Most of my early memories involving my father simultaneously involve Flash Gordon. This is probably a bad thing. Flash Gordon seems to have entirely consumed my father’s childhood imagination, and, as any good father will, he made his obsessions mine. Now, my father was a bit of a purist, so there was no watching the television series or the horrendous 1980 film. No, my father was a Buster Crabbe man. As a young acolyte, I too became a Crabbe Man.
The original Flash Gordon serial (1936) is a delight to watch (though the DVD release does not have any chapter breaks so you’re in for a long haul, especially if, like me, you’ve long ago misplaced your remote and have to stand next to the television to fastforward). The series stars Buster Crabbe as Flash and the cast is fleshed out with Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, the inimitable Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless, Priscilla Lawson as the always unfortunately dressed Princess Aura, and Frank Shannon as the militant conspiracy theorist avant le lettre Dr. Zarkov. (Zarkov’s homemade space ship is eerily similar to the Tor.com logo).
The series begins with the planet Mongo on a deadly collision course for Earth. There is an inner power struggle in the scientific community between Flash Gordon’s father and that “crackpot” Doctor Zarkov. Zarkov, you see, thinks that by flying a space ship “of [his] own design” at the hurtling Mongo and talking to whoever might be there he can avert catastrophe. Flash and Dale enter the scene when the two strangers are caught in a turbulent plane together where they are instructed to parachute out. Flash, showing the chutzpah we will soon love him for, grabs Dales saying, “you’re not scared, are you?” and then throws the both of them out of the airplane. With the same devil may care attitude, Flash agrees to help Zarkov (the man he just landed next to and who immediately pulls a gun on Flash) enter outer space and enlists/forces Dale to follow along. All of this happens before the two-minute mark.
It is impossible to underestimate Crabbe’s emotional repertoire as an actor. He effortlessly shuttles between hokey surprise and schlocky consternation. All of this, mind you, conveyed with a furrowed brow or mildly slackened jaw. Then, unexpectedly Flash will jump into action and start slapping and grappling any man around him. I can imagine Ming shaking his head in chagrin and muttering that Flash hits like a Yalie. All of this inevitably leads to Flash’s shirt getting ripped apart so we can see his heaving Olympic gold medal chest. (Perhaps exemplified best during the strangely long sweating and whipping scene (seriously, it’s the bulk of three episodes!) while Flash toils in the King of the Hawkmen’s Atom Furnaces). Flash is pure desire, but packaged in an all-American toe head. He sees what is in front of him and tends to either grapple, punch, or caress it. What he doesn’t see is immediately forgotten. For instance, seconds after the probable destruction of the city of the Sharkmen his ally Thun asks, “what’s become of the king and his people?” to which Flash responds “too late to think about that now!” and dashes off screen.
Flash is constantly either running at things or away from things. Many of these things—like the octosak—are stock footage of animals placed out of context to appear monstrous. OCTOSAK!
Though Ming appears to be the central baddie, the action is actually propelled along by his daughter Princess Aura. Immediately upon seeing the blossoming love between Flash and Dale the father/daughter team tries to split them up and take them as their own. More compelling than anything Flash particularly does, Aura’s equally arched and penciled eyebrows convey a kind of ruthlessness unmatched even by her father. She plays every character off each other in her unstoppable lust for the duly confused Flash. Perhaps her most devilish scheme is her attempt to convince Dale to pretend to not love Flash in order to save him from the aforementioned atomic mines. When Dale fails, screaming and fainting at the image of Flash whipped and beaten, Aura turns on her and icily remarks, “you miserable little coward. You hadn’t the grit to save the man you love.” The only explanation for not loving Princess Aura is that you have been hit with some kind of dehumanizing ray. That, or because she’s a brunette—a clear sign of evil.
The actual plot of the episodes don’t really matter that much, the fun is in seeing how Flash moves from one cliffhanger to the next. If you haven’t seen these old serials I recommend going back and taking a look.
Sean Grattan is a voracious consumer of fiction and a deadly big buck hunter.