Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flash Gordon (TV series: Inter-Continental Film Productions, 1954-55)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1950’s Flash Gordon TV series was produced in West Berlin, of all places, by Wenzel Lüdecke for an outfit called Inter-Continental Film Productions, and though the principals were Americans — artist’s model Steve Holland as Flash Gordon (quite a handsome man, to my mind better looking than Buster Crabbe and more at ease in his body), Irene Champlin as Dale Arden (likewise a more attractive and flexible actress than Jean Rogers) and Joseph Nash as Dr. Zarkov — all the other actors were German and spoke their English lines comprehensibly but with noticeable German accents. The settings were generally tacky but the plot lines were surprisingly interesting even though hardly at the level of the best science-fiction from 1954-55.

A few nights ago Charles and I had watched the series’ fifth episode, “Akim the Terrible,” in which Akim is the ruler of the planet Karen, where he has promulgated a legal code that seems to be a combination of the worst ideas of Aleister Crowley (“‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law”) and Ayn Rand. Cruelty is hailed as a virtue and, in the opening sequence, Akim has a man executed for the capital crime of coming to the aid of an old man who was being robbed by two thugs. (I joked that this sounded like a Tea Party activist’s wet dream!) Only instead of actually killing him, Akim commutes his sentence to a stint in a brainwashing machine (a chair with a grill-like back and some rather shaky springs hanging off it) that reworks his brain so that he gets with the program and announces his intentions to start robbing and killing people. Akim manages to capture one of Flash Gordon’s associates in the Galaxy Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and put him in the brainwashing machine, after which he tries to kill Flash before Dr. Zarkov works out a way to reverse the process and gives Flash and Dale steel bands to wear around their heads that will insulate them from the brainwashing chair’s mechanism.

Last night we watched “The Lord of Light,” an engaging little tale in which one of the other professors at GBI headquarters invents a device called “thermotron” that allows a spaceship powered by it to go faster than the speed of light, but in order to prevent time from moving backwards for the spaceship’s occupants they are required to set the ship up in a “time vacuum” — only Flash lets the news of this discovery to Queen Tridentia of the planet Diana (what was this obsession on the part of the show’s writers with giving their alien planets women’s first names?), who at a previous date lost a war for control of the galaxy and seizes on the faster-than-light travel gimmick as a way she can reverse time and avoid the mistake she made in the intergalactic war and thereby win it and become mistress of the galaxy. She kidnaps Dale, who worked on the thermotron device as an assistant to its inventor and thereby knows how it works, and tortures her to get the secret out by locking her in an airtight room and sucking all the oxygen out of it — only, apparently not having read the final chapters of The Maltese Falcon, the queen’s assistant goes too far and Dale actually dies, taking the secret with her — and Flash and Zarkov have to take a faster-than-light trip themselves to reverse time and rescue Dale while she’s still alive, which they do.

This Flash Gordon is a quirky show indeed, surprisingly well produced (though not all that well preserved) and with decent, if not great, special effects by 1950’s standards (the scene in which the spaceship crosses over into faster-than-light travel and elongates itself before disappearing altogether is pretty well done) and with more compelling plotting and generally better acting than the far more famous 1930’s serials — though the serials at least had the infrastructure of a major studio behind them and some superior effects work of their own (notably when the so-called “clay people” actually detach themselves from cliffsides and become animated). — 6/27/10


Charles and I watched the four episodes of the Flash Gordon 1950’s TV series contained on the first of two discs from Alpha Video — a surprisingly interesting co-production by companies in Germany and France. The entry for the series lists 39 episodes (the usual number for a series in 1954-55, when these were originally aired — every week of the year except during the summer; typically “season” orders today are only for 20 to 26 episodes to leave lots of opportunities to save money by doing reruns) but has plot synopses for only 10 of them, leaving me to wonder if those are the only ones that survive.

