I’m pleased to announce that a short “fake nonfiction” piece of mine has been published at Defenestration, “A Literary Magazine Devoted to Humor.” “Queen Aura’s Address to the People of Planet Mongo Upon Her Coronation Day” is just what it sounds like, a speech by the erstwhile Princess of Mongo eulogizing her father, Ming the Merciless, and setting a course for her planet’s future destiny. Regular readers of Fates Worse Than Death will recognize this as an outgrowth of my interest in pulp characters and, from my review of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, my conviction that Aura is “the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.” I hope you enjoy it.
A mysterious plague is sweeping the Earth: known as the “Purple Death” because of the single purple spot it leaves on the skin of its victims, the disease is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and authorities are helpless to stop mounting panic. Professor Gordon is one of the scientists struggling to find a cure, and it is his son Flash (already a hero for saving the earth several times over) who, with Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden, discovers the culprit. A ship from Mongo is spotted high in the atmosphere, dropping the malign dust that causes the Purple Death.
Starting for the planet Mongo at once in Zarkov’s rocket ship, the trio face aerial combat with the invading ship and, feigning a crash, descend to Arboria, the home of Flash’s ally Prince Barin. Barin confirms that Emperor Ming yet lives and is undoubtedly behind the attacks on Earth, and a council of leaders who are opposed to the merciless dictator soon convenes at Barin’s palace.
The only antidote for the Death Dust is the element “polarite,” which can be found in the far Northern reaches of Frigia, represented by Queen Fria. The expedition to the icy realm is bulked out with footage from an earlier polar exploration film, White Hell of Pitz Palu; footage of downhill skiers appears in the montage that opens each chapter, leading me to expect a snowbound assault on Ming à la The Spy Who Loved Me or Inception, but it never happens. (Also, it wasn’t until I was selecting screen caps that I noticed Flash and Dale in their cold-weather gear bear a strong resemblance to Santa and Mrs. Claus.)
Although the threat of the Purple Death doesn’t take twelve chapters to resolve, it’s the inciting incident that kicks off the latest round of strikes and counter-strikes in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final serial in Universal’s epic adaptation of Alex Raymond’s popular comic strip.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its references to the events and characters of the 1936 and ’38 serials, Conquers the Universe shows just how much time has passed since the success of the first Flash Gordon. Many aspects of the production, impressive in ’36, would have seemed crude just four years later, especially with Republic’s slick, streamlined adventure serials entering the market in the mean time. The static recap cards from the earlier serials have been replaced by scrolling titles; this now-familiar format had been used in Buck Rogers (also starring Flash Gordon lead Buster Crabbe) and would appear in other serials of the 1940s (and of course was the inspiration for the similar opening crawl in the Star Wars films).
The pacing is rapid throughout, with clear but often functional dialogue that serves the plot; Flash Gordon was never about deep characterization or philosophy, but Conquers the Universe is especially plot-heavy. And while many effects look quaint to modern eyes (Mongo’s giant iguanas make an appearance, and electrical effects are frequently accomplished with zig-zag lightning bolts scratched directly onto the film), just as many impress with how effective simple devices can be, and there are enough new settings and perils that the serial doesn’t feel like a retread.
Of particular note are an assault by exploding robots (Chapter Three, “Walking Bombs”), given an uncanny mechanical gait through the magic of undercranking, and the tribe of “Rock Men” who dwell in Arboria’s “no man’s land.” (Unlike the Clay People of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the Rock Men only dress as rocks to camouflage themselves from the giant lizards.) The Rock Men speak backwards, and once Dr. Zarkov realizes that their language is the same as that of a “lost tribe” that once inhabited Earth’s Gobi Desert, he is able to communicate with them; after Flash saves the Rock King’s son from a disaster, they aid the Earthlings in their fight against Ming.
Several plot elements that were missing from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars reappear in Conquers the Universe: Ming once again hopes to make Dale his bride, and Ming’s daughter Princess Aura reappears, still happily married to Prince Barin. The cast has been shuffled–Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Dale, and both Barin and Aura are recast (by Roland Drew and Shirley Deane, respectively)–but Buster Crabbe reprises the title role, Charles Middleton returns as Ming, and Frank Shannon again plays Dr. Zarkov.
