erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Tuesday April 23, 2019

Movie Review: Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s got a great director (William Wellman), a strong if long-in-the-tooth leading man (Warner Baxter), fascinating source material (the life of Joaquin Murrieta, the likely inspiration for Zorro), and progressive attitudes about Mexicans and the discrimination they faced. For example:

Bill: Johnny and I can run into town to see a lawyer. Must be some laws around here that protects you Mexicans.

Or:

Juanita: You are not a bandit.
Joaquin: Against the Americanos, yes.
Juanita: Do not call that banditry, Joaquin. That is what they call it. I call it the only way to get back that which was ours. 

In 1936? From MGM—the most conservative of the big studios? Wow.

Shame the movie isn’t better.

10 writers
Robin Hood of El Dorado movie reviewIt’s based on a book by Walter Noble Burns, who grew up in Kentucky in the 19th century, became a journalist in Chicago in the early 20th, and wrote books about legends of the Old West after he retired from reporting : “The Saga of Billy the Kid” in 1926, “Tombstone” in 1927, and this one, “The Robin Hood of El Dorado,” in 1932, which is also the year he died.

What’s the problem with this one? Maybe all the newbie writers. Two of its three credited screenwriters never got credit for another screenplay: director Wellman (who got subsequent story credits but not screenplay credits); and actor Joseph Calleia (best known to me as Pete Menzies in “Touch of Evil“). The third credited screenwriter is Melvin Levy, a playwright who came to Hollywood, wrote B pictures, became a friendly witness during the blacklist (naming one name), then made a living off TV. His final credits were the shows I watched in the’70s: “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Charlie’s Angels.” This is his first screenwriting credit.

But they had help. IMDb lists seven uncredited screenwriters: 

  • Rowland Brown (“Angels with Dirty Faces”)
  • Peter Kyne (westerns)
  • James Kevin McGuinness ( “A Night at the Opera”)
  • Howard Emmett Rogers (“Tarzan and his Mate”)
  • Lynn Starling (“Magnificent Obsession”)
  • C. Gardner Sullivan (“All Quiet on the Western Front”)
  • Dan Totheroh (“The Count of Monte Cristo”).

One assumes they were brought in to punch things up or straighten things out. Sadly, too much of the movie remains crooked and punchless.

In the newly ceded territory of California, Joaquin is boisterous and happy as he prepares to marry his love, Rosita. Per the Hollywood tradition, even though the male half of the romance is played by an Anglo, the female half can go native: here, one-named Mexican actress Margo. Per another Hollywood tradition, there’s a bit of an age gap. Gap? It’s a canyon. Baxter 47, Margo 19.

Several things happen at the wedding. An American rep shows up, someone throws a knife, Joaquin takes the blame, and so he’s banished by his rich father-in-law. Also gold is discovered at Seder’s Mill. Cue montage of everyone running toward gold.

Not Joaquin. He’s a happy farmer. But some nearby prospectors resent him—and covet his wife—and one night they show up like Trumpsters, demanding he leave.

Joaquin: Who are you to tell me this?
Prospector: We’re good American citizens, that’s who we are! And that’s who you ain’t!

He’s knocked out and comes to with the help of the two good Anglos in the movie, Bill and Johnnie (Bruce Cabot and Eric Linden), then finds his wife on the bed—dead. The real Rosita was supposed raped, and this is as close to that suggestion as the Hays Office would probably allow back then. I was surprised it allowed this much, to be honest.

His revenge against the men is quick, lethal but still honorable (with one, he makes it a fair draw), and he dismisses a grimy, admiring Mexican outlaw Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carrol Naish, Hollywood’s go-to white actor for non-white roles), although the outlaw remains admiring: “There goes a man,” he tells his compadres—a line right out of “The Right Stuff.”

I thought of another movie—just can’t figure out which—as his rise as an outlaw is seen via the price on his head: $500, $1,000, $3500. Tops out at $5k. It’s a good shorthand. His last go at a respectable life ends when he’s whipped and his brother killed by more asshole Anglos. He teams up with Three-Fingered Jack and they set up camps with happy-go-lucky Mexicans, who dance, sing, and perform horse stunts. It’s like Sherwood Forest in California.

