Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1936)
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.
Is 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?
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.
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*