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The Serials: An Introduction
by Gary Johnson -- page 3 of 5
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Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers
Flash Gordon.

Flash Gordon Arrives
In 1935 the merger of several small studios, including Mascot Pictures, resulted in Republic Pictures. And with the merger the stage was set for a new era of serials, for Republic would soon become the generally-acknowledged king of the serials.

However, it wasn't Republic that initially reawakened the public's interest. It was Universal. Universal had acquired the rights to Alex Raymond's science fiction comic strip Flash Gordon, and in 1936 they brought it to the screen, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash, Jean Rogers as Dale Arden (Flash's girlfriend, the sexiest heroine in serial history), and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless, the despotic ruler of the planet Mongo. Both Flash Gordon and its sequels, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, are filled with spark-spewing spaceships, swirling aerial dogfights, horrible fire-breathing monsters, and futuristic laboratories.

Universal spent approximately $350,000 on Flash Gordon, whereas The Phantom Empire cost about $100,000. Few other serials cost more than $150,000. In addition, Universal raided the laboratories of Dr. Frankenstein for an impressive array of electrical equipment. They lifted a giant idol from The Mummy and they borrowed Franz Waxman's music from The Bride of Frankenstein.

Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers
Flash Gordon.

Universal was also working with a comic strip at the height of its popularity. Appearing in most Sunday comic pages across the country, Flash Gordon captured the imaginations of the American public. Artist Alex Raymond (who also drew Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, and Rip Kirby) provided fantastic drawings that evoked an action-filled world of strange beasts, winged men, lustful passions, and futuristic cities. The serial actually followed the comic strip fairly closely, certainly more closely than any other serial followed its source.

Much of the success for Flash Gordon must be credited to Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers. Crabbe treated the material seriously and delivered even the silliest lines of dialogue with a rare gusto. (He must say "Steady, Dale!" at least a dozen times.) Whereas many other actors might have treated the material as beneath them and tried to distance themselves from the characters they played, Buster Crabbe threw himself into the role with never an indication that the material might be nonsense. Jean Rogers, as Flash's girlfriend Dale Arden, became one of the most endearing heroines in the history of serials, even if she had an annoying habit of passing out from fright. She certainly looked absolutely fabulous in a tight two-piece outfit that exposed her bare midriff and emphasized her breasts. Rogers was a fragile creature who the villains delighted in terrorizing. In one scene, King Vultan (before he becomes Flash's ally) threatens her with a bear. She screams and presses back against a wall, her stomach sucked in so that her ribs stick out and her breasts practically pop through her brassiere. She breathes deeper and deeper, practically hyperventilating as King Vultan closes in on her, his eyes crazed.

See Dale Arden menaced by the terrible King Vultan,
an excerpt from Flash Gordon.
(Animated GIF, 25 frames, 180 KB)

We also get plenty of scenes where Flash is imperiled. In one scene, Ming the Merciless has him thrown into a pit to fight four fanged monkey men. They promptly rip off his shirt, exposing his well-oiled biceps. Scenes such as these reveal that Universal was hoping to attract more than simply popcorn-chomping children to the theaters. And on those terms, the studio was wildly successful.

Instead of playing matinees, Flash Gordon was booked into some of the finest theaters, and audiences of all ages flocked to the engagements. With the success of Flash Gordon, the studios quickly learned that comics were fertile material for the serials, for the readers were anxious to see their heroes on the screen. Soon the serials gave us The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Buck Rogers, Batman, Ace Drummond, and many others. Radio dramas also provided promising material, and soon The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow hit the screen in serial form.

With interest at its highest level since the days of Pearl White, serials entered their golden age--especially after upstart Republic Studios, the home of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, began serial production and introduced improved production methods, effective special effects, talented composers, and the best directing team, William Witney and John English, in the history of the serial.

page 3 of 5

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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