Second half blues
Overall, though, there’s really not much Robin Hood in “Robin Hood of El Dorado.” At one point, he tries to rob from rich Mexicans, the hacendados, only to be told by another fiery woman, Juanita (Ann Loring), that they’ve all suffered. She becomes his love interest, joining the rebels, but there’s not much drama in the second half. There’s no Prince John-type villain, either. The main drama is that they accidentally kill the bride-to-be of Johnnie in a stagecoach robbery, turning the two good Anglos against Joaquin, whose men are trapped and slaughtered in Hidden Valley. Joaquin, wounded, manages to escape long enough to reach the grave of Rosita, where he repeats her final words:

I am cold. It’s growing dark. Put your arms around me.

That’s not a bad end but doesn’t make up for the lack of drama in the second half. Imagine a Robin Hood movie in which Will Scarlet’s bride is killed, he blames Robin, and leads a team of soldiers into Sherwood Forest to slaughter them all. That’s kinda this. 

But it cries to be remade. We deserve a good Joaquin Murrieta biopic. Or he does.

SLIDESHOW


  • ”Robin Hood of El Dorado“ was written and adapted in a time of progressive populism. Maybe it should be remade now in a time of regressive and xenophobic populism? 

  • A sop for the mostly white audience. ”Not you guys; the bad ones.“

  • These guys. 19th-century Trumpsters demanding the Mexican get out of ”their“ country.  

  • During the whipping. 

  • Love this shorthand for the outlaws taking over California, including that little pueblo in the south. 

  • A hero to the people. Great shot, Wild Bill. 

  • Early rock concert. 

  • The good Anglo, Bruce Cabot of ”King Kong“ fame, looks, here, a bit like Edward Albert in the early ‘70s.

  • The second-half love interest. Ann Loring was good in her first screen role, with dazzling eyes, but only has five listed credits. Anyone know what happened? 

  • The slaughter. Imagine this in Sherwood Forest. 

  • Making it back to Rosita. ”It’s growing dark." And will grow darker. *FIN*
Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted at 07:43 AM on Apr 23, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday March 27, 2019

Movie Review: Girls Can Play (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The title doesn’t lie.

The girls are two actresses—Julie Bishop (going by her period stage name Jacqueline Wells) and Rita Hayworth (shortly after she Anglicized it from Margarita Cansino)—along with some obvious ringers from a women’s softball/baseball team. The actresses aren't bad but the ringers are great. They field, throw, catch and hit; they go ’round the horn like pros. Sadly, they get no cred. They‘re not named in the credits, on IMDb, on Wiki, anywhere. Anyone know anything? 

At under an hour, “Girls Can Play” is hardly a feature. Indeed, in the Berkeley Daily Gazette from Oct. 1937, the movie is listed as second-billed to Columbia’s forgotten, and un-starred, “Outlaws of the Orient.” That’s how unimportant it was. 

At the same time, it packs a story into that small space. Not a great story, but a story.

Rita Hayworth and the shank redemption
Girls Can Play movie reviewI like the roundabout way it starts. A Hollywood photographer is hiring a secretary who can also double as a model, and so, as the ad says, she needs to be pretty. A local newspaper editor (Joseph Crehan, chomping cigars) sees the ad and sends sports reporter Jimmy Jones (Charles Quigley), who longs to be a crime reporter, to get a human interest angle on one of the girls. From the long line, he choose Ann Casey (Bishop), who’s reluctant to talk, and immune to his B-movie charms; but she winds up spilling her story to him over lunch at one of those ’30s drug stores that has a soda fountain and everything.

She’s from the Midwest, used to be a sports star, and oddly carries around an album of her sports clippings even though she’s trying to give it up for frilly girls stuff. That’s why she’s going out for the secretary/model job ... which she doesn’t get. The girl Jones hired to stand in for her (so he could take her to lunch) gets the job. She blames Jones.

Reluctantly at first, she winds up pitching for the drug store’s women’s softball team—New Deal Drug Company: “Whatever it is we sell it for less”—which includes Sue Collins (Hayworth) and Peanuts O’Malley (Patricia Farr), the latter of which is in the film’s publicity shots, but is introduced here only to vanish. The owner of the drug company, and Hayworth’s main squeeze, is a former bootlegger named Foy Harris (John Gallaudet, looking a bit like Elisha Cook Jr.’s older brother). Jimmy Jones thinks he’s still in the rackets, but Jones’ crabby editor doesn’t want to hear about it; so Jones teams up with the a local cop, Lt. Flannigan (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who could be a tall, meatier version of George W. Bush), to get to the bottom of things.

