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Buster Crabbe, King of Serials - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2006

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Today fondly remembered by fans of vintage B-movies and serials, Westerns and science fiction alike, Buster Crabbe actually never intended to be an actor, nor was he trained as one or did he have his initial successes in that field. Actually, he was a swimmer, and was quite successful at two Olympics ... but then Hollywood called, and before long, he had made iconic roles like Tarzan, Buck Rogers and especially Flash Gordon his own, he was (unofficially) crowned King of the Serials ... and he was steadily gaining reputation as a screen-cowboy.

 

But let's start at the beginning:

Buster Crabbe was born Clarence Linden Crabbe II in Oakland California in 1908 (though his publicity bio listed 1907 as his birthdate, a date that later found its way into many sources), however it seems to have been his family's move to Hawaii at a very early age that was the first decisive event in his life, because in Hawaii he would find ideal conditions to train as a professional swimmer.

Buster's training would soon pay off, since in 1928, he won a bronze medal for the 1.500 m freestyle in Amsterdam. 4 years later, in Los Angeles, he managed to top that by winning gold for the 400 m freestyle ... and beating Johnny Weissmuller's Olympic record in that discipline - and Johnny Weissmuller is a name that will pop up more often in this biography ...

 

From 1930 onwards, Buster made a bit of money on the side by appearing in small parts in movies, and allegedly he also auditioned for the title role in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, directed by W.S.Van Dyke), which later went to Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller-bio - click here] - though that story is most probably a fabrication of some publicity department as it rings a tad too far-fetched -, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking with a lead part, especially since that other swim champion, Johnny Weissmuller, had just had his first phenomenal success on the big screen - and yes, it was Tarzan the Ape Man -, and according to typical Hollywood logic that prevails even to this day, someone must have thought "if Buster Crabbe can beat Weissmuller at swimming there is no reason why he wouldn't beat him at the box office." - Truth to be told, Buster could never match the movie-successes of Weissmuller, but it stands to reason as to who was the better, more versatile actor (actually many critics nowadays favour Crabbe over Weissmuller).

 

Crabbe's first starring films were totally in the Weissmuller-mode:

His debut as a lead was the role of Kaspa the Lion King in Paramount's King of the Jungle (1933, H.Bruce Humberstone, Max Marcin), in which he played a man who was raised by jungle animals but is captued by white hunters and brought back to civilisation as a circus attraction - essentially, Buster Crabbe was playing Tarzan in all but name ... In his next film (a serial actually), he was actually playing Tarzan - including name.

 



The serial in question is 1933's Tarzan the Fearless (Robert F.Hill), producer Sol Lesser's first attempt at producing a Tarzan-film to rival the much higher budgeted MGM-Tarzans and cash in on their success (Lesser would later try again with Tarzan's Revenge [1938, D.Ross Lederman] and eventually wind up producing the Weissmuller-Tarzan-series once it moved over to RKO).

Unfortunately, Tarzan the Fearless the serial nowadays seems to be lost, and all that remains is a self contained feature made up from the serial in the 1950's, so one can't really say how good or bad the serial actually was, but judging from the edited down feature, it seems to have been a cheap but energetic serial that's high on action and excitement - and Buster Crabbe makes a convincing jungle man.

As a whole, Tarzan the Fearless was not a huge success, as its inherent cheapness stood no comparison to the lavish sets and properties as well as the better cast of Tarzan the Ape Man, as it was released way too soon after the Weissmuller-success ... so that was the end of Buster Crabbe's screen-career as Tarzan - for better or worse.

 


However, while Tarzan the Fearless was not exactly the success it was supposed to be, it did little to hurt Buster's career, as he went back to Paramount - who had him under contract and had only leased him out to Sol Lesser - to play supporting roles and sometimes leads in films of various genres, including the sports/crime comedy Search for Beauty (1933, Erle C.Kenton) - in which he plays a swimming champ (not too much of a stretch) opposite Ida Lupino -, the W.C. Fields-comedy You're Telling Me! (1934, Erle C.Kenton) [W.C. Fields bio - click here], and the sports comedy Hold 'em Yale (1934, Sidney Lanfield).

And then there were several films he made on loan to other studios, on loan to Monogram he made the musical Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1933, Edwin L.Marin), for Mayfair the drama Badge of Honor and the adventure film The Oil Raider (both 1934, Spencer Gordon Bennet), for RKO the comedy We are Rich Again (1934, William A.Seiter), and for Majestic the drama She had to Choose (1934, Ralph Ceder).

 



Much more important for Buster's career though was a series of Westerns adapted from stories by Zane Grey that Buster did for Paramount around the same time, first as a supporting actor (the first of these films, The Thundering Herd, was actually released before his first film as a lead, King of the Jungle), later as a lead.

