Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938)

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

Charles and I started watching the serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), reuniting the four principal actors from the first Flash Gordon two years earlier — Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash, Jean Rogers as his girlfriend Dale Arden, Frank Shannon as Dr. Alexis Zarkov (I don’t recall his first name from the first serial but it’s used quite often in the first chapter of this one) and Charles Middleton as Emperor Ming from Mongo, who somehow survived “meeting the great god Theo” by hurling himself into a pit at the end of the first Flash Gordon and made his way to Mars, where he hooked up with one of the native rulers, Azura, Queen of Magic (Beatrice Roberts) and hatched a plot with her not only to conquer all of Mars but to destroy all life on Earth by using a space ray to suck all the nitrogen (or “nitron,” as the writing committee — Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens and Herbert Dalmas, all different people than the four who worked on writing the first one — insisted on calling it) out of our atmosphere and beaming it over to Mars, where they use it to power all their big high-tech weapons.

This serial was produced under the “New Universal” regime of Charles R. Rogers (the first Flash Gordon had been made under the Laemmles) and was considerably cheaper than the first one, though it recycled some of the splendiferous sets (notably a garden representing part of the palace of Azura that she and Ming are using as a base of operations against Earth), and it seemed to be packed with a lot more stock footage, including scenes of disasters (representing the results of the Martian assault on Earth’s atmosphere) that contained clips of the 1926 Florida hurricanes I remember seeing in a PBS documentary on them. It also had a weirdly assorted patchwork of music cues from Universal’s library, some of them appropriate (like Franz Waxman’s “creation” theme from The Bride of Frankenstein and Karl Hajos’s transformation music from The Werewolf of London) and some just weird — including the reuse of the recording of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture that had been made for the credits of Magnificent Obsession and just seemed out of place in a science-fiction thriller.

Also this time around Jean Rogers had dark hair (she’d apparently switched from blonde to brunette because her other roles around this time specified dark hair — and’s commentators noted that when footage of her from the first Flash Gordon appears as flashbacks, the difference is readily apparent) and there’s a spectacular new race of Martians, the “clay people,” whose emergence out of the rock formations in which they stand motionless until they activate their ability to move is one of the coolest special effects of the entire series. Aside from that, it’s pretty much more of the same, a spectacularly produced serial (this time Ford Beebe, who had produced the previous one, took over as co-director along with Robert Hill) and one filled with action, but also a surprisingly unimaginative one in the staging of the action scenes and the writing of the cliffhangers: it’s good but there are better serials out there, including Republic’s Undersea Kingdom, which was obviously a Flash Gordon knockoff taking place inside a domed Atlantis under the ocean rather than another planet, but though obviously cheaper was also more appealing in certain ways. — 8/15/10


Charles and I squeezed in two more episodes of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, “Queen of Magic” and “Ancient Enemies,” which contained the first examples of a genuinely cool special effect: the “Clay People” — Martians living under a curse of Queen Azura that changed them into animate clay, though it also gave them the power to hide in rock and make themselves look like parts of mountains until they detached themselves and started walking about — emerging from the rock walls of the caves in which they live and suddenly materializing as living beings. Those are the best sequences in a film whose effects work is otherwise well below what the movie industry was technically capable of in 1938 (the spaceships in the Flash Gordon serials are considerably less believable than the one in Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon a decade earlier), and though the action is relatively well staged and the Kenneth Strickfaden equipment from Universal’s Frankenstein films also helps a lot, the plot is even more maddeningly arbitrary and dull than it usually was in serials, and the absence of the soap-opera complications of the first Flash Gordon (Emperor Ming loves — or at least lusts after — Dale Arden, who only wants Flash Gordon; who’s attracted Emperor Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura; who in turn is loved by Flash’s friend Prince Barin) makes the characters seem even duller and more cardboard this time around. Though the production values of this Flash Gordon serial rival those of the first (despite a lot more cheating with stock footage and recycled sets), it’s simply not all that exciting. — 8/17/10


Over the last two nights Charles and I had watched three episodes of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, numbers five through seven (“The Boomerang,” “Tree-Men of Mars” and “Prisoner of Mongo”), which ended the first disc of the two-DVD release of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars on Image Entertainment (under license from Hearst Entertainment and King Features Syndicate, which recovered the rights from Universal in 1951 — Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond had been under contract to Hearst as a comic-strip artist and so the Hearst company and its subsidiary, King Features, owned and still own the rights to the characters). Quite tackily, instead of showing the original ending titles after the chapter-seven cliffhanger (Flash Gordon pinned by a demobilizing light ray) they ran a “The End” title in modern lettering over the final sequence and left the first disc ending inconclusively as well as anachronistically.

