Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS Bonus Review: The 1939 serial (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS Bonus Review: The 1939 serial (spoilers)

I felt I should wrap up my Buck Rogers survey by watching the original 1939 Buster Crabbe serial, which I got on DVD through interlibrary loan. The serial can be found online, but with the picture stretched out to fit a modern aspect ratio – I’ll never understand how anyone can tolerate watching something that distorted.

The Universal serial was written by Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, and Dick Calkins, and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. It opens with Lieutenant Buck Rogers (Crabbe, billed as “Larry (Buster) Crabbe”) and his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (loosely based on the comic strip’s Buddy Deering and played by Jackie Moran, who had played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the previous year) on a polar expedition in a dirigible that crashes in a blizzard. As a last-ditch measure, the scientist in charge of the expedition orders them over radio to open a canister of his new invention, Nirvano gas, which should induce suspended animation until they can be rescued. But through misfortune, Buck passes out from the gas before he can radio his location, and the dirigible is buried in an avalanche. A montage shows time passing as the years advance onscreen from 1938 to 2450 – not unlike the opening titles of the Gil Gerard series, which was no doubt paying homage.

Buck and Buddy are finally unearthed by a pair of future men who take them to Scientist General Huer, aka Professor Huer, aka Doctor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), who immediately confirms Buck’s story with a history book he just happens to have sitting on his desk, and explains to Buck that, through the “stupidity” of 20th-century men in failing to wipe out crime, the world has now been taken over by “super-racketeers” led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). This is highly preferable to the race-war premise of the original Anthony Rogers novellas and the early comic strips, and reflects the era’s preoccupation with organized crime as a leading societal threat (as seen in other serials and radio programs like Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, and Superman). It’s also something of an inversion from the novellas, in which the “gangs” were the good guys.

Kane has been capturing Huer’s men in an attempt to learn the location of the Hidden City, the last bastion of resistance against racketeer rule – probably an inspiration for the Inner City of the 1979 pilot. Huer feels the only hope is to turn to other planets such as Saturn for help, but Kane’s air blockade prevents it. For some reason, nobody in the 25th century has ever considered using decoys to distract Kane’s ships, and for some reason, as soon as Buck suggests it he’s immediately accepted as qualified and entrusted with the mission, even though he’s been awake in the 25th century for mere hours. “Born yesterday” would be an overstatement. But Buck is instantly able to function in the future, even to pilot spaceships with no training whatsoever, and he, Buddy, and Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore, the only woman in the serial) set out for Saturn, but they’re intercepted by Kane’s men and both groups are captured by the Saturnians, who are fooled by Kane’s man Captain Laska (Henry Brandon) into believing that Buck’s group are anarchist revolutionaries against the benevolent Kane. Buck’s trio manages to escape back to Earth, and the Saturnian council sends an emissary, Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn, younger brother of Kung Fu’s Philip Ahn), to confirm Kane’s legitimacy before signing the treaty. Though Tallen is called a prince, he introduces himself as just a soldier and is subordinate to the council.

Back on Earth, even though Buck’s one and only mission so far was a complete failure, he somehow manages to get promoted to colonel in time to volunteer to infiltrate Kane’s palace disguised as a guard, along with Buddy. Though he proposed it as a spy mission, he immediately reveals himself to stop Tallen from signing the treaty, then shows Tallen how Kane has brainwashed his captives into robotlike slaves (by putting big metal hats on them that look like the back half of a downward-pointing rocket), whereupon Tallen switches sides and escapes with Buck. Tallen signs the treaty with the Hidden City instead, but the Saturnians don’t have interplanetary radio capability, so Buck and Wilma take Tallen back to Saturn in a rocket, which is able to get past Kane’s blockade courtesy of an invisibility ray that Huer has conveniently just invented. But Captain Laska beats them to Saturn, captures Tallen, and uses a “filament” from one of Kane’s robot helmets to brainwash the “prince” into denouncing Buck and Wilma as enemies. Somehow, the Saturnian “Council of the Wise” lacks the wisdom to notice Laska obviously prompting the passive Tallen to speak. Buck is forced to abduct the prince and flee, but it soon gets sorted out and the treaty is signed. But Laska is able to organize a revolt of the Saturnians’ primitive servants the Zuggs (who were pretty revolting to begin with, ba-dum­-bum) and rather easily conquers the council.

But Buck only needs one chapter to deal with Laska and his coup, and the treaty with Saturn is finalized. So Buck and Wilma return to Earth with a whole fleet of Saturnian ships behind them – no, sorry, they actually just go back alone and tell Prince Tallen that they’ll call him on the space radio once they have a plan for defeating Kane, something they should’ve probably worked out before they came. Plus, Buck already smashed the space radio when he threw it at some Zuggs in the previous episode. You’d think he’d remember that. But never mind story logic, they have to get back to Earth in time for the next cliffhanger, which leads to them being shot down and captured by Kane’s men. Kane touts Buck’s capture as heralding the imminent end of the war, even though the war’s been going on for generations and Buck’s only been part of it for a few days. (Wilma’s been involved much longer, but Kane doesn’t seem to consider her important.)

