air Force officer Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) encounters dangerously stormy weather above the Himalayas; said weather, along with disastrous panic on the part of Rogers’ crewmen, causes the aircraft to crash. The cowardly crewmen ditch the ship and meet quick ends, but Rogers and young Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran), son of the aircraft’s designer, survive the crash. The pair use a cylinder of “Nirvano” gas to place themselves into suspended animation until a rescue party can reach them, but an avalanche buries the ship and all searches prove fruitless; the dirigible and its two dormant inhabitants remain beneath rocks and snow for five hundred years.
Finally, in the year 2440, a spaceship unearths the wreck, and its pilots restore Buck and Buddy to consciousness. The holdovers from the 20th century soon learn that their rescuers are soldiers from the “Hidden City,” a pocket of resistance to the super-criminal who is ruling the 24th-century Earth–one “Killer” Kane (Anthony Warde). Rogers immediately pledges his support to Air Marshal Kragg (William Gould) and Scientist-General Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw), the leaders of the Hidden City exiles, and is soon en route to Saturn, hoping to convince that planet’s rulers to aid the Hidden City in freeing the Earth from Kane’s tyranny. To cement the Saturian alliance, Buck must battle Kane’s legions at every step of the way, with able assistance from Buddy and from Dr. Huer’s trusted aide Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore).
Ever since its original release, Buck Rogers has stood in the shadow of Universal’s Flash Gordon serials; the studio encouraged such association by casting Flash Gordon star Buster Crabbe as a different sci-fi hero, obviously hoping that the chapterplay would capitalize on the goodwill generated by Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. The serial did succeed in reminding audiences of the Flash outings–but it reminded them of how much they had liked those serials and forced inevitable comparisons that were not in Rogers’ favor. Universal’s plans for a second Buck Rogers serial were quickly scrapped when the first outing failed to please matinee audiences; the intended Buck sequel was then replaced on the studio’s production schedule by–what else?–a third Flash Gordon chapterplay. Even today, Buck is typically dismissed by fans as a pale echo of the great Gordon serials.
It’s easy to see why Buck Rogers came as a disappointment to audiences expecting an outing in the Flash Gordon tradition. Its production design, while futuristic, is less quirky and more uniform than that of the Gordons; there are no monsters and no weird semi-human races besides the rather uninteresting Zuggs; there are also no supporting characters as developed or as interesting as Dr. Zarkov, Ming, King Vultan, the Clay King, Princess Aura, Prince Barin, and other major figures in the Flash Gordon chapterplays. And yet, taken on its own terms, Buck Rogers is far from a failure; it does not approach the Flash Gordon trilogy in quality, but then few serials do.
Buck Rogers’ script, by former Mascot writers Norman Hall and Ray Trampe, is fast-moving and manages to avoid repetition for most of its length. The trip to Saturn, the attempts to convince Saturnian leader Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn) of the justice of the Hidden City’s cause, the subsequent rescue of Tallen from Kane’s city, the second journey to Saturn to cement the alliance, and the attempts of Kane’s henchman Laska (Henry Brandon) to sabotage it–all these incidents keep the narrative flowing very nicely for the serial’s first eight chapters. As in many of Trampe and Hall’s Mascot scripts, however, the writers seem to run out of plot before the serial’s end. While Chapters Nine and Ten remain interesting (with Buck being converted into a hypnotized robot, Buddy’s rescue of the hero, and an infiltration of the Hidden City by one of Kane’s men), the last two chapters have a definite wheel-spinning feel to them, throwing in a redundant third trip to Saturn and an unneeded flashback sequence.
The last-chapter climax is also something of a disappointment, with Kane being overthrown quickly and undramatically instead of being definitively crushed. Here, Trampe and Hall seem to have been leaving room for the sequel that never came and trying to avoid duplicating the dramatic but very final destruction of MIng which closed the first Flash Gordon serial (and which needed to be explained away in the second). The other weak spot of the scripting is Buck and Buddy’s rather calm reaction when they realize that their old world (and everyone in it) is dead–and their extraordinarily quick adjustment to their new one. One wouldn’t have wanted the writers to dwell on our heroes’ plight (which would be absolutely crushing in real life), but I do wish Trampe or Hall could have given Buck and Buddy a few emotional lines about their displacement before getting on to the main action; Hall in his scripts for other serials (Hawk of the Wilderness, Adventures of Red Ryder), showed himself capable of far more dramatic moments.
