Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Flash Gordon" Promotional Poster

Merry Christmas! The serial for this month is one I received for Christmas four years ago, "Flash Gordon" (1936).

The planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth. As it gets closer the Earth's atmosphere is massively disrupted. Famed athlete Flash Gordon (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) cancels his polo game and catches a plane to be with his father when the end comes.

During the plane ride Flash meets and is immediately attracted to fellow passenger Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). The storm proves to be too much for the plane and everyone has to bail out. There aren't enough parachutes for all the passengers so Flash straps one on Dale and jumps out with her, holding onto her parachute as they float to the ground.

Landing in an empty field they meet Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon). He has built a rocket to take him to Mongo so that he can try and divert it from Earth. Zarkov can't fly the ship alone and his assistant has refused to show up. Flash agrees to help Zarkov and Dale decides to go with them. Taking off quickly they arrive on Mongo and are promptly attacked by a giant lizard. A passing rocketship blasts the lizard and then lands beside the startled trio. Officer Torch (Earl Askam) alights from the ship and arrests them.

He brings his prisoners before the ruler of Mongo, Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton). Discovering that Ming can control the direction of Mongo Zarkov wastes no time in convincing Ming to not destroy the Earth. Instead he talks the monarch into conquering the planet so that Zarkov can have time to find a way to defeat the evil emperor. Impressed with Zarkov's scientific knowledge Ming puts him into a laboratory and gives the scientist everything he could want except his freedom.

Ming then turns his attention to Dale and decides to marry her. This doesn't sit too well with Flash so Ming has him thrown into the arena to fight three monkey men. After a terrific fight Flash defeats his three attackers so Ming decides to drop him through a trap door into a pit full of hungry giant lizards. Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), is really attracted to Flash and protests, but her father refuses her. Grabbing a ray gun she rushes to Flash's aid while shooting the guard at the master control panel. As the guard falls he pulls the lever to open the pit. Flash and Aura fall toward the bottom.

Wanting to save his daughter Ming has the safety net put across before they hit bottom. He sends guards to retrieve them but Aura easily eludes the guards. She hides Flash in a rocket and returns to her father. Flash finds a distinctive costume and discards his torn clothing.

Thun (James Pierce), King of the Lion Men, attacks the palace with a fleet of gyro ships. Thun is shot down where he and Flash immediately start to fight. Discovering they both are enemies of Ming the two join forces to stop Ming from marrying Dale. Making their way through one of the many underground passages Flash is attacked and almost killed by a gocko, a dragon dinosaur with lobster claws. Thun shoots it with a ray gun, saving Flash.

Flash and Thun are able to disrupt the wedding and grab Dale. Aura joins the trio and helps them escape. They get captured by shark men and taken to the underwater kingdom of King Kala (Duke York, Jr.). Kala, of course, decides to marry Dale and fights Flash for her. After losing the fight Kala has Flash thrown into a tank with an octopod.

Aura grabs another ray gun and saves Flash. She destroys a control panel causing the city to flood. When Flash refuses to leave Dale behind Aura knocks him unconscious and takes him to the surface in a sub.

Ming discovers that Dale is in the flooding city and using equipment in his lab causes the city to rise to the surface. When Flash regains consciousness he is just in time to witness the winged King Vultan (John "Tiny" Lipson) and his hawkmen spirit Dale and Thun away to the floating Sky City.

Zarkov, working in the lab, has been unsuccessful in trying to contact Earth. He meets Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) who tells the scientist that he is the true ruler of Mongo but was dethroned by Ming, who killed Barin's father. Barin says he will help Zarkov escape if the scientist agrees to help get rid of Ming. Zarkov readily agrees.

After they get away from the castle Zarkov and Barin run into Flash and Aura. When Flash tells Zarkov that Dale and Thun have been captured by Vultan they join forces and fly to attempt a rescue but are captured. Vultan puts Zarkov in a lab; decides to marry Dale; and puts Flash and Barin with Thun in the atom furnace room where they will shovel radium into the furnaces to power Sky City until they die from radiation poisoning.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest serials ever made. rumored to have cost one million dollars the actual amount was the still unheard of cost of over three hundred fifty thousand. You can seethe money on the screen with the opulent costumes of the rulers and soldiers of Mongo, death rays, and flying hawkmen. The rocketships, originally used in the film "Just Imagine" (1930), oddly enough look just like the ones in the "Flash Gordon" comic strip. Unfortunately they also look like models on a string.

What really sets "Flash Gordon" apart from other serials is that in addition to tons of action there is also plot and characterization, Chapter Nine goes by without even one fight.

Best of all is the cast that really seemed to bring Alex Raymond's drawing to life. There are some exceptions; Richard Alexander, usually cast as a dumb brute or western villain, has some obvious trouble with some of the more archaic dialogue; James Pierce's face is so covered with hair any facial expressions are lost; Jean Rogers, a good actress, is given nothing to do but look scared and scream a lot.

The plus side includes John "Tiny" Lipson doing a humorous impersonation of Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, with his hearty laugh and boisterous personality. Frank Shannon does a good job as Zarkov, even though mostly confined to various labs he is able to make his nonsensical scientific explanations sound plausible. Priscilla Lawson is an incredibly erotic presence as Princess Aura. It is a pity the the car accident caused her to end her film career so soon after filming ended.

Charles Middleton is dead on as Ming the Merciless. His narrow bony face is almost the perfect personification of evil. Middleton takes his lines and savors them for all their wicked worth. No one could enjoy it more than Middleton when he spouts, " Throw Flash Gordon into the arena for our amusement, heh heh," or "Flash Gordon may have won but he won the right to battle the sacred oragapoid, heh heh." He even gets to be funny. When Ming learns that Vultan has Dale he fears the winged monarch will marry her and quips, "He makes a habit of it."

If Middleton is the perfect villain than Larry "Buster" Crabbe must be considered the ultimate personification of a hero. It goes beyond his good looks and athletic ability. It is in his cheerful attitude when facing danger; his instantaneous defense of Dale; his silent determination to win. Most importantly it is Crabbe's ability to act. You believe it when he gets into a rocket and, without any previous experience, is able to briefly scan the control board before flying the rocket like an ace. His best scene is in Chapter Nine when Aura drugs Flash into an amnesiac state. Crabbe really looks like a man trying to remember something that just isn't there.

So successful was "Flash Gordon" that even though Universal had changed hands and changed from making horror and sci-fi oriented films to family oriented musicals with Deanna Durbin the company still produced to sequels with most of the same cast.

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