Saturday, 18 January 2020

Buck Rogers (1939)


Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind
Writers: Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe, based on the newspaper feature by Phil Nowlan & Lt. Dick Calkins
Stars: Larry (Buster) Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, Jack Mulhall, Anthony Warde, Philson Ahn, C. Montague Shaw and Guy Usher


In 1977, soon after the launch of a rather successful space opera whose grip on pop culture continues unabated, this popular twelve episode movie serial from 1939 was edited down to feature length for the third time and released by Crystal Pictures with a notably telling tagline: “Star Wars owes it all to Buck Rogers, the original inter-planetary adventure”. While it’s not surprising for companies to cash in on the success of others, it’s frankly impossible not to watch the second episode of Buck Rogers, Tragedy on Saturn, without Star Wars coming immediately to mind. That’s because it follows its usual opening credits with what I’ve only ever heard described as “the Star Wars opening crawl”, a brief summary of where we’re at scrolling up into infinity before the action starts. George Lucas, who was born in 1944, didn’t see the 1939 Buck Rogers and the 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in theatres, but he was a huge fan of them on television, watching nightly on Adventure Theatre, and the Star Wars opening crawl is very much an homage to them.

Now, Lucas, even as a kid, knew how bad they were and he told Starlog in 1981, “Loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well. Surely, kids would love them even more.” The rest, as they say, is history, but there’s history before this serial too because, like Star Wars, Buck Rogers was a media franchise and an important one. It began in August 1928, when a pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, published a novella by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 A.D. It might all have ended there, but the John F. Dille Company, a newspaper syndicate, adapted it into comic strip form, renaming the hero from Anthony Rogers to Buck Rogers. It launched on 7th January, 1929, the same day as Tarzan, and was initially syndicated to 47 newspapers. By 1934, it was appearing in 287 American newspapers daily and a further 160 internationally in eighteen different languages. The initial artist was Lt. Dick Calkins, an Army Air Service pilot and flight instructor.

Science fiction wasn’t remotely new in 1928, of course, but Buck managed to expand its reach into places that it had never been. His newpaper strip predated all the others you might conjure up, including Tom Swift in 1930, Brick Bradford in 1933 and Flash Gordon in 1934. He expanded to comic books, initially appearing in Famous Funnies before getting his own title; radio, his fifteen minute show on CBS in 1932 being the first science fiction program broadcast on radio; and toys, with a collection of 1933 toy rayguns made by a company called Daisy the very first example of licensed character-based marketing, the name of Buck Rogers branded on each gun. The guns were so popular that the XZ-38 Disintegrator Pistol made a cameo appearance in this serial which showed up surprisingly late and given a low enough budget that it re-used sets from other films and serials, including Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the middle in the Flash Gordon trilogy of serials that were made between 1936 and 1940, coincidentally also starring Buster Crabbe.

It didn’t even mark the first time that Buck Rogers had made it to film, though the only earlier example is a curiosity indeed, called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and only seen at the Buck Rogers Show ticketed attraction at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, within the Enchanted Island playground for children. It only runs eight minutes and comes across as an insanely ambitious home video, a lack of actual actors being completely obvious. Buck is played by John Dille, Jr., unsurprisingly the son of John F. Dille, who through the John F. Dille Company, owned the franchise, and Wilma Deering is played by his girlfriend, whose name appears to be lost. It’s narrated by Dr. Huer, in the form of the film’s director, Dr. Harlan Tarbell, who was a stage magician who never acted or directed again. Beyond awful acting, it boasts a static camera, static sets and static people, but also wild action as the Tiger Men of Mars take flight to battle Earth’s forces in space. There are lots of cool gadgets and the three minute space battle is an absolute riot.
And so to 1939 and this movie serial, which I’m watching to remember Constance Moore who would have been a hundred years old on 18th January. Like many nerds of my generation, I grew up with a huge crush on Erin Gray as Lt. Wilma Deering in the TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and it’s no stretch of the imagination to picture my space-crazy equivalents in the thirties growing up with a huge crush on Moore as Lt. Wilma Deering in this serial, not least because she may well be the only female character that we see in 237 minutes of screen time, even though we spend time in two eras and on two planets. Buck Rogers may therefore have been not only an influence on Star Wars and Star Trek (this future has transporters), but The Smurfs too. Sadly, we have to wait for episode ten before we see her really doing anything on her own but she’s a constant throughout and, frankly, there’s so much to complain about in this story that the underuse of a military lieutenant and right hand woman to the Scientist General merely extends the list.

