samedi 25 mars 2017

Buster Crabbe master of outer space

Comic strips were a basic form of entertainment to many people in the 1930s, especially during the depression, an art form that continued up to the 1950s, before television reduced its impact. Comics provided escape from the everyday routines of living. Buck Rogers rode a high wave of popularity in American newspapers at that time. But another spaceman character quickly caught up with the popularity of Buck Rogers in competing newspapers: Flash Gordon. He was created in 1934 by Alex Raymond (1909-1956) who was a great artist, respected in the industry as one of the finest, whose bold outlines, use of vivid colors, and strikingly handsome characters, grabbed the attention of many readers. It didn’t take Flash long to exceed the popularity of Buck and, within a year or two, Alex Raymond worked on another special project: to find a character to compete with the popular Tarzan comics. Alex’s answer to Tarzan came in the form of Jungle Jim, who possessed less of the savagery, and a more contemporary approach to jungle justice than Tarzan. Like Flash had done earlier, Jungle Jim was accepted by readers, although it never approached the popularity of Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) and Buster Crabbe (1908-1983), having once competed for the Tarzan lead, eventually came to dominate all four of these roles in the movies. They both played Tarzan at the beginning of their careers, but Weissmuller became the Tarzan, and when he grew too old for the rigors of the series, he became Jungle Jim - the only Jungle Jim. On the other hand, Crabbe became Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In short, Weissmuller ruled the jungle, and Crabbe was master of outer space.

Crabbe grew up in the islands, where he learned to literally "swim like a fish." He was a champion boxer in high school, and went on to become a champion swimmer in the Olympics (1932). Like his friend Johnny Weissmuller, Crabbe's swimming success gained him the attention of Hollywood and led to his entrance into films. Although Buster originally intended to become a lawyer and only took up acting to get enough money to enter law school, he quickly became a popular action star when he took the lead role in Paramount's King of the Jungle , a big-budget rip-off of MGM's Tarzan series. Crabbe starred as Kaspa, the Lion Man, but to all intents and purposes he was playing Tarzan. An independent producer, Sol Lesser, gained the rights to do five Tarzan films and, recognizing Crabbe as a natural for the part, he signed him up.

Unfortunately, the 12-chapter Tarzan the Fearless (1933), was a pretty weak effort, merely a cheap attempt to capitalize on the Tarzan legend - and Crabbe's superb physical prowess - by slopping together a mish-mash of jungle action. Crabbe himself, in his autobiography, put his finger on the cliffhanger's main weakness: "Lesser's [Tarzan] was an ignorant brute who spoke halting English - a loincloth leviathan." While a variation of this approach worked in the MGM films, Crabbe's Tarzan was also sabotaged by a weak script, which made the King of the Jungle seem like a self-interested savage rather than a heroic figure. Again in Crabbe's words: "no amount of promotion could save it."

After the Tarzan serial, Buster was signed to a contract by Paramount. In 1936, Universal Studios were going to make a serial called Flash Gordon. "I had followed old Flash in the papers for some time", wrote Crabbe in his autobiography, "and I pictured several actors in my mind who I thought would make good Flash Gordons. A guy on another planet was a way-out theme in those days, but still interesting enough to tickle the imaginations of adventurous souls. [...] So I decided to run out to Universal and watch the testing. I recognized two of the actors right away. One of them was the guy I thought would make a perfect Flash, a fellow named George Bergnian. He was a health nut who was good looking and had played in several bit parts around town. I’d worked with him a couple of times and, as I looked at him, I thought, with bleached hair, he’d be great. The other actor I recognized was Jon Hall. He was a swimmer and an athlete with a nice physique, good looking features, and also would have been good in the role. I stood around for half an hour or so, watching the actors jump around the stage, speak a few lines, and perform whatever actions the director requested. Some were excused after the first runthrough while others were given more time and kept to one side for another look. The producer of the picture was there, Henry MacRae, and at one point in the testing he walked over to where I was standing and introduced himself.

“You’re Buster Crabbe, aren’t you?” he asked. I smiled and nodded, shaking his hand. “Are you here to try out for the part?” “No, sir. I read about the testing and I had nothing better to do, so I thought I’d come over and watch. Is it okay?” “Sure. Glad to have you,” he said. He was silent for a minute, standing beside me as we both watched an actor go through his routine on stage. “How would you like to play the part?” “Me?” I knew who he meant, but I hadn’t come to get the part. My interest was only in satisfying my curiosity. I honestly thought Flash Gordon was too far-out, and that it would flop at the box office. God knew I’d been in enough turkeys during my four years as an actor; I didn’t need another one. “I’m under contract to Paramount,” I said. “I don’t know what plans they have for me.” “I know about your contract. We’ll arrange to borrow you.” He kept his eyes on mine, as if trying to read my responses before I spoke them. I looked back at the stage. “You’ve got some pretty good talent up there now.” “The part is yours if you want it,” he said matter-offactly, continuing to wait for my consent. “What makes you think I’d fit the part?” “I’ve seen some of your features. Alex Raymond and I discussed what qualities to look for in casting the lead, and from what I’ve seen of your work, you fit the bill.” “But I haven’t even tested for the part.” “It’s yours if you want it.” Somehow I got the impression that if I flat out said “No,” he’d have persisted. “That’s up to Paramount. If they say you can borrow me, then I’d be willing to play the part.” On that note, we shook hands, said good-bye, and I left. On the way home, I reflected upon the conversation. [...] I didn’t test for the part, nor was I ever asked to. Within a month after my conversation with Henry MacRae on the Universal sound stage, I got a call from my boss at Paramount, informing me that I had been loaned out to do the Flash Gordon serial. The production crew and cast were among the best talents available for what was going to be a B-movie.

[...] Just before Universal began filming the serial, I had to report to a hair dresser on Hollywood Boulevard
to have my hair bleached. Having always looked out at the world from under a dark brow, it was an unusual experience being a blond. It was as if someone had lifted the roof - suddenly, everything looked brighter. I spent a lot of time staring at myself in the parlor mirror, trying to adjust to the sudden change. It was a little embarrassing. The bleach job didn’t appeal to me at all. I braced myself for the goodnatured ribbing I’d have to take at the studio the next day, as I put my hat on and left the salon for home. I began to place myself into the role of Flash Gordon since I had been made-up to resemble him. It was kind of an unavoidable method-acting, brought about by this stranger who kept peering out of mirrors at me. [...] The first Flash Gordon was wrapped up in six weeks, just before Christmas of 1936. There was no cast party, as often is done for class-A movies. Some of the actors went across the street to a bar, to celebrate the end of our long ordeal. The director might pat us on the back and say, “nice job, guys,” but that was it. [...] When Flash Gordon hit the theaters in early 1937, it turned out to be a big hit. According to Universal’s front office, Flash grossed the second-biggest income the studio had that year. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the impact Flash would have on my life. [...]

Buck Rogers
was [...] a 12-episode affair directed by Ford Beebe and Saul Goodkind. It was a story about two Earthlings frozen in suspended animation (a fore-runner of cryogenics?) who are awakened in the 25th century. A battle between the forces of good and evil had erupted in the universe, and the destiny of Earth hung in the balance. Although the art of rocketry and laser weaponry had reached a very advanced state, the American government of the future was quick to recognize the superior intelligence of Buck Rogers, and persuaded him to champion their cause at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Buck was a brunet, like me, which was nice for a change. Jackie Moran played the part of Buddy, my 20th century companion, which gave us a sort of Batman and Robin relationship [...]."

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