Flash  Gordon

Universal’s Flash Gordon (1936) extended the New Deal era’s aerial emphasis. The first great air serial was Mascot’s Mystery Squadron (1932), and following the smash successes of Universal’sTailspin Tommy (1934) and its sequel Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery(1935), the studio decided to catapult the aviation cycle into outer space. Science fiction magazines had gained a strong foothold in the newstands of the early 1930s, Buck Rogers had appeared as a daily strip in 1929, and Flash Gordon (created in 1934 to compete with Buck Rogers) was just reaching its peak by 1936. 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. Universal bought the rights to Raymond’s strip and armed with a $350,000 budget aimed to make a serial to top all others.

And they did. Most of Republic Studios’ greatest serials of the 1939-42 golden age were filmed for $150,000 to $175,000. However, Universal spent approximately $350,000 on Flash Gordon. 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.

But it wasn’t just the larger budget and Alex Raymond's source material that make Flash Gordon a highpoint in chapterplay history (it actually followed the comic strip fairly closely, certainly more closely than any other serial followed its source): it was the plot’s adult content that would thrill viewers then and now.

In "Planet of Peril," Chapter One of Flash Gordon, director Frederick Stephani expands the limits of the genre through a master stroke of narrative economy. Stephani’s rapid eyeline matches give this serial the libidinous drive missing in all others. Flash (the ebulliently-earnest Larry "Buster" Crabbe), Dale Arden (the slim chested and prone-too-quickly-to-fainting Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (the strangely-Freudian-looking and Eastern-European-sounding Irishman, Frank Shannon) are all held captive before Ming the Merciless (Fu-Manchu’d despot of the Planet Mongo, Charles Middleton) and his daughter, Princess Aura (big-breasted-bad-girl Priscilla Lawson). As Ming interrogates Flash, two love triangles are quickly sketched. In the first triangle, Princess Aura gives Dale the competitive lookover. Dale looks back with pierces of anger. Aura returns Dale’s gaze with even more contempt, and then turns her attention to the offscreen Flash. Flash, slightly abashed by her stare—after all, he is a man of gentry (he plays polo!)—squints and looks away. Aura is transgressive: she openly desires Flash, and she’ll fight Dale to get him!

Flash with Princess Aura.
Aura lacks Dale’s fragile beauty and that’s what makes her much more appealing to me: she’s strong, forceful, uninhibited. And in case the sexual energy behind the eyeline matches was missed by some of the younger boys (no doubt, the film’s largest constituency), Stephani sets up a second, less subtle triangle. Ming, rising from his Shell-Oil-shaped chair, approaches Dale and openly confesses his desires: "Your eyes, your hair, your skin. I’ve never seen one like you before. Ahh, you are beautiful." He stretches twisted, gnarled fingers toward her, but before he can touch her purity, Flash leans in and intervenes. "Keep your slimy hands off her," he shouts, underlining the text’s fear of race-mixing and the privileging of the white body as status symbol and power.

Ming, the alien outsider, and Aura, the desiring female, are both transgressive figures, needing to be somehow contained by the text’s racist and sexist ideology. Ming is clearly Asian-coded in Alex Raymond’s Sunday strips—his skin is colored yellow; in the film, "Asian otherness" is implied through Ming’s appearance (the mustache, the exoticized fingers, the squinting eyes, and the Fu Manchu mustache all recall Sax Rohmer’s Asian mastermind bent on world domination), his stereotypical manner (inscrutable and deadly), and the far-eastern sounds to the names that inform his identity (Mongo, a diminutive for Mongolia; Ming, a reference to a series of imperial dynasties in China’s history). Ming’s desire for Dale and Aura’s desire for Flash spins the narrative in dynamic directions, sometimes pitting daughter against father, other times aligning them in their common lust.