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars benefits from the infrastructure of a major studio, though not all the events are that convincing (the way the spaceships fly, the models representing them visibly bobbing up and down from variations in the tension of the wires suspending them), but it’s rather lamely plotted (the writing committee includes Wyndham Gittens, Herbert Dalmas, Ray Trampe and Norman S. Hall — four different people from the four-person writing committee that did the first Flash Gordon serial in 1936) and not all that well staged from the action point of view. One of the weird things about this serial is that virtually every race of Martians ends up hating Flash Gordon and our other earthling heroes (including the comic-relief character, reporter “Happy” Hopgood, played by Donald Kerr — one of the things I’d liked about the first Flash Gordon serial was that it hadn’t had one of those unnecessary and annoying “comic relief” characters, though Kerr is less offensive than most of these people were), and as Charles pointed out during episode seven it’s hard to imagine him getting out of the various scrapes the writers got him into because in this serial (as opposed to the first Flash Gordon) nobody seems to want to help him.

But this somewhat dull production perked up considerably in episode seven, when we finally got to the home territory of what were variously referred to as the Tree People and the Forest People (serials were generally written episode by episode — the earlier episodes would be shot while the writers were still working on the later ones — and in some serials this led to some hilarious lapses in continuity, including the secret villain being revealed as a character who had actually met up and been shown in the same frame with him early on) and art director Ralph M. DeLacy gives us a marvelously stylized set comparable to Charles D. Hall’s work at the same studio in the first two Frankenstein movies, full of gnarled, leaf-less trees that creates a nighmare world, reminiscent of the early-1920’s German Expressionist movies and an example of what Dartmoor should have looked like in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The plot gimmick here is that “Happy” insists on taking a photograph of the Forest People’s sacred statue of their god Kalu (pronounced “KAY-loo,” by the way) — and at the same time Emperor Ming and Azura, Queen of Magic, his Martian ally, use a remote-control disintegrator ray to destroy the statue and make it look like Happy’s camera is a sinister weapon with which he means to assassinate the Forest People’s king. (One annoying feature of quite a lot of science fiction of this era was the assumption that science and technology would continue to develop, while politically and economically the world would revert to a medieval style of society, with a handful of kings, lords and landowners ruling over a mass of anonymous serfs and slaves.) Though the Forest People end up as alienated from Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Happy as everyone else on Mars, the plotting really perked up with this episode and even the action seemed stronger. — 8/19/10


Charles and I returned to Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and ran episodes eight and nine, “Black Sapphire of Kalu” and “Symbol of Death” (the latter title inspired me to joke about deconstructionism and whether the titular symbol should be considered a text or merely a signifier), which marked an advance over previous episodes of this serial in at least one respect. Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) and comic-relief sidekick Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr) are trapped by the Forest People — who live in that marvelous wood full of gnarled, dead trees Universal built for the Frankenstein movies (which looks just as sinister in the full light of movie day as it had in the shadows of movie darkness!) and who are enslaved by Emperor Ming of Mongo (Charles Middleton) and his Martian ally, Azura, Queen of Magic (Beatrice Roberts), because she’s used the magic power she derives from the Black Sapphire of Kalu — which is resting inside an idol in the Forest People’s abode, the gimmick being that if Flash or somebody else can steal it, they can break the spell and force Azura to take her curse off the Clay People and turn them back into normal humans (or at least normal Martians) again.

Flash successfully steals the black sapphire and high-tails it to Azura’s court with the aid of the Clay People and their people-mover system, which is sort of like one of those old pneumatic-tube systems used to transmit paper from one part of a building to another, only the containers are cars running on train tracks and large enough to carry human beings. They get Azura to the Clay People’s abode (incidentally this errand is run by Flash Gordon and Richard Alexander as his Mongolese ally, Prince Barin — they left Dale and Zarkov behind in Clay Country and the writers conveniently forgot the plot point they’d established in a previous episode that a normal person left too long in Clay City becomes a clay person him/herself, a plot hole Charles pointed out to me), only one of Ming’s sidekicks comes up with a box into which to insert the black sapphire, thereby neutralizing it and eliminating Flash’s protection against Azura’s magic. What made these episodes at least marginally better than their predecessors was that Dale and Happy at least got to do things: Dale got to steal a stratosled (the personal aircraft regularly used on Mars) and save Flash from one peril by dropping bombs from her plane — Republic serial heroines were often quite spunky and butch enough to save the heroes from various perils, but this is the first time in either of the first two Flash Gordon serials from Universal we’ve seen Dale behave as anything other than the traditional, and rather dim, damsel in distress — and in another sequence Happy Hapgood mows down one of the baddies with a ray gun right when he’s pinned down Flash: the comic-relief guy saves the hero instead of the other way around!