All four episodes on the Alpha Video DVD (listed here in their sequence on the disc, followed by the initial air dates) — “Deadline at Noon” (June 24, 1955); “The Race Against Time” (February 25, 1955), “The Forbidden Experiment” (April 8, 1955) and “The Brain Machine” (March 11, 1955) — were directed by Gunther von Fritsch (though the “von” is given here as just a middle initial, a lower-case “v.”), an intriguing director who had an unusual career. He began as a documentarian making shorts for MGM like the “Passing Parade” entry This Is the Bowery and a couple of films about President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala. In 1944 he got an assignment that should have been his big break, shooting The Curse of the Cat People for Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO — but midway through the film Lewton fired Fritsch and replaced him with former editor Robert Wise (who had co-edited Orson Welles’ classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons with another man Lewton had also promoted from editor to director, Mark Robson).

Fritsch went back to doing documentaries at MGM, including the auto-safety film Traffic With the Devil and a movie called Give Us the Earth! that was virtually socialist-realist. Having been born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (in what is now Croatia) in 1906, he was tapped to do the Vienna sequences for the omnibus documentary This Is Cinerama and then ended up doing TV, including this Flash Gordon series as well as a lot of work for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Though Fritsch made only half a movie for Lewton, some of the master of indirection’s style shows through here.

This Flash Gordon series strikes me — this may seem heretical — as better than the three Flash Gordon serials made at Universal in the 1930’s, despite the far bigger budgets and the major-studio infrastructure Universal producer Ford Beebe and director Frederick Stephani had available. The three principals seem stronger here; Buster Crabbe is a decent-looking man, if a bit on the beefy side, but Steve Holland is a hunk — reportedly he was a model with no previous acting experience, but he handles himself well in a pretty undemanding role and Fritsch and the series’ other directors (including Wallace Worsley, Jr., son of the director of the Lon Chaney, Sr. vehicles The Penalty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) gave us lots of choice look-sees of Holland with his shirt off, showing off a muscular but blessedly not musclebound build and quite nice pecs.

The Dale Arden, Irene Champlin, and Dr. Zarkov, Joseph Nash, are also far better than their Universal counterparts, Jean Rogers and Frank Shannon, respectively — one friend I showed the 1930’s Flash Gordon serials to hideously but all too accurately mocked Rogers’ rotten acting (“Look! … O- … -ver … there, … Flash!”) and Shannon is even worse, playing a dedicated and surpassingly brilliant scientist in a dull and halting way that would have been more appropriate if his role had been a learning-disabled patient in a mental institution. Champlin is helped by a script that allows her to play Zarkov’s assistant instead of just a damsel in distress — she’s an equal partner in the action scenes instead of a hanger-on and the show benefits from that bit of proto-feminism — and both she and Nash look like they actually know their way around a lab and can rattle off scientific jargon as if they genuinely know what it means.

It also helps that science fiction as a genre had developed quite a lot between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, and the stories of these TV shows are actually a bit more sophisticated than the plots of the serials — granted, these are half-hour shows aimed largely at younger audiences and therefore they can’t deal with the political, social, psychological and spiritual issues raised by the best sci-fi of their era, but it’s surprising how sophisticated some of these stories are — and especially that the ideology of these programs is almost socialist: “Akim the Terrible” (which Charles and I have already watched on an download and which appears on Volume 2 of the Alpha Video package of the series) is an explicit moral tale showing what happens when a world abandons kindness as a virtue and celebrates individualism and criminality as positive virtues (in other words, when it adopts Ayn Rand’s and the Tea Party’s philosophy to the max), and “The Race Against Time,” included here, is a paean to big government and intergalactic peace in which the heroes are those protecting the monopoly the Galaxy Bureau of Investigation (GBI) — the outfit for which Flash, Dale and Zarkov work — has on the world’s highest-tech weapons, and the villains are the governments of individual planets that want the GBI’s monopoly broken so they can go back to fighting wars with each other and not have to worry about humanitarian intervention from GBI to stop them and maintain the peace.