Ming and Aura’s desired transgressions change the overall arc of the narrative. Initially, the plot is concerned with our heroic threesome traveling to Mongo to prevent it from colliding with Earth, but Dr. Zarkov solves that dilemma in Chapter Two! Thus, the Ming/Aura axis of desire transforms Flash’s quest. He isn’t just a square-jawed hero saving the world from a megalomaniac bent on destroying it. The plot is more concerned with Flash’s ability to protect Dale’s virtue from Ming and her life from Aura. The close of this chapter foregrounds the former conflict. Flash races through a cave tunnel to prevent the drugged Dale from marrying the lecherous Ming. As a gong tolls the approaching nuptials (thirteen being the unlucky number), Stephani crosscuts between the ceremony—an Egyptian looking affair with weird Cleopatra statuary and temple fineries (actually set design leftovers from Universal’s earlier The Mummy [1932])—and Flash trapped in the clutches of a lobster-clawed dragon!

Chapter Three solves the cliffhanger by expanding the traditional crosscut of two parallel planes of action into three. (SPOILERS ahead.) In typical serial fashion, the audience gains greater knowledge as time is extended and additional edits open up the shorter closing sequence to Chapter Two. Suddenly, a prior and previously unseen Prince Thun (a leonine-figure who would be at home in Oz) rumbles through the caves, lugging a blaster. He stuns the monster, frees Flash, and together they enter the back end of the temple, toppling a large statue/shrine, and thus disrupting the wedding.

Later, in Chapter Eight, a third triangle is added to the mix, as the portly Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), the rightful heir to Mongo—his father was killed by Ming and he himself banished—admits his love for Aura to Flash! It all happens during a crazy sword duel: Ming had guaranteed freedom and the choice of a bride to the victor, and Barin, disguised under a black hood, fights his best friend in order to win the woman he loves, or, should he lose, to meet his own death wish and be put out of his "misery." Aura further troubles the triangle by surreptitiously helping Flash fight a dreaded Orangopoid (another one of Ming’s tests—actually, a guy in a monkey suit with a rhinoceros horn on his head). Disobeying her father’s wishes, Aura attacks the creature, launching a spear into the all-too-weak white spot along its neck. This subtle form of patricide—going against the law of the father—will play out in the rest of the narrative as Aura will move from loving Flash to finally loving Barin and reforming her bad-girl ways.

But it’s not just these complex love triangles that make this such a great serial. It’s much more than that. Larry "Buster" Crabbe is wonderful as Flash Gordon. Unlike the bourbon-soaked flab of so many other serial heroes (check out Columbia’s Batman and Robin [1949] for the greater-gut look), Crabbe actually is a comics-super-hero come to life. A former Olympic swimming champion, the bare-chested, bleached-hair Crabbe is resilient, strong and vulnerable. He also possesses the star-quality of a Douglas Fairbanks: he has the athletic verve, pep, and most importantly sincerity of the earlier star. Never once is Crabbe’s tongue in his cheek, never once does he hold himself above the story’s world. Instead, Crabbe makes the fantastic real. We believe that he can fly a spaceship, we believe that the perils he fights against are real, and most importantly, we believe in him, as the embodiment of Alex Raymond’s character.

Meahwhile, 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.

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 Flash's shirt, exposing his well-oiled biceps. Scenes such as these reveal that Universal was hoping to attract more than 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.

Finally, Ralph Berger’s art direction is stunning, an appealing blend of styles: the interiors to Ming’s fortress are a combination of Asian and Egyptian architecture. The exteriors are borrowed from James Whale’s Frankenstein. The spaceships burst from the pages of Buck Rogers and Universal’s earlier SF flop Just Imagine (1930). The Atom Furnace room, where Thun, Flash and Barin are held work slaves, modifies the urban angst and alienation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1925). And all of the various monarchs are amalgams of literary history. King Kala, ruler of the shark people, resembles a New York gangster in Caligula robes. Prince Barin, with his chiseled breast plate and gleaming headgear captures the glow of a Roman warrior, and the laughing, lustful King Vultan strikes a pose somewhere between a winged Friar Tuck and the gluttony of Henry the Eighth. Flash Gordon benefits greatly from foregoing other serials’ reliance on location. The use of Universal’s soundstages combined with Berger’s art direction create a unique comic-book reality that still, sixty years later, looks great, hot, and very sexy.

