Some years ago VCI Entertainment released the 1939 Buck Rogers serial starring Buster Crabbe on DVD. As a fan of Buck, Buster, space opera and serials I bought it, of course.
Unfortunately, the source material used for the transfer was dark and murky, with considerable print damage, so the visual presentation was pretty disappointing. Also, VCI included clunky animated menu screens that were not very interesting, extremely long, and could not be skipped.... and thus, frustrating & annoying.
Well, the company has revisited the title and just sent me a review copy of the new release. It's a quantum improvement over the previous edition, both in presentation and in supplemental features.
The story has 1939 aviator Buck Rogers (Crabbe) and his young pal Buddy (Jackie Moran) crewing an airship that is held aloft by an experimental gas. There's an accident and the blimp crashes into a snow-covered peak, where it - as well as Buck & Buddy - lies undiscovered for 500 years. Fortunately, the experimental gas keeps the two adventurers in a state of suspended animation, and when they're revived, they join the freedom-loving inhabitants of a hidden city in a rebellion against the tyrannical dictatorship of uber-racketeer Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). Aerial dogfights, trips to Saturn, and the requisite fistfights provide plenty of thrills over the ensuing twelve cliffhanging chapters.
Produced between the second and third of Universal's hugely popular and financially successful Flash Gordon chapterplays, the studio had high hopes for their new production. After all, Buck had predated Flash in the funny pages, and Crabbe had proven twice over his ability to overthrow interplanetary despots. But Buck Rogers, while profitable, didn't quite hit the stratospheric heights of the Flash serials, so plans for a sequel were scrapped, and Crabbe went on to star in a third Gordon adventure.
Still, Buck Rogers is one of Universal's best serials, with high production values, good direction (by Forde Beebe and Saul Goodkind), fast, exciting action, and a slightly more adult storyline. The special effects and stuntwork are extremely well executed, and the overall quality of the serial is top-notch. It's too bad that it often gets overshadowed by the Flash Gordon serials, because Buck has a lot of entertainment to offer.
VCI's new 2-disc "70th Anniversary Edition" DVD appears to have been culled from either the original negative or a pristine 35mm fine grain print, because, unlike the earlier edition, this one looks gorgeous. The full-frame, B&W transfer is near-perfect with good contrast and sharp detail. The mono audio is clear and relatively free of hiss. It's a terrific presentation.
The supplemental material is pretty solid, too. There's a still gallery, a brief documentary on the history of the Buck Rogers character, two episodes of the Buck Rogers radio show, a videotaped presentation of the Buck Rogers panel at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, and a Buster Crabbe featurette that sets a series of stills and clips to an audio recording of Crabbe speaking to a college audience during the 70s. It rambles a bit, but is fascinating. The coolest bonus feature though, is a 1935 short, Buck Rogers & The Tiger Men of Mars. This ten minute, live-action film was produced by the makers of the comic strip and screened at the 1935 World's Fair. It's amateurish in the extreme, but is a fascinating historical curio as the very first filmed BR adventure, and is a welcome extra.
I'm a huge fan of this serial. Crabbe is as dashing, athletic and heroic as ever, and the pace is relentless. The effects and cliffhangers (although this serial has one of the most blatant "cheats" I've ever seen!) are delightful. If you've never seen it and have any interest at all in classic space opera, you should definitely check it out. If you own the previous VCI disc, you may want to sell, trade or throw it away and upgrade to the new edition. It's that much better.