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(From Old Corral collection)
'Larry' 'Buster' Crabbe

Real name:
Clarence Linden Crabbe II

1908 - 1983

(From Old Corral collection)

(From Old Corral collection)
Having been born in 1943, I wasn't around to gauge the importance and fan appeal of Buster Crabbe and the three FLASH GORDON serials when they were in their original theatrical release.  Since there was the original chapterplay and two sequels, it appears they were popular and made money for Universal Pictures.

I do fondly remember when these were initially broadcast on TV during the early 1950s.  All my school buddies - as well as lots of gals - were fascinated by the weekly episodes and the muscular star.  And when videotapes came out, the three Flash Gordon chapterplays were among my first acquisitions.

As I mellowed and grew older, I began to wonder what happened with or to Buster Crabbe in the post FLASH GORDON (and post BUCK ROGERS) days.  He seemed to have all the equipment and talent to become one of the greatest action heroes of the silver screen, perhaps even in A features.  He was certainly a good lookin' guy with lots of muscles ... he was impressive on the screen ... and he could even deliver lines fairly well.

From 1936-1940, Crabbe did five serials at Universal, a period when that studio was going through another of their financial ups and downs.  Their B western product had suffered after Buck Jones departed.  They had tried Bob Baker, but that effort was not a success. Quality returned when Johnny Mack Brown arrived.

Columbia was also trying to find the right western combination.  Charles Starrett joined in 1935, and was doing good stuff for the studio, though it would be several years before he would become the Durango Kid.  After Ken Maynard exited Columbia in the mid 1930s, the studio tried several range riders (Jack Luden and Bob Allen) before finding "that peaceable man", 'Wild Bill' Elliott.

Republic also did some cowboy hero shuffling during the second half of the 1930s.  They developed several of their own series such as the Three Mesquiteers and the Gene Autry singing westerns.  But in the first year or so following Republic's formation, they had to buy the Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Steele products from producer A. W. Hackel (Steele and Brown's work had been previously released under Hackel's Supreme Pictures company).

All in all, it just seemed (to me) that lots of studios and production companies were searching for western heroes who could interest distributors, theater owners and Saturday matinee crowds.  Why Buster Crabbe didn't connect during this period is beyond me ... unless it was his contract with Paramount. And he was busy doing serials on a loan out arrangements to Universal.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself, so let's go back to the beginning.

Richard Arthur Norton provided some family info and birth dates: "he was born Clarence Linden Crabbe II in 1908 to Lucy Agnes McNamara (1885-1959) and Edward Clinton Simmons Crabbe I (1882-?) in Oakland, California. His father, Edward, was born in Nevada and his paternal grandfather, Clarence Linden Crabbe I (1861-1941), was born in Hawaii. Buster had a brother: Edward Clinton Simmons Crabbe II (1909-1972) who was known as "Buddy". In 1910 the family was living in a boarding house and Edward Senior was working as a real estate broker."

Rick Albright checked the census information and confirmed Crabbe's 1908 birth year and other family information: "... in the 1910 census when he was living with his parents and brother in the Smith family's boarding house (31 in the household, including four servants) at 2400 Dumont St., Berkeley, Alameda Co., California. Buster's dad was born in Nevada, and his parents were born Hawaii and California. Buster's mom was born in California, and her parents were born in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Buster's parents had been married two years in 1910 and the children (Buster and Buddy) were 2 and 1 1/12. In 1920, Buster was still living at home (age 12) with his parents and brother but in the commissioned officers' quarters at the Army's Fort Shafter, Honolulu, Oahu Is., Hawaii. This census page was very faded and difficult to read. The dad's rank was "2nd ?". The second word was not lieutenant but I could not make out just what it did say. The neighbor families were headed by a captain and a major."

Clarence Linden Crabbe was raised in Hawaii where he became a proficient swimmer. He graduated with a B. A. degree from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1931. He had thoughts about continuing his college studies and obtaining a Law degree, but that didn't happen.

His family nicknamed him 'Buster' (his brother Edward was nicknamed 'Buddy'). Crabbe set many American swimming records, and was selected for the 1928 and 1932 Olympic swimming teams.  At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he had a disappointing fourth place in the 400 meter freestyle but earned a bronze medal in the 1500 meter freestyle swimming event.  And at the 1932 games in Los Angeles, Crabbe earned a gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle and set a new world record.

In 1933, Buster and Virginia Held married, and they were together for 50 years through Crabbe's death in 1983. There were three children - son Cullen (nicknamed 'Cuffy') and daughters Susan and Caren Lynn (nicknamed 'Sande').

