Buster Crabbe
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Radium Age SF

Hawaiian-born athlete and actor BUSTER CRABBE (Clarence Crabbe II, 1908-83) won a bronze medal for swimming in the 1928 Olympic Games, and a gold in 1932; he was also the University of Southern California’s first All-American swimmer. In 1933, he played the title character in the serial Tarzan the Fearless; it was a lousy imitation of his pal Johnny Weissmuller’s previous portrayal of the character, but Crabbe went on to become one of the great action heroes of 1930s-40s cinema. Not only did he play the title role in the 13-part 1936 serial based on the Flash Gordon comic strip and its two sequels, but during his 100-plus film career he’d also portray Buck Rogers and (36 times!) the outlaw Billy the Kid. Flash Gordon was the first outright “sci-fi” serial; Crabbe’s vigorous, fun-to-watch but two-dimensional acting, not to mention the serial’s schlocky production values — Zarkov’s base was the watchtower from Frankenstein, the idol of the Great God Tao was the Egyptian idol from The Mummy, etc. — so horrified literate, thoughtful young science fiction authors that within a couple of years they would hijack the pulp magazine Astounding and launch sf’s anti-lowbrow Golden Age. Years later, middlebrow auteurs George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, who grew up watching Flash Gordon on TV, paid homage (the kind vice pays to virtue) to Crabbe with their Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. At 75, Crabbe died from a heart attack after tripping over a wastebasket.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Alejandro Jodorowsky and Alfred Adler.

READ MORE about members of the Partisans Generation (1904-13).



Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.