While Flash Gordon is filled with sexual triangles, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is almost chaste. The difference between these two serials reflects the varied reactions to Alex Raymond's Sunday comic strip and the first Flash Gordon serial. While the comic strip and serial were phenomenally popular, a backlash began to develop. Church organizations in particular complained about the violence and the scantily-clad women--not to mention the hawkmen, who looked suspiciously like angels.

We don't know for certain if the comic strip's distributor, King Features, felt the mounting pressure and ordered Raymond to tone down the serial, but a form of self-censorship becomes apparent in the Flash Gordon comic strip panels of 1937. While Raymond's artwork reaches new heights this year (he was just 25 years old when he started Flash Gordon in 1934 and his artwork improved with each arc of the story), the story also loses much of its punch.

The same thing also happened when Universal filmed the first Flash Gordon sequel--Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. In place of the sexual shenanigans, we get a wise-cracking comic relief stowaway, Happy, a newspaper reporter who accidentally becomes part of Flash's team of heroes, and a villainess named Azura, Queen of Magic, who doesn't have a third of Princess Aura's fire and determination.

With a reduction in budget (from $350,000 for Flash Gordon vs. $175,000 for Trip to Mars), there is also a noticeable reduction in the number of creatures. While Flash Gordon has a vicious crab monster, a wrestling gorilla-like orangapoid, a sea beast called an octosac, a sacred fire dragon, and a tiger-like tigron, Trip to Mars is virtually devoid of creatures.

However, some serial lovers consider Trip to Mars superior to Flash Gordon. It's not hard to see their logic: Flash Gordon's emphasis on sex was very unusual for serials. While serials were made for adults in the silent era, they were eventually handed over to kids in the sound era. So Flash Gordon appears to be a camp-filled anomaly--whereas Trip to Mars seems … well … normal. Nor more bare midriff for Dale. No more lustful stares from Princess Aura aimed at Flash (she disappeared entirely until the next sequel). No more Ming the Merciless pawing at Dale. No more scenes where Flash's shirt gets ripped away to reveal his oiled biceps. The sequel looks much like any other respectable serial aimed at an audience of popcorn-chomping kids.

In the process of toning down the serial, much of what made Flash Gordon such a remarkable property was drained away. Trip to Mars is still a cut ahead of most all other serials, but without the jealousies and sexual desires as prime motivations, the serial's plot machinations reduce Ming to simply a power hungry tyrant. Before, he was a lust-crazed despot willing to sacrifice his own daughter in return for making Dale Arden his wife. This go round Ming attempts to extract "nitron" from Earth and he won't stop until Earth is dead. It's a rather hollow mania.

While Trip to Mars pales in comparison to Flash Gordon, it nonetheless includes several fine developments. The Clay People, for example, are one of the finest creations of the entire Flash Gordon series. The Clay People were not a creation of Alex Raymond. They were created by the Universal screenwriters. In the scene where they make their appearance, time lapse photography allows them to magically emerge from cave walls. It's a simple but highly effective trick that gets repeated several times over the next several episodes. Trip to Mars also features the effective use of an eerie forest set ruled by a race of dwarfs, the Forest People. They live in a stark environment of leafless tress with gnarled branches (although the effect is occasionally ruined by a ridiculously phony forest model used for long shots).

For fans of Jean Rogers' Dale Arden, Trip to Mars contains a surprising change. While Dale was a blonde in Flash Gordon, she appears as a brunette in Trip to Mars--without any explanation whatsoever for the change. In fact, when the serial opens, Flash, Zarkov, and Dale are still on their way back to Earth after their exploits on Mongo in Flash Gordon. However, during the flight, Dale's hair has apparently turned color. Dale was indeed a brunette in Alex Raymond's comic strip, so the change does make some sense. But her hair is also cut short. Now she looks like a library assistant. Needless to say, her fans were disappointed.

