Saturday, October 30, 2010

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)

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

I watched the last episode of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. I was struck by the extent to which it attempted to graft an anti-Fascist metaphor onto the original brainless heroes-and-villains comic-strip stuff. Emperor Ming’s prisons are actually referred to as “concentration camps,” his men are given an arm salute that’s a slightly less flamboyant version of Hitler’s and the very opening describes a “Purple Death,” a disease-bearing dust that Ming is beaming down from planet Mongo to Earth which kills people and leaves just one tell-tale sign: a purple spot in the middle of their foreheads. (Coincidence — or did the writers of this serial know about Kaposi’s sarcoma even back in 1940?) Star Larry “Buster” Crabbe (who, judging from all the complaints he had while filming these movies, had a very appropriate last name) complained that much of the film was padded out with footage from a 1929 German mountaineering film, The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, co-directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl) and G. W. Pabst — with the result that an entire new kingdom of Mongo, Frigia, ruled by Queen Fria (whose accent hovered indeterminately between Marlene Dietrich’s and Sonja Henie’s), was invented to explain the appearance of all this stock footage taking place in the middle of freezing-cold mountain locations.

Still, while clearly cheaper than the original movie (which was filmed in 1936 at a cost of $500,000, making it the most expensive serial ever made), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe at least had the production “sheen” of a major studio, and benefited from a largely “borrowed” but still stirring musical score (the main theme is Franz Liszt’s tone poem Les Préludes and much of the score is cribbed from Franz Waxman’s work during his year at Universal, 1935-36 — including the beautiful “monster wedding” theme, complete with bells and chimes, from The Bride of Frankenstein). — 10/31/96


Charles and I repaired to our room and watched the first three episodes of the last Universal Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, shot in late 1939 and released in early 1940. This proved unexpectedly interesting; in some ways Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe may be the best of the three in the series, at least partly because, influenced by the “wars and rumors of wars” (a phrase they actually use in the script) in Europe and the strong possibility of the U.S. becoming involved, the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman), working from a comic-strip continuity by Alex Raymond, the characters’ creator, rethought the concept to make it more topical: Ming is called “Dictator” rather than “Emperor” this time, he’s given a uniform strikingly reminiscent of Mussolini’s (something Charles noticed before I did), and one of his captives in episode one denounces him for keeping him in “one of your filthy concentration camps.”

There are some aggravating cast changes: Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Flash’s girlfriend, Dale Arden (which is about six of one and a half-dozen of other; Hughes seems to me to be marginally more attractive but the part was so empty — quite unlike the plucky heroines of competing serials at Republic and Columbia, who actually got involved in their share of the action — just about any reasonably attractive young woman could have played it); the appealingly butch bear type Richard Alexander is replaced as Prince Barin (the good-guy ruler of Mongo who keeps trying to get back in charge after Ming keeps deposing him) by Roland Drew, who stood up to the real Nazis in his starring role in PRC’s 1939 feature Beasts of Berlin but here is outfitted with one of those silly “roo” moustaches that make him look way too nellie; and his wife/Ming’s daughter Aura is also played by a different woman (Shirley Deane instead of the marvelous Priscilla Lawson from the first Flash Gordon from 1936).

Fortunately, though, the male leads — Buster Crabbe as Flash (even though he’s a bit disappointing in the looks department and Steve Holland, the male model who played him in the early-1950’s TV show, seemed much hotter to me!), Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov, and — most importantly (in these sorts of stories the villains are always more interesting than the heroes) — Charles Middleton as Ming. The serial is quite nicely constructed, beginning — as the first two also had — with a menace to Earth being fired from outer space on Ming’s command, in this case the “Purple Death,” a plague that kills its victims nearly instantly and leaves behind only a single purple spot on their foreheads. Of course, Flash and Zarkov take up their spaceship — with Dale on board as an obnoxious, unwelcome passenger — and find that the death is caused by a toxic dust invented by a rather squirrelly scientist working in Ming’s labs on Mongo and spread though bombardment by spaceships flown from Mongo to Earth.

They go to Mongo and re-establish contact with Barin — whose minions are dressed like Robin Hood’s Merry Men in the 1938 Warners film with Errol Flynn and armed with bows and arrows, which would seem to be no match against Ming’s high-tech weaponry — and also meet Queen Fria (a surprisingly Dietrich-esque Luli Deste) of Frigia, a cold region in the far north of Mongo and also the only known source of “Polarite,” the one material that neutralizes Ming’s death dust. The good guys mount an expedition to Frigia to mine Polarite, which means they have to dress up in Arctic explorer gear (thoughtfully provided by Dr. Zarkov, who has also invented a special spray to cover their faces so those, too, can be invulnerable to the cold) — and a good chunk of the footage covering the expedition to Frigia and the heroes’ mountain-climbing in came from a surprising source: the 1929 German film The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, a mountaineering film co-directed by G. W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck and starring Fanck’s protégée, Leni Riefenstahl.