The first episode included here, “Deadline at Noon,” is a tale about a rogue planet which adopts a bizarre strategy for destroying earth: they discover a radioactive element that takes 1,200 years to reach a critical mass for explosive fission and plant it on four dead worlds as well as on earth. Flash, Dale and Zarkov are alerted to this when, on a routine patrol through a part of the galaxy they think is dead, they see the four “dead” planets blow up one after the other, and a captured terrorist from the rogue world reveals that he went back in time 1,200 years to A.D. 1953 and planted a similar bomb on earth, which is scheduled after its 1,200-year hibernation to go off and destroy earth that very day. Needless to say, Flash, Dale and Zarkov themselves have to go back in time to 1953 — which enables the producers to fill up their screen time with a lot of stock footage of earth of the present day (at least the present when the series was made); their spacecraft flies over earth with the badge they took off the renegade terrorist, which functions as a Geiger counter that will enable them to find the radioactive bomb and disarm it — which they do in largely bombed-out Berlin (there’s a treasurable shot of Berlin police chasing down Our Heroes … in a Volkswagen, about the last vehicle one would have expected to see used as a patrol car). The bomb itself is a surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) cheap-looking prop and they disarm it absurdly easily (there aren’t the obligatory scenes in virtually every other movie ever made about explosive ordnance teams in which they remind each other, and us, that pulling the wrong wire at the wrong time will trigger the bomb and kill everybody nearby), but the show is genuinely suspenseful and quite well done.

“The Race Against Time” is even better; in this one, the plot is centered around an upcoming vote as to whether to maintain the GBI’s monopoly on all the most advanced weapons technology — which for over a thousand years has enabled GBI to keep the peace in the galaxy and prevented the interplanetary wars that were previously ruinous to all the combatants no matter who “won” (as I noted above, this is a quite surprising plot premise for a TV series from the early 1950’s, especially one that wore its “Produced in West-Berlin” production credit at the end like a badge of honor in the Cold War!) — in which earth has the deciding vote. The government of earth has decided to cast its deciding vote to preserve the GBI monopoly — and the representative of Pluto, the principal villain here, tries to kidnap the earth representative and force a vote without him to break the GBI monopoly so Pluto can start an expansionist war and conquer and enslave some of the other planets.

In some ways, “The Forbidden Experiment” was the best of these four shows, if only because it ripped off its plot premise from two of the greatest sci-fi/horror stories of all time, Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau: Dr. Zarkov receives an interstellar phone call from an old friend of his, a fellow scientist who located himself in an oasis on an otherwise barren asteroid (represented by an anthology of old stock footage from nature documentaries, some of them dating back to the silent era and clips of such mind-numbing familiarity Charles and I were able not only to recognize them as stock footage but recall having seen the very same clips before in other movies!) and launched a series of experiments aimed at bridging the gap between humans and the animal kingdom by creating hybrids based on animals but with human intelligence and other humanoid characteristics. Unfortunately, he succeeded too well; he has created a “Lion Man” who has enslaved him with his brute strength and ability to communicate telepathically with the still-normal animals on the asteroid, who will kill anyone or anything he “tells” them to with his thoughts.

The Lion Man forced the scientist to place the call to Zarkov, with the idea of luring Zarkov out there to complete his transmutation to full human appearance; he then killed the original scientist and trapped Zarkov there and made him a slave. Flash and Dale trace him there and get trapped there themselves — there’s a nice scene in which Zarkov chews them out for having fallen into the same trap he did — and once again, because the episodes were only half an hour long (less four or five minutes for commercial breaks), they defeat the villain ridiculously quickly because the clock was ticking., Before that, however, there’s been some quite good suspense editing and an indication that director Fritsch learned something from his association with Val Lewton, however short it was: for most of the first act the Lion Man is kept off-screen — we just get a shot of a hairy chest in one sequence and then a shot of an arm with hair all over the hand and long, claw-like fingernails — and its presence is suggested mostly with sound. Unfortunately, once the Lion Man is shown full-figure at the end of act one, his appearance is so risible (more an attempt to do a were-lion along the lines of Universal’s wolf-man but with a lot less money and makeup time available) that the mood of suspense and terror Fritsch and the writers have carefully built up to that time is dissipated almost immediately. Still, it’s a worthwhile story and both entertaining and properly chilling in its Frankenstein-esque theme of the man of science enslaved and ultimately killed by his own creation.