There’s also the “Healing Vapors” of the Clay People, with which they successfully treat Happy after one of the Forest People fired an arrow into his back as he was fleeing — it’s basically an enclosed sauna in which they seal him and let the fumes from the hot rocks heal whatever is wrong with him. The Flash Gordon serials are famous for their impressive production values and for some of the performances — particularly Charles Middleton’s as Ming — though quite frankly we’ve seen more thrilling and better plotted serials from Republic and Columbia, and this Flash Gordon also suffers from comparison with the first because, as well as Beatrice Roberts plays Azura, she doesn’t have the inner moral conflicts Priscilla Lawson portrayed so effectively in the earlier serial (yes, I know serials, of all movies, thrived most on the clash between an all-good hero and an all-bad villain, but even in a serial having one supporting character genuinely torn between the two improves both the drama and the thrills — and an unusual serial like The Return of Chandu gains much of its power from offering a lot of characters, including the lead, with genuine moral conflicts). — 8/25/10


Actually, all we had time or energy for was the tenth and eleventh episodes of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the 1938 Universal serial that was the second and longest (15 episodes) of the three Flash Gordon serials Universal made in the 1930’s. The episodes were called “Incense of Forgetfulness” and “Human Bait,” and “Incense” featured a long flashback sequence to the first Flash Gordon serial — the scene in which Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) forced Flash (Buster Crabbe) to fight a duel to the death with his friend Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) — which was jarring, to say the least, since in the earlier footage Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) was a blonde and in Trip to Mars she was a brunette (Rogers was still playing Dale — though she’d be replaced in the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe — but had had a series of dark-haired roles in other movies and she didn’t want to keep switching back-and-forth), while Crabbe was lighter-haired and considerably slimmer in the earlier footage.

The “incense of forgetfulness” gimmick is an interesting anticipation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and of Remember?, the comparatively lame Eternal Sunshine precursor MGM made in 1939, a year after Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, starring Robert Taylor and Greer Garson as the unhappy couple whose friend Lew Ayres gives them a potion — his day gig is chemist for a pharmaceutical company and it’s a new drug he’s testing — to make them forget they ever met), and it leads to a quirky cliffhanger at the end of episode 10 in which Dale, having been exposed to it by the Forest People at the temple of their god Kalu (pronounced “KAY-loo,” not “KAH-loo” as I’d anticipated), is consecrated in service to Kalu and her whole knowledge of who she is is wiped out completely — as, I was irresistibly tempted to say, was what little knowledge Jean Rogers ever possessed about acting.

She actually does get one good scene — the glint in her eyes and the weird expression on her face when, thinking he’s an enemy of Kalu, she sneaks up behind him and stabs him with a dagger is quite convincing (maybe she, like Jon Hall in another Ford Beebe-directed film, The Invisible Man’s Revenge, should have played fewer heroines and more villains). The cliffhanger between episodes nine and 10 is even more confusing as Flash and Dr. Zarkov attempt to escape from Ming’s power station and keep alternately going through the secret passageways under it and trying to crash through the skylight on top, only to find Ming’s guards perpetually stationed wherever they’re trying to get out.

It’s an engaging serial with some good moments — including the prop “televisor” that is used to show cartoon panels of Flash Gordon and his friends as the way of reminding us what’s happened in the previous episode (a more creative device than the simple crawls that gave us the exposition in the first Flash Gordon serial) and the killer effects shots of the Clay People emerging from the walls of their clay caves to which the magic of Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts) has consigned them, coating them with clay and putting a spell on them that keeps them from becoming normally human (or Martian) again, as well as the stunning (though not all that convincingly integrated) scenes showing the glass-painted marvels of the various Martian cities in the background — but for the most part it’s an O.K. serial, magnificently produced and benefiting from the use of the Franz Waxman score for The Bride of Frankenstein in many of the big moments (though maybe that’s not such a benefit since it’s become so recognizable in its original context it’s a bit jarring to hear it here accompanying action staged far more prosaically than James Whale’s stunning direction in Bride) but also a bit sluggish, repetitive (a common failing in serials) and lacking the blistering action scenes of a Republic serial. — 8/30/10


