Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Flash Gordon Serials (1936-1940) * * ¾

FLASH GORDON is a 1930s film serial which tells the story of three people from Earth who travel to the planet Mongo to fight the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless. It's based on a science fiction comic strip by Alex Raymond which debuted on January 7, 1934. Universal bought the rights to Raymond’s strip and with a $350,000 budget, double the normal serial budget, aimed to make a serial to top all others. It wasn’t just the larger budget that made FLASH GORDON an important part of cinema history, it was the plot’s adult content that would thrill viewers then and now.

Three serials were produced: FLASH GORDON (1936), FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938), and FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940). All starred Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, Jean Rogers as Flash's girlfriend Dale Arden, Frank Shannon as Dr. Alexis Zarkov, and Charles Middleton as the villainous Ming the Merciless of planet Mongo. At movie theaters in the 1930s one chapter or episode of a serial would be shown each week. Always the ending of each episode was unresolved with a "cliffhanger" to encourage patrons to return the next week to see the outcome. FLASH GORDON is considered "King of the Cliffhanger Serials" because it did it best.

During the 1950s, the 3 serials were shown on American TV. To avoid confusion with the FLASH GORDON television series airing at the same time, they were retitled: SPACE SOLDIERS, SPACE SOLDIERS' TRIP TO MARS, and SPACE SOLDIERS CONQUER THE UNIVERSE. And over the years the serials have been edited into quite a few "movies" with a confusing variety of titles such as FLASH GORDON: MARS ATTACKS THE WORLD and SPACESHIP TO THE UNKNOWN.

In the first entry FLASH GORDON (1936) with 13 chapters, the planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth. Internationally renowned polo player and Yale graduate Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) are enlisted by Dr. Alexis Zarkov (Frank Shannon) to save Earth from being destroyed by the runaway planet Mongo. Dr. Zarkov blasts off in a rocket ship to Mongo, with Flash and Dale as his assistants. They find that the planet is ruled by the cruel Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), who lusts after Dale and sends Flash to fight in an arena. Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), tries to spare Flash's life.

Aura helps Flash to escape as Zarkov is put to work in Ming's laboratory and Dale is prepared for her wedding to Ming. Flash meets Prince Thun (James Pierce), leader of the Lion Men, and the pair return to the palace to rescue Dale. Flash stops the wedding ceremony, but he and Dale are captured by King Kala (Duke York), ruler of the Shark Men and a loyal follower of Ming. At Ming's order, Kala forces Flash to fight with a giant octosak. Fortunately, Aura and Thun rescue Flash from the octosak.

Prince Thun: Ming is merciless and all-powerful. He can only be taken by surprise.

Trying to keep Flash away from Dale, Aura destroys the mechanisms that regulate the underwater city. Flash, Dale, Aura and Thun escape from the underwater city, but are captured by King Vultan (Jack "Tiny" Lipson) and the Hawkmen. Dr. Zarkov befriends Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), and they race to the rescue. Dale pretends to fall in love with King Vultan in order to save Flash, Barin and Thun, who are put to work in the Hawkmen's Atomic Furnaces and where they eventually create an explosion in the furnaces.

Dr. Zarkov saves the Hawkmen's city from falling, earning Flash and his friend King Vultan's gratitude. Ming insists that Flash fight a Tournament of Death against a masked opponent, and then a vicious orangopoid. Flash survives the tournament, and Ming says, "He fights well, the Earth man." Still determined to win Flash, Aura has him drugged to make him lose his memory. But Flash recovers his memory and Ming is determined to have him executed.

Zarkov invents a machine that makes Flash invisible. Flash torments Ming and his guards. Barin hides Dale in the catacombs, but Aura has her tracked by a tigron. Aura realizes the error of her ways, and falls in love with Barin. She tries to help Flash and his friends to return to Earth--but Ming plots to kill them. Ming orders that the Earth people be caught and killed, but Flash and his friends escape from the emperor's clutches. The film ends with Flash, Dale and Zarkov making a triumphant return to Earth.

Clifford Vaughn composed the original music. Ella O'Neill, Geroge H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Frederick Stephani wrote the screenplay based on Alex Raymond's comic strip. Ray Taylor and Frederick Stephani directed. Runtime is 245 minutes. The FLASH GORDON serial was also condensed into a feature-length film titled FLASH GORDON or ROCKET SHIP or SPACE SOLDIERS (TV title).

In FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938) with 15 episodes, another disaster is striking the Earth. A fictional chemical element called nitron is vanishing from the atmosphere, causing hurricanes and other meteorological disasters. Flash and Dr. Zarkov use an airplane to take measurements and discover that a ray-beam from Mars is the source of the nitron depletion. A comical newspaper journalist, Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), arrives on the scene to get the scoop, and stows away when they, together with Dale Arden, leave to investigate in Zarkov's rocket ship.

They discover that Azura (Beatrice Roberts) the Queen of Mars is working with Ming the Merciless, their enemy from Mongo, not dead as they had believed, to conquer earth. All Martians who oppose her have been turned into clay humanoids, consigned to live in a world of clay-walled caverns beneath the Martian soil. Flash, Zarkov, Dale and Happy take refuge from the Martians in one of these caverns and are captured by the Clay People, and taken to their Clay King (C. Montague Shaw). From him, they learn what is transpiring between Queen Azura and Ming, and agree to become allies and help.

Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and Hapgood fight against Azura's magic and her Martian space-force, Ming's weaponry, the treacherous Forest People, and other dangers on Mars. Finally, they win by showing Azura that Ming has been plotting behind her back to take power from her. Azura's alliance with Ming is broken, at the cost of the Queen's own life, but the Clay People are freed from their curse. And the evil emperor of Mongo, his Nitron ray destroyed and his escape cut off by the now hostile Martian forces, is finally destroyed by the accidental result of his own machinations and treachery.

Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas wrote the screenplay based on Alex Raymond's comic strip. Ford Beebe, Robert F. Hill, and Frederick Stephani directed. The runtime is 299 minutes, but a 97 minute edited movie version was also made from this serial.

In FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940) with 12 episodes, the story starts on Earth. A deadly plague has been ravaging the planet, known as the Purple Death. One of Ming's rockets is dropping purple dust into the Earth's atmosphere which leaves a purple spot on the forehead of its victims and causes instant death. Ming the Merciless is behind the plague, and Flash Gordon is sent with Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden to the planet Mongo to find the cause of the plague, as well as a cure. Caused by Ming's spaceships dropping "Death Dust" into the Earth's atmosphere, they eventually find an antidote for it and Flash and Zarkov distribute it by the same method soon after the start of the series, while Dale Arden remains in the Forest Kingdom.

Soon reunited with her, the trio continue to battle Ming, his cohorts, and his underlings. Ming's Captain Torch (Don Rowan) is the "spearpoint villain" of this serial, a type of character which the previous two did not have. He takes tactical command of the efforts to stop them. Before they leave, they destroy Ming by locking him in a tower and crashing a rocket ship into it. Prince Barin (Roland Drew) takes his rightful place as ruler of Mongo. In his rage, Ming says, "I am the universe!" for nearly his last words. Ming is finally killed in this serial, the weakest of the three. With a simple metaphor, at the end of the series Zarkov says that Flash Gordon has conquered the universe.

George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Barry Shipman wrote the screenplay based on Alex Raymond's comic strip. Ray Taylor and Ford Beebe directed. Runtime is 220 minutes. FLASH GORDON: THE PURPLE DEATH FROM OUTER SPACE is an edited movie version of this serial.

These serials are good examples of the movie serials from the 1930s. A relatively simple plot is strung out over many episodes with each episode ending in a cliffhanger. While the costuming and special effects now look very dated, we can see why this was the perfect medium for a character like Flash Gordon. The serial format allows for a much longer story than can be told in a single 2 hour movie, but the limitation of a serial is it must recap everything the audience needs to know for every episode to keep the structure of the story linear and simple. This also makes these serials perfect for children of all ages.

Where would science fiction films be today if there had been no "Flash Gordon" comic strip or movie serials? It was the first outright science fiction serial, although earlier serials had contained sci-fi elements such as gadgets. FLASH GORDON was intended to regain an adult audience for serials and was shown in "A" Theaters in large cities across the USA. Many newspapers, including some not carrying the "Flash Gordon" comic strip, printed big feature stories in their entertainment pages with Alex Raymond drawings and stills from the serial. Because of its popularity, 6 of the 14 science fiction serials were released within five years of FLASH GORDON.

