“Armageddon—2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan (1928)
pgs 41-96 –
filmed as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century 1939, 1979
The second post explored a little bit about how the Nowlan-Calkins comic strip varied from the original Nowlan print story. It mentioned the rather long-lived radio shows. The film is another variant, as we wrote above.
Who made it into a Film?
and Saul A. Goodkind are credited as directors of the 1939 serial. Beebe began directing serial films in 1931 with The Vanishing Legion
. During his career he directed many B-grade films, Bomba the Jungle Boy
, Jungle Jim
, Flash Gordon
serials, and a large number of one-off serial films such as Tim Tyler's Luck
. Goodkind has three directorial credits in 1939 for three serials: Buck Rogers
, The Oregon Trail
and The Phantom Creeps
. Ford Beebe has 127 screen credits as a writer, and 104 as director. Saul Goodkind has six credits for directing, and 83 credits for editorial work on films. You can see Beebe's photo above. There isn't a photo of Goodkind on the internet.
How did it turn out?
The short story is a good action romp. So, it was natural to keep the swashbuckling and adventure aspects of the story alive when it was transferred to the comics. And it was equally natural for the serialized film of 1939, with Larry "Buster" Crabbe as Buck, to be fast-paced and fluffy of plot. The rocket ships are ridiculous to modern eyes, at least in terms of propulsion, but they must have seemed prophetic to kids in the 1940s. The Buck Rogers phenomenon is sometimes credited with starting the urges that led to the space race. Maybe it did. Maybe it was only one impetus. After all, the Flash Gordon comic strip which was created to capitalize on the popularity of the Buck Rogers strip made it to the silver screen in two serials before Buck Rogers was ever filmed.
But the concreteness of cinema means that something has to be constructed in order to be photographed. People have to be chosen to play the parts. Costumes must be designed. And once these steps are taken, the visualization begins to become "cast in stone" for the viewer. In this case the road to a concrete visualization had been begun in 1928 by the Nowlan-Calkins comic strip. People already knew what space ships looked like in 2429 because Dick Calkins had shown them.
Props and sets existed for two previous Ford Beebe productions of Flash Gordon. Those serials were based on a popular comic strip that was, frankly, a rip-off of the Buck Rogers idea. The Buck Rogers project was a low-budget one, as the Flash Gordon serial films had been. It was natural to save money by re-using physical properties from those films. The special effects had all been developed for the Flash Gordon films, so the techniques were re-used as well. I'm sure if you looked at the cast members you'd find some very familiar faces in the background, just as you find the lead actor's face in both stories!
If you watch this you will get an idea of what early television series were like, except that there were no cliff-hangers at the ends of episodes. Each TV episode was meant to be a self-contained, complete story, independent of what might come next, or what came before it story-wise. TV episodes might not be run in the same order from station to station. Story-arcs were impossible. The serial film has story arcs, of course, and cliff-hangers.
The serial starts off as mildly interesting to a modern viewer, but runs out of steam before it runs out of episodes. Nonetheless, for kids of that time it probably stimulated great daydreams about what the world would be like in the future. The distant future was evoked for the movies, but the young minds probably imagined a time frame within their own lives. And within their lives, they might have supposed, we would travel from earth to Saturn on a space craft that could also fly through the air. We would have ray guns. Cities would have towering skyscrapers and we would be able to land on terraces up in the air. There would be instant television and radio communication across the vast reaches of space.
Well, obviously, grown people were imagining those things, too. And rendering them on the screen. Not in a way that is gripping for us today. We have seen 2001
, Star Wars
. But none of those films are quite as likely to have existed, if Ford Beebe hadn't clumsily realized the future as shown in the Flash Gordon
and Buck Rogers
You will see a teleportation cabinet that Gene Roddenberry must have seen in the same serial, and it might have inspired him to use the transporter on Star Trek
as a way to save production cost (cheaper than showing a miniature space ship landing on a planetary set). You will see a transparent public rail car, that is more or less a plexi bubble with a door and hidden wheels. It all looks both prophetic and silly. At the same time. Unless you can be generous in your approach to films of the past (especially those set in the future) then this will have to be a "so bad it's good" laugh fest for you.
As in the Flash Gordon serial films, the pilots of space ships stand up or sit on the kind of seats trucks had at the time, and fly through clouds all the way to Saturn. There is gravity the whole way, and even Saturn has what appears to be 1 G gravity. But this was for kids, whose dreams were much greater than their scientific knowledge, and it was meant to be fun. That's all. Just fun.
Was there a remake?