A torn-up telegram and a murder by a woman in gray are among the mysteries—though the murder isn’t that mysterious (we know it’s Foy in drag) and the torn-up telegram hardly factors (it doesn’t say anything we don’t already know). For comic relief, we have Jones’ photog, who attracts errant throws, and an umpire (William Irving), who stutters. At one point, with two strikes, Casey throws one down the pike and the ump begins “Buh-buh....” Sue objects until the ump finishes: “Buh-buh-batter out!” Like that.

There's a good recurring bit. Behind the plate, Sue dries her throwing hand in the dirt then wipes the dirt on the ump's pants leg—to his fussy objections. But this is Hayworth, remember, so I'm sure the actor didn't mind.

Quigley down under
Hayworth is the standout here, but two-thirds through she’s killed by Foy for the usual reasons: She knows too much. The cops and Jones figure it out, Foy in drag tries to skip town with a gun on Casey; but a flying tackle from Jones stops him, and we get our quick happy end: in suburbia, a handyman paints “Mr. and Mrs. James Jones” on a mailbox (did anyone ever really do that?) as the former leaves for work as a crime reporter and the latter throws one last pitch—with a newspaper—at his head. 

It’s not exactly “A League of Their Own,” but the softball scenes are good. According to IMDb, it was one of five Columbia quickies Hayworth and Quigley made together in ’37 and ’38. A few years after that, Hayworth was one of the top pinup girls of WWII while Quigley ... was he at war? In 1941, he was in seven pictures, usually in a starring role. Then from ’42 to ’45 he was in just six, and most were bit parts or uncredited. But there’s not much more info I can find on him.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted at 06:10 AM on Mar 27, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Monday March 04, 2019

Movie Review: Great Guy (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A few reasons why “Great Guy,” a mostly forgotten James Cagney film, is notable.  

Its protagonist, Johnny Cave (Cagney), works for the Bureau of Weights and Measures. Think on that for a moment. What would the modern equivalent be? A hero from, say, the Food Safety and Inspection Service? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office? And how cool would this be, by the way, to have such cinematic heroes? C’mon, Hollywood: Not everyone has to be a cop.

Great Guy movie reviewIt’s also one the movies Cagney made during a contract dispute with Warner Bros. Back in 1930, he’d signed a 40-week deal but somehow, after he became a star, the contract kept going into perpetuity—like the reserve clause in Major League Baseball—which meant he was overpaid for a few weeks and underpaid ever after. In the mid-1930s, he split and made two movies for “poverty row” studio Grand National Pictures. This was the first. Neither did well and they helped sink the studio.

It’s also Cagney’s third and final go-round with Mae Clark. Maybe more notable: no grapefruit in the face (“The Public Enemy”) or dragging her across the floor by her hair (“Lady Killer”). Just a few hat jokes.

It’s just not notable as a movie.

Henry, Henry, Harry or James?
Here’s the plot: After Johnny Cave’s boss, Joel Green (Wallis Clark), is put in the hospital by corrupt ward boss Marty Cavanaugh (Robert Gleckler), Cave becomes the acting head of Weights & Measure. He then shows the ropes to his newest agent, and comic-relief Irishman, Pat Haley (James Burke), by catching chiselers adding weight to chickens and strawberries and the like at a local market. He does the same at a gas station. Then Cavanaugh shows up at Cave’s office and tries to make a deal. He tosses some of Cave’s pennies out the window to make a point, so Cave tosses Cavanaugh’s hat out the window to make the opposite point: Buzz off.

Since this is exactly what Green warned him about—Cavanaugh trying to bribe him—Cave should be on his toes. He isn’t. Without a struggle, he’s kidnapped by two of Cavanaugh’s men who then frame him for drunk driving and reckless endangerment. After that, he should definitely be on his toes, but no: He gets suckered again. In a back stairwell, a former wrestler, Joe Burton (Joe Sawyer), knocks him out and steals evidence against Abel Canning (Henry Kolker), who’s not only the head man but the boss of Cave’s fiancée, Janet (Clark). Luckily, Burton tries to chisel the chiselers—demanding an extra $5k rather than destroying the evidence. In the end, Cave and the cops finally get the goods on Canning and Cavanaugh. As for the mayor who tried to bribe Cave earlier with a sinecure? Who knows? All we know is Cave pushes the cops out of Burton’s room so he can beat up Cavanaugh. The End.