Speaking of Barin and Aura, the happy couple looks quite different from their earlier incarnations. As Barin, Drew cuts a more dashing figure than Richard Alexander: with his trim mustache and forest costume, he strongly resembles Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. As for Aura, the changes to her personality outweigh those to her appearance: instead of the scheming, morally flexible antiheroine of the 1936 serial, she is here entirely settled and content in her life in Arboria, and her reaction to being pulled back into her father’s evil machinations is passive terror and indignation. Marriage has domesticated her.
Fortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), the lack of Aura’s feminine wiliness is made up for by the introduction of Lady Sonja (Anne Gwynne), an Arborian lady-in-waiting secretly loyal to Ming. Once Sonja lures Aura to Arboria’s Red Forest to be abducted by Ming’s forces (for even he would not bomb Arboria without first making sure his daughter was safe), the treacherous lady becomes half of a villainous double act with Captain Torch (Don Rowan). Together, Torch and Sonja, along with Lieutenant Thong (tee hee), shadow Flash Gordon & co. and bedevil them in a variety of ways, carrying out missions for Ming.
Sonja doesn’t have the depth of Aura–she’s purely spiteful and untrustworthy, without even the motivation of misplaced love–but it’s worth noting the number of female characters in the Flash Gordon serials and the range of their motivations. Aside from Dale, Aura, and Sonja, there’s Queen Fria of Frigia (an uncredited Luli Deste), who expresses a hope that Flash Gordon might be convinced to lead Frigia’s armed forces, teasing a source of tension with Dale (this comes to nothing, although it may be more fleshed out in the comic strips that are the basis of the story).
In fact, Flash Gordon does a better job of female representation than the original Star Wars trilogy that it inspired: in Conquers the Universe, Dale is revealed to be an expert chemist and radio operator, a detail I don’t recall being mentioned before, but which gives her more to do than simply be kidnapped. It’s true that at least some of the women on-screen are purely eye candy, and there’s less of the emphasis on Buster Crabbe’s physique that made the 1936 serial an equal-opportunity source of titillation (like the Tarzan series, Flash Gordon in all its iterations has celebrated the body beautiful). Still, compared to the many serials I’ve watched that have only a single token woman, it’s refreshing that the population of the fantasy world of planet Mongo at least contains individuals of both sexes.
Ultimately, Ming’s greatest weakness is the number of people in his service–guards, scientists, soldiers–who are willing to turn against him. The political subtext is no more complex or subtle than before–dictators are bad–but the story emphasizes that those who take power by force and cruelty will never have the loyalty of those they conquer. Rather, they will only breed a thirst for revenge in their underlings. As always, Flash Gordon inspires trust and confidence in those he meets simply by doing the right thing.
And what about that title, anyway? Conquering isn’t really Flash’s bag. As silly as it sounds, Ming in his arrogance declares at one point, “I am the universe!” So, by the transitive property, when Flash inevitably conquers Ming . . . well, you get the idea.
But just in case you didn’t, Zarkov explains it.
What I Watched: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)
Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from Timeless Media Group
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Doom of the Dictator” (Chapter Twelve). Alliteration!
Best Cliffhanger: Another plot thread that continues from the earlier serials is Ming’s desire to have Zarkov’s scientific genius at his command. So, in Chapter Four (“The Destroyer Ray”), when Ming has Zarkov captive and the Earth scientist refuses to serve him, Ming orders his execution. A death ray slowly moves toward the chained scientist, and when Flash shows up to rescue him, he appears to be caught in it, too. What really elevates this is that Ming, surrounded by his retinue, has forced Dale (also captive) to watch the scene unfold. She begs Ming to spare them, beating on his chest with her fists, and then covers her face, unable to watch, while Ming cackles at his victims’ helplessness. “He has chosen his own death!” he sneers. This is what we watch serials for.
