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 (Buck’s conversion 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.
Above: Buck and Buddy fading into Dr. Huer’s lab with the help of the teleportation device (top left); Kane spaceships in pursuit of a Hidden City ship (top right); Wilma, Buck and Buddy against the Saturn landscape (bottom left), and a night-time view of Kane’s capital (bottom right).
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.
Above: Dave Sharpe, doubling Jackie Moran, takes an impressive fall. Eddie Parker, doubling Buster Crabbe and about to make the jump himself, is behind Sharpe. Carleton Young is at right at the bottom of the cliff.
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.
Above: Henry Brandon (standing left) looks nervously at the council chair recently vacated by “the late councilor Krenko” and now offered to him–with risky conditions, of course–by Anthony Warde (far right).
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 in to 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).