Today is the birthday of the great star of the serials Larry “Buster” Crabbe (1908-1983). A medal-winning Olympic swimmer, he first got into films (like fellow Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller) by playing Tarzan the Apeman in serials in 1933. (Weismuller and Crabbe were direct competitors for two different studios in two different series). In addition to Tarzan, Crabbe did other jungle man serials, in the 30s — most of them are rather tedious.
HOWEVER, I truly cannot think of anything more pleasurable than the Flash Gordon serials he appeared in from 1936 through 1940 (unless it’s the Buck Rogers serial in which he appeared in 1939). Fantasy, as opposed to science fiction, the films depict a magical alternate universe full of romantic, medieval echoes and overtones….planets full of craggy mountains out of a Wagner opera…species of men from other planets who seem lifted from Greek, Egyptian and Native American mythology….the villain Ming the Merciless (played by the awesome Charles Middleton), who conjures a vaguely “Oriental” stereotype, ranging at times from the Bedouin to the Mandarin in conception. It is that delightful dream-like reality where there is breathable air and earth-like gravity on every planet, and you can just hop in your rocket and go, as though it were a car. I can watch these old movies for hours and hours and hours – -and I have.
Another connection to the usual themes of this blog — Crabbe was one of the stars of Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
In the 40s, Crabbe switched over to westerns, normally playing some variation of Billy the Kid, with Al “Fuzzy” St. John as a sidekick. (You can learn much more about St. John in my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube – -he started out as a comedian in silent films).
In the 50s Crabbe dabbled in television, and began transferring his energies towards his business interests.
Now, here’s the stuff: