Sunday, August 8, 2010

Flash Gordon (Universal serial, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the evening running the VCR to tape the first Flash Gordon serial (American Movie Classics is running all three of them, in sequence, having done the first one last night and continuing with the second and third ones tonight and tomorrow). I got to see bits of it, and it looked surprisingly good — this is the best print of the serial I’ve ever seen, and it has the original titles from the 1936 Universal release rather than the crudely printed reissue titles from King Features (the Hearst-owned syndication company that held the rights to the original comic strip, and received reissue rights to the films after a certain period) which replaced it for a 1950’s reissue. Indeed, this version looked good enough to show the surprisingly elaborate sets used in the production, and to indicate that the Universal art department actually did a pretty good job of duplicating (albeit in black-and-white instead of color) the “look” of Alex Raymond’s original art (and Raymond was enough of a “star” in the comics world that the main titles actually say, “Based on Alex Raymond’s Cartoon Strip”). — 10/29/96


Later we watched the first two episodes of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, presented here on DVD by King Features Syndicate (the Hearst subsidiary which owned the comic strip and its characters, and which regained the rights to the three Flash Gordon serials from Universal in 1951), which ran pretty much as I’d remembered them. Interestingly, while the Flash Gordon TV series had been set in the 31st century and had avoided any depiction of the earth of that time, the serials took place in the 1930’s and had Flash (Buster Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) take off in that little toy rocket ship from a recognizable earth of that period, which is threatened with annihilation when the rogue planet Mongo comes crashing through the solar system headed for an apparent collision with earth. (One of the charms of this serial was the interesting assortment of newsreel footage used to represent people panicking about their impending doom — everything from riots to scenes of Hindus praying on the Ganges.)

The serial scores in the magnificent physical production — Universal spent $300,000 on it, and the investment shows in the splendiferous sets and hundreds of extras — and the marvelous villain performance of Charles Middleton as the Emperor Ming. Where it’s weak is in the acting of the good guys: Buster Crabbe is personable and suitably butch but, quite frankly, Steve Holland made a more convincing Flash in the 1950’s TV show; Frank Shannon’s performance is a souvenir of the day in which Hollywood thought one foreign accent was as good as another (which is how Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman got to play Frenchwomen), apparently deciding that a Scottish accent was perfectly credible coming from a character named “Zarkov”; and though Jean Rogers’ performance was better than I remembered it — her wrath when she realizes she’s about to be impressed into service as the latest wife in Ming’s harem is suitably convincing — there are still all too many closeups of her staring goop-eyed as Flash as though awed into silence by his magnificence.

The best performances so far are Middleton’s and Priscilla Lawson’s as his daughter, Princess Aura — who seems to be vamping Flash and giving the impression that the writing committee (Frederick Stephani — who also directed, though claims that Ray Taylor, who did such a marvelous and unusual job with The Return of Chandu, was an uncredited co-director — George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Ella O’Neill) had seen The Mask of Fu Manchu and were copying the setup of dashing hero, imperial villain and villain’s daughter with the hots for the hero. — 7/17/10


We ran the third and fourth episodes of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial from Universal, “Captured by Shark Men” and “Battling the Sea Beast,” and what’s most interesting about this serial is that for all the money Universal spent on it ($300,000, three times the production budget of Republic’s lavish — for them — Undersea Kingdom and about eight to 10 times the normal serial budget) and for all the care they took on some of the scenes (including artfully redressing some of the sets from Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy as well as constructing some pretty elaborate new ones), there are also some really embarrassing short-cuts. The Shark Men are actually ordinary people with metal helmets (according to the plot the helmets are the mechanism by which Emperor Ming keeps them in line and prevents them from rebelling) and swim trunks, and the only connection to “sharkicity” is a few pencil-like protuberances on their backsides that are supposed to make them look “sharkish.” The “Sea Beast” is an ordinary octopus (referred to in the dialogue as an “octopod”) shown in stock footage, and its supposed battle to the death with Flash Gordon is staged surprisingly ineptly.

Even more than most serials, Flash Gordon seems to fall back on similar situations over and over again — and the plethora of underwater scenes is probably explainable as Universal’s desire to exploit Crabbe’s swimming claim to fame (he was a medalist in swimming at the 1932 Olympics — Johnny Weissmuller had been the big swimming medal winner in 1924 and 1928 and that had jump-started him to movie fame, and Crabbe and his handlers at Universal and Paramount thought he could do the same — Crabbe even got to play the juvenile male lead in a W. C. Fields movie, You’re Telling Me!, though all it took to play that sort of role — the down-to-earth young guy who wants to marry Fields’ daughter even though Fields’ snobbish wife doesn’t think he’s good enough for her — was a reasonably photogenic bod and a decent screen personality, and Crabbe had both).