In the first three films of that bunch, directed by Western great Henry Hathaway, The Thundering Herd, Man of the Forest and To the Last Man (all 1933), Buster can be seen supporting Western star Randolph Scott, but eventually, Buster had a fall-out with director Henry Hathaway - the reasons of which are not quite clear -, and frequently this is cited as the main reason Buster Crabbe never managed to break into A-movies - which (at best) stands to debate.

 


Truth is, with Hathaway gone from the Zane Grey series, Buster Crabbe's career did not slow down, quite the contrary. True, during most of 1934, he was loaned out to other, smaller studios (see above), but eventually he returned to the Zane Grey series and gave support to Dean Jagger in Wanderer of the Wasteland (1935, Otho Lovering) before being promoted to the series' lead, in films including Nevada (1935, Charles Barton), Drift Fence/Texas Desperadoes (1936, Otho Lovering), Desert Gold - Buster plays an Indian Chieftain in this one -, The Arizona Raiders, Arizona Mahoney (all three 1936, James P.Hogan) and Forlorn River (1937, Charles Barton). Basically the Zane Grey films were all well-made B-Westerns that gave Buster Crabbe ample chance to prove himself as a versatile actor.

 

Besides the Zane Greys, Buster also played in a few comedies and musicals for Paramount, mostly as a supporting actor, including Lady be Careful (1936, Theodore Reed), Murder Goes College, Sophie Lang Goes West (both 1936, Charles Reisner), Thrill of a Lifetime (1937, George Archainbaud) - the only film in which Buster actually sings -, and the Betty Grable-vehicle Million Dollar Legs (1939, Nick Grinde). On top of that he also did supporting duty in some (crime) dramas like King of Gamblers/Czar of the Slot Machines, the Anna May Wong-starrer Daughter of Shanghai (both 1937, Robert Florey), Tip-off Girls, Hunted Men, Illegal Traffic (all three 1938, Louis King), and Unmarried (1939, Kurt Neumann).

 



For reasons unknown though, Paramount decided to not renew Buster Crabbe's contract in 1939, and all of a sudden he found himself freelancing ...

Not that this would have mattered too much, because from 1936 onwards, Buster Crabbe found much more fame in the serials he did away from Paramount anyways ...

 

In 1936, Paramount loaned Buster out to Universal, to star in a serial based on a science fiction comic by Alex Raymond: Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani). The serial, produced on approximately thrice the amount that Universal usually spent on its serials, was a wild mix of special effects, hands-on adventure and action aplenty that to this day is considered - along with the maybe even more innovative Phantom Empire - probably the most influential sci-fi serial there was and many fans to this day consider it to be one of the best (sound) serials ever. In it, Buster plays the archtype of the all-American hero who throws himself head-first into danger and is able to resolve the gravest of problems with his bare fists, not at all fazed by the fact that he is on a strange planet and is usually outmanned by ray-gun carrying guards or fire-breathing monsters.

 




Flash Gordon the serial became a tremenduous success back in its days, so it should come as no real surprise that before long two sequels followed, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford L.Beebe, Robert F.Hill) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940, Ford L.Beebe, Ray Taylor), and while both these serials of course essentially repeated the formula of the first one and therefore lacked its inventiveness, they were both more or less as exciting and as entertaining.

 

Away from the Flash Gordon-franchise, Universal tried Buster out in two other serials as well: The first one was Red Barry (1938, Ford L.Beebe, Alan James), an earthbound crime-and-espionage story based on a comic strip by Will Gould that was moderately successful but paled in comparison to Flash Gordon.

Universal did much better a year later with Buck Rogers (1939, Ford L.Beebe, Saul A.Goodkind), which was based on a story (and subsequent comic strip) by Philip F.Nowlan (& comic strip artist David Calkins) about a man who wakes up in the 25th century and has to deal head first with all kinds of futuristic threats. Actually, Buck Rogers had the look and feel of just another Flash Gordon-serial to it, which was probably even intended, since Universal had understandably no interest to kill its golden goose (and they were right of course, Buck Rogers became another big success) ... and just like the Flash Gordon-serials, Buck Rogers is still entertaining and exciting to this day ...

 


Away from serials, Universal also put Buster in Call a Messenger (1939, Arthur Lubin), but this film belonged more to the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys than to Buster. Other than that, Universal knew surprisingly little to do with their serial superstar Buster Crabbe, so eventually he found himself at Republic playing a bad guy to Gene Autry's hero in Colorado Sunset (1939, George Sherman) and at 20th Century Fox playing a supporting role in the comedy Sailor's Lady (1940, Allan Dwan).

 

Still, in 1940, Buster Crabbe, successful serial star, saw hismelf without a regular job, so he did what many (me not included) nowadays call career suicide. He hooked up with the then newly formed company PRC [Click here to read an article on PRC], to star in a series of their movies, mostly Westerns but also a few adventure pics ...