Yeah, kind of a mess. Kind of episodic. But there’s a reason.

The movie is based on three short stories by James Edward Grant that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933 and ’34. Each story is self-contained. Each has its specific villain. 

  • “Full Measure” (June ’33) is the Cavanaugh story. He tries to threaten/bribe Cave, then kidnaps and frames him for armed robbery. At the police station, Cavanaugh tries to strongarm Cave again; except Joel Green is there to tape-record the bribe. Cave then shoves the cops out of the holding area to beat up Cavanaugh.
  • “Johnny Cave Goes Subtle” (March’34) is the Joe Burton one. Cave is now acting head of the dept. (Green is in the hospital from health reasons), and the villain is a coal magnate named Anson B. Revell, who hires Burton to steal Cave’s evidence. After getting beat up in the stairwell, Cave fingers Burton in the police mugshot book. Cave then frames Burton with counterfeit dough, Burton confesses, Cave confesses the money wasn’t counterfeit, then he beats up Burton in the police holding area.
  • In “Larceny on the Right” (Sept. ’34), Cave is now head of the dept. First, the mayor offers him a sinecure, then there’s a shakedown from Commissioner Hanlon, who frames Cave in the media. “Public sentiment is a funny thing,” he says. “The same people writing you fan letters will be the first to cheer when you get the bounce. It won’t be necessary to prove you have been tipping the till. The accusation will be enough.” Distraught, Cave runs into his former boxing opponent, and onetime bootlegger, Pete “One-Round” Reilly, who’s having a bon voyage party before leaving for England. (In the movie, he appears at the 11th hour.) Eventually, all is made right. I forget if Cave beats anybody up in the end.

That’s the source material, and unfortunately the screenwriters just kind of mashed everything together. They made Hanlon a police captain and a good guy. And they turned Janet’s boss, Canning, into the main bad guy. But it doesn’t cohere. It’s too many villains pursuing our hero in similar ways.

None of these stories are online, by the way. I read them in old, bound editions of The Saturday Evening Post at the downtown Seattle library. I was trying to see if the dialogue I liked came from the stories. Here’s an example: When Cave’s boss makes him acting director, he asks him to keep his fists in his pockets. At the gas station, though, the chiseling attendant starts a fight, and Johnny decks him. Then he looks at his fists, forlorn.

Pat: Did you break your hand?
Johnny: Nah. A promise.

My favorite: Johnny shows up late for lunch with Janet. Even as he’s getting chastised, his eyes keep drifting toward the top of her head. Finally he says the following: 

My best friend gets hit by a streetcar and winds up in the hospital, civil war in Spain and earthquakes in Japan, and now you wear that hat. 

Cagney: And now you wear that hat

The writer of the short stories, James Edward Grant, is an interesting case. Shortly after these stories were published he moved to Hollywood, where he quickly became one of John Wayne’s favorite screenwriters. (Among other films, he wrote Wayne’s paean to HUAC, “Big Jim McLain.”) But the lines I liked aren’t in his stories. So they came from one of these guys:

  • Henry McCarty, 32 credits, mostly silents, with “The Lodge in the Wilderness” (1926) his most famous by IMDb’s algorithms. This is his second-to-last picture, but he lived another 20 years.
  • Henry Johnson, 34 credits, with “$10 Raise” (1935), his most famous. This is his third-to-last picture. He also lived another 20 years.
  • Harry Ruskin, 64 credits, all talkies, with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) his most famous. “Great Guy,” which gives him an “Additional Dialogue” credit, is one of his earlier pictures.

If I had to make a guess, I’d go Ruskin, who also wrote a book called “Comedy is a Serious Business.” It’s out of print now.

Lost in transcription
Because of Grand National’s bankruptcy, “Great Guy” entered the public domain decades ago, so a lot of versions are simply copies of copies. The one I saw via Amazon Prime was almost blurry—with the shittiest subtitles I’ve ever seen. Early, Green tells Cave: “Keep your fists in your pockets.” This is how it got transcribed:

Great Guy bad subtitles

And when Pat Haley is chatting up a pretty girl with his usual blarney, “Do you know I’m the first son of the first son of the first son for 600 years straight down to—” Cagney finishes the thought: “Haile Selassie.” It’s a small joke, going for the Emperor of Ethiopia rather than anyone Irish; but in the transcription they shortened Haile Selassie’s name a bit. To this: 

Hey.

