#36) Flash Gordon (1936)
OR “Same Flash Time, Same Flash Channel”
Directed by Frederick Stephani
Written by Stephani & George Plympton & Basil Dickey & Ella O’Neill. Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond.
Class of 1996
The Plot: The immense planet Mongo is headed straight towards Earth, so Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) and some lady he meets named Dale (Jean Rogers) head out to the planet on a rocket ship piloted by Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon). They arrive only to find that Mongo is run by the evil Emperor Ming (Charles B. Middleton) and his young manipulative daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson). Aided by Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) and King Vultan (Jack “Tiny” Lipson), Flash and his gang encounter space monsters, explosions, and a cliffhanger every 20 minutes in this 13-part film serial.
Why it Matters: The NFR praises the serial’s “ambitious” production values and includes a historical essay by “Flash Gordon” expert Roy Kinnard.
But Does It Really?: “Flash Gordon” is a lot of harmless cheap ‘30s fun, but man is it long. I know I’m not watching them as intended (one episode a week), but 4 hours of this stuff in one go is a lot. That being said, if you’re going to include one film serial on your Registry, this is the one. In our era of binge-watching, maybe space (ha ha) these out over a few days.
Shout Outs: Set pieces, props, and score selections are reused from previous Universal pictures, including “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man”.
Everybody Gets One: Larry “Buster” Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer who won a gold medal in 1932 for the 400-meter freestyle. Both Priscilla Lawson and Jean Rogers were former beauty queens whose acting careers didn’t last too long after “Flash Gordon”; Lawson dropped out to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, Rogers got in trouble with Louis B. Mayer and became one of many who would “never work in this town again.”
Wow, That’s Dated: This serial hails from the era of science fiction films when you could just dangle a rejected Christmas tree ornament on a string and call it a spaceship. Also when was the last time anyone ever mentioned their polo game?
Take a Shot: It’s four hours and he’s the title character, please don’t do this as a drinking game. As an alternative, anytime someone says “Flash” just sing the first part of that Queen song.
- Listen Crabbe, either your name is Larry or it’s Buster. Not both.
- I love that the guards refer to Flash as “the blonde giant”, even though he is clearly the same height as everyone else, and on top of that, he’s not even the only blonde!
- They love that lightning bolt scene wipe. And who can blame them? It’s awesome!
- Never trust a man who parades around in tiny shorts.
- I can’t get over the costume of Ming’s Captain of the Guards. Did he lose a bet?
- Ming believes science will answer everything, but has to check with a god before he can marry Dale. Huh?
- One of the monsters looks like it could be Godzilla’s dad. And I’m pretty sure another one of these things was the Jabberwocky in the creepy ‘80s “Alice in Wonderland”.
- I’m choosing to ignore the obvious glass in between the fish and the camera.
- Hmmm…a leader who takes offense to being called a puppet. Hmmm…
- I cannot take a bad guy seriously when his name is pronounced Kayla.
- And then Vultan shows up and things get really weird. That being said, casting Brian Blessed in this role for the remake is possibly the greatest casting ever.
- Vultan slaps a bear on the ass! Quick, someone invent PETA and then call them!
- You’d think someone named Ming the Merciless would just kill these guys immediately, what with the whole “merciless” thing.
- I’m enjoying the sax music during each episode’s recap.
- Wait, they actually call it the Tunnel of Terror? I thought that was just an episode title!
- Oops, Jean Rogers speaks one of her lines too soon. No time for retakes I guess, they just keep rolling.
- Is it just me, or are there long stretches of this serial where Flash doesn’t do a damn thing?
- The Flash Gordon serial’s success led to two more serials; 1938’s “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” and 1940’s “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe”.
- For those of you who don’t have the time to watch the whole thing, Universal cut the entire serial down to 68 minutes and released it as the film “Rocket Ship”.
- Buster Crabbe would go on to play Buck Rogers in a 1939 serial, and would make a nice little piece of stunt casting in Buck’s 1979 reboot.
- “Flash Gordon” would be remade a few times, most notably as the big-budget 1980 film, and the short-lived 2007 TV series.
- And of course, when George Lucas couldn’t get the rights to remake “Flash Gordon” in the ‘70s, he decided to write his own space opera. And he called it… “American Graffiti”.