I’ve seen the Flash Gordon serials before — various stations in the Bay Area used to show them, episode by episode, during the late 1970’s — and they’re appealing (many of them are scored with familiar Universal music cues — the music that accompanied the death of the Invisible Man in James Whale’s 1933 classic is heard a lot — and bits of the classics as well: among the odder parts of the Flash Gordon score are the repeated quotes from the “Dresden Amen,” the traditional Lutheran hymn used by Mendelssohn in the “Reformation” symphony and Wagner in the prelude to Parsifal) but I still think — and this is probably heresy among Flash Gordon fans — that the 1950’s TV episodes were better: the stories were at least marginally more sophisticated, the effects equal or better (despite the shoestring TV budgets) and the cast stronger: Steve Holland totally outclasses Crabbe in the looks department and he’s also a better actor within the limits of the character, and the other TV principals are also better than their opposite numbers in the serial.

If anything has kept the Flash Gordon serials in the cultural spotlight, it’s Charles Middleton’s magnificent performance as the Emperor Ming: acting the part of a megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe at a time when the real-life role models for the character — Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler — were all alive, well and at or near the peaks of their powers, Middleton turns in a full-bodied villain performance that ties Ming in with his contemporary real-life role models and projects a really formidable foe for Flash and our heroes — and the writing committee doesn’t bother to explain why Zarkov is willing and even enthusiastic about working for Ming (they haven’t had him taken over by mind control the way Republic did with the equivalent character in Undersea Kingdom). — 7/19/10


When we settled in Charles suggested we watch another episode of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial and then the 2004 movie I, Robot as a kind of science-fiction then-and-now comparison. The fifth episode of Flash Gordon was called “The Destroying Ray,” and was pretty much more of the same except that it introduced Prince Barin (Richard Alexander, a tall, hunky actor who quite frankly could give Buster Crabbe competition in the hunk department), the rightful ruler of the planet Mongo — his father was deposed by Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) and murdered, along with his mom, when Barin was still a boy, though the writing committee never bothered to tell us how Barin survived to adulthood or who raised him. Nonetheless, he’s mounted a resistance movement and he takes Flash out of the kingdom of the shark men (Ming’s allies) — and you don’t need two guesses as to what the interior of Barin’s spaceship looks like. That’s right: it’s exactly the same as the interior of Zarkov’s spaceship, built back on 1936 Earth, which took Zarkov (Frank Shannon), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Flash (Buster Crabbe) to Mongo in the first place, which also looked exactly the same as the inside of Ming’s spaceship on Mongo and the inside of the submarine owned by the shark men.

This bizarre mixture of expensive production values on one hand and typical serial cheapness on the other runs throughout this film — and the other oddity about the 1936 Flash Gordon is how Flash gets out of most of the cliffhangers not through his own efforts (he doesn’t even get to jump!) but via intervention from outside — often from Emperor Ming, who for all his vaunted mercilessness seems to have a vested interest in Flash Gordon’s survival, either because he’s hoping to use Flash against his home-grown enemies on Mongo, he’s hoping to use Dr. Zarkov’s scientific genius and protecting Flash and Dale is the price of Zarkov’s cooperation, or he’s genuinely concerned about the safety of his daughter, Princess Aura (the striking-looking Priscilla Lawson, who should have been playing the female lead!) and Aura has a crush on Flash and seems to keep popping up wherever he is, much to Dale’s jealous irritation. Flash Gordon is a marvelously produced serial but also one in which the action scenes have an oddly perfunctory air, and given that he’s supposed to be a strapping butch action hero, one would like to see Flash get himself out of more of the cliffhangers instead of relying on someone else — and the show’s principal villain, at that — to help him escape. — 7/21/10


What we ended up doing was running two more episodes of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, “Flaming Torture” (episode six) and “Shattering Doom” (episode seven), in which all the serial’s good or even remotely good people — Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), Prince Thun (James Pierce) and Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson, who so totally out-sexes and out-acts Jean Rogers one wonders why Flash remains so disinterested in her and so loyal to Dale), daughter of Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton) — end up as captives of the repulsive King Vultan (Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson — the nickname is a deliberately ironic misnomer since Vultan is actually a large bear-type with a smarmily ingratiating manner that makes it clear he thinks of himself as God’s gift to women of any planet), ruler of the Hawkmen, who captured Dale and Thun and got hold of the others by shooting down their rocket ship.