Cagney still has energy and that great disgusted look he gives crooks. He and Mae Clark still have a spark. But “Great Guy” isn’t notable—despite all the notations I've made above.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted at 10:36 AM on Mar 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday January 30, 2019

Movie Review: Something to Sing About (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Lady Killer” (1933), James Cagney plays a NY gangster who flees to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. In “Something to Sing About,” Cagney plays a NY bandleader, Terry Rooney, who is sent to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. It was a theme.

It was certainly a theme for Cagney and other stars of the era. Most of them arrived from somewhere else and quickly became famous in a way that no one prior to the 20th century had ever been famous: worldwide. Clark Gable assumed the bubble was going to burst, and Cagney felt similar. He was a vaudeville hoofer who snagged a lead in a Broadway play, Penny Arcade, which was optioned by Al Jolson, which led to the call.

“I came out on a three-week guarantee,” he writes in his autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”

Parallel lives
Something to Sing About review Philip AhnFor a  time, “Something to Sing About” is a send-up of the Hollywood factory similar to what “Singin’ in the Rain” would do 15 years later: experts on diction, clothing and hairline descend on our hapless hero to “improve” him. At the same time, he's getting the brush-off from the studio. The studio mogul, B.O. Regan (Gene Lockhart, the judge in “Miracle on 34th Street”), is having contract trouble with his exotic Russian star, Steffie Hajos (Mona Barrie), and he doesn't want the same thing to happen to Rooney. So even when the rushes come back and Rooney is dynamite, Regan orders everyone to tell him he’s no good. There's a bit of a Jack Warner vibe to all this.

There are other Cagney parallels. On the last day of shooting, for a big fight scene, the stuntmen decide to really sock Rooney. Cf., “Public Enemy” director Wild Bill Wellman telling Donald Cook, playing Cagney’s brother, to really punch him.

Another possible parallel: After wrapping the film, and ready to chuck the whole crazy movie business, Rooney and his girl, Rita (newcomer Evelyn Daw), take a cruise to the South Seas. When they return they’re amazed to discover he’s a star; he’s mobbed for autographs outside a San Francisco movie theater. According to IMDb, something similar happened to Cagney:

After several supporting roles, Cagney filmed his breakout movie, The Public Enemy (1931), in early 1931. When filming was completed, Cagney returned to New York, thinking the movie would be nothing special. A few months later he was surprised to see a long line of moviegoers outside a New York theater where “The Public Enemy” was being shown. Cagney had become a star.

I say this is a “possible” parallel because I can’t find corroboration. Cagney’s autobiography makes it sound like Warners worked him nonstop—he made five movies in 1931, three in ’32, and five again in ’33. Where’s the time to let Cagney walk the streets of New York for months on end? And while he was under contract? 

Anyway, because the studio badmouths Rooney, who becomes a star, I’d assumed the conflict for the rest of the movie would be trying to resign him when Rooney has all the leverage. Nope. He's ready to sign right away. The conflict is he’s now married, which the studio doesn’t want, so Rita has to pretend she’s merely his secretary. Why he doesn’t bargain better, or just walk, I don’t know. But that’s the plot for the second half: Rita chafing under the role, and Rooney having to win her back with a big song in New York.

It’s not much of a movie, and the version I saw on Amazon Prime was a bit blurry because it’s been in the public domain for a while. Grand National, the studio Cagney made it for, went out of business in 1939. It actually went out of business because of this movie. It was their shot and getting out of “poverty row” so they put a lot of money into it, but it didn’t do well at the box office. In a movie about elevating a fictional studio, Cagney helped sink a real one.

But there is something of value here.

Non-parallel lives
First: I was intrigued that William Frawley was in the picture and wondered what he looked like 15 years before “I Love Lucy” began. Turns out: the exact same.

I was also intrigued that Philip Ahn was in it. I’d seen him on “Kung Fu” in the ’70s and recently (for me) in “The Shadow” movie serial from 1940. Here, he plays Ito, Rooney’s Hollywood valet, who speaks embarrassing pidgin English: “Honorable Master” and “humble servant” and the like. While bowing. 