As already mentioned, the serial’s visuals are less varied than those of the Flash Gordon serials, but that’s not to say they aren’t impressive by serial standards. Pains seem to have been taken to avoid duplicating too much of Gordon’s “look;” the spaceship miniatures are completely different than the ships in the Gordon trilogy, while Kane’s stronghold–probably the best miniature in the serial–is not the quasi-Gothic palace of Ming but rather an ominous, futuristic-looking version of New York City, complete with towering skyscrapers. The Hidden City’s great rock gates are also nifty, and the massive Saturnian Forum (a life-size set, not a miniature) is very visually impressive. The barren Red Rock Canyon area works well as the Saturnian landscape, but I think it was a mistake to also use the Canyon as the area between the Hidden City and Kane’s capital; Saturn and Earth shouldn’t look so similar.
The only major prop or set reused from the Gordon serials are the “bullet cars” from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars; they’re just as fun to watch in action here as in the earlier serial. Other incidental props and sets–Kane’s robot room, his mind-control helmets, the various televiewing devices, the anti-gravity belts, Dr. Huer’s invisibility ray, and the Star-Trek-like molecular transportation chamber–add further colorful touches to the serial., and are respectably represented by Universal’s always above-average array of sets and props. The Zuggs, the “primitive race” ruled by the Saturnians, are somewhat disappointing, however; while suitably grotesque-looking, they’re nowhere near as menacing or memorable–in appearance or demeanor–as their obvious inspiration, the Clay People in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.
The serial’s action scenes are brisk and energetic, suffering not at all from a general lack of fistfights–thanks to the swift-moving direction of Ford Beebe (a Mascot veteran like writers Trampe and Hall) and his co-director Saul Goodkind (usually an editor). The few hand-to-hand tussles–most of them on the rocky hills of Saturn–are executed routinely but skillfully by Dave Sharpe, Tom Steele, Eddie Parker, and other stuntmen; the best of the bunch is the fight between Buck and a Kane man in the control room of the Hidden City, although this is more exciting for the suspenseful situation (Buck trying to close the gates that the henchman has opened to Kane’s oncoming armada) than for any particular flair in the staging.
Most of the action sequences consist of protracted chases and pursuits (both on foot and in rocketships), with occasional quick combats thrown in. Many of these lengthy chases are very exciting–particularly the long incursion into Kane’s city that occupies most of Chapters Three and Four, a great combination of action and suspense. Buddy’s later stealthy visit into Kane’s fortress to rescue Buck from the robot room, and the following escape, is also good, as are Buck’s skillful and repeated elusions of the rebellious Zuggs in Chapter Eight and the bullet car getaway in Chapter Six.
The cliffhanger endings are generally well-staged, with proper build-ups, but too many of them involve spaceship crashes that our heroes rather implausibly live through. The impressive collapsing forum at the end of Chapter Eleven and the bullet car crash at the end of Chapter Six provide nice variety amid the spaceship wrecks, but (alas) are also resolved by mere survival. Still, this is preferable to the blatantly cheating resolution of what is otherwise one the best chapter endings–Killer Kane’s pursuit of Buddy in a darkened council chamber and his apparently lethal zapping of the young hero. At least the resolution features a good stunt bit by Dave Sharpe.
The leading performances in Buck Rogers are all excellent (although most other critics would make a single exception; see below). Buster Crabbe, as always, makes a perfect serial hero–both genially cheerful and grimly serious, unassumingly polite and aggressively tough. As in the Flash Gordon trilogy, his down-to-earth attitude also helps to make the wild sci-fi happenings seem perfectly normal.
Jackie Moran (oddly “reduced” to serial acting only a year after playing Huck Finn in David O. Selznick’s big-budget classic Adventures of Tom Sawyer) does a fine job as Buddy Wade, handling his character’s frequent “golly, gee-whiz” lines in a low-key fashion that keeps Buddy from coming off as too naïve; his chipper but calm demeanor complements Crabbe’s well, and he has no problems carrying an entire chapter and part of another on his own.
Constance Moore, despite being saddled with perhaps the most unflattering costume ever worn by a serial leading lady (basically coveralls and a bathing cap), manages to come off as charming. Her Wilma Deering is self-possessed and capable-seeming but never too coldly efficient; she remains warmly likable even when piloting spaceships or explaining technology to Crabbe.
Henry Brandon is very good as Killer Kane’s chief henchman Captain Laska–suave and sly when acting as Kane’s ambassador to Saturn, haughtily arrogant when threatening people, and nervously jittery in the presence of his overbearing leader. Hard-bitten tough guys Wheeler Oakman and Reed Howes, along with the slicker Carleton Young , form Brandon’s backup squad.