She appears capable in the first episode, but that’s our origin story so she’s hardly the focus. We kick things off in 1938 as Lt. Buck Rogers is caught up in a blizzard while attempting to pilot the dirigible Shandro around the world. Ably setting the stage for what’s to come, his idiot crew bail out to their certain deaths while Buck and his young assistant, George “Buddy” Wade, follow the orders of the latter’s father, Prof. Morgan (maybe he’s his stepfather), back at Westmore Observatory, by switching on a cylinder of gas as they crash into the Bering Glacier, being promptly buried in a ravine under an avalanche. How they’re communicating from inside a blizzard or why Morgan left a cylinder of his experimental Nirvano gas on board the Shandro, we have no idea. It just is and that’s how they survive in suspended animation until a rocketship in the year 2440 notices them and stops to investigate, releasing them. It’s not the origin story I remember, but I believe it’s been told many times in many different ways over the decades.
If that origin story is problematic, it is also at least viable, unlike much of what follows. While I’ve never expected quality writing from a cheap movie serial, this is execrable stuff. It’s not the little goofs, which are plentiful, it’s the huge, gaping plotholes, which make the script resemble a block of Swiss cheese. Let’s just run through episode one. These future rescuers bring Buck and Buddy back to their ship, which for the product of five hundred years of technological advance looks rather similar to Buck’s dirigible. On to the Hidden City, which these men apparently forget is hidden for a reason, no thought of these unknown men being spies of the city’s enemy, Killer Kane, who is desperate to figure out where it is. Up they go to see the Scientist General, Dr. Huer, in what looks rather like a Victorian era Star Trek transporter, a stunning scientific advance which is worthy of a single comment. Huer also has a remote viewing console which mysteriously allows him to see and hear everything that unfolds in Killer Kane’s council chamber.

So they have fantastic technology in the 25th century, you say. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s a problem in two ways. Firstly, it’s wildly inconsistent. When Buck tells Dr. Huer that he crashed in 1938, Huer looks that up in a book conveniently sitting on his desk and verifies his story. These people of the future can break us down to component parts and reassemble us intact, see what’s going on a thousand miles away with clarity better than my phone, successfully hide a city inside a mountain, fly rocketships around the planet at wild speeds and even make it to Saturn in the blink of an eye, but they haven’t figured out how to store data digitally. At one point in chapter four, after we’ve descended gently with anti-gravity belts, radioed home from Saturn without any noticeable delay, shot people with a paralyser ray and even travelled on Saturnian hyperloop pods, someone is actually teleported up to Dr. Huer’s laboratory to deliver some reports. They can do all of this and they haven’t even figured out e-mail?
The other problem is that Buck and Buddy adapt to all of this dazzling change with... well, without even a shrug. Remember, they jumped five centuries in what to them was a blink of the eye, going to sleep in 1938 and waking up in 2440. Everyone they know is dead and gone and a dozen generations after them, but that just generates one line from Buddy: “That makes me old enough to be my great-great grandfather.” Then it’s forgotten as Wilma tunes them into Killer Kane’s council chamber and we learn about how the rest of this world is run by a racketeer who turns his prisoners into living robot slaves through use of will-controlling helmets. The good guys need the help of the native people of Saturn but they can’t get past Kane’s blockade, so Buck suggests using a drone decoy and they let him. He’s been in the 25th century for ten minutes and, not only is he able to fly a newfangled rocketship all the way to Saturn, but they let him do it, with their presumably thoroughly experienced Lt. Wilma Deering as his sidekick. Huh?

This sort of thing continues throughout the twelve episodes. Buck is naturally able to use any modern technology, from raygun to spaceship, without any training at all, and our beleaguered future friends in the Hidden City are happy for him to instantly become their ambassador to another planet. In fact, they’re happy for him to remain their ambassador, even after he screws up royally on not one but two separate occasions, having to literally fight his way out of the Saturnian Forum both times, once using one of their princes as a hostage, prompting much destruction of Saturnian property and spending time in a Saturnian jail. Who better to head back over for a third time and get them to sign an alliance treaty? The internal logic here absolutely beggars belief and it’s amazing how many times our heroes prove to be completely inept. It’s like Get Smart as space opera. There’s even a point where the writers outright cheat, ending episode nine with Buddy being shot by a raygun and then rewriting that completely for episode ten.
Clearly, Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe, experienced writers of movie serials like Secret Agent X-9 and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, had only one thing on their mind, namely action. Everything else, like character development, internal consistency and coherent plot, isn’t just secondary but completely and utterly ignored. Even the sweep of the story makes little sense. It all boils down to the good guys in the Hidden City vs. the bad guys of Killer Kane and the balance is going to depend on who the Saturnians support. Or something like that. Until the last chapter, we don’t even discover that the Saturnians have spaceships and, if they actually do get round to using them, we don’t notice. Frankly, they don’t seem to be too bright, constantly making off the cuff decisions and then changing them on the fly, though their Prince Tallen is a decent sort, even if he’s Korean and everyone else on Saturn is American for no apparent reason. And they really don’t seem to help, because this is a Buck Rogers serial and Buck inevitably saves the day.