Guess what? It’s an act. Not Ahn’s, Ito’s.

At one point, Rooney is depressed, because he thinks his acting is awful, and he says something about how only Ito will talk to him and all he’ll say is “Yes, sir, please.” So Ito drops the act, speaking impeccable English, and Rooney does a double take.

Ito: My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity...
Rooney: Pull up a chair. Sit down. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Rooney: Uh huh. And they couldn’t mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn’t even try. 

Every once in a while, in an old Hollywood movie, you’ll see a character who doesn’t play into the racist stereotypes of the day. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that actually points out the racist stereotypes of the day—certainly not in the ’30s. Even our hero doesn’t get it. Rooney thinks he has something in common with Ito—“molding” by the studio—but Ito lets him know that’s not the case with the heartbreaking line “They didn’t even try.” What’s a burden to Rooney is the opportunity Ito never got.

Indeed, when you pull back, it’s worse. We find out Rooney's real name is “Thaddeus McGillicuddy,“ but he changed it to succeed. To succeed, he has to become more like the mass. For Ito to succeed, he has to be less like the mass; he has to adapt a pidgin dialect and bow and scrape. America is telling Rooney “Be like us,” but it’s telling Ito, “Be the other thing we like; the thing not like us. Then we’ll let you eat.” 

They didn’t even try. It says so much, and it’s nothing to sing about.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted at 07:19 AM on Jan 30, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Friday December 14, 2018

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s just a metaphor for China, isn’t it? It’s taking the quintessential early 20th-century boys adventure story—travel to the Far East!—and sticking it in outer space, where the oriental tyrant lusts after the blonde woman and the exotic beauty lusts after the Teutonic hero. Ming (Charles Middleton) is the giveaway—in name, looks, manner and gongs. He’s a Chinese emperor in space.

Flash Gordon 1936 movie reviewIs this where we started the thrones-in-space trope? I was noticing this even in 2017’s “Last Jedi”:

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis?

Secondary thought: Is Capt. Kirk’s chair a kind of throne, too? Or is it a command chair because it swivels? Can a throne swivel? Not onomatopoeically. Throne, like stone, seems to demand stasis.

I’d heard that “Flash Gordon” had been an inspiration for “Star Wars,” but here at least (I haven’t seen the sequels yet), there’s no strong connection. Yes, there’s a princess, but she’s not our princess. Yes, we get a few screen wipes. The most obvious connection is King Vultan’s city in the sky, which is like Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back,” and just as absurd. Much work goes into keeping it aloft but no one asks the obvious question: Who thought it was a good idea to put it there in the first place?

On the whole, “Flash Gordon” is simply battles with various hawkmen, sharkmen, lion men and monkey men. 

Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions
It begins in a planetarium, where two elderly scientists (George Cleveland and Richard Tucker) look at the stars and wring their hands:

Prof. Hensley: We are doomed, Professor Gordon. The planet is rushing madly toward the earth. And no human power can stop it!
Prof. Gordon: You’re right, Henry. It’s only a question of time. Soon the earth will be smashed to atoms!

Thanks, guys. We’re then shown cities throughout the world in panic. Well, “panic.” It’s stock footage, and the white cities (London, Rome, Paris) tend to be fairly placid, while the darker places (Shanghai, India, Africa, Arabia) tend toward riots. The titles themselves are indicative: three European cities, one Chinese city, and then, fuck it, let’s go countries and continents.

Professor Gordon is, yes, Flash’s father, but the two will never meet in this serial, and Prof. Gordon, that old hand-wringer, will never be much help. In fact, he’ll get everything wrong. At one point, he and Hensley discuss a possibility to save the planet only to dismiss it. “Zarkov’s mad, his theory fantastic,” Gordon says.

Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) turns out to be correct, his theory totally doable. By the second chapter, he’s actually saved the earth:

Zarkov: The course of this planet has been changed. The earth will not be destroyed.
Flash: Ah ha, that’s fine. Where’s Dale?

“Ah ha, that’s fine, where’s Dale?” Dude, he saved the earth! I don’t think Zarkov gets his necessary props in this serial. He does everything. It’s called “Flash Gordon” but what does Flash really do? Fights some guys? Then fights more guys? He falls in love (with Dale) and is lusted after (by Aura). He makes friends with enemies. That’s about it. Mostly he fights.