A Note on Costumes: Although there’s still a great deal of space opera exoticism, including long looks at the harem-like entertainments Ming has at his disposal, the costumes and sets display fewer of the ancient or near-Eastern motifs that were prominent in the earlier serials. Barin’s palace resembles a traditional European castle, with parapets and everything, and most of the male characters dress in military uniforms with braids and epaulets; except for the ray guns and space ships, Arboria might as well be Ruritania, an imagined Mitteleuropa in outer space.
Even Ming gets in on the act, assuming a high-plumed dress uniform, “now more a wicked general than Satan” in the words of Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut. One could assume that proximity to Earth has affected Ming’s tastes: although most of Ming’s pleasures are accompanied by stereotypical “Oriental” music, the soundtrack is a distinctly modern rhumba in Chapter Four, leading me to imagine Xavier Cugat and his orchestra chained to a bandstand and forced to play just off-camera. You’re a peacock, Ming. Strut, Ming, strut.
Sample Dialogue: “Seems like old times, being at war again with Ming, Zarkov.” –Flash Gordon, Chapter Two (“Freezing Torture”)
What Others Have Said: “Earth heroes have journeyed to other worlds by Crystal Door and spaceship. Our own planet has been invaded many times by alien menaces bent on dominating the Earthlings. In all these instances there have been mighty conflicts between good and evil. But after the holocaust of ray zapping and atomic blasting had settled, the audiences huddled in the safety of terran movie houses admitted one important fact: There was only one alien tyrant capable of conquering the universe, Ming the Merciless. And there was but a single hero able to defeat him–Flash Gordon.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials
That brings this summer’s serial coverage to an end. I’ll probably still have a few serial-related articles coming up, and Medleyana will continue to update on other topics, but that’s it for regular entries until next summer. Until then, thanks for reading along, and thanks for all the comments and support!
At the end of Universal’s 1936 serial Flash Gordon, Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov are bound for Earth by rocket ship after saving the planet from destruction by the invading planet Mongo and its ruthless Emperor, Ming (who was, to all appearances, burned to death in the “Tunnel of Terror,” leaving his daughter Aura and Prince Barin to rule over Mongo with a presumably gentler hand). As the 1938 sequel Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars begins, the people of Earth are still awaiting that rocket ship, which successfully lands in the first chapter. That makes Trip to Mars a direct continuation of the original serial, and in many ways it’s a sequel in all the modern senses of the word: it has most of the same cast as the first (although as Dale Arden, Jean Rogers has inexplicably let her hair return to its natural brunette during the trip from Mongo to Earth), and is in all ways bigger, with more ambitious effects, more locations, and greater length (fifteen chapters instead of thirteen). There are even some flashbacks to the 1936 serial spliced in to explain plot developments.
It’s worth noting that the practice of making sequels and series, what we now call film “franchises,” is nothing new, and wasn’t even new in 1938. Some of the long-running episodic serials like Hazards of Helen were closer to ongoing series than the closed narratives of the serials I’ve been examining here. Beginning in the silent era, popular characters such as Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, and Tarzan had proven that cinema audiences liked to catch up on the adventures of familiar characters just as much as book and magazine readers did. By the time Flash Gordon was taking his trip to Mars, the Andy Hardy series was already on its fifth installment, and it had only started the year before! Similarly, the Dead End Kids made six films for Warner Brothers between 1937 and ’39. The Blondie series, which would eventually run to twenty-eight films, also began in ’38.
No sooner have Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) and company returned to heroes’ welcomes (SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! reads my new favorite newspaper headline) when Earth suffers an attack similar to that which opened the ’36 serial. Disasters and weather events threaten the planet, this time tied to mysterious beams of light emanating from the planet Mars. Suspecting the hand of their erstwhile foe Ming, Flash and his allies (joined by a reporter who stows away on the rocket ship) take off for Mongo. However, unlike Abbott and Costello, Flash does actually end up on Mars, as the deadly beam interferes with their ship and causes them to crash on the red planet.
