Buster Crabbe (1908-1983) has the distinction of being the only actor to play three popular pulp-fiction heroes in the movies: Tarzan (1933), Flash Gordon (1936, 1938, 1940), and Buck Rogers (1939). Others have come close. Harrison Ford, for instance, played three continuing heroes in Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan, but it isn't quite the same, is it?
Like fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe followed up a successful swimming career by going to Hollywood in the early 1930's and starring as Tarzan in "Tarzan the Fearless," then three shots as Flash Gordon and one as Buck Rogers, followed by a succession of super-low-budget Westerns in the 1940's playing Billy the Kid and Billy Carson, and finally doing a television show in the 1950's, "Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion."
Crabbe was, indeed, the king of the serials. His Tarzan, Flash, and Buck adventures alone totaled over sixty chapters! Of course, the studio, Universal, made them all on the cheap. That's the way it was done in those days. You needed about twelve installments of twenty minutes each to show on a weekly basis. Although Crabbe's most-famous role was probably Flash Gordon, his Buck Rogers, coming between two sets of Gordon serials, makes a close second. And like Gordon, Rogers was first a pulp and then comic-strip hero, in this case one created by Dick Calkins and Phil Nowlan in 1929. Buck's been going strong ever since, with not only Crabbe playing the part but John Dille Jr. preceding him in the mid Thirties, Matt Crowley and others portraying him on radio from 1932-1947, Kem Dibbs and Robert Pastene on television in 1950-51, and Gil Gerard from 1979 to 1981, again on television. Heck, the character's even been played by David Hasselhoff on "Robot Chicken" and parodied by Daffy Duck in several "Duck Dodgers" cartoons; plus, I understand Frank Miller may or may not go ahead with his plans for a new Buck Rogers movie.
Anyway, if the old "Buck Rogers" episodes tend to remind you a lot of the "Flash Gordon" serials, it's not you. Universal Pictures made both series, and the studio reused a good number of the sets, costumes, and props for all the shows. I mean, they even recycled a lot of the music, using mainly classical tunes in the public domain. And, incidentally, you might recognize this 1939 "Buck Rogers" adventure under several other titles because Universal recut the film as "Buck Rogers: Destination Saturn" and then issued it on video as "Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe." A rose by any other name....
Yes, of course, there's a plot to the "Buck Rogers" serial. It's just that when it's broken up into twelve segments scattered over 241 minutes, it tends to get a little vague and jumbled. Continuity is not the story's strong suit, and directors Ford Beebe (who directed Crabbe in the second and third "Flash Gordons") and Saul Goodkind and screenwriters Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe didn't seem to care, so long as there were plenty of cliff-hangers and plenty of daring-do.
Here's the plot in a nutshell: Buck and his young pal Buddy (Jackie Moran), flying a dirigible, go down in a blizzard and crash. Fortunately, they had aboard a special gas that when inhaled put them into suspended animation. They awaken some five hundred years later in the year 2440. And there they are stuck.
It's a harsh future, one based on the grimness of world events in 1939. In 2440 a super-racketeer named Killer Kane (Anthony Warde) has taken over the world, he being a projection of Adolph Hitler and various powerful mobsters of the Thirties. Kane controls all of the world except a mountain fortress known as the Hidden City, controlled by Professor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), the smartest scientist on Earth. When Buck learns what's happened to the world in his absence, he goes to work helping the Professor rid the place of the evil Kane. The first step: To go to Saturn and enlist the aid of the Saturnians in their cause. Needless to say, there just happens to be a beautiful young woman, Lt. Wilma Deering (Constance Moore), working with the Professor, who accompanies Buck and Buddy on their exploits. She becomes Buck's "traveling companion." Nice.
The chapter titles may help to explain the action:
1. "Tomorrow's World"
2. "Tragedy on Saturn"
3. "The Enemy's Stronghold"
4. "The Sky Patrol"
5. "The Phantom Plane"
6. "The Unknown Command"
7. "Primitive Urge"
8. "Revolt of the Zuggs"
9. "Bodies without Minds"
10. "Broken Barriers"
11. "A Prince in Bondage"
12. "War of the Planets"
Now, if any of those titles or the scrolling prologues that precede them remind you of anything from "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," or "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," it's no coincidence. Today's filmmakers love to indulge in the nostalgia of yesterday.
In "Buck Rogers" you'll find disintegrator pistols, spaceships with sparks flying out the back, and transporters that look suspiciously like the ones in "Star Trek." You'll also find a central villain in Killer Kane who looks like a street thug and is no match for Ming the Merciless in the "Flash Gordon" serials. Too bad; even in so silly a serial as "Buck Rogers," the appearance of so weak a baddie as Kane is a major disappointment.
Needless to say, we don't expect realism or elaborate special effects in these old cut-rate episodes, and, in truth, the cheapness of the sets and the uniform awfulness of the acting are part of their charm. "Buck Rogers" has all of it in abundance. Yet even in 1939 audiences longed for the more-exciting escapades of "Flash Gordon," which is apparently why Universal scrapped plans for a second "Buck Rogers" serial and went with a third "Flash Gordon" instead.
The joy of these old serials is in their very corniness, and "Buck Rogers" has this in abundance. Where else, for example, could you fly to Saturn in mere minutes and find people there who speak perfect English? Ah, the movies.
VCI have done good job helping to clean up the old print, and the image hardly shows its years. It looks on disc probably as it did decades ago in a motion-picture theater after a few showings. It appears in a 1.33:1 ratio, naturally, with some minor age deterioration in evidence, small flecks here and there and occasional lines. While blacks could be deeper, object definition is actually pretty decent, and none of the age markings are serious enough to be distracting.
The monaural sound holds up well, too, processed in Dolby Digital and with some likely application of noise reduction. There is very little background hiss and a reasonable amount of dynamic range and punch for so old a film. Sure, the sound is a little bright, hard, and brittle, but that is understandable. I'm guessing it probably sounds a lot better now in the home than it ever did in a theater in 1939.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains chapters 1-9 of the serial. Disc two contains the final three chapters and a number of bonus materials.
First up among the extras on disc two is the nine-minute featurette "The Story of Buck Rogers" with Clifford Weimer; it's a history of the fictional character from his inception in "Amazing Stories" magazine in 1929 to the present. Next is the twenty-five-minute featurette "Buster Crabbe the All-American Hero," which includes movie clips and highlights from Buster Crabbe's Hollywood career; while it's playing we hear Crabbe himself speak at a 1972 gathering. After that is a photo gallery, followed by two audio-only episodes of the old "Buck Rogers" radio show, each episode lasting about fifteen minutes. Finally, we get a twenty-nine-minute "Buck Rogers: 80th Anniversary Panel Discussion" from the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, and a rare mid-Thirties Buck Rogers short: "Buck Rogers and the Tiger Men from Mars."
The extras wrap up with some informative liner notes by Hank Davis, author of "Classic Cliffhangers Vol. 1 & 2"; chapter selections for each of the episodes; and English as the only spoken language.
For lovers of old-time movie serials, the "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon" entries were the cream of the crop. VCI has done a good job restoring the old prints, and the set's extras alone are probably worth the price for their entertainment value. Certainly, these things take a particular mind set, and one probably doesn't want to try watching all the episodes at once because they are rather repetitive. But there is no denying they are fun in their own innocent, inimitable way.