Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, a trip to the movies was like an all-day sucker. You got more than just one film…and I don’t mean an interminable series of coming attractions. Viewers were treated to a newsreel (this being before television nightly newscasts), a cartoon, and maybe even a second feature. But you also sometimes got what were referred to as serials. Usually these would be 15-part series’ that continued weekly, and you had to go back every week to see how the serial hero (or heroine) got out of their last cliffhanger predicament.
Hank Davis in his excellent two part book series Classic Cliffhangers describes the serials as as “classic examples of early low-budget filmmaking.” He even credits the bad ones as “silly and stilted, but always charming and sometimes bizarre.” The serial actually got it’s start in the silent film days, mainly with a 1914 series called The Perils of Pauline, but it really took off in the early 1930’s. You could go see many of the action stars of the day in a weekly recounting of an adventure, which almost always ended with the hero in some predicament that left the audience anticipating how he or she would get out of it, thus insuring a return next week.
The serials weren’t always well-acted, which explains why a lot of the serial stars never made the transition from serials to major motion picture star status. (John Wayne being one of the exceptions, who got his start in three serials from the 30’s: The Shadow of the Eagle, The Hurricane Express, and The Three Musketeers). Serials are something that I think could improve the movie experience today I find them enjoyable, and although I tend to watch them all in their entirety in one sitting, I think I could enjoy a weekly ongoing adventure if one were done right.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938):
Firstly, one of the neatest things about this Flash Gordon serial is the opening. If you are familiar with serials, each episode, after the credits, usually included an encapsulation of what has gone on before. In some serials this was a voiceover and in others it was just on-screen text. In this serial they added a twist that I hadn’t seen in other serials I watched. A Martian guard appears before a screen and adjusts the screen which segments through four visuals on the screen. It looks like a comic strip panel from the Flash Gordon comic strip, and to my untrained eye, it looks like they might have even been drawn by the artist, Alex Raymond, who actually drew the comic strip at the time.
Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), accompanied by Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) are returning from having defeated the evil megalomaniacal Ming the Merciless (in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon). But the Earth is in serious danger.
A series of devastating earthquakes and floods and other natural disasters are wreaking havoc on the planet. Initially it is thought that the planet Mongo, which is still in proximity of the Earth, is the source of the havoc. Flash, along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov head off to find out what’s going on. Unfortunately they have a stowaway in the persona of Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), a reporter who has managed to insinuate himself on to the ship.
But it soon becomes clear that Mars is the actual culprit, emitting a beam that is sucking all the nitron (which I think may be movie-ese for nitrogen) from the Earth’s atmosphere. And while the Queen of Mars, Azura (Beatrice Roberts), is behind the evil plan, Ming (Charles B. Middleton) is also helping. Which becomes a surprise to Flash (and anyone who watched the first serial), because at the end of the last adventure it seemed apparent that Ming had perished. But as anyone can tell you, you can’t keep a bad man down.
The reason behind the nefarious plan to steal the Earth’s nitron is Azura needs it to defeat the Clay People, a race on Mars that refuses to bow down to Azura’s rule. Azura is an expert of magic, which allows her to change recalcitrant subjects into Clay People and also to disappear at will. (You would think if she had that kind of magic she could just eliminate the threat of the Clay People with a wave of her hand, but if she could, there would be no adventure…) Azura’s magic derives from a white sapphire which she is never without.
Flash and company land on Mars, but not without consequence. The rocketship they used to get there is destroyed, so there is apparently no going back. But Flash is unperturbed, as is usual for a hero. His only goal is to save the Earth, and nothing is going to stop him from completing his mission. That is unless Ming and Azura can prevent him from doing so.
Over the course of the 15-episode serial, Flash and friends continually find themselves gaining the upper hand, only to find the advantage disappear with alarming regularity. Of course, as was necessary with the cliffhanger theme, each episode ends with Flash apparently finally defeated, only to have some twist of fate (or deus ex machina) appear to save him from his imminent demise.
The Clay People, although initially distrusting of Flash, eventually become his ally when they realize that he really intends to try to help them. (They are, for some reason, not able to do much against Azura on their own because part of their curse is they cannot leave the cave in which they dwell). Montague Shaw as the king of the Clay People and his tribe eventually do come around to Flash’s way of thinking, however. And Prince Barin (Richard Alexander, who looks like he could have been a professional wrestler), who had allied with Flash on Mongo in the previous serial appears on the scene to help Flash in his quest.
Eventually it becomes evident that Ming is working at cross-purposes. He is supposed to be helping Azura in her quest to defeat the Clay people, but what Ming really wants is to take over Azura’s throne. (You didn’t really expect a guy like Ming to be a supportive ally, did you?)
The fight scenes are the only down-side to this serial. They look entirely fake, and some look like those fake moves they pull performers from the WWe\E. Which makes Alexander all the more possible as a pro-wrestler in a previous life. Even the special effects look positively new age by comparison.
Of course, I don’t need to tell you that Flash and company are victorious in the end. And I probably don’t have to tell you that Ming is once again vanquished, apparently for good. (But since he is once again the villain in the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, that should come as no surprise either.)
Flash Gordon not only became an icon in the 30’s serials and in comic strips, he became, briefly, a hero on the radio, and when the medium was in its infancy, a television star. He was also the star of a series of novels back in the 70’s. A feature film in 1980 reintroduced Flash Gordon to a new generation. And recently the SyFy channel tried its hand at producing a new TV series. It certainly appears that Flash is still an attractive commodity, even if he doesn’t quite become the franchise that a Superman or a Batman might have become. But he does have some appeal. Primarily, at least for me, that he relies on his athletics and wits, rather than his extraterrestrial strength or his cache of rich man’s toys. And as long there is an evil megalomaniac from Mongo around, he won’t be without a foe to pit them against.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.