There was a reedited feature-length version of the serial made in 1953 specifically for the television market: Planet Outlaws
. Another edit was made in 1966 for the same market. Television also gave us two original series in 1950 and 1979. A teaser appeared on Youtube in 2009 for a web series to premiere in 2010. But it never came about. Supposedly Frank Miller wants to remake Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
I was a bit too *biddi-biddi-biddi* old for the 1979 television series when it came out, spawning a new round of Buck Rogers licensed merchandise. I'm still too old to watch Twiki. And I was a bit too not-yet-born for the 1950 television series, which no one in my generation or yours has seen, because no known kinescopes of the live TV series exist. The 1979 television program is not something I'll write about in this post. I haven't seen it. I never set eyes on a Buck Rogers
comic book, nor did the daily comic run in the newspapers I read as a boy and a teenager. I heard of "Buck Rogers" all my life, but I never saw any Buck Rogers celluloid vehicle as a kid or young adult.
It's Been a Long Drive
It is difficult to describe the media situation that prevailed before the 1980s. Basically, unless you were quite wealthy and could afford to buy 16mm prints of films, or had access to kinescope films of live television, you could not see any motion picture unless: it was exhibited by a theater near you, or shown by a club or in a classroom that you were a member of, or it was shown on television, which consisted of network-affiliated local stations around the country.
For an idea of what the relative popularity of story genres was like, just trade the current level of importance that Westerns have for the relative importance of space stories
in the 1950s, and you can sense what it was like when I was a tyke. In popular terms, Star Trek
, 2001: a Space Odyssey
, and then Star Wars
rolled over the remaining Westerns with apparently irresistible mass. What actually happened is that Western stories were re-set as Space stories. Star Trek
was more or less a star-cast Wagon Train
, according to Gene Roddenberry, who created the franchise.
I never saw the Flash Gordon
serial films until the 1990s when they became available on VHS tapes at Blockbuster stores, and the Buck Rogers
serial didn't cross my vision until just this past year. That's a 76 year gap between when the film was created and when I saw it. The phenomenon depicted in Toy Story 2
of Western fascination being supplanted by Space fascination is a real thing. The real-life transition took longer than the film makes it look like it did, but I was in the thick of it as a boy. (And you're right, I used images from TS3 for the graphic above. Good catch!)
However, I was unaware until fairly recently that 13-20 years before I was born, there had been a flourish of space tales on the silver screen in the form of Flash Gordon
and Buck Rogers
Before I did this comparison, inspired by the book Reel Future
, my total exposure to Buck Rogers had been to read a sampling of the comic strips published between 1929 and 1949. As I wrote in Part One, as a Christmas present while I was in college, I bought my father a collected volume of the Buck Rogers newspaper comic strips. I read much of it when I visited their home, so I had a vague idea of the source (and the vast differences) when the 1979 television series came out. But I didn't watch Buck Rogers in the Twenty-fifth Century
. I saw parts of episodes, and found them less than gripping. But I found the comic strip compelling (and largely silly). Dad read it as a boy. He was born in 1928, the year Nowlan's novella appeared, and a year before he began the comic strip with Dick Calkins.
The "Thing" About Buck
Boys and girls who flocked to the movie theaters on Saturdays as 10-year olds, for example, to catch the latest episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
in 1939, are either 86 years old in 2015, or they are pushing up daisies. My father was buried on September 11, 2002, so he is in the second category.
To be honest, I think the thing
about the Buck Rogers phenomenon is not the original print story, or the comic strip and books, or even the movies and TV shows. It's not the images that Nowlan described in words and that bloom in your mind when you read the words. It isn't the ink lines on paper that create Calkins' vision of future things in your head. It isn't the moving series of still pictures that imitate motion and make you feel as if something is happening on that flat screen in front of you.
It isn't the specific ideas that Nowlan had, or Calkins had, or Beebe had. It's the ideas that you
get when you read the words, look at the drawings or watch the movies. The thing about Buck Rogers is what happens in your mind when you expose yourself to these "objects". You learn something about yourself, even if it's only what you think is cool and what is uncool.
Philip Francis Nowlan wrote:Objects, of whose purpose I knew nothing, were casually handed to me, and I was watched keenly as I handled them.
You find that you are watching yourself while handling these art objects. And even if they are old objects, you still learn a little more about yourself as you handle them.
My maternal grandmother had seen the Buck Rogers movies somewhere, as a middle-aged woman
, and she had also read the comics. Buck Rogers was a "pre-YTMN" American fascination with outer space and exploration, fascination with the un-seeable Future, and fascination with the all too constant character of the human being.
This fact was a stunning thing to learn for a 20-something who still felt as though the real world had begun with his own birth (as I did back then). That's a common way for young people to see things, and a more or less natural one. And that's one of the reasons we need to see and read tales that were old when our parents were young.
You Can Watch It.
The serial film is available on DVD from several sources. There are posts of the serial on Youtube, the link is below. Both archive.org and Youtube have the 1953 edited-down version of the serial called Planet Outlaws
. There is a link below so that you can read the novella online. There is also a link to Amazom.com where you can purchase the 1979 TV series, if you're curious enough.