Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)

“So great had been the development of science on Earth by the 25th century that when we first rocketed through the voids of space and landed on that amazing planet, Venus, its inhabitants regarded us as superior beings…” —Buddy Deering
 
“It’s a ray gun…Flash Gordon uses one of them.”
“Yeah, what mob does he run with?” —Abbott & Costello Go To Mars

 

Perform a search and you will find it almost universally panned by critics and movie buffs alike.  Even a friend, who is an avid film buff and Abbott and Costello fan, admits that while he loved the movie as a child, watching it with adult eyes reveals it to be an inferior film.  So it would appear that during the production of the comedy duo’s first and only outing into the genre of science fiction, the stars had aligned against Universal’s Abbott and Costello.  But films are collaborative works and the companies that produce them employ composers, wardrobe designers, and production artists in addition to directors, editors, writers, and actors.  As a result, there are any number of ways to appreciate a film.

Abbot and Costello Goes to MarsNow I had not seen Abbott and Costello Go to Mars in years and while many people regard the film as weak, I still adore it and find myself charmed by its production and wardrobe design.  Its production values should impress—Universal lavished three-quarters of a million dollars on the feature.  To put this in perspective, George Pal spent half-a-million dollars on Destination Moon (1950).  One year after Pal’s effort, 20th Century Fox invested nearly one million dollars in their terrestrial sci-fi thriller, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952).  Universal’s willingness to gamble such a large budget for an effects-heavy comedy is testament to the duo’s star power.

As I took in Abbott and Costello’s vision of space flight with the best effects their budget could buy, I noticed something in the wardrobe that had previously escaped me.  That thing is the belt Lou Costello wears after arriving on Venus.  The belt is reminiscent of the studded-leather belt Buster Crabbe wears first in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and then in the twelve-part Buck Rogers serial.

Yes, it is possible someone from wardrobe happened upon a belt used in another production and reused it to save a buck, but the same person might have manufactured the belt or chosen a similar belt knowing audiences would connect Costello’s character with the heroes from those previous science-fiction serials.  While the writer references Flash Gordon openly, I wondered where is Buck Rogers? I might have left things there, but pressed on.

Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon"s Trip To Mars

Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon”s Trip To Mars

A quick search produced no one of significance – writer, director, production designer – that had any connection with both Universal’s sci-fi serials and Abbott and Costello’s sci-fi farce.  It was then I remembered Philip Nowlan and Russell Keaton’s hallucinogenic Buck Rogers strip.  Unlike the Buck Rogers daily strip, the Sunday strip focuses on Buddy Deering, who travels to Mars and meets a blonde princess named Alura. They become a couple and leave Mars to become the King and Queen of Venus.

Detail from Russell Keaton's Buck Rogers Sunday no. 90 from 1932.

Detail from Russell Keaton’s Buck Rogers Sunday no. 90 from 1932.

Likewise Abbott and Costello rocket to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, a place they understandably mistake for Mars, before traveling to Venus where they meet a beautiful, blonde queen named Allura.

Allura falls for Costello’s charms and makes him King of Venus.  Afterwards he sports both a crown like Buddy, and a studded belt like Buck.  A magnificent coincidence?  Perhaps.

It is important to remember that the syndicate responsible for the Buck Rogers strip – the Scott F. Dille Company – created pop culture’s first great merchandising machine.

The stunning Mari Blanchard as Allura. Notice how wardrobe fixed her hair to resemble vacuum tubes.

The stunning Mari Blanchard as Allura. Notice how wardrobe fixed her hair to resemble vacuum tubes.

That syndicate, in conjunction with Daisy, produced a line of ray guns that include the iconic XZ-31 Rocket Gun and the XZ-38 Disintegratior Pistol.  They even marketed Buck’s headgear and holster to compliment the guns along with lead figures, paper play sets, board games, watches, tin-toy spaceships, trading cards, and bicycles sporting 25th century design.

My Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol by Daisy (1934).

My Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol by Daisy (1934).

Not only did Buck Rogers own the years of 2419 and beyond, he owned his native 20th century too.  The full extent of Buck Rogers’ influence on American popular culture is unknowable, but his influence is profound.  And it is not a stretch of the imagination to believe Buck Rogers and the strange world he inhabits reached back through five centuries and whispered into the ears of a screenwriter and a wardrobe designer as they prepared to send Abbott and Costello into their first and only adventure across the vastness of space.

©2014 Kent Gutschke.  All rights reserved.

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