Flash Gordon (1938, Frederick Stephani)

Flash Gordon is all about its gee whiz factor. The serial goes all out to create the planet Mongo, which has come out of nowhere (in space) and is on a collision course with Earth. Only scientist Frank Shannon has a plan to save the otherwise panicked and resigned Earth–take a rocketship to the new planet and try to change its course. Shannon can’t do it alone, of course, he needs help; luckily, Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers’s plane has crashed nearby. And Crabbe is Shannon’s colleague’s son. And Rogers is cute. So, of course, Crabbe and Rogers agree to go off to space to save the world.

Right off, Flash Gordon establishes Crabbe is a force more than a character. Crabbe excels at the role’s physicality–he always tries to do something, no matter the odds. Sometimes it’s to advance the plot, sometimes it’s to stretch out a chapter, sometimes it’s just to lose some of his clothes. Until the last three or four chapters, Crabbe’s always getting stripped down, sweaty, or wet. More on the beefcake in a bit. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is one of Gordon’s greatest assets. He doesn’t overthink his thinly written “never give up” preppy fencer rich kid with a heart of gold. Sure, he’s on an alien planet, and he’s nothing but a man, but he’s got to save every one of us.

So Crabbe goes all in on the physicality. It gets more intense as the serial progresses. By the second half of Flash Gordon, Crabbe’s even doing exagerated arm motions while running. He’s all in on Flash, even when he shouldn’t be trying so hard. His overdone expressions during the swordfights are risible, but earnest. He doesn’t have the same problems in regular fight scenes, just the swordfights. Thankfully, swordfights occur less and less frequently as the serial goes on.

Director Stephani focuses the film on Crabbe whenever he’s onscreen. At least until the last third of the chapters; then Crabbe will either literally disappear or take a supporting part in a scene. It feels a little weird–while the chapters have an excellent momentum overall, Flash’s finale is protracted. The last chapter could’ve finished off the serial at almost any point after the halfway mark. Flash starts as Crabbe’s journey around the kingdoms of Mongo but real quick it’s just about him being maybe a prisoner, maybe not a prisoner, of evil emperor Charles Middleton. It depends on Lawson’s mood; she plays the emperor’s daughter and she takes an immediate liking to the cut of Crabbe’s jib. Both in terms of his earnestness and his beefcakery.

Flash Gordon is a serial for kids with beefcake for accompanying parental units. There’s also some degree of good girl with Rogers and Priscilla Lawson. With the cheesecake, there’s at least have the excuse all the Mongo royalty are pigs. With the beefcake… sure, Crabbe’s an Olympian, there’s got to be some interest in him. But Flash doesn’t stop with Crabbe–almost all the male characters are eventually stripped down and coated in oil. And if they aren’t, they’re wearing shorty shorts. Flash Gordon can be a trip. Watching Shannon calmly deliver nonsense science exposition while in black shorty shorts is something else.

The costume design is a strange mix of various costumed drama and adventure styles. You have Greek and Roman soldiers–because shorts, after all–next to a guy in a suit of armor. They all have swords and laser guns. Laser guns don’t get used much, because budget. Budget also comes in on James Pierce’s lionman and Duke York’s sharkman. Lionman just means ZZ Top beard. Sharkman means speedos and a diving cap, maybe some drawn-on fins. The actors give it their all, however, which is stunning. Their straight faces help make the non-complementary styles acceptable together.

The only disappointments in the cast are Middleton and Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson. Lipson’s the king of the hawkmen and he’s either annoying or too broad. It doesn’t help his first scene has him threatening to let his pet tiger eat Rogers since she doesn’t want to be raped. It’s a fairly intense scene for Flash, though Rogers’s under constant threat, whether from Lipson, Middleton, or Lawson. I think there aren’t any blond people on Mongo? So Middleton wants Rogers and Lawson wants Crabbe.

Anyway. Lipson’s not good. Middleton’s not either. The evil emperor never seems megalomaniacal or even regal. Towards the end, when Lawson is revolting against him too, Flash Gordon momentarily seems like a single dad warring against his rebellious teenage daughter, under the same roof, but in separate worlds. It’s only momentarily, because it’s not like Middleton would do it. The character’s one note, the performance’s similarly one note. If he were just a little better, the costume and makeup would probably carry him better.

But it doesn’t matter because Middleton’s far less important for the bulk of the runtime. He’s only important in the beginning and end. The rest of time, Middleton’s mostly around to crack the whip on scientist Shannon, because even though Mongo has spaceships of various designs and anti-gravity rays, somehow Shannon is smarter than all their scientists.

Crabbe and Rogers spend the first half of the serial making new enemies and then turning them into allies. Lawson’s usually around to undermine them and try to get Crabbe for herself. She eventually has to enlist double-dealing high priest Theodore Lorch to figure it all out.

When Flash Gordon does have its second half slowdown, things start getting repetative. How many times can Middleton lie to Crabbe? How many times can Crabbe and company escape yet end up back in Middleton’s palace? Will Shannon ever get his stupid radio to Earth fixed–seriously, it’s like nine chapters about it; way too much.

These repeats don’t end up hurting Flash much. Turns out its nice to see the actors get some down time and just to hang out. Crabbe and Rogers make cute puppy eyes. Lipson gets less annoying. Shannon’s practically an adorable old scientist guy by the end.

And it’s always exciting. Even when the editing stalls out or the cliffhanger resolution is a little lazy. Because Flash isn’t about the cliffhangers, it’s about the gee whiz. Thanks to Crabbe, most of the cast, and the enthusiastic production values, Stephani is able keep that gee whiz going through all thirteen chapters of Flash Gordon. When it seems like the gee whiz might run out, it just starts back up strong again. Flash can never fail.

3/4★★★

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), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


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