Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Jul 24, 2014 by

Amazing Stories 28-08Inspired by the success of its two cliffhanger serials featuring Olympic swimming champion Larry “Buster” Crabbe as comic-strip hero Flash Gordon, Universal Pictures in 1938 licensed the character of futuristic firebrand Buck Rogers. Originally named Anthony Rogers by creator Philip Francis Nowlan, he first appeared in “Armageddon 2419 A.D.”, a 1928 short novel written for Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering science-fiction pulp Amazing Stories. Rogers was portrayed as a 20th-century Rip Van Winkle who falls into a state of suspended animation and awakes 500 years later to find America overrun by Mongol hordes.

Following publication of a sequel, “The Airlords of Han,” in 1929, Nowlan rechristened his character with a snappier first name, “Buck,” and in partnership with artist Dick Calkins developed a comic strip for syndication in Chicago-based John F. Dille’s newspapers. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was an almost instantaneous hit with readers. The character reached the nation’s airwaves in 1932 as a Monday through Friday radio serial. Both comic strip and radio program soft-pedaled the racial component of Nowlan’s original story and made the hero’s chief adversary one Killer Kane, a space pirate who aligned himself with the galaxy’s worst troublemakers. The capable Wilma Deering partnered with Buck and cheerily eccentric Dr. Huer employed his scientific abilities as needed.

Universal’s screenwriters kept most of the characters from strip and radio show, although Kane’s paramour, Ardala Valmar, was dropped and Wilma’s younger brother Buddy became a scientist’s son forced into suspended animation along with Buck. The Nowlan novelette’s concept of an America under siege was retained, with the resistance movement’s headquarters located within a hidden city constructed inside a huge mountain. The plot was animated by the rebels’ attempts to forge an alliance with Saturn against Kane and his minions, presumably scattered throughout the solar system.

Buster Crabbe was cast as Buck when production of a third Flash Gordon serial was delayed. Universal contract player Constance Moore, then just eighteen years old, made a surprisingly mature Wilma. Child actor Jackie Moran played Buddy, with C. Montague Shaw bringing gravitas and sobriety to the role of Dr. Huer. The villainous faction was headed by Anthony Warde as Kane and Henry Brandon as his right-hand man Lasca.

Released in April 1939, Buck Rogers played in the nation’s theaters throughout the year, as science-fiction pulp magazines were enjoying renewed popularity and rapidly increasing in number. Universal’s chapter play failed to yield profits commensurate with those accumulated by the Flash Gordon serials, but it attained considerable popularity when released to television in 1951. Since then, Buck Rogers has been in perpetual syndication and become available in such home-video formats as VHS and DVD. Several generations, not yet born when it first flashed across theater screens, have been entranced by the simplistic charm that makes it representative of an earlier era in which a sense of wonder predominated and real-life innovations had not yet caught up to the fanciful devices conjured up by writers of science fiction.

In 1934, John Dille’s firm underwrote production of a ten-minute promotional film exhibited at that year’s Chicago World’s Fair. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, produced by prominent magician and entrepreneur Harlan Tarbell, was laughably inept but effectively represented the elaborate costumes, ray guns, and rocket ships designed by artist Calkins for the comic strip. The art directors of Universal’s Buck Rogers serial pointedly eschewed these well-known designs (which had served as the basis for innumerable licensed products) in manufacturing sets, props, costumes, and miniatures for the chapter play.

As part of its celebration of “Science Fiction’s Golden Year of 1939,” PulpFest 2014 will run four chapters of Buck Rogers each night of the convention, beginning on August 7th and running through August 9th. Our Thursday and Friday showings will begin around 11 PM, while our Saturday presentation will follow the conclusion of our auction. We will preface the Thursday-night screening of the serial’s first four chapters with the seldom-seen 1934 promotional short produced by John Dille.

Buck Rogers Film Poster

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