After that, “The Brain Machine” — despite its intriguing title — was a disappointment, the weakest of the episodes included here, in which Dr. Zarkov and the earth representative to GBI are brainwashed and forced to blow up the artificial atmosphere generator on the surface of Neptune, then are strapped into a machine that is supposed to suck out the contents of their brains — including all those precious galactic weapons secrets that are supposed to be the key to keeping the peace in the galaxy. All this is part of a plot by the Witch Queen of Neptune, who is understandably pissed off at having been dethroned by human colonists, and whose assistants look like badly costumed supers in a cheap production of something by Shakespeare — while the person playing the Witch Queen herself is a heavy-set human in bad female drag, who looks for all the world like a modern-day director producing Macbeth or Hamlet, and having heard that in Shakespeare’s day all roles, female as well as male, were played by men, decided to get a heavy-set male wrestler to play Lady Macbeth or Gertrude in singularly unconvincing MTF disguise. What’s more, this one has an open-ended ending in which the Witch Queen’s plots are foiled but she herself (he himself? It itself?) gets away, obviously setting up a sequel episode — which is even more annoying on an old show like this than on a new one, because given the vagaries of TV preservation there’s no guarantee that part two even still exists. Still, despite the cheapness and crudity of some of the production, this Flash Gordon TV series is unexpectedly interesting and well worth seeing. — 7/9/10


I ran one episode of the Flash Gordon TV series from volume 2 of the Alpha Video collection — which turned out to be one of the dullest ones extant: “Subworld Revenge,” an apparent sequel to an earlier episode in which a dictatorial monarch ruling the “subworld” below the earth’s surface (not exactly a fresh conceit in science fiction: it had been used as early as the 19th century and Edgar Rice Burroughs had based a whole series of books on it), whose command center had previously been destroyed by Flash Gordon and his crew, is determined to get his revenge by running a drill pipe up from the earth’s core to the surface, thereby spewing the heat from the earth’s core all over the planet’s surface and destroying all life on the surface (our) world.

There’s a chilling off-handedness about the description Flash and the leaders of the Galaxy Bureau of Investigation (GBI) get of the ruinous earthquakes the dictator’s invention has already caused — which have apparently already wiped out San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and virtually the rest of the California coast (at least I think that’s what’s supposed to have happened from the U.S. map they show with colored lights indicating where the catastrophic earthquakes have happened) — as well as a flashback sequence indicating how the GBI crew, led by Flash Gordon, capped the subworld madman’s original well in the first place — which makes one wonder where Flash Gordon is now that BP needs him — but otherwise this is a pretty sleazy episode (shot in West Berlin and directed not by Gunther von Fritsch but by Wallace Worsley, Jr. — given that Wallace Worsley, Sr.’s best known films, The Penalty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starred Lon Chaney, Sr., I couldn’t help but wonder whether Wallace Worsley, Jr. ever worked with Lon Chaney, Jr.) with another preposterous performance by the villain rivaling the dreadful one by whoever played the Witch Queen of Neptune in “The Brain Machine.”

