Feet Of Clay
Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars
Directed by Ford Beebe
and Robert F. Hill
USA 1938 Image DVD Region 1
Okay, so... the second Flash Gordon serial is possibly the least popular (nowadays) of the three theatrically released 'franchise' serials... although it’s still pretty great, to be honest. This second serial is called Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars and I’d always believed the myth about the producers setting their sights on a return to Mongo for this and then changing their minds and going to Mars... was because Orson Welle’s popular and traumatic radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds meant Mars was on everyone’s lips again. However, it turns out that this legendary broadcast was actually about 8 months after this serial was put out so... turns out the change came due to budgetary constraints although, to be fair, I really don’t understand how the re-use of sets on Mars was any cheaper than reusing the same sets for Mongo (where that would have been more logical in a story sense, too).
It’s also much less racy in terms of the costuming here, with the bare chests of the men and bare legs of the women a thing of the past, although, that being said, there are at least three ‘bottleneck’ episodes where lengthy flashbacks from the first serial are replayed. I don’t know why you need them, to be honest, since the plot points they purport to explain do nothing of the kind and these could easily be cut with the serial running for one episode less. As it is, it’s the longest of the three serials, clocking in at a hefty 15 chapters long.
The main cast in this one are pretty much the same with Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe playing Flash, Frank Shannon as Zarkov (doing a much better and more interesting acting job in the role here than his previous turn... much more relaxed), Richard Alexander as his second and final go around as Prince Barin (who turns up half way through the serial as a kind of added ‘deux ex machina’ character) and Charles Middleton as Ming The Merciless. It does, of course, still have Jean Rogers playing Dale Arden, which is a big plus. Out of the two times she appeared in the role, this was a better written version of the character, at least for the first half of the serial before she spends most of the second half relegated to screaming and cowering once more.
There are also four important new characters in this one. We have Wheeler Oakman as Tarnack, Ming’s right hand man who is basically like a more scheming and, ultimately less loyal, version of Officer Torch from the first serial (Torch is absent from this story but returns in the third serial). Next we have serial stalwart C. Montague Shaw as the King of the Clay People. The clay people are at war with the monarchy of the planet because they were turned into... well... people of clay, doomed to live in the clay caverns and await an ally who can destroy the source of the power which robbed them of their humanity... err... martianity... and revert back to their true selves.
Another major player is reporter Happy Hapgood, played by Donald Kerr. He basically stows away on Flash and the gang’s rocket ship in the hopes of breaking a story and ends up on a round trip to Mars. He’s basically there for comic relief but he also seems to serve the dual function of getting into difficulties and falling over at the wrong minute to get them all in trouble, even more than Dale Arden (which was her principle function in the first serial, of course). I’ve always quite liked the bumbling character but he really does seem like a fifth wheel and I guess the studio thought so too because he’s only in the middle serial.
Lastly but, probably the most important, we have the chapter play’s other main villain who is, for most of the story, the dominant ally of Ming. She is Queen Azura, played by Beatrice Roberts. In the strips she was The Witch Queen Of Mongo but, well, given the location change for this adventure, she’s now Azura, the Martian Queen of Black Magic. And, yes, when they say magic they mean it. Due to the properties of a gem she wears (which can only be nullified by the presence of the Black Sapphire of Kalu), she has full on magical properties. Despite all the scientific shenanigans which the rest of the technological marvels are explained away with in the three Flash Gordon serials, this is full on embracing the co-existence of a magical force for good or evil so... yeah... it may seem like an uneasy alliance of elements but the characters don’t once question the logic of it so, neither does the audience, for the most part (the recent Wonder Woman 1984, reviewed here, has not been as successful for some audience members in pulling off the same trick, for some reason).
Now, there are a heck of a lot less things for Flash and company to explore in this one. In terms of different races, the first serial brought us Barin (and by mention only in his case, the forest people of Arboria), the Hawkmen, the Sharkmen and the Lion Men. This serial is way longer but only has the Clay Men (who live in the rocks of their cave and materialise from the walls when they want to be seen) and a forest based race (who I suspect were probably the Arborians in the first scripts, before the location change meant that they couldn’t really be). Don’t worry, we’ll meet the Arborians properly in the third serial and.. oh wait, I’ll save their dress sense for the next review.
