You might well ask -- “What the heck is this anyway?” -- either before or after you watch it. While not exactly a Hollywood movie, it is a jaw-dropping curiosity.
The first Buck Rogers film was shown to the public during the second year, 1934 edition, of the Chicago World's Fair. The Century of Progress International Exposition was held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 to celebrate the city's centennial. The theme of the fair was technological innovation. Its motto was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms" and its architectural symbol was the Sky Ride, a transporter bridge perpendicular to the shore on which one could ride from one end of the fair to the other. After a winter break, the 1934 Fair ran from May 26 through Oct. 31 and included a new Island Midway area that faced Lake Michigan. The "Buck Rogers Show," as it was called on admission tickets, was located on the Enchanted Island playground for children, at #125 on the left hand section of the 1934 Fair Map. It is unknown whether this film was the entire show, or if fans were treated to some live action event as well for their dime. It is certain that after watching the movie, visitors could purchase the very same toy spaceships and ray guns they had just seen. Pretty tricky, huh?
Buck first appeared as Anthony Rogers in an issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in August, 1928. John F. Dille, president of the National Newspaper Service syndicate, saw the potential of the futuristic adventure and arranged for the author, Philip Francis Nowlan, to turn it into a comic strip for Dille's syndicate. The strip was re-named "Buck Rogers," inspired by the name of cowboy star Buck Jones, and that name was used for the character from then on. Dille assigned staff artist Lt. Dick Calkins to the project, and he successfully drew the strip for the next 18 years.
The 1934 film on a zero budget resembles a “home movie” hastily thrown together with lots of spirit but little skill by amateurs. It was in fact produced by the John F. Dille Co. and filmed in the studios of the Action Film Company of Chicago. Dick Calkins appears briefly at his drawing board. The actor playing Buck is John Dille, Jr., the son of the strip’s owner! While Junior looks the part, his, um acting, um, speaks for itself. The actress playing Wilma Deering was Junior’s girlfriend when the film was being shot. Their onscreen chemistry hints at the length of the relationship. The listless delivery of her last line -- “Oh, Buck, wasn’t that a battle!” -- is priceless. Dr. Huer is played by Harlan Tarbell, a stage magician and illustrator, who also “directed” the film but never directed or acted in any other film. His baldpate make-up positively flops around on his head. The sets and special effects are equally impressive. This camp classic must be seen to be believed, so we won’t give away more of the fun!
The film may well have thrilled fair goers, particularly young kids who had never seen anything quite like it. The futuristic serials The Phantom Empire, Undersea Kingdom and Flash Gordon did not hit movie screens until 1935 and 1936, while the Buck Rogers serial with Buster Crabbe came later in 1939. Also keep in mind that Buck’s fans in 1934 avidly listened to his weekly radio exploits. The narrated space battle sounds much like a radio show and is actually more exciting, though far less funny, with your eyes closed! If the spaceships in the big battle look like toy models, that’s exactly what they are, and darned good ones we all wish we had today. To top it off, the show neatly fit into the futuristic theme of the Century of Progress.
There is no indication this first Buck Rogers film was ever shown in movie theaters, where even matinee audiences might have found it laughably amateurish. The June 1936 issue of the trade magazine “Toys and Novelties” reports that the film had a second life by being shown in department stores to promote Buck Rogers merchandise. More Buck toys were sold in the 1930s than Mickey Mouse, with countless games, puzzles, figurines, Big Little Books, ray guns, spaceships and even a full costume for boys. Toy stores devoted entire sections and Christmas displays to Buck and the film doubtless attracted even more customers.
A granddaughter of John Dille discovered a 35mm print of this forgotten film in her basement around 1983 and donated it to UCLA, who struck a new print. It was unleashed on the modern world at the 1984 Cinecon convention in San Francisco. The auditorium rocked with laughter. Despite the copyright notice at the head, the film was never registered with the Library of Congress and so is in the public domain for all the world to enjoy.