Friday, February 09, 2007

Old Time Radio: Buck Rogers

I'm making my way through the handful of surviving "Buck Rogers" radio programs from the 1930s, and though I found them annoying at first -- they're written for pre-teens, and they were the very essence of disposable radio -- I find myself starting to actually LIKE the characters. Not Buck so much -- who's just a dull schlump hero -- but everybody else.

Black Barney for instance, the bumbling ex-villain who has a strange ongoing relationship with a young boy named Willy. "Oh no!" cries Barney when his little friend is captured. "Oh NO! MY WILLY'S GONE!"

You've also got Ardala Valmar, played by 100% forgotten radio nobody Elaine Melchior. She has the thankless role of being the main villain's sidekick...and as if that weren't bad enough, she's female, so most of her characterization is her saying "What'll we do now, Kane?"

But NOTHING beats evil female villains in children's shows. I think most kids grow up falling in love with the villainesses, because they're always sort of trashy and sexy and perhaps stereotypically pre-menstrual. Ardala has this down pat, playing it with a "tough cookie" swagger and a real vicious hate-on for little Willy.

These shows were intended to be throw-away programs whose real purpose was to sell Fudgesicles to children (though they keep calling them "Fudge-icles," which may have been their 1930s name). But there's lots here for the jaded 21st century listener. They bring in Popsicle Pete -- winner of the "Typical American Boy Contest," implying that typical American boys are highly educated but obsessed with snack food -- and the commercials are aimed at "mother," as in "tell mother to buy you some frozen treats." I love the way these old radio shows always sell stuff to "mother" like that.

You've also got an almost fetishy obsession with technology -- the episodes I'm listening to now are about the "Gyro Cosmic Relativator," a line that Killer Kane keeps tripping over -- and, at the beginning and end of each show, some guy taps a thunder sheet for 30 seconds. When I close my eyes I can picture him, shirt sleeves rolled up around his sweater cuffs, brown pleated pants, Clark Gable haircut, dress shoes, underpaid, endlessly tapping that damn thunder sheet and staring longingly at Elaine Melchior's butt. Later, at the cafeteria, he tries to sit down next to her. "Who are you?" she asks, and he's too ashamed to say.

Update -- Some choice lines from April 16, 1939:

ARDALA: Kane, are you still set on putting our headquarters here, so close to where Willy left us?

KANE: If you'd use that pretty head of yours for something other than a perch for a flying helmet, you'd realize there's no better place for our headquarters.

ARDALA: You haven't answered my question.

KANE: Ardala...for once. THINK. Just try it.

ARDALA: Oh alright, rave on.


Anonymous said...

It just so happens--well, perhaps it wasn't that coincidental, since he's an sf writer--that I wrote a 500-word essay on Philip Nowlan, the creator of Buck, last year, which I would happily reprint here, but the company I wrote it for would probably get pissed off, because they want to charge people to read it. (I'd be happy to send it to you, however.)

At any rate, I also have the DVD of the serial that Universal produced in 1939 with Buster Crabbe as Buck. It's been a while since I watched it, but some memorable parts include the view out of Killer Kane's office, which is a primitive version of Lucas's vision of Coruscant in the prequels--all skyscrapers and flying cars zooming by. And they had a version of Star Trek's transporter device, which meant fewer shots of cheesy spaceships sputtering across the screen.

I don't remember any missing Willies (what a hoot), and Peter Popsicle! If you made this stuff up, nobody would believe you, and IT'S ALL TRUE!

eric--who inflicts Flash Gordon on his hapless students whenever given the opportunity, because it's cool, dammit!

Adam Thornton said...

I'd love to read the essay? I've gotten curious about the original story (wasn't the character "Alexander Rogers" or something?) and I'd like to know more.

Was Black Barney in the novel or the Universal serial?

I've tried to watch the Buck Rogers / Flash Gordon serials, but they were obviously never meant to be watched all in one many recaps and cliffhangers! Though I do remember being terrified and fascinated by the cheesy '80s Flash Gordon remake...I had the soundtrack on tape and drove my parents crazy with it.

Adam Thornton said...

(Sorry, I've got a cat on my lap so my punctuation's off...the line "I'd love to read the essay" should be followed with an exclamation point, not a question mark!)