 




PRC was - much like Republic or Monogram back then - essentially a producer of cheap B-pics and series Westerns, and they had just lost the star of their Billy the Kid-series, veteran cowboy actor Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here], to Republic (where he joined their Three Mesquiteers series), so they desperately needed a replacement - and who better to take than Buster Crabbe, who was on the market anyhow, was fresh from the successful Flash Gordon-serials, and at Paramount, he had already proven himself as a competent cowboy hero.

(PRC's Billy the Kid by the way was not portrayed as the authentic outlaw he really was but as a range hero who is wrongly persecuted by the law and is trying to prove his innocence.)

 


For the Billy the Kid-series, Buster was paired with ex-Keystone Cop and character actor Al St.John, who as Fuzzy was a very prolific cowboy sidekick in PRC-Westerns, having already supported Bob Steele in the Billy the Kid-series while at the same time he also did sidekick duties in the Lone Rider series, supporting first George Houston, then Bob Livingston.

Among cowboy sidekicks, Al St.John was always among the best, partly of course thanks to his training as silent slapstick comedian and parts thankly to his ability to integrate his Fuzzy-persona into the plot rather than interrupt the story every now and again for a few routines - in films like Fuzzy Settles Down (1944, Sam Newfield), he is even given an opportunity to carry the plot as it is..

Plus, he and Buster had a certain instant chemistry that made them a likeable duo and made their movies somehow transcend their humble origins.

 



Late in 1943, Billy the Kid was rechristened Billy Carson, most probably to escape association with the authentic outlaw of the Old West (they could have thought of that sooner), but other than a name change, nothing much about the series changed, it was still Buster and Al St.John as Fuzzy riding the plains doing good, with pretty much the same team in front and behind the camera responsible for the films - speaking of which: All of Buster's Billy the Kid and Billy Carson were produced by Sigmund Neufeld and directed by PRC-house director Sam Newfield (actually Neufeld's brother), all featured Al St.John as his sidekick, and most of them had a very similar supporting cast, though the supporting actors had different role-names in almost every film, most prominently Charles King, who played the lead villain in many of these films.

 

Eventually, Buster Crabbe played Billy the Kid/Billy Carson in a total of 36 films, from Billy the Kid Wanted (1941, Sam Newfield) to Outlaws of the Plains (1946, Sam Newfield), and by and large the series was and still is ridiculed by critics for their obvious cheapness and the often lazy and stagey directorial job by Newfield, but as a lover of the cheap and cheesy, I can't but defend Newfield: he had to work on a very tight budget and a very tight schedule, plus the scripts he was given were not always particularly interesting. But when he had a decent script to work with, like the horror-Western Wild Horse Phantom (1944), he managed to make something interesting out of it.

 



Flix.com

Away from the Billy the Kid/Billy Carson-series, Buster made a few other pictures - all non-Westerns - for PRC as well, like the drama Queen of the Broadway (1942, Sam Newfield), the boxing film The Contender (1944, Sam Newfield), and a trio of jungle pictures, Jungle Man (1941, Harry L.Fraser), Jungle Siren (1942, Sam Newfield) and Nabonga (1944, Sam Newfield). Of these films, Nabonga is not only the one with the silliest title but also the funniest: In it Buster plays a jungle explorer who stumbles upon one of these White Jungle Goddesses (Julie London) - who seemed to populate the jungles in the 1930's and 40's in no short supply - and her violent pet gorilla (Crash Corrigan - [Crash Corrigan bio - click here]). All of this might not sound very special - in fact there were hundreds of films in the 1930's and 40's with more or less the same plot -, but somehow this film refuses to take itself too seriously and gives Buster Crabbe a rare opportunity to display his comic talent ...

 

In 1946, Buster's association with PRC came to an end, allegedly because he was no longer content with the quality of the Westerns he was in. That however did not slow PRC's production of Westerns down, they just took Lash La Rue [Lash La Rue bio - click here], a cowboy actor they had just recently hired for a trio of Westerns starring Eddie Dean, put him in a Western with sidekick Fuzzy - Law of the Lash (1947, Ray Taylor) - which came out only a few months after Outlaws of the Plains - and when this film proved to be successful enough, out of the ashes of the Billy the Kid/Billy Carson-series, the Fuzzy and Lash-series was born, a series that eventually outlived PRC - which went bust in 1948.

 


Buster Crabbe meanwhile went back to his old studio Paramount - or rather its B-movie unit Pine-Thomas - for his next film: Swamp Fire (1946, William H.Pine), a film that was memorable inasmuch as it was the first to pit ex-swimming champion and former Tarzan Buster Crabbe (as the bad guy) against ex-swimming champion and former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller (in one of his very rare films where he plays neither Tarzan nor Jungle Jim) [Johnny Weissmuller-bio - click here]. In the film, Weissmuller defeats Crabbe in the end, but who beat whom concerning their acting is a whole other matter.

