Monday, March 07, 2016

PLANET OUTLAWS (1953/1939)

After a brief opening narration about the preponderance of UFO sightings, we cut to a dirigible crash in the Arctic. Centuries later, the wreck is found and the bodies of the two fliers, Buck Rogers and his young friend Buddy, are found in suspended animation (some gas kept them alive and fresh and young). They're reanimated and immediately drawn into a battle between Darth Vader and the Jedi…wait, between galactic villain Killer Kane and the rebels fighting him from the Hidden City (two small mountains open and close to let people in and out of the city). Rogers flies a spaceship to Saturn to get help. Unfortunately, an envoy from Kane convinces the Saturians that Rogers is just an outlaw rebel, but Rogers does get through to Prince Tallen and help is on the way. Eventually, we see mindless zombies, a disappearing ray and a Kane spy smuggle himself into the Hidden City, but Rogers and the rebels prevail, and we get a final bit of narration about democracy and God's blessing of America.

As I've noted here before, I'm a big fan of the idea of movie serials but my experience of them is not always pleasurable. This may partly be a function of not finding the ideal way to watch them. At the rate of one episode a week, as they were originally seen in theaters in the 30s and 40s, I tend to get bored and drift away, not finishing the serial. But watching an entire 3-4 hour serial in one sitting is almost impossible, as the repetition of the chapter formula becomes numbing. The two I've liked best (DRUMS OF FU MANCHU and SECRET AGENT X-9) vary the formula a bit, staying relatively fresh from chapter to chapter, and I've watched them a third way: 2 or 3 chapters at a time over a few weeks. This film presents a fourth way of consuming serials—it’s a 70-minute condensation of the four-hour Buck Rogers serial from 1939. As such, it certainly is lean and mean and moves quickly. On the other hand, it feels jagged and incomplete as entire plot lines get excised with some plot references not making sense. Buster Crabbe and Jackie Moran (pictured) are good as Buck and Buddy, and I always like seeing Henry Brandon, who here plays a baddie. Phillip Ahn plays the Prince, interesting in an era when Asian actors were few and far between in Hollywood. Constance Moore barely registers as Buck's female associate. The sets, costumes and effects are slightly better than the norm for a 30s serial, though by the time this film was put together 15 years later, they would have seem hopelessly outdated. I'm not sure such a condensation—cramming in all the exciting moments at the expense of story and character—is the perfect way to truly experience a serial, but it was a fun, speedy ride. [Streaming]

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