So, yes, less people for Flash and the gang to meet and, for the longer running time, this means there is a hell of a lot of jumping from location to location and doing the usual mini quests in an effort to pad out the time. Okay, so this is standard for a serial anyway but there’s just less variety here. I should probably mention I’ve never read the strips this one is possibly based on far enough to know if this is a good adaptation of some of those or if they just did their own thing here. There are, however, some nice technical inventions, in addition to Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, which were used again for the laboratory scenes here...
So the hand held rays guns are a neat design and are held kind of cack-handed, with the wrist having to be held up more or less at a right angle to aim them at a target. It’s a distinctive way of doing things but, it seems to me, a little less practical in terms of the strain of the user having to keep his arm bent up to fire them. There are also the Martian cloaks or ‘bat wings’ which act similarly to parachutes in that, when you stretch your arms out, you can jump out of a stratosled (the new spaceship design for this serial) and glide along the currents of air to land safely on the ground. Another lovely innovation is the light bridge, which is a beam of light extended from the roof of one building to another which allows you to walk across it in safety. Finally there are the little bullet cars which rocket through a kind of secret, underground runway linking the Clay Kingdom and Queen Azura’s palace... which are used only half the time and make no sense of the times the heroes and villains choose to travel to each other via stratosled. Especially since they seem infinitely quicker. These same transports are also, of course, a main feature of the planet Saturn, as fans of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers will remember, where some of these sets and props were re-used.
Okay so, the serial is fine and, although not as good as the first, is certainly superior to many of the serials put out by the other studios. Strangely, the story starts off exactly where the last one finishes, with Flash, Dale and Zarkov returning to Earth at the end of the previous adventure (which I reviewed here). I say strangely because, although they are wearing more or less the same costumes in their rocket ship... after all, where would one be able to get a costume change on the way back to Earth... Dale Arden has gone from blonde to brunette (as the original comic strip character). So, well yeah, don’t know where she got a hairdresser during her return journey, for sure.
The chapter play does all the usual things with lots of action, wobbly sets and daring stunt work (performed by stunt people who, mostly, look nothing like the stars they are doubling). There are some surprisingly good, effective special effects (where things disintegrate by being, I suspect, iron filings moulded into shape and then de-magnetised so they fall apart... this beats most things I’ve seen done to this day) along with the usual ‘of their time’ effects. I still love the ray gun blasts with their loud bangs and ‘not quite synching up’ rays of superimposed light. Although, in one scene towards the end of the serial, Flash dodges a ray gun attack by one of Ming’s guards but the sound and visual effect are noticeably absent... as though there just wasn’t enough time or money to put that last little effect on. So it looks pretty silly, to be honest.
Actually, the last episode has a pretty dark conclusion, with Ming going somewhat power mad and Tarnack turning on him, forcing him into a disintegration chamber and, well, disintegrating him. It’s got a certain finality to it in terms of his character and, I suspect the studio weren’t planning on making a third serial because, well, they bring Ming back with no real explanation as to how he could possibly have survived in the next one. More on that in my review of the third one but at least his miracle reappearance in this one after seeing him consumed by fire in the last is explained here by highlighting his robes are somehow fireproof. This death scene is followed by a hasty conclusion where Flash and the others return to Earth and are celebrated with stock footage and their faces hastily superimposed over the shots of the crowds (in a kind of eerie pre-cursor to the character ‘sign offs’ in last year’s Avengers Endgame... reviewed by me here).
The music in this one, as usual, comes from a variety of sources such as The Invisible Man (reviewed here) and other B-pictures. Most of the stuff used in here is from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride Of Frankenstein (which I reviewed here) and it’s probably the most dominant music used in this particular serial. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessarily tracked in and I’m sure I heard some variants in a much slower tempo at one point so... I’m guessing that there was a minimal musical budget for this one (don’t forget, the Flash Gordon serials were the expensive jewels in Universal’s serial output crown) but I suspect a lot of it was re-recorded to fit some of the scenes better.
And that’s me done for a while with Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars. This would be the last time we would see Jean Rogers and Richard Alexander playing Dale Arden and Prince Barin respectively. Also the last time we’d see Priscilla Lawson playing Princess Aura (who is seen in the flashback replays from the first serial only). These characters would be filled out with different actors for the third time around... which I’ll review on here tomorrow. Hope you can make it.
Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)