Kane uses one of his tailfinned “amnesia helmets” to enslave Buck, his hated archnemesis that he’s meeting for literally the second time. All seems lost, as Huer is convinced Buck and Wilma died in the crash. Buddy convinces Huer to use his “Past-O-Scope” (patent pending) to watch a clip from chapter 2 to prove that Kane would want to take them alive. (Yes, even though these movie serials were typically only 12 chapters long, they still tended to do clip-show installments in later episodes to save money. Since the action was pretty repetitive from week to week anyway, it didn’t make that much difference.) When that doesn’t work, Buddy convinces a captain to air-drop him into Kane’s city so he can save Buck. Wilma frees herself and helps Buddy free Buck, which is the only time in the serial she’s really gotten much to do. They steal one of Kane’s ships to go back to the Hidden City, but fail to check it for stowaways, allowing one of Kane’s men to radio the city’s location to Kane so that it’s vulnerable to attack. Nice one, Buck.

This requires calling Saturn for help at once, but they finally figure out that the space radio’s dead, so Buck has to fly there yet again (they built those sets and they’re darn well gonna use them). He and a stowaway Buddy find that Laska’s escaped and taken Prince Tallen hostage offscreen to force the council to submit to Kane’s blackmail. Buck uses a speech about the evil of kidnappers, plus yet another flashback clip, to convince them to stick with their treaty, then helps them free Tallen and stop Laska. Then it’s back to Earth for the big climax, with the Saturnian fleet remaining wholly offscreen while Buck and Buddy take it upon themselves to go to Kane’s stronghold, free the robot slaves, and capture Kane. Back home, Buck and Buddy are promoted (having actually earned it this time) and Buck thanks Tallen for all the unspecified and unseen help without which they supposedly couldn’t have won, and then Buddy attempts a little matchmaking with Buck and Wilma before the final, chaste fadeout.

As ‘30s sci-fi serials go, I guess Buck Rogers is okay, but it doesn’t really make much use of its premise. It borrows some things from the comics, like the aviator caps nearly everyone wears, and the “degravity belts” that let their wearers waft almost weightlessly to the ground (or jump very high, at least in the novellas), though the ones here only function like parachutes to slow a descent. Otherwise it’s mostly Flash Gordon redux. Once Buck arrives in the future, he almost instantly adapts to its technology and culture and shows knowledge of things he never had an opportunity to learn. His 20th-century origin is almost never a plot point, except at the end when he addresses the Saturnians about Earth’s long history of battling kidnappers and felons. And he nearly instantly ends up as the most important person in the war, despite doing very little to earn that position. The ’79 series had a similar problem with Buck swiftly becoming Dr. Huer’s most important operative, but at least it made an effort to justify why Buck’s anachronistic existence made him a uniquely valuable asset, and routinely stressed his differences from the 25th-century humans around him (less so in season 2, but by then he’d had more time to get acclimated). By contrast, the serial writes Buck as a fully assimilated member of 25th-century society from the final minutes of Chapter 1 onward, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with the origin story rather than starting with Buck already established in the future. After all, the comic strip was a decade old when this serial came out, so the young target audience of the serial and the strips would have seen Buck as a well-established hero of the future anyway.

Buster Crabbe is fairly good as Buck, and Montague Shaw’s Huer reminds me somewhat of Tim O’Connor’s version of the character, which is a positive. Otherwise, the actors don’t make much of an impression. Anthony Warde (a perennial henchman in his one and only lead-villain role) doesn’t make a particularly effective nemesis as Kane, and it’s never really clear what makes his forces “super-racketeers” rather than just a standard evil dictatorship. Also, he’s not much of a “Killer,” since he prefers to enslave his enemies with amnesia helmets rather than living up to his epithet.

The retro-future tech has some cool bits, like the teleport booths used to get to and from Huer’s lab, and the radios whose microphones levitate when in use. Although some bits are overthought, like the sliding doors where you have to turn a big wheel on the wall to open the door, then turn another one to close it again once you’ve gone through. The music, supervised by Charles Previn, is the same stock library used in the Flash Gordon serials, adapted mainly from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride of Frankenstein. The cliffhangers mostly play it fairly straight with the audience, but there’s one case where they cut out the part where the heroes bailed out of the ship before it blew up, and a couple of others where a seemingly massive and fatal explosion of a vehicle turned out to be fairly minor after all, which is kind of a cheat. Although the biggest cheat is when the end of Chapter 9 shows Buddy fleeing from Kane’s forces and being shot down, and then Chapter 10 erases that outright and has him jump to safety before they can even target him.

The serial gets points for casting Korean-American actor Philson Ahn in a heroic, non-stereotyped supporting role for which his ethnicity is a complete non-issue, in stark contrast to the original novellas’ horrific racism. On the other hand, much like season 2 of the TV series, it loses points for marginalizing Wilma Deering and having no other female presence.

A closing request: If you’ve enjoyed this review series and would like to see more in the future, please consider making a donation to my PayPal account using this link or the “Donate” button on the upper right of this page. Every little bit helps. Thank you.

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