What does Zarkov do?

  • Invents a rocket ship that can land on distant planets and return to Earth—in the 1930s!
  • Convinces Ming to divert his planet’s course so it won’t crash into Earth
  • Saves Flash’s life after the various tortures of the Static Room
  • Creates an explosive device that allows Flash and others to escape King Vultan’s atomic furnace rooms
  • Creates a substitute for radium that will allow Sky City to remain aloft
  • Throws a grenade at the fire monster, saving Flash
  • Helps Flash regain his memory after Princess Aura has wiped it out
  • Invents an invisibility machine that again saves Flash’s life  
  • Electrifies the door to the lab preventing Ming’s men from entering
  • Figures out a way to signal Earth
  • Figures out a way to return to Earth

It’s the invisibility machine that really got me. When did he have time to invent that? In his spare time in Ming’s lab? The guy’s Einstein and Edison rolled into one! This thing should be called “Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions.” He really should talk to his agent—he’s getting short shrift here. 

Does Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) get short shrift, too? Yes, there are numerous instances when, in her goal to win Flash and destroy Dale, she imperils both. But just as often she saves Flash. She shows up at the 11th hour, gun drawn, to save him from King Kala’s octopus (Chapter 3) and Vultan’s “Static Room” (Chapter 7). She joins him in the arena to save him from the monkey men (Chapter 1) and the Orangopoid (Chapter 8). What’s Dale doing in the meantime? Cringing. Fainting. Aura actually develops as a character—tamping down her love/lust for Flash to accept the hand of the monumentally dull Prince Barin (Richard Alexander). She so pisses off her father, Ming, that by the end he’s ready to let her die: “You have chosen to consort with traitors, you shall share their fate.” Thanks, dad.

At least she gets a reward. In the final chapter, after Ming enters “the sacred palace of the great god Tayo, from which no man returns,” she becomes Queen and sits on the throne.

Except ... Is the serial forgetting Barin’s intro from Chapter 5?

I am Prince Barin, real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned as a child by Ming the Merciless who killed my father.

I’d assumed this was setting up our ending, with Ming dead and Barin restored to his rightful patriarchal place. Nope. Ming winds up dead (ish), Barin winds up with Aura, but the throne goes to Aura. Too bad we don’t get that conversations:

Barin: Can’t I sit on it for just a little?
Aura: No.
Barin: Please? I am the rightful ruler, you know.
Aura: You are a rightful nothing.
Barin: You’d let me do it if I were Flash.
Aura: You are not Flash!

I was impressed with Buster Crabbe, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer. He’s athletic, earnest, shockingly handsome, and not a bad actor by serial standards. He’s certainly better than most of the actors here. Barin is a limp noodle, Thon worse, while Vultan overacts horribly. In the first chapter, Flash’s dress- shirt-and-jodhpurs look is torn, Doc Savage style, and thereafter he wears skintight Mongo suits. Just as often, he’s shirtless, glistening with sweat, and wearing boots and big-belted supertight shorts. The movie apparently ran into trouble with censors because of some of Aura’s more revealing outfits, necessitating refilming, but no one noticed the near-naked bondage sequences with the star? Maybe that’s the one nice thing about being sexually marginalized in a puritanical society: Your kink may pass unnoticed.

What’s the role of Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden? Love interest (for Flash), lust interest (for Ming and Vultan), rival (for Aura), general damsel in distress. She also looks good in her midriff-baring Mongo outfits (sans bellybutton). But does she ever do anything? Plan? Scheme? Aura’s best revenge may be that she won over her share of fan boys. In “Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial,” Alan G. Barbour writes, “Many fans felt that Flash should have been interested in Princess Aura rather than the constantly screaming Dale Arden.”

Aura also never stepped on anyone’s lines. From Chapter 9:

Dale: We must go after them.
Zarkov: No, we must not. There’ll—
Dale: No mo—
Zarkov: There‘ll be  danger.
Dale: No more than here.

How Flash and Dale wind up on Mongo may be the most absurd element of a story full of them. In Chapter 1, Flash, on a flight back to America to see his father, is flirting with Dale, whom he’s just met, when the plane is buffeted by forces of the oncoming planet. The pilot tells everyone to bail out, adding helpfully, “You’ll find a parachute on every seat. We were ordered to bring them aboard in anticipation of any trouble.” Where do they land after they bail out together? Of all the places on Earth? Right next to Dr. Zarkov and his rocket ship.