Both Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers were normally brunettes. Crabbe had his hair dyed blond in order to appear more like the comic strip Flash Gordon. He was very self conscious about this and kept his hat on in public at all times, even with women present. He did not like men whistling at him. Rogers also had her hair dyed blonde, apparently to capitalise on the popularity of Jean Harlow. FLASH GORDON benefits greatly from avoiding the other serials’ reliance on location-shooting in Bronson Canyon. The use of Universal’s soundstages combined with Ralph Berger’s art direction create a unique comic book reality that many decades years later looks great.

The book "The Flash Gordon Serials 1936-1940" by Roy Kinnard, Tony Crnkovich and R.J. Vitone is a very good illustrated guide to the serials. It's the most complete filmography of FLASH GORDON serials ever, and focuses on all three of Flash's popular serials. Written with attention to detail and richly illustrated with film stills and promotional shots, this is the definitive history of the legendary series with Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers and Charles Middleton. There are interview quotations from cast members Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Caroll Borland. It features 3 appendices, filmographies for 50 of the most prominent cast members and a complete list of serials and television remakes. We learn that Charles Middleton (Ming) was paid $500 per week to act in FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS. However, he was only contracted for two weeks work. Buster Crabbe (Flash) was paid $400 per week, but worked for the entire 8 weeks of filming. There is also an overview of the serial film BUCK ROGERS (1939), also starring Buster Crabbe.

BUCK ROGERS (1939) is a Universal serial film based on the "Buck Rogers" comic strip by Philip Francis Nowlan. It stars Buster Crabbe as the heroic Buck Rogers, Constance Moore as his relatively seldom-seen romantic interest Wilma Deering, Jackie Moran as sidekick George "Buddy" Wade, and Anthony Warde as "super-racketeer" "Killer" Kane.

The story begins with Buck Rogers and Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran) in the midst of a dirigible flight over the North Pole. They are caught in a savage storm and crash--but not before they release an experimental substance called Nirvano Gas that they hope will preserve them until rescue can arrive. The Nirvano Gas works, but the dirigible is buried in an avalanche and is not found until 500 years have passed. When Buck and Buddy are found, they awaken to a world ruled by the ruthless dictator "Killer" Kane (Anthony Warde) and his army of "super-racketeers." Only those who live in the "Hidden City", run by the benevolent scientist Dr. Huer (C. Montague Shaw) and his military counterpart, Air Marshal Kragg (William Gould), resist the criminal rulers of Earth.

Buck and Buddy join the resistance, and they set out for Saturn, where they hope that they can find help in their fight against Kane. Saturn is run by Aldar (Guy Usher) and the not-so-aptly-named Council of the Wise and Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn). To the dismay of Buck and Buddy, they also discover that Kane has dispatched ambassadors of his own, headed by his loyal henchman, Captain Laska (Henry Brandon). The serial then becomes a back-and-forth struggle between Buck and Kane to secure the military support of Saturn for the struggles on Earth. Along with Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore), Buck and Buddy join in the fight to overthrow Kane with the help of Prince Tallen and his forces. They eventually win and Earth is free of Kane's grip.

Norman S. Hall, Dick Calkins, and Ray Trampe wrote the screenplay based on Philip Francis Nowlan's comic strip. Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind directed. There are 12 chapters in
BUCK ROGERS with a total runtime of 237 minutes. It's not as entertaining as FLASH GORDON, and much of the movie takes place on Buck Roger's space craft.

Some "experts" have claimed that FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS are so alike that they are virtually "interchangeable". This is not true, because they are quite different. The only real similarity is that the setting is outer space. Buster Crabbe plays a completely different character in a completely different scenario. Buck Rogers spends much of his time with teen-age"Buddy" Wade in his space craft, whereas Flash Gordon is typically with his love interest Dale Arden or Dr. Zarkov and seldom uses a rocket ship.

All three FLASH GORDON serials are available on DVD with all the episodes intact. Well-transferred to DVD, they look better than the old VHS versions. Most of the special effects are very hokey, which actually makes the films more fun to watch. They are corny and just for fun. There is plenty of suspense, both from the cliffhanger endings of the episodes and the evolution of the relationships between the characters. Several villains turn into good guys by the end. The second and third serials have good music too, including Liszt's "Les Preludes". If you are looking for high quality transfers of the FLASH GORDON series, Image Entertainment is the best. The sound is clear and images are crisp and focused. For the movie buff it is very interesting to see how the quality of sound, photography, and set designs improved every two years. The cliffhanger nature of each serial episode was an edge-of-your-seat thrill to its original audiences, and are works of pure nostalgia for us now.

The first serial has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, designated a cultural treasure for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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