In a twist that will surprise no one, Ming (Charles Middleton, in fine scenery-chewing form) is on Mars, having survived the flames of the Tunnel of Terror (it’s eventually explained that he can walk through flames without injury), and he is cooperating with the Martian Queen Azura, using the beam to draw “nitron” from Earth’s atmosphere, which Azura can use as an explosive in her war against the Clay Kingdom (and without which the Earth will die, suiting Ming’s purposes nicely). Ming’s goals are conquest and revenge upon the Earthlings who thwarted him before; his previous goal of marrying Dale Arden is never mentioned.
As the events of the serial take place on Mars, there are several new settings and exotic races for Flash and company to encounter and either overcome or win to his side. The Fire People live in a gnarled forest, dressed in caveman furs and worshipping idols; loyal to Ming, they imprison Flash the first chance they get, leading him to a reunion with his old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), also a captive of the Fire People. The Martians themselves, Azura, and her palace are pure art deco space opera, equal parts Galactic Empire and Emerald City of Oz. In fact, the embrace of fantasy is even more committed here than in the first Flash Gordon serial: although there’s still a great deal of pseudoscientific rationalization with rays and “nitron” and “televisors” and so on, at some point the writers threw their hands in the air and said, “Fuck it, it’s magic.” The Glenda-like Azura is described as a “Queen of Magic,” with a white sapphire that allows her to teleport in a puff of smoke and lay curses on her enemies.
The victims of one of those curses, the Clay People, were once normal Martian men until they rebelled against Azura, and she transformed them into mud monsters, exiled to a remote cave. As the Clay King, British actor Montague Shaw delivers his lines through an immobile rubber mask, the equivalent of casting Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars and having them play Jawas. The Clay People occupy the moral middle ground that Vultan and his Hawk Men occupied in the first serial: waging war against Azura and suspicious of spies, they at first capture Flash and his friends, holding Dale hostage until Flash can bring the Queen to them and force her to undo their curse. After winning their trust, however, Flash and company find the Clay People capable allies, and they’re eventually able to help them regain their human forms.
As far as the new additions to the cast go, reporter “Happy” Hapgood (Donald Kerr) is a typical sequel misstep: the “cool” character who comes along for the ride (in this case literally) to provide comic relief and deflate the stuffiness of the proceedings, but who doesn’t add as much as he detracts. Such characters are sometimes meant to be audience surrogates, seeing with fresh eyes the wonders that the heroes take for granted. In the case of Flash Gordon, however, that isn’t really necessary, as his essentially open nature is part of the character’s appeal; he may not be impressed by the likes of Ming, but he doesn’t really do “jaded,” either. Also, Hapgood’s one-liners, delivered with “make ’em laugh” intensity and frequency, just aren’t that funny. Fortunately, after the first couple of chapters he isn’t that prominent in the serial, providing Dale some company while she’s held hostage and providing the fight scenes an extra body when rough stuff is necessary, limiting his jokes to only one or two per chapter.
On the plus side, I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for the haughty, imperious women who often turn up in the serials: think of Princess Aura, or Queen Tika from The Phantom Empire. So it will be no surprise that I enjoyed Beatrice Roberts’ performance as Azura, her eyes flashing and lip curling with amusement at the primitive Earthmen opposing her, and delivering lines like “Thus do I banish all traitors!” Of course, Azura learns what stern stuff Flash is made of, although it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t fall in love with him. Like Tika, she’s ultimately a tragic figure who realizes too late that she’s cast her lot with the wrong side. (Another connection to Tika is the presence of mustache-twirling character actor Wheeler Oakman, who played the treacherous Lord Argo in Phantom Empire. Here Oakman plays Azura’s captain of the guard Tarnak, who willingly serves Ming until he realizes that the Emperor intends to follow up destroying Earth by doing the same to Mars after it has served his purposes.)