Vultan, like Ming himself, immediately got the hots for Dale the moment he first saw her, and is so insistent on her marrying him she’s probably wondering about now why she didn’t go ahead and marry Ming (who’s just as evil but considerably more charming; Middleton clearly patterned his performance on Boris Karloff’s in The Mask of Fu Manchu) in one of the previous episodes. Once again these episodes offered pretty much the same mix as those before: splendiferous sets (though the mass dance/orgy sequence at King Vultan’s court looks like a stock clip from an older film — but what older film I have no idea!), intriguing gimmicks (the cliffhanger between episodes six and seven plugs Buster Crabbe into some of the machinery Kenneth Strickfaden built for the first Frankenstein and even offers a stock clip from Frankenstein — in which the machinery is shot in a much darker, shadowier and more creative lighting style than Frederick Stephani used in the new footage — and placed between two electrodes that will kill him if he’s exposed to them long enough) and sloppy plotting that all too often makes Flash’s escapes from the cliffhangers dependent on other people saving him (for someone who’s nominally this serial’s principal villain, Emperor Ming sure gives the hero a lot of help — though that’s mainly because Princess Aura is with him often and Ming is more concerned about saving his daughter than offing Flash) rather than him using his own strength and/or resourcefulness to escape them himself.

Flash Gordon is a good serial, and the handsome production values have their own appeal — as does Priscilla Lawson, who clearly should have had more of a career than she did, even though all too many of her scenes show her trying to get rid of Dale and get Flash for herself (the writers fall back on this so often they might as well have called this Flash Gordon: The Soap Opera) — but it’s not all that imaginatively written (especially by comparison to the first Columbia Batman, which gave Middleton a sympathetic role) and the action is hardly as excitingly over-the-top as it was in the much cheaper rival serials from Republic. — 8/1/10


We managed, once Charles arrived, to squeeze in two episodes of the Flash Gordon serial from 1936, which has proven surprisingly disappointing despite its large (for a serial, and indeed at $300,000 large for a Universal project in general) budget and some good action scenes. We watched episodes eight and nine, “Tournament of Doom” and “Fighting the Fire Demon,” both of which took place in the court of King Vultan of the Hawkmen (Jack “Tiny” Lipson), who live in a “sky city” that looks like something out of Metropolis (though it could also have been an inspiration for the design of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, made three years later) that is kept floating in mid-air by a beam fed by “radium furnaces” whose design — including a huge dial with three hands that has to be maneuvered, to no apparent purpose, by a person at its control, which even more than the design of the sky city itself makes it obvious that someone connected with this production had seen Metropolis. (In fact, the parallel is so obvious Charles chuckled at every scene in which that giant gadget appeared.)

Flash (Buster Crabbe) and his friend Prince Barin (Richard Alexander, who’s older, stockier and heavier than Crabbe but also more convincingly butch), captured and forced to work as galley slaves feeding the radium furnace, escape via an electrically charged shovel Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) rigged up for them, and this causes the sky city to lose the energy that’s keeping it up until Zarkov’s replacement ray (powered by some of the cool electronic gizmos Kenneth Strickfaden built for the Frankenstein movies — instead of selling them to any one studio Strickfaden kept ownership of them and rented them out to anyone who wanted them, so they appear not only in Universal movies but in productions by Columbia and Republic as well) kicks in — Zarkov developed this ray but only on condition that Vultan release his prisoners. Then Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton) shows up and claims the prisoners for himself, and the rest of these two episodes consists of the trials by battle Ming cooks up for Flash to regain his freedom and the hand of his earthling girlfriend, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers).

First he has to fight a “masked swordsman” who turns out to be Prince Barin (tricked into this due to his own love for Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter, played by Priscilla Lawson — Aura seems to be the only woman on the planet Mongo other than Dale, who’s not a native, and the business of Barin loving Aura who loves Flash who loves Dale brings this serial awfully close to Flash Gordon: The Soap Opera). Then, when he unmasks Barin and both men refuse to continue the combat, Flash is sent into the arena to fight an “orangopoid” (Ray Corrigan, who was doing this even while over at Republic he was playing a human lead in Undersea Kingdom, a serial pretty obviously patterned on Flash Gordon and also relatively lavish in its physical production), basically an ape (or a person in an ape suit) with a unicorn-like horn stuck on the top of its head.