 


After Swamp Fire, Buster threw in with Columbia and producer Sam Katzman, a prolific (but not essentially quality-conscious) B-movie- and serial-producer in his own right. Buster's first assignment for Katzman might have been one of his most unusual roles: In Last of the Redmen (atrocious British title Last of the Redskins, 1947, George Sherman), another adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, he played Magua, the treacherous Huron - now in my book, it's always a bit weird (not to say racist) to cast blond actors as Indians ... but then again, these were different times back then and maybe I'm just too spoiled by today's political correctness. It has to be noted though that Crabbe does a pretty decent job as Magua, a much more memorable one than Rick Vallin playing Uncas. The movie as a whole though is one of the lesser adaptations of the novel and pretty much forgettable.

 

After Last of the Redmen, Katzman put Buster Crabbe to better use though, remembering his past successes in serials and giving him three more to star in: The Sea Hound (1947, W.B Eason, Mack V.Wright) and Pirates of the High Seas (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Thomas Carr) were modern-day high sea adventures, while King of the Congo/The Mighty Thunda (1952, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell) saw Crabbe back in loincloth, doing another Tarzan-imitation. By and large though, these serials lacked the enthusiasm, the inventiveness, and also the budget of Buster's 1930's serials, they seemed like tired (if sometimes weirdly charming) rehashs of better times, and seeing these serials, it should come as hardly a surprise that the format of the serial did not survive the 1950's (if for an entirely different reason - television).

 

Besides his serial work at Columbia, Buster also made a guest appearance in a film of the Jungle Jim series (also produced by Katzman), where he - in the film Captive Girl (1950, William Berke) - once again played a villain to Johnny Weissmuller's hero, while in 1948, back at Paramount/Pine-Thomas, he had a supporting role in Caged Fury (1948, William Berke), a film about a psycho lion tamer.

 


By and large though, with the 1950's and the introduction of television, the B-movie as it once was and serial came to an end, and like many other actors, Buster, who had been so prolific in the 1930's and 40's, found himself no longer in demand concerning feature films. But Buster did what he had to do: He turned to television and embraced the new medium, first doing guest appearances in a number of anthology shows like the Kraft Television Theatre or Star Tonight, and from 1955 to 1957, he had his own TV-show, Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, in which he played the titular character supported by former Western sidekick Fuzzy Knight (not to be confused with Fuzzy Al St.John) and his own son Cullen 'Cuffy' Crabbe. The title of the series pretty much explains it all, it was a series about Captain Gallant (Buster) of the French Foreign Legion and his adventures in North Africa, concerning the typical mix of gangsters, espionage and natvie uprisings.

 

After the series had come to an end, Buster could only rarely be seen in films throughout the remainder of the 1950's and the 1960's, and exclusively in Westerns, including The Lawless Eighties (1957, Joseph Kane), Badman's Country (1958, Fred F.Sears) - in which he played Wyatt Earp, in a film where Earp, Pat Garrett, Bufallo Bill and Bat Masterson go after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ... I mean really -, Gunfighters of Abilene (1960, Edward L.Cahn), The Bounty Killer (1965, Spencer Gordon Bennet) and Arizona Raiders (1965, William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]).

By and large though, at this time Buster had retired from the film business and was now running a company selling Buster Crabbe Swimming Pools (no doubt using his former fame as a swimmer as a sales pitch). He also promoted exercise equipment during that time and became a successful stockbroker.

 

In his later years, Buster even returned to acting for a few films and television shows: He had a guest role in the atrocious TV-series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979, playing one Brigadier Gordon as hommage to his portrayals as Flash Gordon. The same year, he had a cameo in Swim Team (1979, James Polakof), a comedy about - you guessed it - a swim team ... which is a millieu where Buster would fit right in.

 


Alien Dead from 1980 was one of schlock-meister Fred Olen Ray's earliest films as a director, and the film, a cheapo shot for around 12.000 Dollars about a meteor falling to earth and turning Yankee townsfolks into zombies, sets the tone for things to come later in Olen Ray's career. Still, in a trashy way, this one, like many later Olen Ray-films, is kind of fun. Buster plays a rather useless Sheriff in this one ...

 

In 1982, Buster made his last movie, The Comeback Trail (1982, Harry Hurwitz), in which he plays a B-Western star from yesteryear (not too much of a stretch) who is hired by two no-good producers who want to see him die doing increasingly dangerous stunts and collect the insurance money - but in the end he survives all of their stunts and turns the tables on them.

 

Buster died in 1983 from a heart attack, still busy promoting the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. The Comeback Trail, a rather unfunny comedy, thus turned out to be his last film, and it was not much of a fitting farewell movie for the once popular serial- and B-movie-star. However, only very few people remember that film, while a great many remember Buster as Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, or simply as the King of Serials ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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