The footage from the old film is a bit grainier than the new, but it’s also considerably more creatively photographed and framed — and Universal even used some of the music from Pitz-Palu for underscoring, along with other bits from the Universal music library (including much of Franz Waxman’s marvelous score for The Bride of Frankenstein) and a surprising choice for the main theme, Franz Liszt’s tone poem Les Préludes. (In the late 1970’s conductor Zubin Mehta gave a series of concerts advertised as “Space Music” which included excerpts from John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with Liszt’s Les Préludes — justified by its use here — and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, source of the theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Not surprisingly, given their high-mountain locale, the cliffhangers for episodes two and three are literally that (the one from episode one is a bomb full of plague dust Ming sets off in his lab, risking the deaths of his own people to kill Flash and Zarkov, and the scene features the sulfur pit from the end of Son of Frankenstein, though the cave in which it sits is now decorated with a carved rock whose design looks vaguely Mayan), and though some of the cuts between new and old footage jar, overall the action scenes are quite well done and the serial is well-paced throughout, without the longueurs between action scenes that sometimes made other serials seem interminable. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe lacks the lavish production values of the first Flash Gordon but it’s a good deal more exciting than Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (and it’s three episodes shorter — 12 rather than 15); it doesn’t have the elaborate special effects of the earlier ones but it’s got its own set of charms, including a bunch of robot drones Ming deploys against our heroes at the end of episode three. It’s a fun show and I look forward to watching the rest of it! — 10/20/10


Charles and I ran episodes five and six of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, “The Palace of Peril!” and “Flaming Death!” (in the closing credits, every episode of this serial has a title ending in an exclamation point!), which were a bit of a comedown but only because the action has shifted from the frozen kingdom (queendom, actually) of Frigia and therefore we’re not seeing any more spectacular stock footage of mountains and mountaineers from the 1929 German film The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, but overall this remains in the same league as the first Flash Gordon serial and considerably better than the second, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. This is probably the fastest-paced of all of them, and the situations cooked up by the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman) are inventive and genuinely exciting.

This one had a mid-air rescue sequence in which Flash pulls Captain Roka (Lee Powell), officer in the army of Prince Barin (Roland Drew) and therefore one of the good guys, from a burning spaceship; an attack by Ming on Barin’s palace in Arboria — preceded by Ming’s successful kidnapping of his own daughter Aura (Shirley Deane), who’s also Mrs. Barin, from the Arborial (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) palace, so she won’t end up as collateral damage when he attacks. This serial has it all (well, maybe not all: it doesn’t have the surprisingly resonant emotional depths of The Return of Chandu or the human weakness and genuinely creative cliffhangers of the 1943 Batman): fast-paced action sequences, transitions between the action highlights that are genuinely interesting drama in themselves, and a sense of unserious fun welcome in this age when all too many comic-strip or comic-book (oops, “graphic novel”) derived movies try to make their slender little stories into monumental statements about the human condition — and though the minnow-like spacecraft are silly (and probably were considered silly in the 1930’s as well, especially when they fly across the painted backdrops and the location of the wires holding up the models is all too obviously discernible from how the models are jiggling in mid-air), some of the special effects are quite good — including the plain of mini-volcanoes Flash has to walk across at the end of episode six (created by a super-element Ming and his captive scientists have invented that bursts into flame in air and burns absolutely anything it touches) that’s utterly convincing even though it also briefly looks as if Flash Gordon has invented the firewalk. — 10/22/10


Over the last two days Charles and I had watched episodes seven through ten of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which quite frankly seems to me to be the most entertaining of the three serials. The production budget was noticeably lower than that of the first one — through working at a major studio, producer Ford Beebe (who also co-directed with Ray Taylor, whose previous credits included sole directorship of the fascinating The Return of Chandu) had access to some spectacular sets, including the leftover representations of 17th century Paris built for the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that were quite effectively used to represent the environs around Emperor/Dictator Ming’s (Charles Middleton) palace. The special effects are variable; some of them — notably the fires started by one of Ming’s horrific weapons with which he’s been attacking the kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin (Roland Drew) — are utterly convincing, while others are almost laughable, including those silly little spacecraft (which are also used for terrestrial travel within the environs of the planet Mongo, where the first and third Flash Gordon serials took place) dangling on unseen wires, and the decision to represent both lightning and the output of ray guns simply by scratching the film emulsion with a pin to create a jagged line.

Still, the serial is quite well paced (interesting since the previous Beebe-Taylor collaboration on Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was almost soporific) and the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman) has been inventive in finding clever devices to keep the action going with refreshingly little of the arbitrariness with which most serials were plotted. In these chapters, Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and Prince Barin plan to obliterate Ming’s defenses with a new gun Professor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has invented which paralyzes electrical generators — only there are two major catches (if the gun were a drug they’d be called “side effects”): first, the gun can only be fired once — it self-destructs as it is fired — and it kills off all life within a certain radius around it when it blows itself up. Flash, Zarkov and Barin therefore head out to what they think is an uninhabited part of Mongo called the “Land of the Dead,” where they can set up the gun within range of Ming’s palace and fire it by remote control without it harming anyone or anything other than what they want it to harm — only it turns out the “Land of the Dead” is inhabited by a race of Rock Men, actually normal humans (or Mongoans) who disguise themselves in rock suits to camouflage themselves and evade Ming’s attacks. The Rock Men also speak in a weird-sounding language created by running a recorded soundtrack backwards — backwards tapes became such a staple of psychedelic rock music in the mid-1960’s it’s genuinely surprising that they were being used in a movie a quarter-century earlier — and Zarkov, it turns out, knows their language (how could he have learned it?) and can interpret for them.