In episode nine, Flash gets the secret of how to kill the “orangopoid” from Princess Aura, who in turn got it from the High Priest of Mongo (Theodore Lorch) — a spot of vulnerability just below its throat, into which Flash, who was sent into combat with the thing with just a dagger, thrusts a spear Princess Aura has given him. Then, in a plot twist the writing committee evidently ripped off from Götterdämmerung (or maybe Tristan und Isolde), Aura decides to win Flash for herself by slipping him two drugs: one which will put him into a state of unconsciousness and one which will wake him up but leave him no memory of his previous life … so hopefully he’ll wake up and instantly fall in love with Aura because she’ll be the first woman he’s ever seen (or at least the first one who hasn’t been his aunt — I am making this up, you know). Only in order for this plot to work, for some reason she has to take him to a secret hideaway that can only be accessed through a tunnel guarded by the Fire Dragon. Aura is told by the High Priest that she and Flash can safely traverse the tunnel at midnight because that’s when the Fire Dragon is asleep, but — wouldn’t you know it? — the High Priest strikes the ceremonial gong that’s the Fire Dragon’s alarm clock and he gets up, ready to tear Flash limb from limb.

That’s the cliffhanger to episode nine, and if the Fire Dragon’s appearance weren’t so risible it might actually be frightening — instead he’s yet another human actor in a badly-fitting monster suit, with the creases and folds of the fabric all too visible, and with special prop gloves on the limbs that are supposed to make it look like a giant ambulatory crab. One of the frustrations of the Flash Gordon serial is that for all the money that was spent on it, and all the care taken with some aspects of the production, all too often they went for this really tacky serial cheapness; frankly, had they used the stop-motion animation technique from the 1925 Lost World and 1933 King Kong instead of making these ridiculous monster suits and casting live humans in these parts, the monsters would have been considerably more chilling and the fight scenes between them and the humans a lot more convincing. — 8/6/10


When Charles and I finally got together we screened two more episodes of the 1936 Flash Gordon — episodes 10, “The Unseen Peril,” and 11, “In the Claws of the Tigron” (in case you were wondering, the “tigron” is actually a tiger, most of whose appearances I suspect were borrowed from Clyde Beatty’s 1932 Universal film The Big Cage) — and while at least in these we got to see more women than just Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) — Aura has a lady in waiting and there are a few other females scattered around the cast — Flash Gordon remained, as before, a frustrating mixture of lavish production values and cheap serial shortcuts, brilliant visuals and stupid dialogue, vivid effects work and lousy acting (aside from Lawson and Charles Middleton as her father, the evil Emperor Ming, both of whom bring genuine power and interest to their characterizations — but then in stories like this the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes anyway). Indeed, the 1936 Flash Gordon (“based on Alex Raymond’s cartoon strip,” the opening credit proudly proclaims, billing him higher than the screenwriters or even any of the actors) seems to share both the beauties and the failings of many more recent movies based on cartoon strips or comic books, notably stunning visuals and silly plots.

The episode title “The Unseen Peril” is something of a cheat because it’s actually Flash Gordon, not any of the bad guys, who becomes invisible (courtesy of yet another one of Dr. Zarkov’s high-tech inventions) and beats up Ming’s guards until he suddenly becomes visible again in mid-fight sequence. Apparently Universal had built up such an inventory of gadgets and know-how making The Invisible Man (1933) — much of whose music score is repeatedly reused here — that they crammed the invisibility gimmick into serials like this one and The Phantom Creeps (1939) well before they made a second “Invisible Man” feature, The Invisible Man Returns (1940). The tenth episode opens with one of the nastier serial cop-outs; confronted by the Fire Dragon, awakened (via the ceremonial gong that is its alarm clock) by the High Priest of Mongo (Theodore Lorch) in league with Ming in hopes it will destroy Flash Gordon (incidentally the Fire Dragon is one of the most ridiculous-looking monsters in the whole show: he looks like Big Bird with giant crab mitts on his hands and feet), Flash is saved not by his own skills in combat but by Dr. Zarkov, who just happens to have a grenade on him that he throws at the Fire Dragon, blowing it up.

