Review of Buck Rogers (1939)


Recently, my Bonnie Bride and I watched the movie serial Buck Rogers (1939) via the streaming service Tubi. This is a serial I knew about as it stars Buster Crabbe as the hero, projected 500 years into the future. Even though many of the main characters from the comic strip published in the ‘30s are there, Wilma, Huer, Killer Kane, the story is significantly different from the original comics and how Buck ended up in the 25th Century.

Buck Rogers movie serial poster - 1939 - IMDB

In this film serial, Killer Kane rules most of the Earth with an iron fist, allied with many criminal types, as the serial describes them, while Huer leads a group of patriots seeking to end Kane’s rule from a place called The Hidden City. Huer and his followers are attempting to form an alliance with the people of Saturn. No idea how they knew there was a civilization on Saturn, or why Saturn was chosen as at the time this film was made there was still a great deal of speculation that there was significant life on Venus, and potentially even intelligent life (and wasn’t until the early ‘60s that a probe to Venus proved that planet to be the Hellhole we know it to be now). In general, I found the story to be fairly interesting, the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter entertaining, although at times the resolution to the cliffhanger in a couple of chapters was inconsistent to the way the preceding chapter left the audience hanging.

Buster Crabbe was, as expected, a dynamite actor and carried the role of Buck Rogers quite well. Not surprising as a couple of years before he starred in the first Flash Gordon serial, and was already an established actor. And, thanks to his playing the hero in both of those serials, Crabbe would appear in the’70s Buck Rogers series from Glen Larson as a cameo, so to speak, as Brigadier Gordon, resulting with some humorous dialog between himself and series star Gil Gerard. Fun stuff there.

Constance Moore, Buster Crabbe, Jackie Moran from Buck Rogers (1939) - IMDB

The other serial leads, including Constance Moore as Wilma and Jack Moran as Buddy, Buck’s sidekick who also ended up in the 25th Century. Buddy, in the comic strips, was Wilma’s kid brother, so this was a significant change in that character. Anthony Warde made a very good villain, and had the physical looks for being the Evil overlord type. Maybe it was the mustache.

Strangely I found that the only female character in the serial was Wilma. I don’t recall seeing any other women in any of the 12 chapters that made up this roughly 400 minute film. My Bonnie Bride agrees with me there. Where were all the women? Even on Saturn, we don’t see any women. Weird!

As I mentioned, this is a 12 chapter movie serial, with a very low budget, so the special effects, especially for the rocketships, are pretty cheesy, even by 1930s standards (Metropolis from 1927 had better special effects). And science? Okay, it is pure space opera, so the science is fairly bad, and lacks some vision for the future, although it did incorporate a matter-transmitter, like we see in Star Trek and the movie The Fly, disintegrator guns, a fairly standard staple, anti-gravity belts, which are in the original comic strips, and an invisibility ray (an early cloaking device), but no computers, information are still in books, and vacuum tubes. So, you really need to suspend your sense of belief for this movie serial.

One thing that surprised me is the forward that each chapter ran.

screenshots from the videos of Buck Rogers and Star Wars

Looks familiar, right? Star Wars in 1977 used the same scrolling text technique used in this very low budget movie serial from 1939. I had no idea that was wehre George Lucas got the idea from, but there’s the proof. Both of the images are screenshots from their respective video releases.

I’ve had a long standing interest in movie serials since I got hooked on them as a kid when a local late night host ran The Crimson Ghost on Saturday nights. They are quite fun to watch, even though they are made as cheaply as possible, and in some cases the low budget really shows (Buck Rogers is on that list). If I have managed to spark your interest in movie serials, there are a lot of good ones, and some that are, well, not so good, there are a lot of places you can look them up. They were also a starting place, along with B movies for some actors who went on to stardom.

Thanks for stopping by.