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.

Flash with Princess Aura.
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!

DVD artwork for Flash Gordon.
[click photo for larger version]

Aura lacks Dale’s fragile beauty and that’s what makes her so appealing: 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.

Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers in a publicity still for Flash Gordon.
[click photo for larger version]

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 Chapter Two 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!

See Flash Gordon menaced by a terrible crab monster,
an excerpt from Flash Gordon.
(Animated GIF, 25 frames, 140 KB)

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.

Buster Crabbe almost gets electrocuted in Flash Gordon.
[click photo for larger version]

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-vulnerable 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.

Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon.
[click photo for larger version]

Meahwhile, Jean Rogers, as Flash's girlfriend Dale Arden, is 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 looks absolutely fabulous in a tight two-piece outfit that exposes her bare midriff and emphasizes her breasts. Rogers is a fragile creature who the villains delight 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 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.

Poster artwork for Flash Gordon.
[click photo for larger version]

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 as 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 shooting (where overuse of the same terrain frequently resulted in visual monotony). The use of Universal’s soundstages combined with Berger’s art direction created a unique comic-book reality that still, sixty years later, looks great, hot, and very sexy.

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