Charles and I ran episodes 12 and 13 of the Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars serial from 1938, “Ming the Merciless” (the sort of title which makes you wonder what they thought the previous 11 episodes had been about — or, for that matter, the 13 episodes of the first Flash Gordon serial from 1936) and “Miracle of Magic,” which seemed to be setting up a battle royal between Flash Gordon’s Martian allies, the Clay People (now freed from their curse and turned into normal, non-clay life forms by the death of Azura, Queen of Magic, and Flash Gordon’s recovery of the magic sapphire that gave her her powers, at the end of episode 13); and Emperor Ming’s Martian allies, the Forest People (the ones who live in that cool Frankenstein-by-way-of-Caligari forest of dead, gnarled trees that, though pretty obviously recycled, is still the best set in the film).

Though this serial, like most of them, seems more to be lurching to a close than coming to a truly satisfying resolution, it makes clear just how much of a debt George Lucas owed to Flash Gordon when he created Star Wars. In fact, the Los Angeles Times recently ran an interview with Lucas’s producing partner on the first two Star Wars films, Gary Kurtz, who said their original intent was to do a remake of Flash Gordon and it was only because the Hearst Corporation wanted too much money for the rights that they decided to develop something different, but along the same lines, instead. (A licensed remake of Flash Gordon did come out in 1980, with someone named Sam L. Jones in the lead, directed by Mike Hodges, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. — a writer with some respectable credits behind him — and Michael Allin; this was the movie whose TV commercials amused me because they didn’t mention any of the actors in it but did ballyhoo the fact that the soundtrack music was by Queen. It was a box-office disappointment; I didn’t see it but I did see Flesh Gordon, the 1974 sexually explicit spoof which was originally shot as hard-core porn but whose filmmakers attracted a distributor who suggested they re-edit it and make it soft-core so it could have normal theatrical distribution, and had a surprise indie hit.) — 9/8/10


I ran the final two episodes of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, “Beasts at Bay” (something of a misnomer since there aren’t any non-human animals in the dramatis personae — even though there were quite a few of them in the first Flash Gordon serial) and “An Eye for an Eye” — which, as I mentioned in my entry about the twelfth and thirteenth episodes (“Ming the Merciless” and “Miracle of Magic”), makes clear the debt George Lucas owed to Flash Gordon when he was conceiving Star Wars. Indeed, according to Gary Kurtz, Lucas’s producing partner on the first two Star Wars films, their intent originally was to do a feature-film remake of the first Flash Gordon serial, only King Features Syndicate — the Hearst subsidiary that owned the rights — wanted both too much money and too much control, so Lucas and Kurtz decided simply to develop their own story along similar lines (though they pushed it to much farther extremes than the makers of Flash Gordon did — I can’t imagine either Alex Raymond, who conceived of the character of Flash Gordon in the first place, or the writing committees on these serials having it turn out that Flash is really the son of Emperor Ming!); during the great scene in which Ming’s “stratosleds” (the basic form of aircraft used for intraplanetary travel on Mars — which look considerably cooler than the chintzy-looking rocket ships they used for interplanetary trips!) set off on a bombing raid to wipe out the Clay People now that they’ve been de-clayed by the death of Azura, Queen of Magic and the recovery of her magic sapphire in the previous two episodes, the origins of Star Wars in Flash Gordon were almost too obvious.

One commentator called Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars a 12-episode serial stretched out to 15 (which recalls some of my comments on more recent movies — when I saw The English Patient I joked, “This is a great two-hour movie. Unfortunately, it actually lasts two hours and 40 minutes”), and the padding is especially obvious in these last two episodes, which include a long flashback spliced in from the first Flash Gordon serial representing past information Flash is giving the Martian nobility to prevent them from making Ming Monarch of Mars upon Azura’s death — including proof supplied by Prince Barin (what was he doing in this serial? Wasn’t he supposed to be running Mongo once Flash and company defeated Ming in the first serial?) that Ming actually caused Azura’s death — which leads to Flash and the other earthlings shedding crocodile tears over the “good” Azura whom they’ve been fighting tooth-and-nail due to her alliance with Ming over most of this serial.

There’s also a lot of dull footage showing Flash’s return to earth, including shots of giant newspaper presses printing the stories heralding their arrival and stock footage of parades ostensibly greeting them. Overall, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is a pretty effective serial despite its dorky title and some of the padding — though I could have used more characters with some depth the way Princess Aura was portrayed in the first Flash Gordon serial, both by the writers and by actress Priscilla Lawson, who turned in a more interesting performance than anyone else either in that film or this one. — 9/9/10