3 April 2006 | futures-1
The Future of Here and Now
"Buck Rogers" (Episodes 1-12, 1939): This stuff is interesting to me for more than its comic book/kitsch style, weak acting, poor production, low grade special effects, lame story, and bad costumes. In 1938 & 1939, audiences were treated to Serials before the main movie at their local theater. Each section of these ongoing stories was about a half an hour in length, and a new one was shown each week. To see all 12 episodes (the entire story) you had to attend the movies 12 weeks in a row. Did you know the good guys would win? Of course. Did you know that at the end of each week's installment, there would be a "cliffhanger" moment leaving you wanting more next week? Of course. The Great Depression was still on, and television was invented but not yet available except to a few rich people in New York City. Once a week, especially on the weekend date nights and Saturday matinees for the kiddies, the Movie was IT...A SPECIAL experience to be savored for a nickel or dime. You got the NEWS, a CARTOON, a SERIAL installment, and THE MOVIE, plus some "private" time with your date...IN THE DARK, IN AIR CONDITIONING!! What a deal!! When I look beneath the surface of this serial (I go back and forth whether I like the characters in Flash Gordon OR Buck Rogers better, both having the same Space/Future theme, but I definitely prefer the décor and the hidden symbology of Buck) I see, as always, a "future" depicted by what we ARE at the moment, in our own time - considered the most "modern" of styles available to us. The cities, room sets, machines, costuming, transportation, and tools expected to be available to us in the future, are all shown in the Middle Art Deco style of America Zig Zag, Geometric, Jazz, Skyscraper applied (slathered) to everything from a pair of shoes to a rocket ship and an entire city. And, since the most modern symbols of the 1930's were our very own skyscrapers - with their skeletons of riveted steel - everything in the future is made of
riveted steel, even if it should float. Wonderful and silly. The city designs are direct ripoffs from various buildings of the 1933 Chicago and 1939 New York World's Fairs. The costumes are a mix of para-military horse riding jodfer outfits, and objects that can serve as both helmets OR trash cans for example...trash cans with lightning bolt wings, anyhow. Radio microphones FLOAT (on a fishing line) for some reason, but their speakers still look like turn of the century wind-up record player speaker horns; doors are toothy, biting jaws that open and close with intimidating chews; every object of any importance has a few vacuum tubes or power line insulators on it, along with the rivets; the powerful rocket ships snap, crackle, pop, fizz, and smoke like a used Desoto pouring sparks out its tail pipe, but somehow they get from planet to planet in minutes. Fight scenes: Buster Crabbe's (Buck's) stand-ins do all the work and you KNOW they're stand-ins because you can SEE them fighting, and they look NOTHING like Buster/Buck. "Hey look, some OTHER guy's fighting now! Oh wait, he's Buck's stand-in!" Then we have the Zoggs a dark skinned race of dolts, with large spirals of forehead flesh that hang in their eyes, serving as the gophers and laborer/minions of governments. Bad guys wear tight black uniforms. And here is where we get glimpses into the world of 1938/39, when Hitler, like the "Killer Kane" maniac leader in our story (a name that would have been recognized as the powerful "Citizen Kane" character who represented publisher William Randolph Hearst), who was attempting to take over the world, the solar system, the universe...controlling the minds of everyone. The good guys are working on alliances, some are ready to roll over for Killer Kane, others want to fight, and politics & leadership councils are being put to use as everyone decides who is on which side. In Buck Rogers, the American/English Caucasians/Earthlings are joined by the Chinese/Asians Saturnians and the Russian/Caucasians (of some other planet) to fight the power-mad German/Aryan race. The parallels were simple enough for all of that movie audience to "get". (The Japanese/Asians Aliens were not in the mix directly, but the audience would've known that the alliance with the Americans meant China, who was being attacked by Japan.) On and on the serial goes... battles, spying, espionage, meetings, weapon races, disguises, and science dedicated to winning wars not curing diseases. It was low-grade info-tainment mild propaganda on a weekly basis expressions of contemporary concerns and fears, which reached so many millions of Americans every week. Those hidden in the top back rows of the balcony didn't notice.