Buck Rogers is one of the greatest comic strips of all time. I’m here for the ’39 TV show, but the space opera made its debut in Amazing Stories, August of 1928, in a story called Armageddon 2419 AD and centers around Anthony Rogers. Rogers at the time worked for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation. While working one day, there’s a cave in, he’s exposed to radioactive gas, and goes into a suspended animation for 492 years. When he finally wakes up he’s in the future. That’s Buck Rogers in a nut shell.
I could spend the next year talking about Buck Rogers, so for the sake of your sanity and mine I’m just going to focus on the 1939 Universal serial. There is a 10 minute movie that predates the serial, but that really deserves a post of its own. The Universal serial was hoping to cash in on the success of their Flash Gordon serials by having Larry “Buster” Crabbe (who also plays Flash) star as the title character. This inevitably backfired, as people were comparing the two. Audiences weren’t as fascinated by Buck. The script wasn’t bad, and the acting was strong. The story is fast paced but doesn’t trip over itself as a result. The sets and design were also good, not least because the futuristic looks of the cities Buck visits are looming and ominous. It works well. The music is also good, although it borrows heavily from some of Universal’s monster movies, especially The Bride of Frankenstein.
Constance Moore’s Wilma Deering was good, but very under used. I realize that for the time, women weren’t thought of as action stars. She’s still brave and daring, but it’s very muted and toned down. Obviously Wilma developed over the years into the character we know today, but it’s good to look back at these to see where she started. Buck’s youthful aide, Buddy (Jackie Moran) is a good addition, but largely unnecessary. Killer Kane (Anthony Warde) is a good adversary, but not a terrifying villain. The serial was good, but Universal could have done better.
Buck Rogers also has many science fiction elements in it that have since carried over into other series. In a number of episodes Buck and company use phasers, which became wildly popular in Star Trek. The scrolling text at the beginning of the serial is similar to what George Lucas used in Star Wars. The dashing heroic male, his plucky youthful sidekick, and lone but daring female companion are tropes still used today. I can’t say for sure if Buck Rogers came up with these tropes (they likely didn’t, but it would take me years to really research this. Future article maybe!) but it’s safe to say Buck, and possibly other sci-fi serials (as well as the film masterpiece, Metropolis) inspired many of the series we revere today.
Overall I think it’s worth your time to watch this. My dad saw it in the 1950’s when they merged the serials into two movies, and he recalled loving it as a child. The serials are fun, and if you can go in with that in mind, I’m sure you’ll love them too.