The king of the Rock Men blames Flash and his party for the disappearance of his son, who it turned out was stuck to a lodestone (I’m not making this up, you know! Since people are generally non-magnetic, one would think he could have freed himself simply by removing whatever metal article on his body was attracting him to the natural magnet); Flash pulls him off the lodestone by sheer brute strength, flings him over his shoulder and carries him back to his dad, and of course the rescue of his son causes the Rock King to switch sides and help Flash, Barin and the other good guys. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is actually a quite entertaining serial — it may not be as lavish as the first Flash Gordon but it isn’t as dull as Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars either — and the great piece of classical music appropriated for its soundtrack, Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes,” supplies both sinister bits representing the good guys in trouble and triumphal strains when they overcome it (and other people’s music from previous Universal films — including Franz Waxman’s incredible score for The Bride of Frankenstein — also effectively bolsters the action).

Universal also deserves kudos for shooting the Rock Kingdom scenes in a real canyon — they seem to have sent the crew out to the Grand Canyon or something almost as spectacular — instead of using one of the abundantly available but mind-numbingly familiar Western locations around Hollywood. It’s nice to be on the home stretch of this very interesting serial! — 10/29/10


I ran the last two episodes of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which proved worthy successors to the rest of it. The Flash Gordon cycle from Universal (“Flash Gordon Conquers Universal!”) followed an odd pattern: a compelling if somewhat sluggish first serial, a surprisingly weak and not particularly involving second serial and a third that not only returned to the form of the first but in some respects actually surpassed it — notably in the intensity and excitement of the action scenes and the degree to which action and exposition were integrated instead of making us sit through a lot of boring jabber setting up the next action highlight, as happened in quite a few 1930’s and 1940’s serials and as happens all too often in action movies today (Iron Man 2 being an especially regrettable example of a mediocre film that could have been a lot more exciting if the writers had been able to integrate action and story as well as the ones of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe did).

Just about everything in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe clicked: the spectacular locations (some of them supplied via stock footage — including the early scenes in the country of “Frigia” in northern Mongo, which show enough beautiful and exciting scenes from the 1928 German silent The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, co-directed by Arnold Fanck and G. W. Pabst and starring Leni Riefenstahl, that it’s piqued my curiosity to see the whole thing), the (mostly) well-done matching of new footage and stock (and the effective use of Universal’s standing sets, including much of the re-creation of 18th century Paris for the 1923 silent Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and glass paintings to make this look like a considerably more lavish production than it was), and above all the relentless pace of the direction, which kept the film continually interesting and never let the action flag (odd since the same directors, Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor, had helmed the much less interesting second serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, though it helped that two of the writers who had worked on the original Flash Gordon but not on Trip to Mars, George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey, returned this time around).

Despite some weaknesses in the supporting cast — Roland Drew as Prince Barin and Shirley Dean as his wife (and Ming’s daughter) Princess Aura are simply not as good as the actors who played those parts in the earlier serials, Richard Alexander and the amazing Priscilla Lawson — and the lack of a really compelling villainess (at least one commentator compared Anne Gwynne as Ming’s partner Sonja to Marlene Dietrich, but she’s a flat, uninteresting character — frankly, she’s about as useless to the forces of evil as Dale Arden, played by Carol Hughes after the wooden Jean Rogers relinquished the role, is to the forces of good; the Republic and Columbia serials offered genuinely forceful women characters but the ones from Universal didn’t) — Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe comes off as the most consistently exciting of the three (though I still think the 1950’s TV Flash Gordon, male model Steve Holland, was hunkier and a more convincing action figure than Buster Crabbe).

Though it doesn’t have the emotional depth of The Return of Chandu (a solo directorial credit for Ray Taylor that features Bela Lugosi in one of the best, richest and most emotionally multidimensional performances of his career) or the vivid imagination of the 1943 Batman (which features the former Emperor Ming, Charles Middleton, in a sympathetic role!), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is everything one would rationally wish for in a serial, and it doesn’t peter out at the ending as so many serials did, either: it ends with a spectacular sequence in which Flash steals Ming’s ship, powered with the mysterious element “solarite,” and aims it straight for the power station where Ming and his court are holding forth — and bails out just in time to avoid becoming a kamikaze. Ming’s palace duly blows up from the solarite explosion and, keying on an earlier line in which Ming had said, “The universe? I am the universe!” (likely copied by the writers from the real-life Louis XIV’s “L’etat? C’est moi,” meaning, “I am the state”), Dr. Zarkov announces that Flash Gordon has conquered the universe, thereby finally — after nearly four hours of running time — explaining the title. — 10/30/10