Friday, December 17, 2010

Random Movie Report #83: Buck Rogers (1939)

DVD cover and Amazon link
One of the very first science fiction heroes, Buck Rogers has fallen from the spotlight lately, and we can’t have that. Possessed of old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and a can-do attitude, Buck has been shoved into a variety of dark futures only to lead the crusade for freedom. The 1939 Buck Rogers serial was inspired by the success of the two existing Flash Gordon chapter plays, and is a little bit overshadowed by them. To be sure, it lacks FLASH GORDON’s and its sequel’s imaginative opulence and high fantasy craziness, and feels less inspired, but it delivers the basic thrills and spills you expect from the genre, and has a few neat ideas of its own. I have a nostalgic fondness for this one, having first seen it over 15 years ago, and I expect it’ll always be something of a favorite.

Buster Crabbe, who played Flash, takes on the role of Col. William “Buck” Rogers, here a dirigible pilot who, with his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran), crashes somewhere in the Himalayas during a test flight. An emergency supply of Nirvano Gas puts the pair into suspended animation, which is good because the scientists who sent the dirigible can’t quite figure out where it was lost in order to send a search party. Five hundred years later, Buck and Buddy are revived by the people of the Hidden City, a secret rebel organization living inside a mountain, opposing the rule of the future’s “super-racketeers”, led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), who turns rebels, dissidents, and people he just doesn’t like into mindless robots through the use of electronic amnesia helmets. The Hidden City people, led by Professor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), feel their only hope is to contact the men of the distant world of Saturn, and so Buck, Buddy, and the lovely but tough Lt. Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) take a rocket past Kane’s patrol ships to meet the Saturnians. What follows is a series of plots and counter plots as Killer Kane’s men in turn seek to convince or force the Saturnians to join with them, with the Saturnian Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn) a pawn in their game.

You’re probably wondering about the racketeers. When Buck first debuted in Amazing Stories and later in a newspaper comic, he was fighting the technologically advanced Han Empire, an unfortunate bit of Yellow Peril baiting which, to his credit, creator Philip Nolan himself abandoned quickly to have Buck and company tangle with Atlanteans, sky pirates, and the Tiger Men of Mars. All subsequent iterations of the property have basically made up their own enemies, and because gangs and gangbusters were big in the news, the makers of this serial decided to posit a future where the lawless became stronger than the law. Unfortunately the ramifications of this aren’t explored much; Killer Kane’s men don’t wear pinstripes and fedoras or talk like wiseguys, they don’t run hooch to Neptune, and they don’t have tommy guns.

More interesting is the idea of turning men into robots; while we generally think of a robot as a machine doing the work of a man, this serial taps into the still quite scary idea of men being made into machines, and while the helmets are clumsy things which rest delicately on actors’ heads, the concept gives the villains some bite. Still, the conceptual landscape of the serial is a little bit slapdash; the grouping of Hidden City rebels against super-gangster Kane isn’t quite as evocative as it could be, and the plotting is uninspired (Buck instantly leaps into the fight with a strategy that he should have no way of knowing, but the Hidden City people should probably have tried at some point.)

Despite some script weaknesses, the serial does succeed in creating an effective world of the future. Kane’s city is represented largely by footage from the 1930 sci-fi comedy JUST IMAGINE, and a has nice art deco feel, and the art direction in general is quite good. The effects are unconvincing (for years cheap sci-fi movies seemed content to have clouds in space in an attempt to cover the strings holding rocketships in the air), but they look good in terms of design; the spaceships are distinctive and the rayguns have a nice shifting-light effect. As with the Flash Gordon serials, most of the music is from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, rearranged to taste, and it’s weird how effective a horror film score ended up being for space opera. The atmosphere is borrowed but it works.

Another key to the serial’s success is the casting of Crabbe, one of the best serial leads. He’s affable, charming, approachable, and always seems thoroughly convinced of the strangeness of his surroundings. Buddy Wade is a bit of a nonentity, but not nearly as annoying as child sidekicks tend to be. Though Constance Moore’s Wilma Deering probably didn’t inspire as many pre-adolescent fantasies as Erin Gray’s did, she deserves credit as a really strong female lead for the time; as in the comics, Deering isn’t a fainting damsel in distress but a capable soldier, and though she gets unfortunately sidelined at points, especially near the end, she’s never less than convincing. Warde’s Killer Kane doesn’t make a great impression, but this may be down to the writing; he simply isn’t given a lot to do himself, and doesn’t get to forge the distinct personality that Ming the Merciless had.

Despite some plot troubles and an anticlimactic ending, BUCK ROGERS holds up well enough that it’s disappointing more wasn’t done with the set-up. There really isn’t a dull moment, as the plot turns so often that there’s always momentum in one direction or another, and the atmosphere is stronger than one really expects. It’s a fun thing to tune in for a chapter or two at a time, and so stands as an example of why the old serials had the appeal they did.

Based on the comic strip by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins (in turn based on Nolan’s short story)
Screenplay by Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe
Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind

Grade: B+

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