The recognisable figure of Larry (Buster) Crabbe, as he’s credited here, plays Buck, yet another iconic character for his resume, as he’d already played Tarzan, in 1933’s serial Tarzan the Fearless, and Flash Gordon in the two parts of the serial trilogy that preceded this, Flash Gordon in 1936 and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars in 1938. He’d done well transitioning from two time Olympic swimmer (he won the 400m freestyle in Los Angeles in 1932), but he was a rough actor better suited for serials and westerns, where he took the role of Billy the Kid in over a dozen movies and that of Billy Carson in over twenty more, than more nuanced dramas. He’s perfect for Flash and Buck and, had the science fiction serials spawned series of films, he’d have continued to play characters like them in pictures for decades to come. While he’d mostly retired by the end of the fifties, he kept on acting until his death, his final roles in 1980’s The Alien Dead and 1982’s The Comeback Trail coming right before he died in 1983 at the age of 75.
Some of the supporting cast do well too. Sixteen year old Jackie Moran, who had played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a year earlier, alongside actors of the calibre of May Robson, Walter Brennan and Margaret Hamilton, does everything that could be needed of a wild eyed kid like Buddy Wade. He even leads a rescue mission in chapters nine and ten after Buck is captured by Kane and fitted with the helmet that turns him into a living robot. Sure, he needs Wilma’s help to get the job done, but we can’t fault the boy’s courage or dedication to his friend. While Killer Kane is such an incompetent shouty dictator that we can’t imagine how he could maintain an empire, Anthony Warde does a pretty good job in the part. He was a regular in serials, from Flash Gordon to Batman via Dick Tracy, but he usually played henchmen; this is probably his most notable role. And I liked Philson Ahn as Prince Tallen of Saturn. He’s subdued but likeable and went on to surprisingly few films; his elder brother, Philip Ahn, had the career.

I’m here for Constance Moore though, even if it’s not entirely clear whether she was born on 18th January, 1920 or 18th January, 1921. The former is what’s most commonly cited, so I’m going with that. She impresses here as Lt. Wilma Deering, bringing a firm confidence and elegance to the role that betrays how little she’s actually given to do. Certainly, she’s a highly trusted lieutenant in the Hidden City, but there are far too many scenes where she ought to just knock out one of Kane’s men on her own but chooses to walk him over to Buck instead, even if our hero is tied to a rock at the time, so he can do it. There are little moments here and there but it’s chapter ten when she finally gets a real opportunity, escaping from prison in Kane’s city by outwitting a guard and shooting him with his own raygun, then finding Buddy to help free Buck the living robot slave. She sends another guard over a balcony and throws gas bombs to distract the others in Kane’s Dynamo Room and, with Buck freed, figures out how to escape. It’s about time!
Moore started out as a singer on CBS radio, where a Universal scout heard her contralto voice and so promptly picked her up for a studio contract. It has to be said that her film career was surprisingly short, lasting a decade from 1937 to 1947, when she chose to retire from the screen, but she racked up almost forty pictures in that time. Many of them were comedy musicals, albeit hardly the best of that genre. She was top billed in films like Hawaiian Nights with Johnny Downs or Atlantic City with Brad Taylor, in the latter effectively hosting a who’s who of vaudeville talent. She also appeared high in the credits on vehicles for other performers, such as the 1939 W. C. Fields comedy You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Third billing sounds great but that was still below Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Even when she was the female lead, her leading men tended to be names forgotten today, like Johnny Downs in Laugh It Off, Tom Brown in Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me and Tito Guizar in Mexicana.

I had to choose Buck Rogers, not because it’s representative of either her career or her talent, but because I don’t think I’d ever got round to watching it and it’s perhaps still what she’s best known for. My other choice was 1945’s Delightfully Dangerous, close to the end of her career, as it seems like it would have given her a lot of opportunity. It’s a Jane Powell picture, where her character seeks out her elder sister in New York, where she’s supposed to be a singer on Broadway. Moore plays that sister, of course, Jo Williams, but she’s not a singer, she’s a leading burlesque performer, Bubbles Barton. I have a fondness for double roles, though this hardly counts as one, but Powell wrote in her memoirs that co-star Ralph Bellamy, who acted in almost a hundred films over almost sixty years, “said time and time again, ‘That was the worst movie I ever made.’ And I’m inclined to agree.” Moore made a few more films, the last being Hit Parade of 1947, before moving to television for a while. She died in 2005, a contralto still best known for Buck Rogers.

Bibliography:
Oh, Buck! Wasn’t That a Battle at Matinee at the Bijou
The Origin of the Crawl at Force Material

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