After an absurdity like that, monkey men and orangopoids are easy to take.

Ode to Aura
Is Flash even necessary for the main storyline of “Flash Gordon”? Doesn’t he cause more trouble—with his looks and his fists—than he solves? You can imagine a much shorter version if it was just Zarkov: He arrives, convinces Ming not to crash into Earth, invents his invisibility machine, uses it, plants a bomb under Ming’s throne. In the confusion, he escapes back to Earth. The End.

One thing Flash and Dale do accomplish: They keep turning enemies into friends: Thon, Barin, Aura, and especially Vultan, who, for several chapters, is truly villainous: all but raping Dale Arden and subjecting Flash, Thon and Barin to the atomic furnace rooms, where they toil along with other slave labor. Question: Does Zarkov’s substitute for radium mean that furnace rooms are no longer necessary? Or are shirtless slaves still shoveling this substitute into his furnaces?

“Flash Gordon” supposedly had a budget three times the norm for a serial ($360,000), and the special effects aren’t bad for the time. The rocket ship (left over from the 1930 sci-fi musical “Just Imagine”) turns in a circle and lands shakily but charmingly. A few scenes with a giant lizard in the same shot as Flash and Dale are particularly well done. More quaint are Ming’s mores. He doesn’t just take Dale; he feels he needs to be married to her. So, via hypnosis and banged gongs, he attempts an elaborate wedding ceremony. That also includes scenes from “Just Imagine.”

I don’t know how they measure the financial clout of serials (which, after all, played before features), but supposedly “Flash Gordon” made more than any Universal film—let alone serial—that year. Yet first-time director Frederick Stephani didn’t direct anything else until TV in the early ’50s. Why?

It’s interesting who went on. Buster Crabbe wound up having such a popular and extensive movie serial career, he’s been dubbed “King of the Serials.” Jean Rogers kept acting until 1950, Charles Middleton until his death in 1949, Richard Alexander all the way to 1970. For Patricia Lawson, “Miss Miami Beach” of 1935, this was her first credited movie appearance, but she would manage only five more credits (and 23 uncredited roles) before retiring from movies in 1941. Supposedly she joined the military; there are rumors she lost a leg and opened up a stationary shop in LA. She died from a duodenal ulcer on August 27, 1958 in a Los Angeles VA hospital. She was 44.

SLIDESHOW


  • Alex Raymond’s comic strip was born when King Features needed a spaceman to compete with the popular “Buck Rogers,” whose comic strip debuted in 1929. “Flash” didn't show up until five years later, January 1934, but beat “Buck” to the big screen by several years. Both would be played by Buster Crabbe.

  • The special effects aren't bad for the time. 

  • Here, too, as Dale Arden almost walks into a giant lizard on Mongo. 

  • Less so here. It's Mongo's plodding welcome committee. “Grab whatever's left in wardrobe.”

  • Ming the Merciless, a Chinese emperor in space. 

  • What begins as a battle to save Earth becomes a battle to save Dale.

  • The first of many arena fights—this time against the monkey men.

  • I suppose Constantine Romanoff (real name: Friedrich William Heinrich August Meyer) had prouder moments on screen, but he made the best of “Monkey Man.”

  • Crabbe would‘ve made a good Doc Savage. 

  • Or an Aquaman. If Aquaman had existed. (He was created five years later.) 

  • Typical Flash/Dale shot: He’s determined, she's frightened. 

  • Typical Flash/Aura shot: He's determined, she's ... determined, too. 

  • The risqueness: A hypnotized Dale is sent to bed in anticpation of Ming...

  • ... and cowers before the rapacious Vultan. 

  • Vultan, aroused. A year earlier, he played the engineer's assistant in the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' “A Night at the Opera.”

  • The orangopoid. Mugato, “Star Trek” fans?

  • In the 1960s, journalists were amazed at the shots of the Earth that Apollo astronauts sent back, but moviegoers had been seeing such shots for decades. 

  • Sadly, “spaceographed” never caught on. 

  • Neither did “Stratosphere Party,” although it sounds fun. 

  • All's well that ends well. *FIN*
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted at 06:45 AM on Dec 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
All previous entries
 RSS    Facebook

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

ARCHIVES
LINKS