Hollywood noticed the new Olympic champion, and his movie career began. I'm missing some notes that I took about thirty years ago when I interviewed Crabbe.  But I recall that he signed a contract with Paramount around 1932-33. His initial films included a supporting role in THE THUNDERING HERD (Paramount, 1933) which starred a very young Randolph Scott.  And Crabbe had the lead as 'Kaspa, the Lion Man' in KING OF THE JUNGLE (Paramount, 1933).  He was loaned out to producer Sol Lesser who was the boss/owner of the Principal film production company.  With Lesser, Crabbe became 'The Lord of the Jungle' in the 1933 serial, TARZAN THE FEARLESS. Among other Sol Lesser productions were the CHANDU serial with Bela Lugosi, some of the George O'Brien westerns, and many of the later Tarzan films.  Around the same time that Crabbe was in his loin cloth, Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller was at MGM beginning his reign as the ultimate screen Tarzan.

During the mid to late 1930s at Paramount, Crabbe appeared in a hodge podge of westerns, crime dramas, comedies, collegiate sports films, etc. In one movie, he'd have a support role and in the next, he was the leading man. His best Paramount work occurred in several sagebrush adventures based on the novels of Zane Grey. The earlier Zane Greys starred Randolph Scott and Buster appeared in support. Then Crabbe was given the lead in several. Examples: he starred as Indian Chief Moya in DESERT GOLD (Paramount, 1936); and Crabbe sported a mustache for his starring role in DRIFT FENCE (Paramount, 1936) which featured Tom Keene.

Then Paramount loaned him out to Universal Pictures for a cliffhanger based on the Flash Gordon comic strip created by Alex Raymond. FLASH GORDON (1936; 13 chapters) was released in early 1936. The loan out arrangement continued with FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938; 15 chapters), RED BARRY (1938; 13 chapters), and BUCK ROGERS (1939; 12 chapters).

Circa 1939, Paramount decided not to renew Buster's contract. Conjecture on why he was released - he had become identified (typecast) doing those low budget cliffhangers ... and Paramount didn't want or need a "Flash Gordon" or "Buck Rogers" among their stable of contractees. In his book Hollywood Corral (Film Fan Monthly, 1976), the late Don Miller wrote about Buster's time at Paramount:

"Under his Paramount contract, he was given experience in all varieties of movies, bit parts and small, and perhaps that was what eventually hindered his career. For Paramount did use him, not wisely, not too well. From picture to picture, he would be Western leading man, crime-yarn heavy, Western heavy, college-boy support, Western lead, crime-heavy again, ad infinitum."

Buster re-grew his mustache to play a no-good who redeems himself in the finale of the Gene Autry COLORADO SUNSET (Republic, 1939). And then came his fifth chapterplay for Universal, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940; 12 chapters) which was released in early 1940.

In retrospect, Crabbe's Paramount work - including the westerns - were of minor import to his career (other than putting groceries on the table). The significant films were the five chapterplays at Universal, as they kept him on the silver screen for Saturday after Saturday, and year after year.

His next job was with the Billy Rose Aquacade swim show. The star was 1932 Olympic gold medal swimmer Eleanor Holm who happened to be the wife of Billy Rose. Johnny Weissmuller was featured in the 1939 show. Crabbe replaced him for the 1940 season and did performances at the 1940 New York World's Fair as well as other locales.

(Courtesy of Bruce Hickey)

While under contract to Paramount, Crabbe portrayed 'Kaspa, the Lion Man' in KING OF THE JUNGLE (Paramount, 1933). The location is the arch rock which is near the Lone Ranger Rock at the Iverson Ranch.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above is the title lobby card for THE OIL RAIDER (Mayfair, 1934) which Crabbe did 'on loan' from Paramount. The "Scott-Bennet Production" in the lower left refers to Lester F. Scott, Jr. (producing) and Spencer Gordon Bennet (directing). Earlier, Crabbe did BADGE OF HONOR (1934) for the Scott-Bennet team at Mayfair.  Note the "Courtesy of" under Buster's name to reference his Paramount status.  The Mayfair company existed from the late 1920s through mid 1930s, and Crabbe's THE OIL RAIDER was the last - or among the last - of Mayfair's films.

(Courtesy of Boyd Magers)

Above - Tom Keene and the mustached Buster Crabbe starred in DRIFT FENCE (Paramount, 1936). This lobby card is from the 1951 Favorite Films Corporation's re-release of the film. The leading lady was Cecil B. DeMille's adopted daughter Katherine DeMille (real name: Katherine Lester; 1911 - 1995) and she was married to Anthony Quinn for nearly thirty years.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above - Carol Hughes (as "Dale Arden") and Crabbe in a lobby card from the third Flash Gordon serial which was released in 1940.

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