Ming In The Tail
Flash Gordon (1936)
Directed by Frederick Stephani & Ray Taylor
USA 1936 Image DVD Region 1
So... I'm finally revisiting one of my favourite things.
I first saw the original Flash Gordon serial on the BBC in... it must have been the early to mid-1970s. I’m going to say 1973/74 as a guestimate so, that would have made me somewhere between five and six years old. This first one consists of 13 episodes running between around 15-25 mins each (including the usual replay of the last few minutes of the previous episode at the start of the new one, to remind the audience what dire predicament Flash or one of his 'team' had been left in at the end of the last chapter).
My father spotted it was being shown and, I believe this may have been the first time it was broadcast on television in the United Kingdom, although my dad certainly remembered seeing the serials at the cinema in the early 1940s... so they would have been either very quick re-releases or we got them a few years late over here. He always used to rave about these and also about a certain Western star when I was a kid so, when he spotted that the BBC were showing a special version of this, with the serial spliced together and run as two large parts, including a Hopalong Cassidy feature film showing bang in the middle of this wonderful, visual sandwich, there was no way we were going to miss this one.
And it was fantastic. It was one of my all time favourite things to think about, talk about and act out when I was a kid... taking its place alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, King Kong, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Planet Of The Apes, Doc Savage and, eventually, Star Wars (which really does owe its beginnings to Flash Gordon... I’ll get to that eventually, bear with me... you can read my review of that movie here). I was absolutely hooked and, I guess the screening must have proved pretty popular because, for the next 12 or so years, the BBC would televise the three Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s (and some other classic serials too), one episode a day and usually in the school holidays in the mornings (Christmas was always good) or, occasionally, at 5.40pm on BBC2 in the same time slot they used to show the Charlie Chan, The Saint, The Falcon and the 1960s Fu Manchu films in. And you can bet my whole life revolved around them when they came on. Everything would be planned around me watching the latest installment as far as the way the rest of the day would go. Everything about these things hit big with me. And remember, these were the days before video recording. So I used to have a microphone set up next to the television and everybody had to be quiet so I could sound record the show and then listen to it numerous times after because I loved it so much (I only upgraded from a VHS player to DVD player a year or two after those machines first came out because I discovered that the Flash Gordon serials were out in the US on the format... the very same discs I’m re-watching now... oh, for a Blu Ray restoration).
Now, Flash Gordon was a cartoon strip owned by King Features that was created and written by Alex Raymond. And I say created loosely because, just a few years ago, I found out that it was he who had been working for a while with Edgar Rice Burroughs to try and develop a comic strip based on John Carter of Mars. It almost came to pass when, suddenly, work on the forthcoming strip was cancelled, the Burroughs contract rejected and... not soon after, Flash Gordon burst on the scene with a cast of creatures and locales which, it could be said, bear a certain resemblance to some of the ideas in Burrough’s Barsoomian chronicles. Funnily enough, around about 15 years ago I finally read a collected reprint of the first story of the Flash Gordon newspaper strips and the travelling to and fro from various places on the globe (in this case, the globe is the planet Mongo) and meeting strange creatures while fulfilling mini quests to get to the end of the story... in other words, all of the things that you would associate with a typical 1930s -1950s theatrical serial adventure... were all inherent in that original story. Not only that... and I certainly never realised this at the time... but the first of the three serials is absolutely spot on a fairly straight adaptation of the original adventure (I can’t say the same for the other two because I never read those strips thus far). So, that threw me when I found that out... in as nice a way possible.
Olympic Bronze and Gold Medal champion swimmer Clarence Linden Crabbe II played Flash under his screen name, Larry “Buster” Crabbe. He’s the perfect Flash Gordon (still is) and out of all the cast, he seems to be one of the more natural of the actors (he’d already played Tarzan by this point and would go on to do a whole series of both Billy The Kid and Billy Carson films, not to mention a couple of other strip characters which... I’ll get to over the next few days on this blog). Starring opposite him as Dale Arden was Jean Rogers who, for me, was always the perfect Dale Arden, although she does, in this first serial at least, spend most of her time swooning or metaphorically ‘twisting her ankle’ and generally putting herself in danger so she can be rescued. She was actually a natural brunette, which would have been fine because so was the character but, Jean Harlow was big at the time so the producers wanted her to dye her hair blonde, just as they’d got ‘Buster’ Crabbe to do. In the third serial she was replaced completely by another actress (I’ll get to that when I review it).
Frank Shannon plays Dr. Zarkov and, he was always one of my favourites but, I have to say, watching it this time around he seems to be one of the more wooden of the actors in the cast, although I’m pretty sure he got a lot better as the sequels progressed. Prince Barin is played here by the somewhat portly (which was more associated with strength in those days, as opposed to obesity) Richard Alexander, who would reprise the character in the next serial but, like many of the cast members here, would be replaced by a different actor in the third). Only the actors playing Flash Gordon, Dr. Zarkov and Emperor Ming The Merciless would stay in their roles for all three serials.
We also have Jack 'Tiny' Lipson, James Pierce and Duke York playing King Vultan of the Hawk Men, Prince Thun of the Lion Men and King Kala of the Shark Men respectively. Thun’s character was given short shrift in the 1980 movie version (reviewed here) and was stabbed by Ming early in the story but he's given much more to do here. It’s pretty obvious Brian Blessed must have remembered Lipson’s performance as the constantly laughing, boisterous Vultan when he played the role... which doesn’t seem that far removed from Blessed’s personality anyway, the way he played it.
