Production: USA, 1936-40
Cast: Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Frank Shannon, Richard Alexander, Jack Lipson, James Pierce, Duke York.
The very first science fiction serie… but it was not a TV show.
In the year 1934 Television was on its first steps, and the idea of “telefilm” was very far. But there was a huge production, instead,
of “serial movies”, which were released in cinemas and were divided in episodes.
TV sets had not yet entered in all families, so the
means of entertainment and cultural divulgation were radio (very common)
and cinema. And cinema had a real schedule like actual TV (maybe even
better). People who went to cinema could watch a newsreel, a documentary,
a movie (which was the most important object of interest), a “serial
movie” as said above, then a cartoon and the final slapstick short. The
result was that in a cinema only one daily show was possible, maybe two:
not like today, trying to have an audience as large as possible, and
firing all the movies which do not earn enough money in the first
week. A very different time.
The serial movie was made in order to capture the watcher’s interest and convince him to return to watch all the following episodes, by means of the
famous trick called “cliffhanger”: at the end of each episode our hero is
in danger, and we will know if and how he will save himself only in the
next episode (this trick is still used in soap-operas and in TV shows like
“Doctor Who”). Audience had to be well-hanged, if we think that if you
wanted to see the next episode you had not simply to switch on the TV set
but were forced to go to the cinema and pay the ticket…
A large number of serial movies had western stories (and many were based on the famous hero “Zorro”, which was already very popular).
But also this production based upon Flash Gordon, popular comic hero, was made.
The story is very well-known, anyway it’s worth recalling it.
A mysterious planet is on collision course with Earth, scientists
absolutely don’t know how to avoid it and the end of the world seems to be
imminent. But there’s a scientist who doesn’t want to surrender: Dr.
Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has designed a rocketship he wants to launch
against the planet in order to save Earth. And picks up as companions for
the crazy mission two youngsters survived from an air crash (caused by
storms and meteor fallings due to the approaching planet): Flash Gordon
(incredibly very similar to the comics character), a polo champion, and
Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), a passenger of the plane he managed to save.
Zarkov convinces them to help him (in the comic he forced them aiming a
gun), so they lift off and land on the planet. They discover the planet is
inhabited, it is called Mongo and is ruled
by a cruel emperor who has oriental features (and name): Ming (Charles
Middleton: today, creating such an evil character would be considered an
act of racism…). On Mongo a large number of humanoid races are living,
often with animal features (lion-men, hawk-men, shark-men and so on…), as
a large number of beasts and monsters.
The soldiers of Ming capture the three people from Earth, and they have very different destinations: Zarkov is immediately sent to work in Ming’s laboratories, and he manages to use this sort of “collaborationism” to save Earth and his friends; Dale is desired by the emperor who tries to marry her (by the won’t succed…); Flash has the worst destiny: due to his wary and rebel spirit, he is sent to death several times, but always escapes, sometimes
thanks to princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), Ming’s daughter, who is keen
of him (and who will try, at first, to get rid of Dale…).
In the episodes we can regularly see Flash saving Dale from monsters or other dangers, running from Ming’ s soldiers or allies, encountes with variouos rulers of the lands of Mongo, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile.
Proceeding with the story, Flash will find more and more people tired of Ming’s tyranny, and the most important will be prince Barin (Richard Alexander), king of Arboria (who is in love with Aura and will marry her), Vultan (Jack Lipson) king of hawk-men, and Thun (James Pierce), king of lion-men.
At last they will be able to defeat Ming, and the Earth people will return to
It was such a big success that other two serials followed: in 1938 was released “Flash Gordon’s trip to Mars”, where the evil Ming, always dangerous, allies with Mars queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts), and they plan to destroy Earth stealing all its nitrogen. Flash will have to land on Mars, always helped by Dale and Zarkov, to fight Ming again and save his planet…
In 1940 was released “Flash Gordon conquers the Universe”. This time a mysterious rocket falls on Earth sperading a deadly red powder which kills anybody touches it. Gordon is forced to fly back to Mongo, discovering it is another plan of Ming… this story contains several hints to nazism, and relative rethoric about tyrants who want to conquer the world or the universe…
In this last story Dale Arden was played by Carol Hughes, and many other
actors had changed, but the unforgettable Ming played by Charles Middleton
was absolutely kept.
The appeal of this serial is also due to its contemporaneity to the comic, so it showed the same backgrounds and technology.
It is absolutely clear that Flash Gordon has never been that type of “pure science-fiction” that some reviewers would appreciate: on the other hand, it was a typical “space-opera” with rockets, disintegrator guns, monsters and silver spacesuits, and you enjoy it for its fast-paced adventures and the incredible number of twists and inventions in the story.
In the fifties a real TV show about Flash Gordon was released, but it was not
so memorable; in 1980 a long-feature movie was produced by De Laurentiis,
but despite to a very important cast (except for the two main characters…)
it didn’t convince so much.
40 episodes, b/n, 20'
Flash Gordon, 1936
1)Planet of Peril
2)The Tunnel of Terror
3)Captured by Shark Men
|4)Battling the Sea Beast
5)The Destroying Ray
8)Tournament of Death
9)Fighting the Fire Dragon
10)The Unseen Peril
11)In the Claws of the Tigron
12)Trapped in the Turret
13)Rocketing to Earth
|Flash Gordon: Trip to Mars, 1938
1)New Worlds to Conquer
2)The Living Dead
3)Queen of Magic
6)Tree Men of Mars
7)The Prisoner of Mongo
8)The Black Sapphire of Kalu
9)Symbol of Death
|10)Incense of Forgetfulness
12)Ming the Merciless
13)The Miracle of Magic
14)A Beast at Bay
15)An Eye for an Eye
Flash Gordon conquers the universe, 1940
1)The Purple Death
4)The Destroying Ray
5)The Palace of Terror
7)The Land of the Dead
8)The Fiery Abyss
9)The Pool of Peril
10)The Death Mist
12)Doom of the Dictator