Tag Archives: Alex Raymond

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill)

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….

You get the idea.

Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.

So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.

They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.

On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.

Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.

Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.

And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.

The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.

It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.

And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.

All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.

But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.

Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.

There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.

The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.

Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.

And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.

Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.

Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.

Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.

It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 15: An Eye for an Eye

An Eye for an Eye is a disappointing finish for Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars but maybe not an unexpected one, not given the serial’s trajectory. The cliffhanger resolution is quick–Buster Crabbe gets away from Charles Middleton due to Middleton’s lack of observational prowess. They’re fitting foes. Neither of them pays attention enough.

While Middleton is going back to turn on the Earth zapping ray, Crabbe and Richard Alexander are wasting time trying to figure out what secret passageway he used. Instead of just going to find him; Middleton thinks they’ll know where he’s headed. Silly Middleton, they have to be told.

Eye also makes it really clear instead of calling Jean Rogers’s character “Dale Arden,” she should just be called, “Dale You Should Stay Here.” Crabbe ditches her again in his effort to save the day.

There are a couple double crosses in the chapter–three, actually–and they change the plotting a bit. Instead of some grand air battle to save the Clay kingdom, instead it’s Crabbe having to rescue his captured friends. Again.

His showdown with Middleton is dramatically inert and lacking in much excitement, especially since it’s truncated by plotting.

The finale uses the same newspaper from the first chapter, only with a different headline, which means poor Donald Kerr is left out of the celebration sequence. It’s particularly unfair since, when he gets to make faces at Middleton (shooting at the good guys with a laser rifle), Kerr has the chapter’s best three seconds.

Eye for an Eye is a bad finish, but Mars has been burning off its goodwill for so long it doesn’t really matter.

Some real bad acting from Middleton here though. Maybe his worst in the serial overall.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 14: A Beast at Bay

A Beast at Bay could just as easily be called We Give Up, There’s One More. After a lackluster cliffhanger resolution, Buster Crabbe’s plan to save the Clay kingdom fails because he couldn’t control one unarmed prisoner and then couldn’t beat him in a fistfight. The thirteen chapters of Crabbe kicking Martian ass… well, they were all just wimps, apparently. Crabbe gets zero material through the rest of the chapter, but he seems perpetually perturbed, which is accurate given his utter failures at the opening.

Once Crabbe gets the upper hand again–because he remembers he’s got a ray gun on him–it’s back to the Clay kingdom to tell no longer clay king but still overdoing it C. Montague Shaw he’s failed to execute his plan. Bay skips how Crabbe’s sidekicks knew he’d failed since I think they were waiting for him at a rendezvous point. Whatever.

Luckily the new Martian prisoners realize–immediately upon their arrival in the scene–Crabbe is actually a good guy and pledge their allegiance to him. Just after Shaw gives Crabbe command of the army, which seems questionable given his planning has been so terrible. Again, whatever.

They end up going back to the palace, where Charles Middleton is about to be crowned King of Mars. Now, you know it’s the penultimate chapter because instead of telling Jean Rogers she’s too girly to go along or Donald Kerr he’s too annoying to go along and dumping them in Shaw’s care, Crabbe–still looking put out–brings them along.

After some trouble, they get to Middleton’s coronation and Crabbe–with the help of flashbacks to the previous serial–talks the Martians out of making Middleton king. So he holds them up with a ray gun–everyone else is armed but no one is willing to risk Crabbe–and makes a getaway.

It’s a sad chapter. It’s not even disappointing. It’s just sad. It’s sad from the start. Especially when they use footage from the obviously visually superior previous serial. Trip to Mars can’t end soon enough.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 13: The Miracle of Magic

The Miracle of Magic is a funny title for the chapter since nothing really miraculous happens. There’s some anti-miracles. Maybe it refers to the curse of the Clay people getting lifted, which involves magical receptacles, but not really magic itself. It’s a strange sequence where the still suspicious C. Montague Shaw has Buster Crabbe do the spell lifting because Crabbe’s familiar with electricity and can run the Clay people’s machine. Presumably they too could use the machine, since they’re pretty technologically advanced–including the high-speed subway system–but whatever. Maybe they wanted publicity stills of Crabbe and company with the electronic gadgetry.

Besides lifting the curse–revealing all the Clay people are male–most of the chapter involves Crabbe and the boys trying to stop Ming (Charles Middleton) from arming the Forest people to attack the Clay people. Middleton had to get Beatrice Roberts out of the way to do so; it’s not clear why exactly, just because he wanted her out of the way. She probably would’ve gone along with him arming the Forest people. It’s also not clear why they’re better for destroying the Clay people than the Martian troops. The Martian troops have all the weapons, they’re just giving them to the Forest people.

Maybe because Middleton has stupid ideas, which does explain why it’s taken him thirteen chapters to get to this point in his scheme.

Crabbe ditches Jean Rogers with Shaw, rather ingloriously, and takes Frank Shannon, Donald Kerr, and Richard Alexander to the Forest people’s… well, their forest. Then he and Alexander ditch Shannon and Kerr to go sneak around and discover what’s the rumpus. Of course, it turns out Shannon and Kerr figure out what’s going on without having to go sneak around the Forest people’s underground lair.

The chapter ends with Crabbe executing his plan to save the Clay people. It’s not going as planned.

There’s some big plot developments in the first few minutes–Clay people curse lifted and such–but then it’s more of the same stalling and circular narrative for the rest. Mars has only got two chapters left and it’s hard to imagine they’re going to be able to make a major quality uptick. Magic is far from the worst chapter in the serial, but also far from the best. It’s one of the better middling chapters.

Hopefully there’s some engaging surprise coming, because there sure wasn’t anything here.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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