For the last several weeks, I’ve been watching the Universal “Flash Gordon” serial from 1936. I’ve seen this several times and have always enjoyed it. It’s probably my favorite serial of the ones I’ve seen.
For 13 chapters Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), girlfriend Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zharkov (Frank Shannon) battle the nefarious forces of Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who wants to rule the universe from the planet Mongo.
It’s one of the most perfectly cast serials you will ever see. Buster Crabbe, his hair dyed blonde, was born to play Flash. Jean Rogers is beyond adorable as girlfriend Dale Arden. True, she’s pretty ineffectual as a character, fainting away left and right at every opportunity and needing to be rescued by Flash, but gosh, she sure was pretty. I don’t think any movie character ever gazed as longingly and lovingly at another character as Dale does to Flash here. Her slinky costumes also must have escaped the eyes of the censors, figuring they didn’t need to bother reviewing a serial. Boy, were they wrong. Thankfully.
Charles Middleton makes a perfect Ming, willing to crush planets wherever they may be. I love the way he looks as he schemes to figure out a way how he can turn any situation to his advantage. By all accounts, Middleton was a most genial and gentle man off camera, nothing at all like the mean and dastardly villains he often played on screen. I remember reading an interview with one of his grandchildren and she remembers going to the theater to see Grandpa Charlie causing all kinds of havoc onscreen. Instead of being traumatized, they thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen, knowing that the grandfather they adored, and who doted on them in return, was just playing pretend.
Unlike so many other serials that do nothing more than alternate action scenes with chase scenes, and then with fight scenes, “Flash Gordon” offers as much footage to the romantic rivalry between Flash, Dale and Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson). Many people think Flash should have shoved the fainting, helpless Dale aside for the more alluring Aura, but not me. Aura is too aggressively odd looking, with gobs of eye makeup, and besides, did I mention how pretty Jean Rogers is?
There’s also various enemies and allies of Ming, including Prince Barin, King Thun of the Lion Men, the avuncular King Vulcan of the Hawk Men (love those wings) and the Shark Men. In one scene, Flash fights an orangopoid, which is a gorilla with a curved horn jutting out from the forehead. It’s a terrific gorilla suit, and a look at the IMDB says the orangopoid was portrayed by Ray “Crash” Corrigan. When not starring in B westerns at Republic, Corrigan owned one of the best gorilla suits in Hollywood and would rent it - with him inside it - to producers of horror, science fiction and jungle movies. I’m assuming Universal provided the curved horn. There are giant fire dragons to overcome, as well as The Mighty Masked Swordsman of Mongo.
Who’s playing King Thun of the Lion Men but James Pierce, who has earned his piece in cinematic history by playing Tarzan in the silent film “Tarzan and the Golden Lion” (1927). The man certainly had a thing for lions.
For the movie buff who grew up watching Universal horror movies, it’s fun to spot the props and sets familiar from previous movies. Isn’t the statute of the Great God Tao the same one used in the climax of “The Mummy?”(1932). There’s Flash and Dale creeping down a long, curved castle stairway, the same one from “Frankenstein.” (1931). The music cues are a compilation of classical music and familiar cues from previous scores from Universal horror films, including “Bride of Frankenstein.” (1935).
Sure the rocketships are toy models, and the fight scenes are beyond amateurish, but I enjoyed ever chapter of “Flash Gordon” (all 300 minutes!) and look forward to the sequels.
Crabbe, Rogers, Shannon and Middleton all returned for the sequel “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” (1938). I haven’t seen it since it ran on Sunday mornings on Channel 9 but I remember it being good, especially the entrance scenes of the Clay People. Unfortunately, Jean Rogers is now a brunette (boo, hiss) and is considerably more covered up. Guess the censors caught up after all.
All returned for the third and final serial, “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (1940) save for Rogers, who was getting ready to go on to bigger things at MGM. She was replaced by another brunette, Carol Hughes. I don’t remember much about it, save the costumes have changed and everyone runs around in Robin Hood-like garb. Some serial buffs think its best of the three, so I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t see how it can top the sheer fun and enjoyment of the original.