Vintage Hunk: Buster Crabbe
"If the role required it, I guess I'd strip... If you have the body, you do it."
Buster Crabbe - After Dark interview, 1972
When I was growing up in Nebraska during the 1950s, television was a wondrous new thing— for everyone but me! We got our set late, probably in 1954, even though all the other families had one. What I knew about the new device was that it ruined playing after school. Everyone would fly home and sit transfixed in front of the dreaded black box. As they only showed test patterns until noon, you can imagine how lousy the programs were. One day I gave up and advanced on the dreaded box. (Sort of like becoming a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers!) What I first saw changed my life forever.
They were showing the old Flash Gordon movie serials every afternoon. I became hooked. Seeing Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon in combat with the dreaded Ming the Merciless thrilled me completely. I really liked the blond Crabbe and still could not figure out why I was so attracted to him. As I was soon to hit puberty and gay awareness set in, I finally realized that man as a gorgeous hunk. I don't think I knew that word then, but all my instincts told me he was beautiful. Looking at him gave me strange stirrings, though later they did not seem so strange!
Clarence Linden "Buster" Crabbe was born in Oakland, California and was raised in Hawaii. He was a swimmer and won a Bronze swimming medal at the 1928 Olympics, then a Gold Medal in 1932. Beautiful, blond and built, Crabbe was snapped up by Hollywood where he became the king of the movie serials in the 1930s. Buster was actually the only actor who played Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in separate movie serials. Buster's main competition in the loin cloth department was fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, who found fame with the MGM Tarzan feature films. Time magazine succinctly described their differences: "From the neck down, Crabbe easily equals Weissmuller as an attraction to female audiences; from the neck up, he is a vast improvement."
Hmmm. Female audiences?
The Flash Gordon serials were easily the most popular of the decade. Running before a feature film, many kids attended the movie just to see Flash. They told the tale of Flash visiting the Planet Mongo where he confronts the evil Ming. With pretty Jean Rogers as his love interest Dale Arden, and Frank Shannon as the good doctor Zarkov, Flash Gordon was exciting, fun and sexy as hell. The real triumph of the series was the great Charles Middleton as Ming. Wearing a wonderful three pointed cape outfit he was constantly planning torments for our blonde beauty Buster Crabbe. My mother made me a Ming outfit for Halloween during that period, and seventy years later Ming's interest in the nubile young man has a whole new subtext, but we probably should not go there. Crabbe died his hair blond for Flash Gordon but he was totally self conscious about it. He kept his hat on because, he said he did not like men whistling at him!
In the 1950s Crabbe had his own TV series called Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion. Running on NBC, the show was fun and it featured Crabbe's son as Cuffy (both pictured left, in a publicity still from the show). Unlike Johnny Weissmuller, whose 1950's TV show Jungle Jim revealed a fat aging actor, Crabbe was trim and fit and every bit as sexy as he had been twenty years earlier in Flash Gordon.
Crabbe was married 50 years to the same woman and had 3 children. He died in 1983 at age 75. He was pretty much forgotten until the lousy feature film Flash Gordon, starring Playgirl model Sam J. Jones, made people seek out the original serials.
Buster Crabbe was a gorgeous hunk who gave adolescent boys more pleasure than he could ever have imagined. He was also a role model hero for many kids— gay or straight. Crabbe also brought television into my life. I will never forget gazing into that tiny little box watching a grainy serial that unfolded like a romantic dream. Indiana Jones may have re-invented the Saturday Matinee Serial but Buster Crabbe, a.k.a. Flash Gordon, was there first.