As Killer Kane himself, perennial henchman actor Anthony Warde has been almost universally panned by critics as “miscast.” I have to dissent strongly, however; Warde does a fine job in the part and plays Kane with a memorable combination of viciousness and uncontrollable anger. The character is not a diabolical schemer like Ming, but rather a super-gangster who’s blasted and bullied his way to the top–and Warde’s bad-tempered, aggressive, and thuggish screen personality fits the part perfectly. He veers between intimidating ranting and harshly sinister sarcasm–as when he describes himself as a “kindly ruler” just after wrathfully sending a formerly trusted councilor to the robot room–but is quite menacing in both aspects.
Philson Ahn, brother of frequent serial and feature actor Phillip Ahn, does a good job as Prince Tallen of Saturn; he possesses his sibling’s deep and distinctive voice, which serves him well as a planetary dignitary. His manner also has a slightly tougher edge to it than his refined brother’s, which helps to keep the viewer in uncertainty in the earlier chapters as to whether Tallen will turn out to be friend or foe. Guy Usher plays Aldar, the head of Saturn’s ”Council of the Wise,” and does his best to seem suitably imposing and dignified, despite the almost comical way in which the “Wise” continually change their opinions–backing Kane, opposing him, giving into his demands, defying him, etc. Cyril Delevanti is enjoyable as a grumpy subordinate member of the Council.*
C. Montague Shaw has limited screen time, but is very good as Dr. Huer, balancing statesmanlike dignity with shrewdness and a touch of enjoyable scientific eccentricity (the last is particularly noticeable during his demonstration of his invisibility gas in Chapter Five). Energetic Jack Mulhall is typically affable and enthusiastic as Captain Rankin of the Hidden City, while Kenne Duncan has a rare good guy role as Mulhall’s fellow-officer Lieutenant Lacy. Perennial screen “underworld rat” John Harmon also plays against type as a Hidden City soldier, as does Stanley Price as a Hidden City pilot rescued from existence as a human robot. The dignified but stolid William Gould is good enough as Air Marshal Kragg, but I would have preferred a more dynamic actor in the role–Kragg is, after all, the top military leader of Kane’s enemies. Mulhall could have handled it well, as could Wade Boteler–who does an excellent job as the grim and concerned Professor Morgan in the first chapter, intensely instructing Buddy and Buck in the use of the Nirvano gas.
Lane Chandler also appears in the first chapter, as a military officer who demonstrates the Nirvano gas to a reporter played by another old pro, Kenneth Harlan. An unusually subdued Theodore Lorch is one of Kane’s councilors, while Karl Hackett has a good part as another councilor who gets into an argument with Kane that leads to Hackett’s being converted into a human robot (his terrified pleas as he’s dragged out of the council chamber are quite chilling). Al Bridge has some memorably sinister lines (“when this helmet is in place, you’ll never think or speak again”) in his periodic scenes as the slave-master of Kane’s human robots.
Unusually for Universal, several bit roles are filled by stuntmen; Eddie Parker and Tom Steele pop in as various soldiers and officers, but aren’t as noticeable as Dave Sharpe, who’s given multiple speaking roles as a Kane soldier, a Hidden City soldier, a Saturnian officer, and a Saturnian soldier. His ubiquity can get a little distracting at times, particularly since some of his appearances follow right on the previous one’s heels; he also seems to have a bit of trouble with the formal-sounding Saturnian dialogue, coming off as much more stiff and affected than in his co-starring turn in Daredevils of the Red Circle.
The serial’s music score, like most other Universals of the period, is an eclectic but usually effective array of stock music, some of it cues from the Flash Gordon serials but the majority of it culled from Universal’s horror features, including (most notably) Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein, which furnishes some memorable opening-titles music.
All in all, though Buck Rogers has its share of flaws, it also has more than enough virtues (the acting, the fast pace, the interesting sci-fi trappings) to make it a good chapterplay. Despite its similar themes, it shouldn’t be pitted against the Flash Gordon trilogy–a match it’s bound to lose–but rather judged against the field of competition in general. When judged in this fashion, it’s just as entertaining–and often more entertaining–than many serials with less shabby reputations.
*One has to wonder, though, why some Saturnians are Orientals like Ahn and others Occidentals like Usher and Delevanti; my own theory is that men from various countries emigrated from Earth to Saturn sometime before the bulk of the serial took place; this would explain the racial assortment and also explain why the Hidden City chooses Saturn in particular as an ally (as usual, I’m probably putting too much thought into this).
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