Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 1: The Planet of Peril

In just around twenty minutes, The Planet of Peril, the first chapter of Flash Gordon, boldly defines itself. It establishes the ground situation–Earth is about to be destroyed by a collision with another planet and the world’s in panic. It establishes the leads–Buster Crabbe’s a blond, smart guy jock, Jean Rogers is his airplane co-passenger who thinks he’s swell, Charles Middleton is the emperor of whatever planet Crabbe, Rogers, and rocket scientist Frank Shannon have landed on.

There’s a narrative conciseness to Peril’s script, but the production design and visual effects don’t really aid it. The script aids them. Because Gordon is fantastical–there are fighting cave men, interstellar princesses, rocket ships, bad guys in tin suits, one bad guy in a suit of armor, everyone else doing a Roman thing. It’s a lot. Lots of costumes. Lots of special effects, usually miniatures, sometimes not great, sometimes great, always interesting, often cool. And everything seems directed to suport them.

Until the fight scene. Crabbe vs. cave men. It turns out to be this phenomenally edited, long action scene. Director Stephani, the four editors, they know how to shoot and cut action. There’s tension with the rocket take-off, there’s some good editing elsewhere, but the arena fight scene is something else.

And then it comes to a nice cliffhanger. There’s not much peril in the cliffhanger–Crabbe and now soft on him alien princess Priscilla Lawson are falling into something called “the pit,” but it’s just chapter one. There’s just going to be more amazing Flash Gordon.

Really, the only thing wrong with it so far is Middleton. He’s playing the role without a sense of humor. Meanwhile Shannon’s using humor (at least whenever he gets a real line or two), Crabbe is running with it, and Rogers hasn’t got anything to do. Except look scared.

Flash Gordon is awesome.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


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