Sunday, July 11, 2010

Beefcake Buster Crabbe: Tarzan the Fearless, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon


He seemed perfect to play Tarzan...Good looking, a sexy physique, and an acclaimed Olympic sports star.  So in 1931, while working on That's My Boy (released in 1932) for ColumbiaBuster Crabbe was tested by MGM to play the Tarzan role...but was rejected!  Why was the water stud not hired?  The studio went with his fellow-Olympic athlete Johnny Weissmuller instead. 

There were lots of ideas about why Buster wasn't selected to be Tarzan, but a common theme was that Crabbe wasn't much of an actor.  In 1933 Crabbe's role in the 1933 Tarzan serial Tarzan the Fearless (which was also briefly issued as a full length movie at the time) would be the only film in which Crabbe starred as Tarzan. 

Publicity for this serialized movie emphasized Buster's having won the 1932 Olympic 400-meter freestyle swimming championship and suggested a rivalry between him and Tarzan  Johnny Weissmuller.   Yet Tarzan the Fearless was a flop (with both fans and critics) and couldn't compete with the popularity of Weissmuller's Tarzan the Ape Man (the same sexy swimmer turned actor that Buster had gone to the 1928 Olympics with).

For Buster's costume, his loin cloth was more of a tight-fitting loincloth/Speedo with a dagger tucked inside. With its animal print and high-cut leg openings, audiences were certain to notice his well-developed thighs and muscular (if rather flat) buttocks.  But with the movie a flop, the studios would need to find another way to display the assets of Buster.
The film was released as both a feature and a serial... most houses showed only the first serial episode...which wasn't exactly the hit they wished for.  Talk in Hollywood was that the sports star may have been very pretty beefcake, but not much of an actor if he couldn't do well with the limited words and grunts of the Tarzan character.  Buster would be quoted as saying:

"Some say my acting rose to the level of incompetence and then leveled off. I was a lot better actor than people gave me credit for. I didn't have any training, but I feel if I had been given the chance, I could have become a really good, top-rate actor. I didn't make it like a [Clark] Gable or [Charles] Boyer. But I wonder what would have happened if things had been different."

His performance as Tarzan in this serialized movie was more pretty beefcake than primal beast. 

He acted in 1933's King of the Jungle, 1941's Jungle Man, and the 1952 serial King of the Congo, in which Buster played generic hunky jungle roles using the Tarzan model.  The video below is from his appearance in 1933's Search for the entire clip as it includes Buster taking off his swim trunks to shower (where the shower photo below originated from).


But it would turn out that Buster didn't need the jungle to find his niche in VGMH has already covered in comparing Buster and Playgirl model Sam Jones, Crabbe could go on to become Flash Gordon (Jones also played the part).

Buster was born in 1908.  Raised in Hawaii, he excelled as a swimmer and was in two Olympic Games: 1928 in Amsterdam, where he won the bronze medal for the 1,500 meter freestyle (Johnny Weissmuller also won a gold medal there), and 1932, where Buster won the gold medal for the 400 meter freestyle.  Handsome and fit, Buster drew attention to himself at the Olympics for more than his skills in the water.  It's reported he was comfortable with the personal  interest sports fans had with him and was very relaxed with the media covering the events.
Buster next went to the University of Southern California, where he was the school's first All-American swimmer (1931) and a 1931 NCAA freestyle titlist. In 1933 he married and gave himself one year to either "make it" as an actor or else start law school.  Hollywood liked what he had to offer and things happened quickly for Buster.

Crabbe's next major role was in 1936 as Flash Gordon, where Buster traded in his tight loin cloth for a very tight pair of shorts/pants uniform. Having lost out on the Tarzan francise, while already in fantastic shape, it's reported that Buster worked out a great deal in preparation for the Flash Gordon role. This was considered a smart move on his part, as Flash would need to build an audience.  But unlike Tarzan, the non-jungle Flash character did not provide as much storyline "masculine cover" as to why he often wasn't wearing pants.  With his skintight short-shorts and bleached blonde wavey hairdo, Buster's balls may have been feeling a little whimpy.  In statements made during that time, Buster suggested being somewhat distressed when he had to dye his hair platinum blond for Flash Gordon and that he got teased for being "feminine." In his book Monsters in the closet: homosexuality and the horror film, Harry M. Benshoff wrote that Buster Crabbe "was thought so 'pretty' that he got 'wolf whistles from the guys." 

Yet Buster and the cheap Flash Gordon serial were both very successful for the studio, which meant that Crabbe would continue working in tight shorts for two more sequels (released by Universal in 1938 and 1940). The three serials combined were later shown extensively on television during the 1950's and 1960's, where "baby boom" kids maybe didn't fully understand why yet, but they knew there was something about Flash Gordon they liked. Other characters Buster acted as included Billy the Kid and Buck Rogers.

In fact, Crabbe is the only actor who played Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers.

In the mid 1950's, Crabbe went to Onchiota, New York (in the Adirondack Mountains). He renamed a defunct school there Buster Crabbe's Meenahga Lodge and advertised it as a swim camp for youngsters age 8-14. Although promised to make at least one appearance at the camp each summer, while filming Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion he supposedly needed an emergency appendectomy which prevented his attending.


Crabbe's Hollywood success declined as he aged (and those beefcake roles went to younger actors).

Buster joined a swimming pool company as Sales Vice President, for the world's first "package pool" company. He attended mall openings and fairs around the country. 

Never really retiring, he and his wife had two daughters, and at the age of 75 he died in 1983.


  1. I was watching our public broadcast station, KCET, a few months ago and they were showing an old newsreel of Buster, early 1940's, having a good time poolside in Palm Springs with some bathing beauties. He looked great and was just having a good time playing. He was kind of the George Clooney/Brad Pitt of the day. Million dollar smile.


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