The Subworld ruler here looks like Leonard Nimoy trying to play Shakespeare’s Richard III (hunchback and all) without having bothered to change out of his Mr. Spock makeup first, and he delivers his megalomaniac utterances, in heavily German-accented English, in a screaming fashion that made me wonder if he were deliberately copying Hitler (remember that this show was filmed just nine years after World War II ended and Hitler died). It’s an utterly wrong-headed performance for a role that cries out for at least some restraint, but it’s about the only entertaining spectacle in this relatively dull and predictable program that hardly lives up to the fascinating standard of the series’ best episodes. — 7/10/10


I ran Charles the last two episodes of the 1950’s Flash Gordon TV series we had in the collection, which appeared as the first two items on Flash Gordon, Volume 2 from Alpha Video. The first, “Return of the Androids” (originally aired December 10, 1954), was quite entertaining even though it was a bit hamstrung by the budgetary limitations of the series: four hundred years before the 31st century setting of the main action, humans had developed “androids” — soulless robots — as servants, and the cheap availability of so much labor had sapped the human race of all its initiative and drive. (Given the socialistic and pacifistic leanings of some of the other scripts on this show, it was a surprise to hear the scientist explaining this deliver a paean to individualism that could well have been ghost-written by Ayn Rand.) Therefore the scientists had decided to hide the androids and conceal the three secrets — their hidden locations, the frequencies needed to activate them and the location of the power source that gave them energy — by dividing them up so only three individuals would have them all at any one point in time, and each of those would know only one of the secrets.

Only an evil agent from an outlaw planet hid out, posed as one of the androids and got two of the secrets radioed to his home base before he was found out and killed — and in the main action set in Flash Gordon’s time the prince of his planet has hooked up with the Queen of Scythia to find the missing secret, reactivate the androids and use them to conquer the galaxy. Flash and Dr. Zarkov are possessors of two of the secrets, and the third one is in the hands of Commander Richards of the Galaxy Bureau of Investigation back on earth — only the one secret the baddies don’t already have is the one in Flash’s brain, and they torture it out of him by strapping Dale Arden to a “centrifugal table,” which spins around and duplicates the effect of acceleration in space travel until it reaches a level of 15 G’s, which will be fatal. Once Flash gives them the secret they throw him into the same cell as Dale and Zarkov, then unleash the androids — and the Scythian queen finds herself taken prisoner by her confederate (an interesting-looking actor in two-tone makeup — the middle part of his face is white but his cheeks are black and his makeup forms a V-shape on his head — and one who could give Steve Holland competition in the hunk department).

This isn’t exactly a fresh science-fiction premise — though the idea of a benevolent future earth (or space) government suppressing mechanical humans precisely because they could pose a threat by turning against their creators and annihilating the human race turned up much more powerfully later in the backstory to Frank Herbert’s classic Dune — but it could have been a legitimately frightening one if the “androids” hadn’t all too obviously been played by anonymous-looking actors dressed up in the 1950’s version of haz-mat suits, or the “hordes” of androids stomping through the corridors of earth and their other target planets hadn’t been obviously created by shooting five actual people in haz-mat “android” suits and attempting to make them look like a larger army with a prismatic lens. Nonetheless, the actors playing the principal villains turned in appealingly full-blooded scenery-chewing performances and the whole thing was a lot of fun — more so than the second episode, “The Claim Jumpers” (originally aired November 12, 1954), in which Flash and Dale chase after a pirate spaceship that targets an asteroid filled with the priceless mineral “algonite,” just discovered by a salty old guy named Prospector Pete and his daughter.

Before they make it to the asteroid, the villains trap Flash and Dale on another planet where they’ve stashed an emergency fuel supply — and where the surface is so impregnated with radioactive plutonium that a human can’t last on the surface more than about four hours or so even with state-of-the-art protective clothing. It’s a decent enough little action story but hardly one of the best in the series — though the series as a whole is surprisingly impressive, well worth seeing and in a lot of ways actually better than the more famous 1930’s Flash Gordon serials from Universal, at least in part because the half-hour format required tighter plotting and didn’t lend itself to the mind-numbing repetition of similar devices and situations which even the best serials fell into frequently. The 1950’s Flash Gordon is a lot of fun and I can only hope more of the episodes turn up someday and become available.