Thursday, October 1, 2015

Planet Outlaws (Universal, 1938; Sherman S. Krellberg, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Nazi Plan Charles came home and we ran a considerably lighter movie — though, intriguingly, not without its points of similarity — Planet Outlaws, a 1953 release from Sherman S. Krellberg, one of the slimier bottom-feeders of the movie business, who grabbed the re-release rights to Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe once tax issues forced Capra and his screenwriter and business partner, Robert Riskin, to liquidate their company following its initial release by Warner Bros. in 1941. Doubtless Krellberg loved getting his hands on a major movie with a major director and major stars (Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold) given that his own productions were generally things like the truly bizarre 1935 serial The Lost City, a sort of Flash Gordon knock-off — except the “lost city” from which the dastardly villain Zadok (William “Stage” Boyd, the scapegrace actor whose off-screen antics with alcohol, drugs and women once cost his near-namesake, William Boyd, a major-studio contract when his bosses, getting their William Boyds mixed up, invoked the morals clause and fired him — whereupon William Boyd went to court and sued the other William Boyd, and the settlement included the stipulation that the other William Boyd, the one that wasn’t playing Hopalong Cassidy in a long-running series of “B” Westerns at Paramount, bill himself as William “Stage” Boyd in his subsequent movies — of which The Lost City was the only one since while it was still in post-production “Stage” Boyd’s bad habits caught up to him and he died in his 40’s) attempts to conquer the world isn’t on another planet but is in Africa. Anyway, in 1953 Krellberg bought the rights to the 1938 Universal serial Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, produced as a follow-up to the three Flash Gordon serials they’d made with former Olympic swimming star Larry “Buster” Crabbe in the title role. Crabbe returned for the 1938 Buck Rogers with the Flash Gordon team of Ford Beebe and Saul Goodkind directing, and Constance Moore took Jean Parker’s place as his female lead, Wilma Deering, who for once actually has something to do besides just get herself in mortal jeopardy and set up the cliffhangers. She’s actually the lieutenant on Rogers’ spaceship, which crash-lands in the Arctic in 1938, which puts the crew on board — Buck, Wilma and the (alas) obligatory boy sidekick, George “Buddy” Wade (Jackie Moran, though less oppressive than usual since he’s obviously teenage instead of pre-pubescent) — in suspended animation until they’re discovered and reawakened five hundred years later. Five hundred years later Earth is under the dominion of gangster “Killer” Kane (Anthony Warde) — though fortunately Buck, Wilma and Buddy were discovered not by Kane’s forces but by the handful of good guys left, including “scientist-general” Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw) and the small community he governs who live underground but are plotting to stage a revolution, take over the Earth and restore law and order.

In order to do this they have to send an emissary to the planet Saturn, since only with the Saturnians as allies can the good Earth people hope to defeat “Killer” Kane and his thugs. Of course Buck Rogers volunteers to be the Earth emissary — only a crew from Kane’s government arrives at the same time and the Saturnians are unable to decide whether to throw in their lot with Kane’s forces or with the underground regime of Dr. Huer. Saturnian Prince Tallen (the marvelous Chinese-American actor Philip Ahn, who especially once the U.S. got involved in World War II usually found himself playing Japanese villains but at least once got a solid good-guy role as an FBI agent alongside Anna May Wong in the 1937 Paramount “B” Daughter of Shanghai) volunteers to return to Earth to figure out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and once he gets a look at what “Killer” Kane does to people who cross him in any way — he forces them to wear helmets that turn them into “robots,” not mechanical creatures but mindless slaves (the sorts of people who were called “zombies” in films until George Romero dramatically redefined the term “zombie” in his 1968 cheapie Night of the Living Dead and gave “zombies” its current meaning of radioactively altered humans who survive by eating other people’s brains) — naturally he throws in with Huer, Buck and the good guys. The task of editing a serial to feature-length running time was always problematic; Republic usually did it with some flair but the people who got hold of the reissue rights to other companies’ serials couldn’t have been bothered; with even less exposition than existed in the original, Planet Outlaws just lurches from cliffhanger to cliffhanger and even the good points, the performances of Constance Moore and Philip Ahn and the athleticism of Buster Crabbe (in one quite nice scene he gets himself from place to place by grabbing a conveniently hanging rope and swinging across the room, a forerunner of his future playing Tarzan knockoff “Jungle Jim”), somewhat get lost in the shuffle. But watching this right after The Nazi Plan certainly emphasized that in 1938 both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were alive, well and at or close to the peaks of their powers, so a movie about a future Earth governed by a mad dictator with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster wasn’t just the stuff of science-fiction nightmares but a quite real possibility — and though by 1953 Hitler was dead and Stalin was on his way out, Sherman S. Krellberg shot a new prologue and epilogue to Planet Outlaws with a speaker explaining that the takeover of the world by dire (albeit unspecified) “enemies” was a real possibility and one we needed to be willing to fight, with the heroism of the characters in the main film as our example.