Just What Is It With “Flash Gordon,” Anyway?
The character and his adventures are compulsively watchable in (most) any form.
I was introduced to “Flash Gordon” when I was 12, barely a year before the 1977 release of “Star Wars.” The first of the three Buster Crabbe 1930’s serials was not only airing for the first time in its entirety on New York television, but in a special all-night PBS marathon.
Which meant no commercials.
Binge viewing didn’t exist back then as we know it today, so the opportunity to view each chapter of this ongoing adventure was impossible to pass up. Besides, I had learned about the old Buster Crabbe serials through an article in “Famous Monsters” magazine, and anxiously awaited the day when I could see them for myself.
First, though, was the matter of the source material.
A month or two before the PBS airing, I had visited my first “Star Trek” convention in New York City’s late, lamented Statler-Hilton Hotel, where I found a copy of Nostalgia Press’ hardbound first “Flash Gordon” reprint volume.
My birthday was coming up and I pleaded with my father to buy it. I didn’t always win those begging sessions but I won that one.
I read it as soon as we got home, and I was riveted.
“Flash Gordon” began its run as a comic strip on January 7, 1934, created to compete with the already established “Buck Rogers” strip.
While Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Buck Rogers” was already an immense force, having made his debut in the novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” as published in the August 1928 of pulp magazine “Amazing Stories” and followed the next year by a popular comic script syndicated by John F. Dille Company (later known as the NNS, or National Newspaper Service syndicate), the imitator ultimately proved more popular, and in 1936 was spun-off into the first of three hugely successful serials.
(“Buck Roger’s” Trivia Note: The character’s name was changed from Anthony to Buck upon his debut in the comic strip.)
The “Flash Gordon” serials would prove immensely popular. But, before we get there …
King Features Syndicate elected to create their own science fiction strip to compete with “Buck Rogers.” As George Lucas many decades later unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the rights to “Flash Gordon,” which led to him creating his own project called “Star Wars,” King Features initially tried to purchase the rights to Edgar Rice Burrough’s “John Carter of Mars.” They were unsuccessful. The syndicate approached Alex Raymond, who worked for them as a staff artist, to create their new franchise.
For further information on the history of the character, please see here for “Flash Gordon’s” Wikipedia page, which I used as a source for this story:
Flash Gordon is the hero of a space opera adventure comic strip created by and originally drawn by Alex Raymond. First…
Ghostwriter Don Moore was assigned to work with Alex. Inspired by various science fiction product such as the novel “When Worlds Collide,” the two men created the story of polo player Flash, his companion Dale Arden, and the part-mad Dr. Hans Zarkov, who kidnaps the two at gunpoint to fly to the planet Mongo in a rocketship of his creation. Mongo is on a collision course with earth, and Zarkov is convinced the trio can save the world. Mongo’s ruler, however, the evil Emperor Ming, has other plans ...
The writing and the art in the “Flash Gordon” comic strip were second to none.
Immediately developing a fervent following, like its predecessor “Flash Gordon” was destined to become a licensing powerhouse. Merchandise ranging from ray guns to books was quickly planned.
Predictably, Hollywood beckoned.
The Serial Years
Movie serials, once known as chapter plays, were popular in the first half of the 20th century. Generally the equivalent of old pulps, the 15–25 minute short films played before the main feature (and frequently before or after a cartoon short) and were serialized week to week. Most serials lasted between 10–15 chapters.
“Flash Gordon” (1936)
Clarence Linden Crabbe II was a 1932 Olympic gold medalist for the 400-meter swimming freestyle. In a star-making effort, he was selected to play the role of Flash in the first serial, entitled simply “Flash Gordon,” alongside Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, Frank Shannon as Hans Zarkov (known as Alexis Zarkov in the second serial), Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless and Priscilla Lawson as Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (played by Shirley Deane in the third serial), who was the consort of Prince Barin (Richard Alexander in the first two serials, Roland Drew in the third), the rightful heir to the kingdom of Mongo.
Clarence Crabbe became Buster Crabbe and the rest was history. “Flash Gordon” was released in 1936 and closely followed the comic strip’s origin story. At the end of the 13-chapter serial, the earth was saved and our trio became heroes.
“Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” (1938)
Due to its reception, a sequel was rushed into pre-production. “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” was released in 1938. When a mysterious ray disrupts the earth’s atmosphere, it is believed the originator is Mongo. However, when it is discovered that the ray is emanating from Mars, once again our trio flies to a faraway planet to save the day. Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts), the Witch Queen of Mars, has formed an alliance with Ming. Now Flash, Zarkov and a surprisingly brunette Dale have two villains with which to contend.
“Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” was bigger in every way than the original serial, and another smash. Naturally, another followup beckoned …
“Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (1940)
“Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe,” generally considered the weakest of the batch, features a deadly plague infecting planet earth. Once again, Ming is the culprit. Our heroes travel back to Mongo …
This final serial was not as well-received as the previous two. Interestingly, Crabbe starred in a “Buck Rogers” serial the year before, but the anticipated new serial franchise was not to be. Only one serial was filmed.
Flash on Television … and in Porn
In the 1950s, the three serials were repurposed as features for television syndication. The titles were changed so as not to confuse audiences with a new 1954 series, “Flash Gordon,” starring Steve Holland as the titular character. The program was not particularly successful, lasting only 10 episodes.
Over the years, various animated series were produced for television (again, I refer you to Wikipedia for the full, comprehensive history), and a Canadian-American live-action iteration appeared on SyFy in 2007 to poor audience and critical response.
“Flesh Gordon,” originally an X-rated spoof but later trimmed to an “R,” was released theatrically in 1974. The film’s plot concerned sex rays from the planet Porno threatening the earth, which called for our heroes to spring into action. The villain: The evil Emporer Wang the Perverted, who unleashed entities such as the penisaurus on Flesh, Dale Ardor, and Dr. Flexi Jerkoff.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The film was recut to an “R”-rating as it did have its charms. Stop-motion animation akin to the original serials, and a real love of the genre, was rampant in the spoof, and the distributors believed they had a larger audience to serve.
It did well enough that a sequel, “Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders,” was released in 1980, along with a four-issue comic book.
Beginning in 1979, 24 episodes of “Flash Gordon” were produced by Filmation Associates. The series was originally planned for Prime Time; as such, the quality of the first season’s serialized adventures was stronger than most animated Saturday morning programs.
The second season’s adventures, though, reverted to standalones. The serial aspect was discarded in favor of short stories, and the new season was not as critically acclaimed.
However, the next true “Flash Gordon” renaissance occurred in 1980 with the release of the most … trippy “Flash Gordon” of them all.
“Flash Gordon” (1980) Becomes a Cult Classic
Propelled by a near-legendary Queen score and Max von Sydow’s majestic performance as Ming the Merciless, “Flash Gordon” was released the same year as “The Empire Strikes Back” and had some big shoes to fill. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Mike Hodges, this campy hodgepodge also starred Sam Jones as Flash, Melody Anderson as Dale, Topol as Zarkov, Timothy Dalton as Prince Baron, Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan and Ornella Muti as Princess Aura. Flash became a quarterback for the New York Jets, but otherwise the plot was a standard-fare Flash origin story.
However, the costumes, sets and special effects were unlike anything we’ve seen before. Many of the effects were cheesy for cheesy’s sake, but take a look at some of this insane design:
The film was a moderate success in the U.S., but performed very well in the United Kingdom. A sequel was discussed, but allegedly Sam Jones was involved in a dispute with the film’s producers, which terminated those plans.
Still, if you haven’t seen the film … or if you are withdrawing from LSD or mushrooms, this may well be a replacement.
In 2012, Mark Wahlberg starred in “Ted” as a character whose best friend was a living teddy bear and who held a particular fascination with this Sam Jones iteration of his hero:
The film remains a cult favorite, clearly even in certain Hollywood circles.
Over the years “Flash Gordon” has been tagged for various reinventions, including still more TV series and feature films, but nothing since the SyFy failure has come to pass. For me, the adventures of “Flash Gordon” are generally compulsively watchable … especially the serials and the 1980 version.
That 1976 marathon hooked me for life.
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