Monday, June 8, 2015

Film Review: Flash Gordon (Movie Serial)

"Flash Gordon" *** (out of ****)

A radio-active planet known as Mongo is traveling closer and closer towards Earth set on a collision course, causing world-wide panic. A scientist, thought to be half-mad, Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), believes he can build a rocket ship and travel to the planet Mongo, where he will be able to manipulate the planet and divert it from crashing into Earth thus saving the world!

If I have made "Flash Gordon" (1936) sound a little campy or overly dramatic, there is a reason for it. I did it on purpose to keep young, college age, film students, or students in general, away from it. The majority of them won't be able to appreciate "Flash Gordon", just as they are not able to appreciate several classic Hollywood films from the 1920s, 30s & 40s.

But I also described "Flash Gordon" as I did because it captures the spirit of it. A fun, good nature, rousing, life or death adventure story.

"Flash Gordon" is something for us old-timers. This is not a featured length movie. "Flash Gordon" is what was known as a "movie serial". Movie serials were very popular back in the 1930s and 40s. These were stories which were divided into "chapters". Each chapter would last roughly 15 - 20 minutes and each week you would have to go back to the same theatre to see the next installment of the story. On average a movie serial may have 12 or 15 chapters. The serials I saw as a child were all action/adventure stories which would end in a cliffhanger, where the hero of the story would be in a life or death predicament and leave you on edge until next week.

Movie serials were very popular with children and offered children the opportunity to see many super-hero characters for the first time on-screen such as "Batman" (1943), "Superman" (1948), "The Shadow" (1940) and "The Green Hornet" (1940). However, I would argue the most famous movie serial of all-time would be "Flash Gordon", a science-fiction space opera starring the Olympic gold medalist swimmer, Buster Crabbe, who also starred in another contender for the all-time most popular movie serial, "Buck Rogers" (1939).

In general I have not reviewed movie serials because they are not feature length films though I must admit, I do enjoy watching them now and again as, just like some of my favorite motion pictures, they do make me nostalgic for my childhood, as I remember seeing these with my grandparents.

Younger audiences of today may not understand why us old-timers enjoyed these stories so much. They were fun. They acted on our imagination. They were the kind of stories young children would make up, stories on other planets, fighting emperors from other galaxies. Heroes that couldn't die. We didn't care these were essential "B" movies. The acting wasn't really up to par. They were made on a cheap budget. The production designs were bad. The costumes worst. But, to a five year old, what's the difference? We weren't telling our friends afterwards, gee, did you notice how so-and-so said their lines? They brought too much intensity to the role. The choreography in the big fight scene just didn't live up to the standards you would expect from Hollywood. Of course not! We thought we could make the same movie with our friends!

That is the appeal of a movie serial like "Flash Gordon" and why it still works when I watch it 25 years later. It brings out the five year old in me, well somewhat. I'm still able to see the flaws and watch these as an "adult".

In "Flash Gordon" Dr. Zarkov, Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), an All-American Polo player and son of a scientist, travel with Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), the woman Flash is in love it, to the planet Mongo where they meet Ming the Merciless (Charles B. Middleton, whom Laurel & Hardy fans may recognize) the evil Emperor of the planet, who also wants to control Earth and eventually kill the Earth-men who have thwarted his plans.

Complications arise however when the Emperor's daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) falls in love with Flash Gordon and begs her father to spare his life so she can marry him. Emperor Ming also wants to make Dale Arden his wife and makes Dr. Zarkov work for him.

Viewers are then introduced to rival fractions on this planet. We learn of the existence of Shark Men, who are lead by King Kala (Duke York), loyal subjects of the Emperor Ming, and Lion Men who view the Emperor as their enemy, they are lead by Prince Thun (James Pierce) who seeks to help Flash Gordon and his friends. There are Hawkmen, who have the ability to fly. Their ruler is Prince Vultan (Jack Lipson) and we learn of a King who has had his title taken away from him, Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) who also helps Flash Gordon and is himself in love with Princess Aura.

"Flash Gordon" is a 13 chapter serial directed by Frederick Stephani adapted to the screen by  Basil Dickey, Ella O' Neill, George H. Plympton and Stephani based on Alex Raymond's popular comic strip.

For me the first seven chapters work the best. We learn of all the characters previously mentioned. We understand their motives. The viewers is brought into this new world and sees these endlessly creatives characters. Men who can fly and conquer the air, men who conquer the sea, and men who conquer the land. A young child will be amazed by the creatures they will see. Octosaks (basically an octopus) and orangopoid (basically a gorilla with a horn on its forehead). In the beginning it is all fascinating and entertaining to watch.

But, as the serial goes on I found myself disappointed with chapters eight and nine in particular. "Flash Gordon" now seemed to be a re-thread of ideas. Repetitive situations and reintroducing characters that did not need to be seen again. At first, because you are having so much fun watching the serial, the bad acting doesn't bother you, but, once you start to lose interesting in the story, everything starts to bother you and you begin to nit-pick. Frank Shannon is the worst of them. A lifeless performance as a brilliant scientist. He is unable to say his lines with any dramatic heft. Jean Rogers many times just stands in one spot while others speak about her and she never says a word.

Only Buster Crabbe seems to be giving this his all. He is over acting to be sure, but, he is into the characters. He is giving a performance for his audience. Charles Middleton has his moments and Priscilla Lawson is very attractive and has a lot of sex appeal but she is not displaying much of a dramatic range.

Still this is all to be expected. As is the cheap costumes and production designs. For example, why do Emperor Ming's men dress like Roman soldiers? In fact nearly all of the characters look like Roman guards and represent the past rather than the future. And why does everyone on this planet speak English? And why am I asking so many questions?

"Flash Gordon" by and large is fun and entertaining to watch. Young children will find much to enjoy. Us old-timers will like the trip down memory lane. Audiences in their late teens and upward, may just find this to be a silly, poorly acted, poorly directed mess. They are right but they are completely missing the point.