Flash Gordon (1936)
Directed by Frederick Stephani
Produced by Henry MacRae
Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton
Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond
Say whatever you want about The Internet. It’s done all right by me so far. It’s a never ending source of delight to me that I can find and rediscover movies, books, comics and old TV shows that I thought I’d never see or experience again. But it’s all out there and thanks to the wonderful technology we now have, it’s a joy to be able to relive some of my childhood pleasures. This is one of ‘em.
Set The Wayback Machine for pre-Netflix days, Sherman. (I’m talking about the 70’s and 80’s, folks) when the only way I could see cliffhanger serials from the 30’s and 40’s was to either borrow them from the library and hope the VHS tape hadn’t been dubbed from a poor copy or wait until they were shown on PBS. Usually during the summer PBS would have a Saturday night marathon showing of “Spy Smasher” “Perils of Nyoka” “The Masked Marvel” or “Manhunt of Mystery Island” in their original form. Much more common were the edited versions of cliffhangers that Channel 9 or Channel 11 here in New York would show on Saturday afternoons. 15 chapters were edited down into 90 minutes. It gave you a good flavor of what cliffhangers were like but that was all.
But now we’ve got Netflix and it was while accidentally finding they had “King of The Rocketmen” available, I hunted up some other serials as well. Including what is probably the best known and best loved cliffhanger serial of all; FLASH GORDON starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe. The man was known as The King of The Serials due to his playing in serials arguably the three most popular comic strip heroes at that time: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Tarzan. Talk about your hat tricks.
But there’s a reason why Mr. Crabbe got to play such heroes. The cat looks like a hero. He had the genuine square chin, steely eyes and a build most guys would give ten years off their life for. But I think that Buster Crabbe’s real appeal in this serial lay in his Everyman quality. His Flash Gordon isn’t the smartest guy in the room. And he’s okay with that. He’s more than happy to let Dr. Zarkov be the brains of the outfit while he does the dirty work. He’s clever and resourceful. He’s got morals and compassion for the little guy. And when it comes to kicking ass all over Mongo, just step back and give Flash some fightin’ room.
By now, the story is legend. The planet Mongo is hurtling toward Earth on what appears to be a collision course. Earth’s weather is going crazy as well as the populace. Flash Gordon is on one of the last cross country flights as he wishes to be with his scientist father when the end comes. Also on the plane is Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). Due to the severity of the weather, Flash and Dale are forced to bail out by parachute and happen to land right near the spaceship of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) who talks them into a suicide mission to fly through space to the planet Mongo and somehow stop it from crashing into Earth.
Flash and Dale agree to go along and our intrepid heroes successfully make it to Mongo where they are promptly captured by Captain Torch (Earl Askam) who takes them to his Emperor: Ming The Merciless (Charles Middleton) who rules Mongo by fear and terror. Ming and Flash take an instant dislike to each other. However, Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) falls immediately in love with Flash and tries to save him when her daddy throws Flash in the Arena of Death with three brutal ape men. Now mind you, this is just the first chapter and I didn’t even describe half of what happens.
The next 12 chapters are a goofy blizzard of classic space opera pulp adventure as Flash and his friends are chased, captured, enslaved, escape, battle and struggle against Ming while making friends and allies with Vultan (John Lipson) King of The Hawkmen, Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) the rightful ruler of Mongo and Prince Thun (James Pierce) of The Lionmen.
First off let me say up front that you have to have a love of this kind of thing from Jump Street or at least be curious to learn more about this genre. This entire serial was made for less than a million bucks which today wouldn’t even pay for the catering for some of today’s movie. So we’re talking about production values that are downright laughable by today’s standards. The acting is nothing to brag about. But it is sincere. Buster Crabbe sells it with all his heart. When he’s up there on screen he convinces you that he’s in the deadliest of peril even while fighting the most obvious rubber octopus in the history of movies. And the rest of the cast follow suit. Especially John Lipson as Vultan who I was afraid would belly laugh himself a hernia, that’s how much he’s enjoying playing the Falstaffian King of The Hawkmen.
Jean Rogers as Dale Arden is kinda blah, even for this material. She mostly just stands around looking gorgeous in her flowing, gossamer robes. Mongo must really be hard up for women since everybody who meets Dale wants to marry her. Her contribution to the story consists of either fainting or screaming at least once every chapter. I gotta give her props, though. Not many actresses even today could give so many inflections to one line; “What have you done with Flash?” which is usually all she gets to say.
Princess Aura is much more fun to watch as she’s the real woman of action here. She’s always pulling a ray gun on someone to rescue Flash, something she does a surprising number of times. There’s even a scene where Aura tells Dale that if Dale really cared about Flash, she’d do something and not just stand there cramming her fist in her mouth to hold back yet another scream. Whenever she hears Flash has been captured yet again, Aura grabs the nearest ray gun, holds up her dress so as not to trip on her gown and runs off in her marvelously high heels to save him.
Frank Shannon is amazing as Dr. Hans Zarkov, one of the greatest Mad Scientists in fiction. There’s a scene in the spaceship that made me laugh out loud: Our Heroes are heading for Mongo when Flash asks Zarkov if he’s ever done this before. Zarkov admits that he hasn’t but he’s tested with models. “What happened to them?” Flash asks. “They never came back,” Zarkov sheepishly admits. If you watch this serial, check out the expression on Flash’s face. Priceless.
And while I’m sure that Mr. Crabbe didn’t mind having to wear shorts through the whole production, I would think Frank Shannon and Richard Alexander did since they don’t have the legs to pull that look off. At least Charles Middleton didn’t have to. He doesn’t have the fabulous wardrobe Max Von Sydow sported in the 1980 movie but he does have the sufficient gravitas to make us take Ming seriously. Flash Gordon vs Ming The Merciless is one of the most celebrated hero/villain pairings in heroic fiction and I believe it’s largely due to the work Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Middleton do in this serial as well as the two sequels. They are never less than convincing and in their best moments they make us forget the cheapness of the production.
So should you see the 1936 serial version of FLASH GORDON? It depends. Are you just looking for a casual Friday or Saturday night movie? Then go Netflix the 1980 version starring Sam J. Jones as Flash and Max Von Sydow as Ming with the absolutely kickass Queen soundtrack.
But if you consider yourself a student of pulp fiction, of heroic fiction in film, of the cliffhanger serial or of the science fiction movie genre or of just plain movies then I say that there is no way you can call yourself a student of any/all those genres and not watch the 1936 FLASH GORDON at least once. It’s the great-grandfather of 90% of filmic space opera that came after it and need I remind you that the major reason George Lucas created “Star Wars” is because he couldn’t get the rights to do FLASH GORDON, which is really what he wanted to do. If things had turned out different we might have been watching Flash Gordon, Prince Thun and Prince Barin wielding those lightsabers.
Ideally you should do it the right way and watch one chapter a week on Saturday to get the real effect of watching Saturday morning cliffhangers but I’m a greedy bastard and watched it all in one day with 15 minutes breaks in between. No, it’s not the same but I kinda think that after the first two of three chapters, you’re gonna keep watching.
Taken as a cultural artifact it is a superior example of a style of film storytelling that isn’t done anymore. As a gateway drug into pulp in general and as cliffhanger serials in particular, there are few better examples than FLASH GORDON. Load it up on Netflix and enjoy.
FLASH GORDON has no rating but be advised that it is a culturally and racially insensitive movie by our standard today. If you’re willing to overlook that and understand it was made in a less socially enlightened time, fine. If not, give it a pass.
245 minutes (13 Episodes)