If anything, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars sets the template for Star Wars even more clearly than the 1936 serial: there are broad similarities, shared by many serials, such as the blend of exotic locations, flashy visuals (including cutting-edge effects and immersive production design), and fast-paced action, combined with the fairy-tale clash of good and evil. The stirring music (including a version of the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) and remixing of ancient and medieval motifs with futuristic elements is also something that George Lucas would update for his space fantasy. But there are little moments, too, that stick out: the quirky music that accompanies the Clay People, for example, is echoed in the Jawas’ theme; the repeated back-and-forth as Flash and his allies return to Azura’s high-tech city for one reason or another–to destroy the “nitron lamp” that is slowly draining the Earth; to find an antidote for the “Incense of Forgetfulness”; to confront first Azura and then Ming–is one source for Luke Skywalker and the Rebels’ infiltration of the Death Star and their later raids on it (and its successor in Return of the Jedi). Flash even rescues Queen Azura from falling off a “light bridge” by swinging on a cable, a move borrowed from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and recreated by Mark Hammill with Carrie Fisher.
It all comes down to a final confrontation, and although Crabbe would return as Flash one more time in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, it appears that Ming is defeated, and Mars, like Mongo, is left in better hands. The four heroes return to Earth, and to my amusement the newspaper headline again reads SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! (I like to imagine an editor, knowing that he already struck gold once with that headline, saying to himself, “Why mess with perfection?”)
What I Watched: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938)
Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube in its entirety.
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: “The Black Sapphire of Kalu” (Chapter Eight). I usually define “good” chapter titles as having a certain punch or flair, or capturing the tone of the serial especially well, and there are several chapter titles in Trip to Mars that meet that standard. I chose this one, however, because of its specificity, a somewhat rare quality in chapter titles.
Best Cliffhanger: Just as Flash Gordon found its titular hero robbed of his memory thanks to one of Princess Aura’s schemes, so here does Flash’s paramour Dale Arden experience the “Incense of Forgetfulness” in the Temple of Kalu at the end of Chapter Ten. Convinced that she is a servant of the forest people’s god, she stabs Flash in the back when he shows up to rescue her. (Flash recovers from his wound, but only by returning to Azura’s city are Flash and Zarkov able to find an antidote so Dale can recover her memory.)
Another Note About Costumes: In my review of Undersea Kingdom, I noted the prominence of Roman-style helmet crests and other kinds of cranial plumage in the costume design. Mars appears to have a similar taste for adornment based on the uniforms of Queen Azura’s soldiers (here, Flash, disguised as a member of Azura’s Death Squadron, pretends to hold Dr. Zarkov prisoner):
And just look at this fellow on the left:
Sample Dialogue: “I’d feel a lot better if I had a parachute instead of these Martian wings!” Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), just before bailing out of a “stratosled” (Chapter Four, “Ancient Enemies”)
Bonus Sample Dialogue: “I wonder what the wife’s going to say when I get home!” –“Happy” Hapgood (Chapter Fifteen, “An Eye For an Eye”)
What Others Have Said: “We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive. They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.” —Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times
What’s Next: After the epic length (about five hours) of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, I’m going to take next week to focus on a special topic: serials cut down to feature length.
A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it. Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world. While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash. They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth. Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship. The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.
The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners. Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it. As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.
Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely. And did I mention the rays? In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course). Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming. (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.) Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.
Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani. The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.
It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now. Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land. The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.
None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more. First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part. Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off. That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness. Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).
Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role. He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural. Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases). Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.
Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous. In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history. The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so. Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb. While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter. It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”
No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men. All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor. With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives). However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.
I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy. He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original. Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall. This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.
And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?” She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash. The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part. In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.
And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured. The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.
When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick. To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense. No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.
What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)
Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube. The first chapter is here.
No. of Chapters: 13
Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)
Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels. Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right. Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion. Will he get to safety in time?
Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine
With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One
Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:
Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:
Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon? Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?
What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film
What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.
Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score. I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy. The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before. Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”
I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga. Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more. The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters). They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.
Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children. Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters. Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.
Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however). The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show). Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.
Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.
I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format). As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years. During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others. Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product. And some had never really gone away.
Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born. Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience. As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.
The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length. Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube. Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.
In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling. (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.) Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English. One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.
Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial. While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them. After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era. Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man. In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.
So much for the preliminaries. I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash Gordon. I hope you’ll join me.