In 1939, Universal dropped Jean Rogers from their roster of up-and-coming talent. Subsequently, she signed with Twentieth Century Fox. So when Universal began production of the final Flash Gordon serial in the fall of 1939, they had to find a replacement for the role of Dale Arden. Carol Hughes won the role. When compared with the sexy Dale Arden of the first Flash Gordon serial, Hughes seem bland. But when compared with the demure Dale Arden of Trip to Mars, Hughes fares well. She's a more forceful presence than Jean Rogers--and equally beautiful.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe returned to Alex Raymond's comic strip for inspiration. It draws upon the celebrated "Ice Kingdom" story arc from the spring of 1939. The screenwriters also appropriated a character who had appeared earlier in the comic strip--Sonja. She would become the serial's requisite bad girl, following in the footsteps of Princess Aura in Flash Gordon and Azura, Queen of Magic, in Trip to Mars. While the comic strip Sonja threw herself at Flash, the serials' Sonja follows the chaste attitude of Trip to Mars. Sonja isn't interested in Flash. She's just interested in serving Ming.

Conquers the Universe also brings back two characters from the previous serials: Princess Aura and Prince Barin, who are now happily married. In the person of Priscilla Lawson in Flash Gordon, Princess Aura chased Flash unabashedly. But Anne Gwynne in Conquers the Universe is given the unenviable task of playing a colorless Princess Aura. Any fire in the eyes of the original Aura has long been replaced by blissful complacency. And while Prince Barin was played by the balding, portly (but powerful) Richard Alexander in both Flash Gordon and Trip to Mars, in Conquers the Universe, Barin suddenly loses 50 pounds and most of his muscles. In comparison to Alexander, Roland Drew's Barin looks meek and hardly capable of corralling the troublesome Aura.

While Conquers the Universe follows the pattern of Trip to Mars by eliminating creatures and utilizing ample stock spacecraft footage from Flash Gordon, it also benefits from a change of locale. For several episodes, Flash, Dale, Prince Barin, and Doctor Zarkov brave the chilly conditions of Frigia--a frozen land in Northern Mongo. This sequence provides one of the best cliffhangers of all serialdom: our heroes are caught in an avalanche as they attempt to scale a mountain. Well-integrated stock mountain-climbing film footage shows climbers being hurled down mountain slopes. Eventually two people slide over the edge of a crevasse. We hear Dale scream as they fall into the crevasse's shadowy depths. How can they survive? Of course, they do survive, but by 1939, serials were widely lying to their audiences. A fall over a crevasse in one episode becomes nothing more than a close call in the next chapter. But in Conquers the Universe the serial makers play fairly: Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and Barin do indeed fall into the crevasse and they barely escape with their lives. As the episode opens, Flash slowly rises from a bank of snow. Stunned, he shakes his head and brushes snow off his shoulders. He eventually arouses Zarkov and Dale, but Barin is seriously injured. And soon afterwards, we're given a doozy of a development as Ming sends mechanical men after our heroes. With spastic motions and foot-long fingers, the robots lurch across the frozen terrain.

In addition to the mechanical men, Conquers the Universe also features a race of men from "The Land of the Dead" who wear costumes that make them look like pointy-headed walking rocks. Unlike most serial characters, they don't speak English. They speak an obscure, strange-sounding tongue. Their speech is realized by playing their dialogue backwards. (Of course, Zarkov not only identifies the language of the Rock Men. He can speak it!)

While Conquers the Universe is generally considered the weakest of the Flash Gordon serials, I actually prefer it to Trip to Mars. Neither sequel comes close to capturing the delirious excesses of Flash Gordon, but these are superior examples of the American serial form.


Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe now make their debut on DVD in prints culled from the archives of King Features Syndicate. The DVD cover for Flash Gordon bears the sub-title "Space Soldiers," but these words appear nowhere on the print itself. This was the re-release title given the serial when it was reintroduced to theaters in the '50s. In order to differentiate the serial from the Flash Gordon television series (starring Steve Holland), King Features added the "Space Soldiers" sub-title.

Image Entertainment's DVDs contain no extras. The video transfers were not created from restored materials. Low-circulation theatrical prints were used. However, the prints were in decent condition, notwithstanding some dust and minor scratches. This is the best looking Flash Gordon to ever be released on video. (The same prints were evidently used for the Image Entertainment laserdisc release of these titles in 1996.)

Each serial chapter is presented in its entirety with chapter stops for each serial episode. Suggested retail price: $29.99. For more information, visit the Image Entertainment Web site.