Jun 17 2010 3:29pm

In Space No One Wears Pants: Flash Gordon

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 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.

1. Jennajon
True story: we used to go out near an oil refinery tripping balls watching the burnoff flames and fondly refer to it as Flash Gordon City..the one that levitated.

Thank you a million times over for giving me the kick in the arse to finally purchase this.
Mike Conley
2. NomadUK
Of course, from a British perspective, in space everyone does wear pants — just no trousers!
Joe Romano
3. Drunes
As a kid, I watched Flash Gordon with my Dad, too. Thanks for reminding me how much fun it was!
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
I love these things. They are available on Netflix. I just watched a couple of them last month. I liked the witch queen of mars, she had a nice schtick.

However, of all the Flash Gordon's I prefer the Sam Jones version, with Queen's music. One of the classic camp movies ever made.
Nate Jayne
5. electrobrain
How did I manage to make it this far in life without seeing this? It sounds amazing!
jon meltzer
6. jmeltzer
I see from the Al Williamson picture several postings down that in space women never get cold.
Sean Grattan
7. SeanGrattan
Now that i've stoked the fires of the atomic furnace inside all of you to take a peek at these there is a momentary word of caution. THIS MIGHT BE TOO AWESOME! No, but seriously, there are a couple versions of this on DVD, some of them edited together pretty poorly. The first version I ever watched didn't have the Sharkmen episode...which means i never got to see the power of the Octosak! So, if on netflix go with the one from 1936 and the run time should be like 400 minutes. There is also a box set of the three serials together, I would check carefully as to what episodes are contained on each. You don't want to miss out on another five minutes of iguanas fighting each other in slow motions. Unless, of course, you do!

@JennaJon The levitating city that uses rays that are just spotlights is really one of the best set pieces!

@nomadUK I learned the difference in an unfortunate moment of stage banter with the Vaselines.

@johntheirishmongol Queen's soundtrack in undeniable, but my problem with the movie, and my problem with calling it camp is that it knows it's a joke. What is so amazing about the original series is the totally demented idea of gravitas. For something to truly hit the sublimity of camp the piece cannot have the sort of self-reflexivity shown in the 80's film. (Having said this, the last time i was in a tattoo shop we all delightedly watched the movie because my friend had no idea who Ming the Merciless was).
Joe Romano
8. Drunes
I hope this chain brings new viewers to the original Flash Gordon serials. If it does and you like them, try Gene Autry's "The Phantom Empire" next. Cowboy's, lost underground civililzations, and robots... it doesn't get much weirder than that.
Jessica Reisman
9. jwynne
I loved these as a kid--and I found them all on my own on early morning weekend tv. For anyone in the area (Austin), the Alamo Drafthouse theater here is having a showing of the series June 1.
11. Eugene R.
If one could not love Priscilla Lawson for her delightfully supercilious Ice Queen portrayal of Princess Aura, there is always her impeccable enunciation. Following her threat to Vultan, king of the Hawkmen ("My father will destroy your entire city!"), my brother observed in pleasant surprise: "I never knew that 'en tire' was 2 words."
Dan McGovern
12. dpmcg89
We are men of action. Slapping and grappling become us.

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