The first version of this article appeared in the Bijou Blog on May 16, 2008, and the second version in my blog on 9/11/2010. At that time I re-uploaded the First Buck Rogers film to the Cafe Roxy Youtube channel where it has just been viewed more than 10,000 times. You can view it below. The film is also included on the free Café Roxy Sampler disc. It is on that DVD last, so that you don't need to show it if your audience is not hip enough to enjoy "campy" fun.
In 1934 an obscure movie short called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars was released, but not in theaters. David Stelle accurately describes it in the IMDb: “A signal from Buddy Deering on Mars warns Earth that the Tiger Men of Mars and their cruel king have broken their treaty and are attacking. Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering go to rendezvous with the Earth battlefleet before setting off to fight the tigerships. Baldpated genius inventor Dr. Huer uses the ‘cosmic radiotelevision’ to watch the space battle. Which side will be victorious? The tigerships and their paralysis ray? Or our Earth forces, armed with the flash ray and Dr. Huer's new magnetic ray?”
You might well ask -- “What the heck is this anyway?” -- either before or after you watch it. One viewer at youtube thought it might be a recently photoshopped in-joke. While not exactly a Hollywood movie, it is a jaw-dropping curiosity.
The first Buck Rogers film was shown to the public during the second year, 1934 edition, of the Chicago World's Fair. The Century of Progress International Exposition was held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 to celebrate the city's centennial. The theme of the fair was technological innovation. Its motto was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms" and its architectural symbol was the Sky Ride, a transporter bridge perpendicular to the shore on which one could ride from one end of the fair to the other. After a winter break, the 1934 Fair ran from May 26 through Oct. 31 and included a new Island Midway area that faced Lake Michigan. The "Buck Rogers Show," as it was called on admission tickets, was located on the Enchanted Island playground for children, at #125 on the left hand section of the 1934 Fair Map. It is unknown whether this film was the entire show, or if fans were treated to some live action event as well for their dime. It is certain that after watching the movie, visitors could purchase the very same toy spaceships and ray guns they had just seen. Pretty tricky, huh?
Buck first appeared as Anthony Rogers in an issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in August, 1928. John F. Dille, president of the National Newspaper Service syndicate, saw the potential of the futuristic adventure and arranged for the author, Philip Francis Nowlan, to turn it into a comic strip for Dille's syndicate. The strip was re-named "Buck Rogers," inspired by the name of cowboy star Buck Jones, and that name was used for the character from then on. Dille assigned staff artist Lt. Dick Calkins (shown here) to the project, and he successfully drew the strip for the next 18 years.
The 1934 film on a zero budget resembles a “home movie” hastily thrown together with lots of spirit but little skill by amateurs. It was in fact produced by the John F. Dille Co. and filmed in the studios of the Action Film Company of Chicago. Dick Calkins appears briefly at his drawing board.
The actor playing Buck is John Dille, Jr., the son of the strip’s owner! While Junior looks the part, his, um acting, um, speaks for itself. The actress playing Wilma Deering was Junior’s girlfriend when the film was being shot. Their onscreen chemistry hints at the length of the relationship. The listless delivery of her last line -- “Oh, Buck, wasn’t that a battle!” -- is priceless. Dr. Huer is played by Harlan Tarbell, a stage magician and illustrator, who also “directed” the film but never directed or acted in any other film. His baldpate make-up positively flops around on his head. The sets and special effects are equally impressive. This camp classic must be seen to be believed, so we won’t give away more of the fun!
|1934 Chicago Midway where Buck Rogers could be seen!|
There is no indication this first Buck Rogers film was ever shown in movie theaters, where even matinee audiences might have found it laughably amateurish. The June 1936 issue of the trade magazine “Toys and Novelties” reports that the film had a second life by being shown in department stores to promote Buck Rogers merchandise. More Buck toys were sold in the 1930s than Mickey Mouse, with countless games, puzzles, figurines, Big Little Books, ray guns, spaceships and even a full costume for boys. Toy stores devoted entire sections and Christmas displays to Buck and the film doubtless attracted even more customers.
A granddaughter of John Dille discovered a 35mm print of this forgotten film in her basement around 1983 and donated it to UCLA, who struck a new print. It was unleashed on the modern world at the 1984 Cinecon convention in San Francisco. The auditorium rocked with laughter. UCLA gave me contact info to the granddaughter, who sent me a VHS copy and I reviewed the film for "Movie Collector's World" in 1984.
The 1935 © notice must have been added for department store showings, since it was definitely first shown at the 1934 World's Fair. Despite this copyright notice, the film was never registered with the Library of Congress and so is in the public domain for all the world to enjoy.
Then blast off to my website at Festival Films and request the Free Roxy Sampler DVD.