Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rocket Ships, Monsters and a Boisterous Hawk Man

Read/Watch 'em in Order #12

The invaluable book The Flash Gordon Serials, 1936-1940: A Heavily Illustrated Guide unabashedly declares the original 1936 entry to be the best-ever serial. And, by golly, the authors might very well be correct.

One of the things I like most about it is how closely it sticks—both in story and in visuals—to Alex Raymond’s brilliant full page Sunday comic strip. The serial begins with Earth threatened by the approach of the rogue planet Mongo. Flash Gordon and professional Damsel-in-Distress Dale Arden meet when they are forced to bail out of a plane damaged in a meteor storm. This brings them into contact with Doctor Zarkov, who takes them along in his newly invented rocket ship to Mongo.

From there, it’s just one darn thing after another. Mongo is ruled by Ming the Merciless, whose minions soon capture Flash and his companions. But Ming’s beautiful daughter Princess Aura quickly falls for Flash, giving the good guys a chance to escape.

Aura is a great character. She’s in love with Flash, but is (at least at first) just as ruthless as her dad. If winning Flash means disposing of Dale Arden or committing other acts of violence (including at one point a rather casual attempt to commit genocide against Mongo’s city of Shark Men), then by golly she’ll do it.

But at the same time, Aura shows some positive traits and, by the end of the serial, has morphed into one of the good guys. The Flash Gordon Serials correctly points out that this sort of character development was rare in the serials and it’s one of Flash Gordon’s strongest points.

Flash, by the way, is in love with Dale and remains loyal to her (except for a brief time after Aura feeds him an amnesia drug). It’s lucky for Flash that he looks beyond outer beauty to decide who to fall in love with—because though Dale Arden is certainly easy on the eyes, Princess Aura enters full-scale Hubba Hubba territory.

Another strong point is the setting. Mongo is a world inhabited by hideous monsters. The relatively safe cities are divided among Ming’s human citizens, the Lion Men, the Hawk Men and the Shark Men. There’s also Monkey Men hanging around somewhere—Flash has to battle three of them in Ming’s arena early in the serial.

Ming is technically ruler of Mongo, but the Lion Men at least are in open rebellion against him and Prince Vultan of the Hawk Men isn’t that happy with Ming either. It’s a situation that’s used throughout the serial to carry along the plot and add to the suspense.

Vultan, by the way, is yet another great character. Played with boisterous fun by James Lipson, the portly Hawkman starts out as another villain. But, like Princess Aura, he also gets some real character development. Impressed by Flash’s courage, he also eventually becomes his ally. Heck, in pretty much any version of Flash Gordon every produced, Vultan always comes across as the guy you’d most want to have fun with.

In fact, Flash’s motley crew of followers is a pretty cool group. There’s Vultan, Prince Barin (the rightful ruler of Mongo) and Prince Thun of the Lion Men. Thun, by the way, is played by James Pierce, whose career (like Buster Crabbe, who plays Flash) included a stint as Tarzan. Pierce (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ son-in-law) played the ape man in both a silent films (1927’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion) and in a radio serial that began in 1934.

So we get a Tarzan/Tarzan team-up in this serial. To add to the serial’s geek cred, future Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange does double-duty in a monster costume and as one of Ming’s soldiers.

Two other points are worth making. First, the stunt work in the numerous fight scenes is excellent. Second, the visuals and special effects are wonderful. Their relative primitiveness by today’s standards doesn’t detract at all, but instead gives them a charm and other-worldliness that fits in with the story perfectly. The sets and props were those previously used in Bride of Frankenstein and the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Invisible Ray—their reuse here is still another factor in getting everything on Mongo to simply look cool. The minature work done specifically for the serial is also very good--most notably the image of the Hawk Men city suspended in the air by anti-gravity beams.

Anyway, after adventures and escapes too numerous to recount (just watch the darn thing—but DON’T FORGET THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE ABOUT WATCHING A SERIAL!!), Flash, Dale and Zarkov return to Earth. But it won’t be long before yet another interplanetary threat brings them back into action. In 1938, our three heroes will be taking a trip to mmars to save the Earth from yet another interplanetary threat.

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