Rounding out the main cast are Charles Middleton (who appeared a few years earlier opposite the Marx Brothers in a sequence in Duck Soup) as the evil Emperor Ming and the feisty Priscilla Lawson as his daughter Princess Aura (who is even more dripping with sex appeal than the vivacious Ornella Muti was in the 1980s movie). I’ve heard that Middleton’s make up was deliberately made to resemble, to a certain extent, the look of popular book, serial and movie super villain Fu Manchu although, to be fair, if that’s the case then the comic book character also was. Priscilla Lawson is seen here in what is probably her most famous role of not very many films. She joined the armed forces in the Second World War and, I believe, lost her leg... dying from complications from an ulcer or some such in the 1950s. When the character reappears in the third serial, she not only suffers a complete personality change but she’s also played by another actress.
And it’s a real humdinger of a serial, matching the strip it’s based on with different humanoid species (as you can tell from some of the character names) and with some special effects that, while they may look quite ropey by today's standards, still look kind of beautiful in a charming 1930s kind of way. The crudity of the practical effects is, however, matched by the sleak elegance of some of the designs. And, as there are lots of different mini adventures making up the serial, the special effects team at Universal even got to reprise their startling ‘invisibility’ effects which they’d perfected for The Invisible Man movies... Flash spends the best part of two episodes as an ‘invisible agent’, attacking Ming and his soldiers when they least suspect, aided by the invisibility ray Dr. Zarkov perfects while tinkering away in the laboratory on Mongo.
Of course, there’s loads of recycling going on too. You’ll recognise sets from various Universal horror movies redressed and, of course, no scientific laboratory would be complete without using Kenneth Strickfaden’s unusual scientific inventions which did Dr. Frankenstein so proud (read my review of Frankenstein here for a quick mention of Strickfaden and be on the look out for my review of a biography on him in the New Year). There’s also the odd bit of ‘found footage’ from older productions to flesh out sequences and, well, a lot of Ming’s soldiers, not to mention Barin, are obviously outfitted by leftovers from a Roman legion picture.
Even the music is mostly recycled and I wish I knew where half of it came from. Although the re-release of this may have included some selections from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride Of Frankenstein, this first release doesn’t included those (although the two sequels certainly did). There are various classical pieces which I would love to know the names of here plus various other Universal scores jammed together in one big, quite seductive musical mash up (such as excerpts from the scores of Dracula’s Daughter, reviewed here and Werewolf Of London, reviewed here).
That being said, despite all this recycling, the Flash Gordon serials had huge budgets for their time, three times the amount normally alloted a weekly cinematic chapter play. They were the most expensive serials of their time and this really shows when you compare it to others of their ilk. Universal serials always looked better than rivals like Columbia and Republic and, these (and the Buck Rogers serial) looked even better than the other Universal serials of the time. Yes, there are a lot of clunky bits such as bizarrely miscast voice additions dubbed on to add in lines in post production and, some of the monsters look bizarrely comical (although, as a kaiju fan I still love them)... but they are completely charming and, frankly, I could watch these things over and over again.
It’s no secret that George Lucas wanted to make a big budget version of Flash Gordon in the mid 1970s and that he tried very hard to get the rights but was refused. I guess a lot of Star Wars fans owe a lot to that refusal because he wrote his own space opera along similar lines and, although Star Wars is its own thing, it’s equally a pastiche of several things found in the serials and the history of science fiction (not to mention influences from the cinema of Kurosawa and World War II dogfight pictures, along with a load of other stuff). Indeed, I can’t think of Han Solo being tortured on that static electricity machine in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here) without thinking of Flash being tortured by the electricity in the static room on Vultan’s sky city (indeed, Cloud City is pretty much Lucas’ homage to Vultan’s city). Similarly, when Flash goes up against a man in suit monster in Episode 2/3 (cliffhanger and resolution)... and changing into a young boy in long shot so the ‘giant monster’ can pick him up... I remember what a debt the Rancor in Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here) owes to this serial. More to come on these kinds of influences as I review each serial this week. Of course, the film-makers here, in turn, were also looking back to their cinematic legacy. For instance, the man working the big dial machine in the atom furnaces in Vultan’s palace was obviously inspired by the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (reviewed here).
The other thing about this is, although some of the acting is a bit wooden and some of the acting is very ‘silent melodrama’, that the on-screen chemistry between everyone is electric and it really carries it. Crabbe himself is pretty natural as the comic strip hero and you can see why he was cast in these kinds of adventures roles... being an Olympic swimmer he really looks the part and you believe he can do all this running, jumping and fighting... some of which he clearly does himself (and you certainly know it when he doesn’t). And talking about that body... you get to see a lot of it and, frankly, a lot of the actors and actresses in this. The costumes in this one show a lot of flesh and the producers were pressurised into cooling it down and providing more coverings for the various actors and actresses in the two sequels.
And... there’s lots more to say about Flash Gordon but, honestly, watch out for my reviews of the next two serials in this sequence over the next couple of days. When this was finally shown on television in America in the 1950s it became very popular and so, an American/German co-production of a Flash Gordon TV series was produced, starring Steve Holland as Flash (who readers of the 1960s/70s Bantam reprints of the Doc Savage stories will recognise as he was the ‘artists model’ for James Bama’s cover paintings). I’ve got a number of the surviving episodes of this show and, honestly, asides from not sticking to the original concept in hardly any way at all, the shows look really cheap and nasty and certainly don’t live up to the brilliance of the original serials, despite being filmed almost 20 years later. Avoid them like the plague (of sound?*) and stick with these wonderful originals. I have to say that, re-watching these again, they totally hold up and I thoroughly love them. So join me tomorrow when I review the first of the sequel serials.
*sorry, couldn’t resist a little joke to fans of the Alex Raymond branded Flash Gordon novels of the early 1970s there.
Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2
Flash Gordon (1936)
Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)
Red Barry (1938)
Buck Rogers (1939)Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)