With Flash Gordon still under total memory loss from the potion Princess Aura slipped him in episode nine (bearing its origins in the potion gimmicks from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung), Ming takes the opportunity to foist him off on Princess Aura (thereby frustrating her lover, Prince Barin) so he can add Dale Arden to his harem — only Zarkov restores Flash’s memory with yet another huge electronic gizmo and so Flash once more has eyes only for Dale again. Interestingly, there are only two more episodes to go — “Trapped in the Turret” and “Rocketing to Earth” — making 13 in all, a peculiar number for a serial (usually they came, like boxing matches, in 10-, 12- or 15-round versions) — and one element that will probably become more important later is the effort of Dr. Zarkov and his fellow scientists back on Earth to establish radio communications with each other. One of the gimmicks behind this serial is that Earth is surrounded by a radioactive cloud created on Mongo and threatened with immediate destruction by it — though in the matte paintings of Earth (shown as if on a globe without the cloud cover that the real Earth, as photographed from space, always has) in these episodes the crew apparently forgot to matte in the cloud, because it’s gone and we’re left to attribute its disappearance to true serial discontinuity.

One thing I will miss when we finish watching this is a surprisingly beautiful and haunting piece of music, originally played on a saxophone and then taken up by full orchestra, that accompanies the chapter title in each opening credits sequence. The rest of the music is familiar stuff from Universal’s stock library, but this is a quite lovely and plaintive theme I don’t otherwise recognize (actually a softer, subtler rewrite of the main title theme) and which I’ve come to look forward to hearing in the credits much as I did the slow theme of the opening music to each episode of Republic’s 1937 serial Dick Tracy. — 8/7/10


Charles and I managed to finish watching the last two episodes of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, “Trapped in a Turret” and “Rocketing to Earth.” This was a good serial all in all, though it suffered from some lapses in story construction and bits of cheapness surprising in what was mostly an expensive (about $300,000, high for a serial) production with the benefit of a major-studio infrastructure. The plot in this one ends with Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton) promising, at the behest of his daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), to befriend the earth people and let them go home, only he attempts one final trap to kill them — he arrests Prince Barin and has his minions steal Barin’s spaceship and fire its built-in ray gun at Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) and King Vultan (Jack Lipson) of the Hawkmen, a species of winged humans indigenous to Mongo, as they wait to meet Barin outside a metal gate that admits one to something called a “turret” that doesn’t either look or function like the object usually suggested by that word.

The ending of episode 12 and beginning of episode 13 features one of those infamous serial “cheats” this Flash Gordon had otherwise avoided: at the end of episode 12 a well-aimed blast from the ray gun explodes the ground in front of Our Heroes, but the start of episode 13 reveals that they made it through a trap door (though not entirely unscathed by the blast) just before the ray hit. Episode 13 features Ming apparently committing suicide by “going to meet the Great God Theo” (is there any reason why the reigning deity of the planet Mongo was named after Vincent Van Gogh’s brother?) — meaning he locks himself into a chamber that appears to be open to the sky and throws himself into it (though since Ming appeared as a character in later Universal Flash Gordon serials, obviously the writing committee were able to figure out some preposterous explanation to keep him alive — which, given how Universal kept reviving their fabled monsters for film after film, was probably no particular challenge for the Universal writing department), but there’s one final thrill in which the High Priest of Theo (Theodore Lorch) plants a time bomb on board Zarkov’s spaceship as it leaves for earth and Barin, now freed and the rightful ruler of Mongo with Aura soon to be his queen, warns them by radio.

They find it incredibly quickly (well, it was the last episode and time was running out!) and Flash opens the door to the spaceship and throws the bomb out the door so it can explode harmlessly, which looks even more preposterous than it is (since as he does this we see clouds in the sky, so we’re obviously meant to assume that during this action the spaceship is still in Mongo’s airspace and therefore has access to an outside atmosphere). Flash and company arrive back on earth to a hero’s welcome (and there’s an incongruous bit of stock footage: a clip of the crowds in Paris welcoming Charles Lindbergh in 1927!) and newspapers are able to print the news that they’re returning even though, at Zarkov’s request, all electrical power has been turned off temporarily so as not to interfere with the magnetic functioning of the spacecraft.

Overall, the 1936 Flash Gordon serial is a good one, with plenty of action sequences and a handsome physical production, but the good guys’ acting ranges from mediocre to awful (at least Charles Middleton and Priscilla Lawson get to shine, and Middleton is so convincing in his quasi-Asian makeup — obviously the name and look of Ming were designed to hook into fears of the “Asian peril” — it’s a pity he never got to play Fu Manchu) and there are jarring bits of serial cheapness and sloppy and/or inconsistent plot construction to make this one as frustrating as it is entertaining. — 8/8/10